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Agroecology reclaims territories for local peoples and food sovereignty

By Adam Rankin, from Fundaexpresión (Colombia), as part of the More and Better Network

The chat and banter of Malian women around cooking pots and open-stoves, fills the air with the fragrance of traditional dishes and firewood, intermixed with the native language of Bambara, words of enchantment, friendship and melody. These peasant women with babies carefully wrapped onto their backs, cook together and care at the same time for their beloved offspring; their dresses are weaved with the patterns and colours of life and their physical stature portrays both strength and composure. During the heat of the workday, they create and share culinary skills based on local seed varieties of millet, sorgo and rice, blended with the aromas of chili peppers, peanut and ginger. As the radiant day’s sun gradually turns to dusk, bringing in a cool breeze and a clear night sky, it is evident that the determination, knowledge and leadership of women are a pillar to cultural identity and food sovereignty and a vibrant inspiration to us all and our common goal to strive for sustainable societies.

Dry bush lands of the Sélingué region of Mali adjoining the great lake, were host to the International Forum for Agroecology, bringing together peasants, indigenous people, rural communities, pastoralists, fisher-folk, NGOs and consumer organizations from 45 countries; a communal gathering of popular struggles and life experiences who found home in the traditional huts of the Nyéléni Center. The forum focused on the many diverse perspectives of agroecology: sharing innovations in terms of ecological production practices, healthy food and nutrition, conservation of native seeds, local food markets and as political leverage as part of a larger framework in the construction of food sovereignty.

The Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali - CNOP as hosts to the forum, mobilised hundreds of rural peoples from villages across the lands of Mali, as well as fellow comrades from the African continent. Some such as the delegates of the Tuareg nomadic people, clothed in their traditional indigo-blue robes and turbans, travelled long distances on dusty roads from the Northern desert lands of Timbuktu and Gao, to be able to share their ancestral wisdom as both livestock herders and food cultivators. They precisely have come to understand the virtues of the short wet season and as custodians of extensive lands to sustain their families. Indeed the Tuareg people’s holistic vision of life and ancestral rights to territories, encompasses one of the central demands of the forum: the defence of territories, natural heritage and common goods (water, land, forests, seeds, biodiversity, rivers, oceans), which comprise an essential life-chord for local peoples to maintain dignified and sustainable livelihood strategies.

Moreover, our multiple social organizations, popular alliances, community-based research initiatives and farmer-to-farmer training schools (which over the last 30 to 40 years have come to be conceived as agroecology), have allowed us to develop joint strategies, which focus on sustainable small-scale food production. Although, the adjective of small-scale could seem somewhat misplaced, as our movement has now embraced the governance and resistance of communities to defend the integrity of territories as a whole. Our struggle is holistic, widespread, inter-continental and even planetary in the sense that we seek to transform societies and rid us from the epidemic crisis produced by the model of industrial and corporate food production.

It is important to reflect on this territorial approach of agroecology, which seeks to defend the commons and customary rights as an essential part of people’s food sovereignty, where food-producing peoples are custodians of seeds, biodiversity, land, water and ancestral culture. During the days of the forum, we heard of the emblematic struggles and achievements of many local peoples to defend their territories, to mention just a few of them: 

