Practicing “Agroecologia”

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According to wikipedia (english)….”Agroecology is the study of ecological processes that operate in agricultural production systems. The prefix agro- refers to agriculture. Bringing ecological principles to bear in agroecosystems can suggest novel management approaches that would not otherwise be considered. The term is often used imprecisely and may refer to “a science, a movement, [or] a practice.”[1] Agroecologists study a variety of agroecosystems, and the field of agroecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming, whether it be organic, integrated, or conventional; intensive or extensive.

Mmmmm, what I find very interesting is that the wikipedia definition of “agroecologia” (spanish) results in…”La agroecología es una disciplina científica relativamente nueva (década de los setenta del siglo XX), que frente a la agronomía convencional se basa en la aplicación de los conceptos y principios de la ecología al diseño, desarrollo y gestión de sistemas agrícolas sostenibles.”  In a nutshell (for those non-spanish speakers), “agroecologia” is a realtively new scientific discipline that is based in application (i.e. practice) of sustainable agricultural principals, and is a front (or alternative) to conventional agronomy.

I had never before done such a search on a particular terminology but via two cultural perspectives.  The reflection below on my recent experience in a training/gathering event that we (INESIN) hosted perhaps reveals a bit more of the “agroecologia” perspective that many in Latin America hold to…

One of the most rewarding and encouraging activities for us at INESIN is when folks from communities gather together at our site/home-base/office. Upon arrival, one thing that is always very evident is the diversity that makes up Chiapas.  Whether its geography, food, language, customs, ethnic groups, etc., the mission of INESIN to work towards peace in a diverse context encounters an opportunity. The fotos above remind us of this diversity….the spectrum and abundance of food that is produced from the rich volcanic soil; the other, my friend Abi, co-worker at INESIN, descendent from the Zoque indigenous people, a philosopher and wonder-worker with words…alongside Sebastiana, a Tsotsil woman from Huixtan, committed to keeping her traditional ways, to growing native corn and beans, to maintaining her garden of vegetables and medicinal plants, and one who makes a most-tasty “caldo de gallina de rancho” (somewhere between a homemade borscht and chicken soup).

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The gathering was called “Mejorando Nuestras Semillas Criollas y Otras Practicas de La Agroecologia” or “Improving Our Native Seeds and Other Agroecological Practices”. We had 20 people present from the various community groups with which we work. As we see the difficulties experienced in rural communities, we realize the need to focus on providing accompaniment not just in relation to vegetables, but now more-so in relation to basic crops, such as corn, beans, coffee, peanut. These crops are the bases of the family economy; yet many, many families have become very dependent (over the past 30 years) on an agriculture that requires heavy chemical input in combination with hybrid seed, decreased margins for profit, and increased risk on the farmer.  Alas, this type of system is not working for millions of small-holder farmers (and don’t call them peasant – they are wise, thrifty, and concientious stewards of their land!). Especially damaging has been the widespread (and misleading) promotion of hybrid corn seed, which has resulted in the lost practice of maintaining the diversity of native corn varieties, which has formed the basis of mesoamerican culture for milenia. True, in the Altos of Chiapas, there has long been resistance to the introductions of foreign methods of production, and the practice of seeding “criolla” or native varieties continues. Other regions have certainly lost much  in terms of seed variety and the knowledge that goes hand in hand with managing a host of seed varieties, each with their own particular agronomic and ecological (or agroecological) niche. Those other two fotos above give some reference of the reverence that farmers hold for corn, and the milpa system.

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INESIN’s methods are always participatory, that is, we base our work from an understanding that each person has a unique experience that is to be valued, and one that can be shared and learned from. Our facilitated sessions typically blend small group discussions, plenary sessions where information is gathered and folks have a chance to react/analyze/question the content that is shared, and occasionally moments of demonstrations or presentations of agroecological theories and/or practices that may be adopted or adapted to one’s context. See above photos….

An ancient-but-resurging practice in many regions worldwide is the exchange of native seed, seed of all kinds, as a way to diversify production (can improve diet, AND provide income generating opportunities) as well as the genetic-base and resilience of a particular crop species (via cross-pollinization). For this gathering we decided to ask all participants to bring some native seed of whatever they happened to have on hand. At first we thought our “seed exposition” would be a bit on the thin side, but slowly each person brought out what they had, and the table became a focal point of enthusiasm and energy which we certainly under-estimated! The exchange of seed was an activity that participants thoroughly enjoyed (see fotos immediately below), and commented via the evaluations that they would like to do more of this, as a way to enrich the farmer-farmer exchange (not solely via words of experience, but via actual germplasm!).

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Our 3-day event also included discussion around the need to conserve the soil, and we have a small (very small!) plot demonstration within INESIN’s growing area that provides an example of maintaining a thick mulch year-to-year in the milpa (see photo below left). As was typical for 80 years in Canada, the traditional concept of a good farmer is one who works his/her field til there is not one blade of vegetation, nice and black, ready to seed. With very heavy rains in the first weeks after seeding corn (at times on very sloped land), erosion will carry away enormous amounts of topsoil. In one area, the farmers told me their capa-negra (topsoil) was around 40 cm thick 30 years ago, and now it is about 10 cm thick. Thats a lot of lost fertility, which they now have to buy in the form of fertilizer. INESIN, as well as MCC in other regions and capacities, are working to change this traditional concept, and working to provide a viable, non-chemical alternative – keeping a mulch-cover on the field – to reduce erosion, supress weed growth, and maintain soil moisture, which may allow for an additonal short-season crop to be grown. Finally, we went on a tour to a place called Casa del Pan (House of Bread), where we heard of the growing movement to support local farmers in their efforts to retain traditional agroecological practices and native seed varieties. After that we toured their roof-top garden, amazed by the diversity of heritage vegetables and medicinal plants that are used by the restauarant below (photo below right). Many of the folks from communities were abosutely surprised to see that city-dwellers would go to such pains to grow food. One fellow said later “we now have no excuse in our community to say there is no space to plant a garden!” Thanks to Sophie and Casa del Pan for the great experience (and coffee/tea/cookies!).

In summary, our experience was very enriching for all involved. It has given INESIN a strong base to continue its work in communities in Chiapas. And to speak personally, this gathering, along with many other experiences, has given me a perspective that I could not have attained by remaining within the borders of Canada. Its like as if I never thought of checking out the same definition on Wikipedia Español……
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