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This is the seventh 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, fifth and sixth posts.

Taking advantage of new opportunities: health, urban-rural linkages, and climate change

Traditional Granary in Burkina Faso

Traditional granaries like this one are found throughout rural Burkina Faso.

“In rural Burkina,” says Fatou Batta, “we promote community-managed grain banks to increase food security. Farmers sell at a better price and have local access to less expensive food during the hungry season.” As in many countries, farmers typically sell to middle men after harvest when the price is lowest, and then need to buy back from those same middle men when the price is highest. Community grain banks help them break the cycle. In Haiti, farmers typically pay exorbitant annual interest rates of 250-500% on loans from local money lenders—just to obtain seeds and tools to plant at the beginning of the agricultural cycle. We support them in setting up their own savings and credit groups, seed banks and tools banks to liberate themselves from this debt trap.

But we need to go beyond helping rural communities stop the drain of resources, and support them in achieving prosperity. As Steve Sherwood and his colleagues in Ecuador have discovered, “we need to think about agriculture and food as an integrated system. The choices we make about how we eat are key. Working only on agriculture has excluded farmers from the wealth of urban people. Ecuadorians spend $6-8 billion a year on food. How can we bring this consumer wealth to bear on transforming rural landscapes?” Urban consumers, many of whom are low income and need better access to healthy food at reasonable costs, can be the “funders” of small-scale agroecological farming production.

Andean farmers at a Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

Andean farmers at a Ekorural-sponsored seed fair in Ambuquí, Ecuador.

To promote this, EkoRural and other organizations in Ecuador have been supporting the emerging canastas comunitarias movement: a type of community-supported agriculture arrangement. Low income, urban consumers have formed groups to buy food wholesale and thereby lower its costs, and are now are directly connecting to small-scale farmers and building buying relationships with them. “We found an example that works and expanded on it,” says Sherwood. “This started with one group. We worked with them to think critically about nutrition per dollar spent, and gradually about how to promote the rural landscapes and communities that we want through what we buy and eat. We promoted critical thinking through cross visits and building relationships between urban and rural people. This has now grown into a canastas movement that has gone from a few groups to all major cities in Ecuador.”

In Ghana, Bern Guri notes that “we need to demonstrate the health implications of our traditional foods. When the Director of Health in Ghana bought local millet porridge on the street and emphasized the health benefits in the media, the market for these products boomed. The government could promote this. They could create a policy that 1% of all food served in restaurants must come from traditional food. Right now restaurant food is imported. We could target urban consumers, youth and school feeding programs, linking them to traditionally grown foods from small scale farmers. It would help promote young people’s tastes for these local foods.”

The need to respond to climate change presents another opportunity for pushing back against industrialized agriculture. “We can link efforts to adapt to climate change to the promotion of people-centered food systems,” says Peter Gubbels.  “This is possible because most solutions to adapt to climate change in rural communities require agroecological approaches, rather than those based on industrial agriculture.” Emerging payment mechanisms for carbon sequestration for soil high in organic matter and agro-forestry may provide opportunities and additional incentives for farmers.

– Part 8 will be posted on July 5.

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.

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Ekorural, a Groundswell partner organization based in Ecuador, along with Wageningen University’s Communication and Innovation Studies Group, and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences recently won a grant from WOTRO, a division of The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research that supports scientific research on development issues, in particular poverty alleviation and sustainable development.

The project partners will explore how scientific insights can strengthen and complement the most promising positive deviance (i.e., uncommon but successful behaviors or strategies of farmers that enable them to find better solutions to a problem than their peers, despite having no special resources or knowledge) in ways that address both people’s immediate and long term needs. Among other things, the work will seek to develop and test methodologies to identify and strengthen positive deviance in resource poor households that effectively respond to food security priorities. Building on earlier studies and recent stakeholder consultations, the project will focus on positive deviance in two strategic areas for enabling farming families to defeat poverty and hunger:

  • Creative utilization of water for food production in the context of growing climate variability; and
  • Strategic utilization of food production for family nutrition, in particular for assuring the health and well-being of vulnerable mothers and infants.

The re-positioning of agricultural science around endogenous potential in Ecuador holds global implications. The food crisis and growing international interest in local food as a means to addressing resource constraints and climate change guarantee that this project will be closely followed by serious foodies.

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While global leaders negotiate new treaties in Copenhagen, small-scale farmers are already living the impacts of climate change. Groundswell is helping rural communities adapt to climate change and overcome poverty at the same time.  By expanding the use of agroecological approaches and strengthening local markets, small-scale farmers are helping to cool the planet.  Soil rich in organic matter is one of the best ways to sequester carbon; agroecological approaches don’t require as much oil to produce fertilizer and other inputs; and local markets reduce carbon outputs from transportation. A case in point is Groundswell’s work with Ekorural, our local partner in Ecuador.

Alonso Juma demonstrating a water harvesting technique.

Alonso Juma demonstrating a rainwater harvesting technique. Alonso lives in Ecuador's Chota Valley.

Over the centuries, Andean farmers have adapted their farming practices and domesticated robust plant and animal species (potato, quinoa, llamas) to meet the challenges of their harsh mountain environment. However, even these expert farmer-innovators are increasingly suffering crop failure as their time-tested adaptations prove inadequate to climate change’s severity and swift onset. A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as other climate research, paints a bleak picture for Andean agriculture. Most glaciers are predicted to disappear in as little as 15 years, posing major challenges for those who rely on this water for food production and livelihood, rainfall is expected to be more severe and less frequent (producing droughts and flooding), and soil erosion and outbreaks of disease and pests are predicted to rise. In sum, climate change will substantially increase the uncertainty for rural communities in the Andes.

Many externally proposed solutions to climate change, such as weather forecasting models and drought-tolerant crops, are of limited use in highly variable mountain environments.  This is why it is critical to go directly to farmers and their communities for ideas on how to best address climate change. Farmers told us that water represented the greatest barrier and opportunity for weathering climate change, and, after studying pending threats, they prioritized an initiative, called Katalysis, that would allow them to capture and use rainwater and rehabilitate biological and natural resources, while increasing their production and food security.

Rather than bringing water from distant sources which can be prohibitively expensive and difficult to replicate, Katalysis focuses on helping farmers to maximize the use of the water that surrounds them, and to creatively use plants and animals to generate new wealth for their families and farms.  Katalysis builds on the ‘discovery learning’ tradition of Farmer Field Schools, in which farmers share their experience, strengthen their ecological literacy through learning experiments, and identify ways of improving agriculture through group problem-solving. The focus gradually shifts from solutions for individual farmers to community-level and watershed level change.

While there will be no silver bullet in rural people’s struggle to adapt to climate change, this sort of people-centered approach holds great potential. So far it has proven to be highly effective in the Bolivian and Ecuadorian highlands, successes which have earned Katalysis finalist positions at the World Bank’s 2008 Global Development Marketplace as well as the 5th World Water Forum (2008). This work was also featured in the International Institute for Environment and Development’s recent publication “Community-based adaptation to climate change”.

Learn more about Katalysis.

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