•    For the people of Mozambique, located on the southeast coast of Africa, almost five centuries as a Portuguese colony supposedly came to an end with independence in 1975. However, the peasants’ of Mozambique are now struggling against the latest wave of ‘colonial power’ relating to land-grabbing projects from foreign governments, and agribusiness corporations, as far away as Japan and Brazil. Some 14 million hectares are under threat from mono-crop plantations of soya, maize and sugar cane destined for export markets, uprooting families who depend on these traditional lands for their livelihoods and food autonomy.  
•    Dignity and autonomy are central to the resolve of the people of Haiti when they opposed the dumping of hundreds of tons of hybrid and GMO seeds by Monsanto in their Caribbean territory, as part of supposed food-aid packages in the aftermath of the earthquake disaster. The 200,000 strong national collation of the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP) encouraged Haitian farmers to burn all Monsanto seeds, as they unmasked the social and ecological consequences of this “seed donation”, which clearly undermined traditional farming practices based on native seed varieties. Five years on from the earthquake, this grassroots movement has been training peasants in agroecology and livestock raising and has even built eco-villages as new homes for affected families.
•    The indigenous peoples of Guatemala are guardians to the origins and diversity of maize, where maize is not only a crop but also a cultural heritage inherently bound to food sovereignty. During the past decade, local communities have had to fight to defend this cultural identity and their territorial autonomy due to an upsurge in mega-mining projects imposed by transnational companies in the Guatemalan highlands. Far from passively permitting the exploitation of mineral deposits in their territories, indigenous peoples have mobilized by organizing their own popular referendums or community consultations in more than 35 municipalities as a means to uphold and re-vitalise self-governance and defend Mother Earth.  
•    The fisher-folk communities of Thailand not only reclaim the vitality of Mother Earth, but also their deep respect and understanding for Mother Ocean, as it corresponds to fundamental rights to protect marine fisheries and coastal territories which sustain local food autonomy. Thailand’s coastal people comprise some 3,500 fisher-folk villages that have evolved in close relationship with their natural surroundings, employing traditional fishing gears and skills based on indigenous knowledge, which allow for the replenishment of marine resources. At present, fisher-folk cultures are at risk from the multiple threats of industrial fishing, water pollution and mega-projects, which appropriate coastal areas for energy and tourism infrastructure, as well as the increasing intensity of climate-crisis disasters. Indeed these challenges faced by Thai fisher-folk to defend their customary rights to coastal waters, are common to the struggles of fisher-folk communities across the Asia-Pacific region.

The essence of each of these life-stories are portrayed in the declaration of the International Forum, which recognises that: “Territories are a fundamental pillar of agroecology. Peoples and communities have the right to maintain their own spiritual and material relationships to their lands. They are entitled to secure, develop, control, and reconstruct their customary social structures and to administer their lands and territories, including fishing grounds, both politically and socially. This implies the full recognition of their laws, traditions, customs, tenure systems, and institutions, and constitutes the recognition of the self-determination and autonomy of peoples … collective rights and access to the commons are a fundamental pillar of agroecology”.

Furthermore, as we move ahead to transform and shape our local food systems based on the concepts of agroecology and solidarity between producers and consumers, our vision of territory has extended, and come to include new rural-urban linkages, where food sovereignty can be practiced in and manifested in other spheres of action: through urban farming, in the school kitchen or community restaurant, by defending peasant marketplaces, through a creative process of rural - urban dialogue. 

As part of the closing remarks from the Forum, one of the youth delegates from Mexico reiterated a quote that has been in use for many years in the Zapatista movement and has recently been voiced during civil-protests: 'They tried to bury us: they didn't know we were seeds'. Without doubt, our seeds of agroecology, have come to germinate and have found fertile soil in many cultures, constituencies, networks, organizations and communities. Agroecology has become to be a banner of our joint struggle to reclaim territories for local peoples and food sovereignty. Essentially, we endeavour to continue building community life-projects and alternatives to the industrial model of food production, so that the way we produce, consume, market and share food is once again tied to upholding cultural identity, social justice and a deep respect for Mother Earth.


To know more of Fundaexpresión (Colombia), you can write to fundaexpresion@gmail.com or visit www.youtube.com/user/FUNDAEXPRESION

The More and Better Network was a co-organizer of the International Forum for Agroecology, together with the following organisations: Coordination Nationale des Organisations Paysannes du Mali (CNOP) as chair; La Via Campesina (LVC), Movimiento Agroecológico de América Latina y el Caribe (MAELA), Réseau des organisations paysannes et de producteurs de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (ROPPA), World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers (WFF), World Forum of Fisher Peoples (WFFP) and World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP)

The Declaration of the International Forum for Agroecology, is available in English, Spanish and French.

Photos courtesy of: Colin Anderson, Fundaexpresión, Roberto Parra