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This is the sixth post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth posts.

Advocate policy reform without neglecting crucial practices

Ekorural community workshop in Galtes, Ecuador.

Ekorural community workshop in Galtes, Ecuador.

Social movements in Ecuador are powerful and have had notable success in reforming major policies. Indigenous people represent the majority of Ecuador’s population and are effectively organized into local, second level and national organizations. They have demonstrated their political power by shutting down the country through strikes and even bringing down governments. The indigenous movements form a significant arm of the social movement for progressive reforms to the constitution and other laws.

“There have been important policy achievements in Ecuador,” says Steve Sherwood of EkoRural, “such as the passage of a food sovereignty law and a law to eliminate the use of highly toxic pesticides. The Colectivo de Agroecologia, which EkoRural is a part of, is a network that brings these actors together, including linking urban consumers with small scale producers. They have helped to draft and shape the food sovereignty law. It was an important landmark for us to see that it was possible to influence policy, but it also showed us the limitations of policy. Policy is just on paper. Practice depends on what people do.”

Companies representing the interests of industrialized agriculture still manage to insert themselves into the process and highjack the debate. Recent history has proven that changing policies alone is not enough. “We are supportive and are trying to influence policy. But if we do not influence what people and families actually do, how they produce and consume, then we will not have achieved enough.”

Peter Gubbels highlights the challenges created by the Ghanaian government allowing subsidized food to be dumped in the country. “This has to change if there is to be a people-centered food system in Ghana! Strengthening local food systems first requires both fair and protective trade policies that enable local farmers to sell their food production to Ghanaian consumers. There are many low-cost, economically feasible policies that Ghana could promote to improve the production, marketing and processing of local food crops. For example, government policies could support decentralized milling of locally grown rice to meet consumer expectations. They could make appropriate credit and small-scale irrigation accessible to semi-subsistence, peasant producers for dry season gardening. Appropriate forms of crop insurance for small scale farmers could be developed. Ghana should also explore systems to ensure that peasant farmers obtain a reasonable price for food crops, and promote marketing at the local and national levels.”

– Part 7 will be posted on June 21.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Ikidia Saving for Change group holds a weekly meeting in Domba, Mali.

The Ikidia Saving for Change group holds a weekly meeting in Domba, Mali. Photo: Rebecca Blackwell/Oxfam America.

In August 2010, Groundswell launched a three year program – Saving for Change Plus Agriculture (SfC Plus Ag) – in partnership with Oxfam America. It responds to requests for agriculture training by many of the 350,000 women in Oxfam’s Saving for Change community finance groups across Mali. They wanted to learn how to solve their other most pressing problems: low agricultural production (caused mostly by rapidly deteriorating soils) and water scarcity (both for domestic use and agriculture). Through SfC Plus Ag, 26,000 women living 200 rural villages in Mali are learning to sustainably improve their agricultural production by introducing simple technologies to improve soil fertility (using nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops), seed quality (short cycle seeds), and water management.

Below are excerpts from Groundswell’s Mali program coordinator’s, Roland Bunch, second progress report covering November 2010 through April 2011.

“The domestic water problem is basically caused by the fact that the water tables in central Mali are sinking at the rate of something like a meter every year, meaning that old wells and pumps no longer reach the water.  All too often, when the villagers try to dig the wells deeper, they encounter a layer of impenetrable rock, meaning that they have to find some other place to sink a well.  In time, of course, the water table (except within a few kilometers’ distance from the major rivers) will sink so low that hand-dug wells and hand pumps will no longer be feasible.  Then a truly serious water crisis will grip the nation.

Replenishing water tables is fairly easy, especially if it is done by adding organic matter to the people’s fields.  This process will soften the soil, make the surface rougher, and prevent crusting, thereby allowing perhaps 50% of the area’s rainwater to percolate through the soil, rather than about 15%, as is the case now.  This increase in infiltration would go a long way toward stopping the constant sinking of the water table.

But adding organic matter to the soil is also the key to raising Mali’s agricultural productivity.  For centuries, if not millennia, African farmers maintained the continent’s soil fertility by fallowing the land—that is, allowing the land to “rest,” so that the forest would grow back and drop its leaves on the soil surface, thereby dramatically increasing the organic matter in the soil.  Because of population growth and the resulting decrease in land per family, farmers all over Mali, in the last two decades, have been forced to quit fallowing the land in order to have enough food to eat.  As fallow periods were  gradually reduced from the traditional ten to fifteen years to eight years, to five years, and now most recently, to zero to two years (with most farmers having abandoned fallowing all together), the soils have been mined of their organic matter, and productivity is dropping by ten to fifteen percent a year.  Widespread famine will be the inevitable result, unless we act fast.

