Sowing the Seeds of Collaboration

By | 2018-01-12T08:54:10+00:00 June 17th, 2016|Agroecology, Collaboration, Interviews|0 Comments

In May 2016, the Agroecology Fund teamed up with the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa to host a 4-day learning exchange to investigate and share agroecological solutions to global problems including hunger, rural poverty and environmental degradation.

But what is agroecology, and how did Synchronicity Earth get involved in this vital area?

Katy Scholfield (our Forests and Oceans Portfolio lead) attended the event in Masaka, Uganda, and in this short interview she talks about the benefits of the agroecological approach, and describes how collaboration and the exchange of learning between partners can create a powerful and effective movement for change.

In a nutshell, what is agroecology?

KS: Agroecology is a movement, a science and a practice to food production. Whilst agroecology means different things to different people, for me the approach incorporates the core principle of diversity – of seeds, animals, plants, knowledge and culture. Agroecology is deeply connected with the concept of food sovereignty, giving local communities control over the way food is produced, traded and consumed.

What is the Agroecology Fund?

KS: So the Agroecology Fund is a collaborative fund between about 13 donors now, it started off with 4 core donors. We joined it almost two years ago and we support collaborations around the world trying to scale up agroecology, and through this we’re supporting three separate but intersecting areas – movement building, practice and science and research.

And why is Synchronicity Earth supporting this fund?

KS: So when we got involved, I guess we didn’t really have a specific agriculture or food focus in our work, but we felt that we were supporting a lot of groups working with communities trying to challenge destructive land grabs for large scale agriculture in Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Papua New Guinea. We felt that, at the same time, while these groups were always fighting against these destructive activities, they didn’t necessarily have the solutions to hand for what they could be doing instead to help communities have an alternative development pathway. So we wanted to join and learn about agroecology as a potential solution to the problems we were facing, but also, if we funded one of these groups on our own we wouldn’t have had as great an impact as a funder, whereas this way we can join other groups, learn from them and have a much bigger impact by being part of this greater movement of agroecology practitioners and funders.

And Synchronicity Earth has been supporting it for around two years?

KS: Coming up to 2 years. We’ve done three rounds of grant-giving through the Fund, and they tend to be larger-scale grants than we give out through Synchronicity Earth on our own, and they are also given out to collaborations, so we’ll have one lead partner with maybe 8 to 10 partners working at different international, national and local levels alongside that, and these can range from universities to farmers’ groups on the ground, through to government departments.

So the fact that it has grown from 4 to 13 donors is obviously a good thing. What are the advantages of having so many groups all collaborating together?

KS: Well, one of the challenges of having so many groups involved is that everyone is coming at it from a different angle and has different reasons for wanting to be involved, but at the same time that has been its strength, because we’ve been able to embrace that diversity between us. For example, one of the funders may be more interested in the social movement aspect, another in how agroecology is good for biodiversity and so on, so bringing all of those interests in is great for getting a diversity of partners in terms of who we fund. It’s also great for our own learning – I’m starting to learn much more about the social movements involved and the research side. Also, to date, within our existing strategy, we would probably never have supported partners in certain locations such as South Korea, Kyrgyzstan or certain parts of Latin America, so we’ve started to learn something about all these different regions and we can take that learning and use it back within our own foundations.

So I guess it helps each of the individual organisations involved to see everything in a more holistic way and learn more about what is happening in different geographical regions that they might not have considered before? That seems like a really positive ongoing outcome.

KS: Yes, that has been a positive outcome for the donors. For the learning exchange in Uganda, we were able to invite one or two representatives from all of the collaborations from rounds one and two of grant-giving, plus we have a board of advisors, all of the donors and some experts all together. The convening was held at St.Jude’s Agroecology Centre, near Masaka, which is an agroecology training Centre. What was amazing there was seeing really practically how participants were sharing all their lessons learnt. I remember one of the participants saying ‘Oh, I hadn’t really thought about doing this within our organisation…’. She was referring to how one group in Latin America was engaging the local government in positive examples of agroecology, and she said she was going to take that back to her country and her organisation and implement that in her work. I think, as well, that it helped people feel that they were part of this bigger, stronger movement and that they were less isolated in their struggles and what they were trying to do.

What are some of the challenges for agroecology, both specifically in Uganda, but also more generally?

KS: Everything is contextual, so there’s a lot of diversity in the type of challenges people face in different countries. But I think on the whole, most places face similar types of strong pressures: First of all, governments are opening their doors up to large-scale agricultural companies and often this is to grow monoculture crops that are either for exporting or are used for animal feed – not to feed people – so are not necessarily in the interests of food security and biodiversity,   but are focused solely on GDP. I think combined with that, there is this push towards GM. It was really interesting at the convening, to hear someone from Grain, an organisation based in Europe, give some statistics to point out that the majority of GM crops are made up of just four crops – maize, canola, soya and cotton – most of which do not provide food for humans, so when the argument is made that GM is needed to feed the world, in fact 70% of the world is fed through an agroecological, small-scale approach… So those sort of statistics were really interesting. Even though people around the world are facing these challenges, to realise that they are actually the solution, and that they play a really strong part in that solution was really great.

In fact, we were in Uganda at a really unique time. The country is trying to pass a bill relating to biotechnology which would potentially threaten the traditional banana crop in Uganda because it would introduce GM banana. So, we had a press conference and did a press release and people from the different collaborations were able to speak at that, and to show, for instance in India how the GM cotton crop has failed so dramatically that it has led to many farmers committing suicide. Then there were other people giving examples of where GM crops had failed, or where local seed has been vital for food security. So, I don’t know what will come of it, but in terms of the timeliness of that challenge, hopefully we were able to do something quite practical.

It seems so obvious, and makes so much sense in so many ways, so why do you think agroecology doesn’t really get so much publicity in the mainstream press, why hasn’t it become something much bigger?

KS: I would say a couple of things. Firstly, I think that agroecology has taken off, it’s just the term agroecology which is perhaps less familiar. Somebody told me something at the learning exchange which has really stuck with me. They said that agroecology is the norm, so we shouldn’t talk about it as being the ‘alternative’ to the large-scale methods. It’s what farmers around the world have been doing for centuries, and so really what we should be doing is challenging the alternative narrative of large-scale agriculture, so in that sense it has taken off, it’s just about challenging and protecting local seed and traditional knowledge about farming. I think, linked to that, the other reason it’s not talked about so much is because there is this big focus for governments on increasing GDP, they see that big agribusiness model as the way out of poverty, as the way forward, so their focus does tend to be on that large-scale agriculture. I think a lot of the media, where it is trying to support groups to challenge that, is focusing on the negative aspect of challenging land grabs, without necessarily showing how reviving some of these agroecology systems could be the solution. The Agroecology Fund is trying to address this by communicating some of the positive stories about agroecology from around the world.

For more information:

The Agroecology Fund: http://agroecologyfund.org/
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA): http://afsafrica.org/