The action to be taken is the use of green manure/cover crops (gm/ccs, which are basically any plants, including trees, that fertilize the soil).  These species of plants can be grown in farmers’ fields as the farmers plant their crops.  Thus, in effect, instead of having one area of land in crops, and another being fallowed, farmers can have fallow species right in their fields.  That is, they can produce crops and fallow their land at the same time.  We call this technology “simultaneous fallowing.”

Thus, fortunately, the easiest and most efficient way of maintaining rural Malians’ access to water over the long haul, as well as the easiest and most efficient way of maintaining their soil’s productivity, is to increase the soil’s organic matter content.

This is, of course, a simplified description of all the myriad factors involved, but the basic truth is nevertheless accurate: both the water and food production problems of Malian women will largely be solved through one and the same action: adding organic matter to the soil.”

Read excerpts of the rest of the report, which is organized according to the program’s main measurable objectives: introduction of appropriate short-cycle seeds, improved water management, improved soil fertility, and capacity building.

This is the fifth post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first, second, third, and fourth posts.

Building alliances with farmers’ movements

Village meeting in rural Haiti

Haitian farmer voicing his opinion at a meeting near Saint Michel, Haiti in February 2011.

Many have criticized NGOs for focusing on technical approaches to supporting agricultural (even agroecological) development while failing to fully collaborate with farmer’s movements in promoting food sovereignty and changing policy. It is often a fair critique.

Farmers are important social actors in rural people’s organizations, articulating the interests of their members and giving them political voice. NGOs must identify effective means of supporting and strengthening them as autonomous political entities. Unfortunately, NGOs can easily lose sight of this and put themselves in the center of policy debates. As Bern Guri notes, “NGOs should try to strengthen farmers’ voices in the political process and not replace them.”

It must be emphasized that NGOs and farmers’ organizations are diverse and neither type of organization is immune to the challenges that tend to face any organization. Developing and implementing strategies that are effective, broadening and renewing leadership, remaining driven by values and mission, or avoiding overly centralized decision making and power structures, are just a few of these. Both must focus on promoting the interests of rural people and achieving food sovereignty, and there is ample opportunity for them to collaborate.

We have been involved with a number of NGO efforts over the years to collaborate with farmers’ organizations and movements, particularly in Latin American and Caribbean countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.  The goal has generally been to strengthen local agroecological pilot initiatives which can be scaled throughout existing networks. Unfortunately, these efforts often fall short of their potential impact. Farmer’s movements have in some cases demonstrated commitment to their genuine need for land rights and political influence, but expressed little interest in sustainable farming methodologies.  Meanwhile, NGOs, despite their best efforts, have failed to build adequate trust in negotiating their role in strengthening the community-level base of broader movements. Clearly, both political voice and appropriate farming methods are vital.  Changes in political policy are necessary; one can’t farm without access to land or if production is undercut by subsidized imports. But even with land and policy supports, successful farming still requires a locally led process of innovation for productivity and sustainability.

There is a need for NGOs and farmers’ movements to engage in honest dialogue: to examine common interests and what each brings to the table, to look for win-win opportunities that can be gained through collaboration, and to develop trust. This often happens by starting with small, concrete initiatives.

“Most leaders of Ecuador’s indigenous movements have worked closely with NGOs over the years,” says Steve Sherwood. “There has been a lot of productive collaboration. But many NGOs have become project-driven. And even many indigenous leaders have become urbanized. As they have gained power, they need to live in cities and get involved in politics. This has weakened the indigenous movements in some ways. Both indigenous leaders and NGOs need to get re-plugged into rural families and communities.”

“In Burkina Faso, limited movements exist to promote agroecology,” notes Fatou Batta. “Groups tend to be working in isolation. An agroecology platform does exist in Burkina, but it is not very strong. Those social movements tend to be stronger in Mali. So in Burkina we need to support efforts to pull things together and show the viability of these alternatives.”

In the words of Cantave Jean-Baptiste, “In Haiti, we are strengthening the base. We need to strengthen local peasants and their organizations to assume the roles of actors in leading their own development. We also facilitate them in strengthening networks across many communities, and to connect to the wider peasant movement organizations.”

Most of the local peasant organizations in Haiti belong to wider peasant movements and networks. While these networks play a vital role in Haiti’s development, they would be further strengthened by greater participation from their base groups, and better two-way flow of communication between the base and peasant network leaders. Jean-Baptiste notes that “sometimes the peasant organizations also need to do a better job of communicating with their own base. For example, while peasant movements were protesting and burning hybrid Monsanto seeds in Haiti in June (of 2010), I visited some of their base groups that had received some of those same seeds from the AID supported program. The farmers did not have adequate information about what to do with the seeds, or what the impact would be if they became dependent on hybrids. Some of the farmers were even eating the pesticide covered seeds as grain, which is dangerous.”

Peter Gubbels observes that “most members of farmers’ organizations in Ghana are larger scale commercial farmers. They are organized in associations around the production and marketing of specific commodities like rice, tomatoes, poultry, and cotton, and advocate for policies affecting their particular commodity. This includes seeking government subsidies for inputs, agricultural research, and trade regulations that prevent dumping or subsidized imports. Yet these groups are not representative of the mass of semi-subsistence peasant farmers, men and women, who are mostly illiterate, and who practice traditional agriculture with hand tools. Most members of the influential farmer organizations are oriented to agribusiness or industrial methods of production. So while their advocacy for trade regulations that prevent dumping, and for government subsidies for inputs and agricultural research is compatible with food sovereignty, their approach to production and sustainability often is not.”

Bern Guri believes there is an opportunity in Ghana to strengthen a movement from the bottom up. “We need to work through indigenous institutions, such as chieftaincies, which are closest to the people, and are legitimate and respected.” Chieftaincies have strong influence with rural people and control community land; therefore, they have the potential to change communities’ attitudes, promote agro-ecological innovations and revalorize local seeds and food crops. “We can support these indigenous institutions to build a mass movement. NGOs need to have the capacities to do that.”

– Part 6 will be posted on June 7.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

This is the fourth post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first, second and third posts.

Expanding territory for agroecology

Women processing vegetables grown on agro-ecological village farms in eastern Burkina Faso.

Women processing vegetables grown on agro-ecological village farms in eastern Burkina Faso.

Bern Guri says that in Ghana, “isolated examples of small scale farmer agro-ecological production exist, but the government of Ghana doesn’t see what small farmers are doing as relevant, because they are focused on larger farmers. They see small scale farmers as holding back production. We need to shine a light on the successful examples, but also create a market. To do this we identify capacities that farmers already have for agroecological farming and strengthen them and spread them. We work to document and disseminate the good work already happening so people know that alternatives exist.”

A common critique of agroecological practices is that they always appear to work for a small number of farmers but are never widely adopted. Why is this often the case? There are a few possible reasons: a) farmers are not aware of agro-ecological alternatives; b) they are aware of them, but aren’t convinced that they work, or believe that something else works better; c) incentives (economic, environmental, social or psychological) push them towards ways of farming. NGOs must work together and with farmers to overcome these constraints and develop more effective strategies to scale agro-ecological practices across communities and regions—to expand the territory for agroecology and healthy local food economies.

The question of whether or not agro-ecological farming works for small-scale farmers in the developing world is perhaps the easiest to address. As noted above, broad experience along with a growing body of research and evidence demonstrates that it works for them on multiple levels. Even proponents of industrialized agriculture usually accept agroecology’s success on a small scale, but argue it is not viable on a larger one. Yet many farmers in the developing world are already adopting and practicing agro-ecological farming, and the only incentive they have to do so is that it brings them benefits—more food, less cost, an improved environment, healthier families and communities, greater resilience to shocks and so on. While there are a powerful set of actors with a major economic self-interest in promoting the sale of their agricultural inputs and technologies, the same is not true of agro-ecology. The only incentives for external actors to promote agroecology are social—reducing poverty and creating a more inhabitable planet.

So how can we spread awareness of agroecological farming among rural communities? What strategies can make these practices more effective, and how can we create incentives for using them, so that the territory for agroecological farming and local food economies is expanded?

Farmer-to-farmer and Community-to-Community – Nothing convinces farmers like showing them how they themselves can increase production on their own farms. Visiting farmers who have succeeded in the same conditions is a powerful motivator for them to learn as well. We have long employed these farmer-to-farmer strategies to reach a critical mass (30-40%) of innovative farmers in a community. Once such a critical mass is reached, successful practices tend to spread to others over time. The same strategy can be applied between communities. Cantave Jean-Baptiste notes that “we can also facilitate communities to visit and learn from each other, and to develop plans for action together.”

Capacity Strengthening – Managing, sustaining and further scaling these farming methods inescapably requires strong local organizations and networks of rural people. For NGOs, this implies some combination of working with existing community based organizations and strengthening their capacities for self-management. While NGOs often get stuck in a cycle of delivering services, some have developed strategies for strengthening the capacity of community-based organizations. In Haiti, Partenariat pour le Développement Local (PDL) has created a highly effective approach to strengthening local peasant organizations (which typically group 15-30 villages). The foundation of these inter-village associations are gwoupman, solidarity groups of 8-15 people who work, learn and apply agro-ecological practices together, pool savings for loan funds, and create and manage both seeds banks and tools banks. Representatives are elected from the gwoupman to form committees that coordinate activities within and across communities. This allows them to take on challenges individual farmers can’t manage on their own (e.g. controlling free-grazing animals) and increase their ability to access markets and advocate for health services and schools. In this way, PDL is strengthening the social infrastructure needed to scale sustainable farming and build local economies (they are currently working with 9 local peasant organizations representing over 148,000 people). Cantave Jean-Baptiste adds, “We are now working to create networks of these local peasant organizations so that they can work together and support each other. As an NGO, we need to facilitate communities and local organizations to learn from each other, work together and lead their own process of development.”

Action-Learning networks:  In eastern Burkina Faso, isolated examples of successful agroecological approaches exist, even under the very difficult Sahelian conditions that are currently being exacerbated by growing population pressure. But the spread of these “islands of success” through a wider adoption of agroecological practices is constrained by a lack of sharing and coordination among the local NGOs and community-based organizations responsible for the work. And there is no significant effort by the government or major donors to promote, invest in or spread these alternatives. In response, a new network of local organizations is emerging in the region to facilitate the sharing of knowledge of successful strategies and define action plans to replicate them.

Peter Gubbels believes that “we should invest strongly in farmer to farmer and community to community learning and exchange, particularly within agro-ecological zones where the climatic conditions, crops and farming systems are similar. Without practical examples of how successful agro-ecological methods can be taken to a much wider scale, it will be difficult to make a compelling case to other NGOs, the Ghanaian public and policy makers that this is a viable alternative to the industrial, export-oriented, Green Revolution approach to agriculture.”

– Part 5 will be posted on May 24.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

PLD nurse with hand washing placard

Haitian nurse / PLD staff member showing placards used in teaching family health and sanitation measures.

Despite considerable obstacles, progress in Haiti over the past six months has been impressive.  We continue to focus on building the foundation upon which to create strong, lasting local institutions. This includes assessing existing local structures, promoting community development plans, strengthening priority activities to meet basic needs, and developing broad-based leadership where women and youth may participate equally in decision making structures. Since October 2010:

  • 341 new gwoupman (small solidarity groups of 8-15 community members who pool their limited resources) have been formed.
  • 1,258 village leaders have initiated training to learn to support locally-led development processes.
  • 46 democratically-elected village committees have been established to promote cooperation, help ensure continuity of the process, and fulfill a number of other important functions.

Also, due to the cholera outbreak that began in October, during the past six months we have paid special attention to community health. Since last October:

  • 227 new large family water filters and 273 latrines have been built.
  • 2,231 families have adopted water and sanitation (including hand washing, water treatment, etc.) measures to avoid cholera and other waterborne diseases.
  • 18 village health committees were formed. They promoted and supported the cholera prevention activities as well as workshops on HIV/STD prevention, which were attended by 3,594 adolescents and adults.
  • PLD staff and local health committees launched a massive campaign to aid victims, educate families about preventative sanitation measures and provide basic supplies (chlorine for water treatment and oral re-hydration solution).

Finally, great strides continue to be made with respect to agroecology and natural resource management. For example, during the past six months:

  • 1,182 farmers have been trained in critical soil and water conservation techniques.
  • 89,194 tree seedlings have been produced and have or will soon be planted.

These are just a few of the recent accomplishments in Haiti. Now that the cholera epidemic has abated somewhat, we are again shifting our focus back to creating strong local organizations, and we are placing increased emphasis on income generating activities (seed banks and micro-savings and credit) that have the potential to become self-financing mechanisms for local organizations. We are also working with partners with stronger capacity levels and those that have already transitioned out from being directly supported by PLD to build networks between peasant organizations and supporting them to increase outreach to neighboring villages.

Farmers in eastern Burkina Faso learning to make zai holes using horses.

Farmers in eastern Burkina Faso learning to make zai holes using horses.

This is the third post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first and second posts.

Promoting Farmer Innovation and Agroecological Production

For NGOs sincerely intent on transforming rural communities, the starting point must be the people – not a technology, a particular crop, or even a specific sector per se (agriculture, health, microfinance, etc.) The question must be: how can we support rural people in generating wellbeing and overcoming poverty? We’ve learned much from decades of collective experience and trial and error in thousands of villages in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The key lessons are that authentic, community-led development is always holistic and based on strong local capacity, and that agroecological farming is a vital means for rural people to improve their lives. An increasing number of evaluations and studies are affirming similar conclusions (IAASTD, UNCTAD, various reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, etc.)[i]

Why is agroecological farming important for small-scale farmers? The primary reason is that it works. Farmers own the process – managing, adapting and creating it. It improves their lives– often reversing declines while doubling or even tripling production. The majority of small-scale farming work is now globally done by women, and as Fatou Batta says “women are often leaders in adopting agro-ecological practices because it is accessible, meets their needs and can lessen their workload. And in addition to farming, women are also the real link connecting improved production to better family consumption and nutrition.” Agro-ecological farming is economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable. It strengthens communities, local leadership (including  women) and local organizations. It improves the natural resource base that people depend on. Agro-ecological farming is an economic strategy for the poorest people to overcome hunger – to produce and eat a diverse and adequate amount of food and generate income.

In contrast, over the last 50 years we’ve seen countless programs focused on high-external input agriculture do the opposite. I am reminded of some farmers I visited in Guatemala’s highlands a couple of years ago. They had become contract farmers producing broccoli for “a company,” renting land each season and buying seeds, fertilizer and pesticides as prescribed. As we stood in their plot, our feet planted on soil devoid of organic matter, looking at broccoli plants dwarfed by a disease they did not understand, one farmer said, “At first it was a miracle, but now we are enslaved by this system. We make less money every year, and we have to calculate each year if we should plant again, or migrate. We are trapped. I would tell other farmers to farm another way.”

NGOs working to combat this trap created by many aid programs implement a strategy that supports small-scale farmers, local organizations and wider movements to learn about, innovate and expand the use of agro-ecological farming as a practical alternative to improve their lives. “We can’t transform the global food system unless farmers are able to expand the practice of sustainable farming and increase their control over how they farm,” says Peter Gubbels.

Agro-ecological farming means more than continuing the old ways or simply training men and women through a new package of sustainable practices and technologies. Some farmers practice both traditional techniques that are sustainable (seed saving, crop diversity, etc) and those that are no longer sustainable (slash and burn). Others adopt elements of industrial agriculture and reliance on external inputs. Farmers do what they think works for them, and we’ve seen both types benefit from transitions to more agro-ecological farming methods that are appropriate to their conditions: small plots, marginal and barely farmable land, fragile ecosystems, degraded soils, and isolation from services and markets.

What have we found are the most effective strategies for promoting farmer innovation and agro-ecological farming? In our experience, successful strategies revolve around allowing farmers to discover what works for them and spreading these alternatives through their social networks. Key methodologies NGOs can employ include:

  • farmer experimentation and innovation – on their own farms;
  • farmers identifying key limiting factors and testing a small number of alternatives to see what works;
  • strengthening farmer-to-farmer networks to spread successful practices;
  • focusing on seeds, soils, and water – managing, improving and making the best use of these local resources.
  • cultivating diverse, integrated farms

While specific technologies of necessity will evolve with local conditions and opportunity costs, as our colleague Roland Bunch has written, farmers’ capacity to innovate must remain a constant theme.[ii] This means people engaging in the creative, evolving act of farming and avoiding dependence on external inputs which uproot that capacity.

“In Burkina Faso, industrialized agriculture is expanding and being promoted by some political leaders,” notes Fatou Batta.“Village level farmers are not aware that when they sell land or give production rights for jatropha for biofuels, they and their children and grandchildren lose access. We’ve seen the importance of supporting people to learn what works locally, supporting agro-ecological approaches and resisting the pressure of some donors to promote a high external input approach, a quick fix, instead of listening to local people. Our evaluations have shown that the zai technique for water and soil conservation, nitrogen fixing trees, and short cycle seeds result in 50-120% increases in production. It is very high risk for farmers to depend on external inputs and distant markets, and drives them into poverty and off the land.”

In Ecuador, as in many countries, the majority of those managing family farms are women. Organizations like EkoRural are helping them strengthen local seeds systems through farmer field schools. Through discovery-based learning processes, they are supporting farmers in adapting to the effects of climate change that include depleted groundwater and altered rainfall patterns. Farmers measure the value of rainwater lost from their roofs and fields, and “harvest” it in simple storage tanks for future use and, most importantly, in their fields – as increasing organic matter in the soil allows for more water to be stored in it. The result is a positive cycle of increased productivity and innovation and significant improvements in family wellbeing, nutrition and income. Steve Sherwood says that in Carchi, a potato producing region heavily dependent on dangerous and highly toxic pesticides, “farmers have learned to maintain and increase their production using agro-ecological practices while reducing or eliminating the use of expensive and dangerous pesticides.”

– Part 4 will be posted on May 10.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

[i] The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), 2009; UNCTAD (February 2009).  Policy Brief No. 6 – Sustaining African Agriculture: Organic Production. See also: UNCTAD–UNEP (2008). Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. (UNCTAD/DITC/TED/2007/15);“The Contribution of Agroecological Approaches to meet 2050 Global Food needs,” International Seminar, Brussels, June 21-22 2010.  Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

 [ii] Roland Bunch and Gabino Lopez, COSECHA, “Soil Recuperation in Central America: Measuring the Impact Four to Forty Years After Intervention,” http://rolandbunch.com.

Farmers at an Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

Farmers at an Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

In January, with financial support from the Mary Tidlund Foundation, Groundswell and Ekorural began the process of strengthening the capacity of community-based organizations in six marginalized rural communities in Ecuador to lead their own development process. The six communities – Tzimbuto-Quincahuán, Santa Ana, Galtes, Unalagua, Chirinche Bajo, and Compañía Baja – are located in fragile and degraded highland Andean ecosystems (between 8,200 – 11,480 feet above sea level) in the provinces of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi, where climate change is altering rainfall patterns and groundwater availability and increasing the challenges for smallholder agricultural production.

During 2011, the program will directly benefit 120 families, mostly led by women. In addition to strengthening local organizational and leadership capacities, it seeks to strengthen local seed systems (improving the quality, reproduction, storage and distribution of seeds), and to create ‘canastas comunitarias’ (local food systems) that connect small-scale farmers to urban consumer markets, which helps to increase incomes of families in rural communities while providing low-income urban families with access to healthy, affordable local food.

Women farmers participating in a farm tour in Tzimbuto, Ecuador.

Women farmers participating in a farm tour in Tzimbuto, Ecuador.

During the past three months Ekorural staff and local communities have worked together to achieve significant progress:

  • EkoRural has invested a significant amount of time in building the capacity of its partners and the local team on technical issues and processes. This includes an integral process of capacity building and participatory research on each community farm, exchange visits, and other activities.
  • Two leadership workshops were held in Cotopaxi with the participation of women’s groups from three communities. We have highlighted the importance of social change and people-center development as a means to empower communities.
  • A set of 40 genotypes, mostly originated from Ecuador’s National Institute of Agricultural Research’s (INIAP) germplasm bank, were multiplied in the field and separated in tour sets after harvesting. Currently, they are growing at different altitudes in four areas to ensure successful multiplication. We have emphasized the developing and strengthening mechanisms of self-sustainability, such as revolving credit funds, seed money, etc.
  • Special attention has been paid attention to recovering native Andean crops that are suffering from genetic and cultural erosion. Mashua tubers, oca (Oxalis tuberosa), jicama (Pachyrhizus tuberosus) and melloco (Ullucus tuberosus C.) have virtually disappeared from the local farming system, despite their high nutritional value and apparent appreciated cultural relevance. Our strategy sees farms as natural germplasm banks of equal or greater importance than those maintained by state-run agriculture agencies.
  • Community leaders (especially young women and men) have participated in several biodiversity and seed fairs with our support.
  • In the community of Tzimbuto, Province of Chimborazo, a five-potato variety set, with nutritional contents and local phenotypic characteristics, was harvested.
  • Field staff, technical team, producers and consumers have participated in a series of events, including tours and exchange visits, meetings, workshops, talks, etc., concerning agro-ecological, solidarity economy initiatives and food sovereignty.

Ekorural and its partners are at the vanguard of the local food system and food sovereignty movements in the Andes. The success of this program is yet another example of their inspiring, innovative approach to empowering Andean people.