This spotlight is a feature of WhyHunger’s digital storytelling that showcases grassroots organizations and community leaders through dynamic stories and pictures, to give a real view of projects that are working to alleviate food insecurity and increase communities’ access to nutritious food. We believe that telling one’s story is not only an act of reclaiming in the face of the dominant food narrative of this country, but also an affirmation that the small acts of food sovereignty happening across the country add up to a powerful, vital collective. Up today: Soil Born Farms; Sacramento, CA. Story and photos by David Hanson.
In 2006, Soil Born Farm’s Food Access Coordinator, Randy Stannard, heard about a man selling peaches at a crazy low price at one of the city farmer's markets. He heard the man had incredible fruit but no permit. Since Soil Born Farms is a non-profit in Sacramento that supports farmer’s markets and encourages sustainable growers and farm education programs throughout the city, Randy found the man with the peaches and the man invited Randy to his orchard.
The orchard makes an thick L-shape beside and behind a modest two-story house in the northern suburbs of Sacramento, CA. It’s a quiet street with some empty lots, a suburban area where retail and residential have trickled in slowly rather than undergoing a full-on, mass development assault. The kind of outer city place that still has overt, physical reminders of its rural past, like tall, dry native grasses or a lot with an old barn still in back.
Randy walked with Carlos among his and his wife Maria’s 150 fruit trees. The couple had planted the trees twenty years prior, as soon as Carlos bought the empty lot. Apricots, grapefruit, oranges, apples, plums, pluots, cherries, peaches hung from the trees’ shady ceilings. A row of nopale cactus stood one story tall. Randy couldn’t believe it all grew on this non-descript semi-suburban lot and that Carlos had never intended to sell any of it until that year.
Now this story will sound like a movie writer’s or campaign speech writer’s ideal of American Dream: Immigrant Version. But it's true and it’s told just as Maria told it to me while we walked under the fruit.
Carlos moved to the US at age 15. He and his father and brother left the small pueblo of Atangillo and worked on a dairy farm in the States. Then they went back to Mexico. But Carlos didn't want to stay in the small town. He wanted the American dream. So he moved to Tijuana and drove a taxi, shined shoes, and worked in a restaurant. Eventually he settled in Sacramento. When the construction season slowed down in winter, Carlos returned to Atangillo to visit his family and his girlfriend, Maria. He and Maria wrote letters to one another, too.
In 1972 Maria moved up to Sacramento to marry Carlos. They lived on the other side of town from where the orchard and home now sits. Carlos worked construction for 29 years. They had kids and Maria stayed home to be with them. They wanted their kids to love the land and enjoy simple pleasures, like the ones Carlos and Maria remembered from their pueblo. They didn't want their kids to be spoiled.
In 1985 Carlos bought a piece of land in the north side of the city. He planted fruit trees there and he'd go most evenings to water and tend to them. By 1993, he and Maria had saved enough to build a house on the lot and move into their fruit orchard. Their kids could wander into the yard and sit in the shade below a ceiling of fresh fruit, just like Carlos had imagined.
Carlos never intended to make money off the orchard, even though he had 150 trees. He simply wanted to grow fruit and share it with his family. But Maria saw it differently. She asked why he worked all day on the fruit and they could only eat and give away so much of it, then the rest rots. So Carlos decided to try to sell some of his fruit.
WhyHunger sat down with longtime supporter and author Rich Garon to get some insight on his new novel Felling Big Trees, his commitment to address the root causes of hunger and what his career in politics has taught him about social issues. Proceeds from Felling Big Trees benefit WhyHunger.
Q: Of all the charities, what drew you to WhyHunger and its mission?
A: I started working with WhyHunger 40 years ago, which was known as World Hunger Year at the time. My first duties as a legislative assistant were supporting my former boss, Congressman Ben Gilman, as he worked on the Right-to-Food Resolution. That was followed in the late 70s when I helped him as he worked with this whirlwind dynamo named Harry Chapin. He and Bill Ayres had just set up the group and they were determined to create a Presidential Commission on World Hunger. The Commission was established and Ben served with Harry, Congressman Rick Nolan, Senator Pat Leahy, Senator Bob Dole, and other members from the private sector. Harry was soon known as the conscience of the Commission—the driving force to get things done the right way. I’m truly heartened by the great work WhyHunger has done and continues to do.
Q: How did a career in Washington both help and fail to help you prepare for spending your retirement serving the homeless?
A: I saw how Ben, as Chairman of the House Commission on International Relations, could use that position to make a difference on issues such as children’s survival and related nutrition and health issues. However, as we know, there’s a lot more to do, and Washington can be a tricky place to get done what needs to get done. I guess as I entered my work on behalf of the homeless, I had little power to bring to the table. I had to, as Harry would say, just do something. I learned through a lot of trial and error what seemed to work and what didn’t. I think I’ve been doing my homework as I now begin to approach elected and appointed officials. Again, I learned that from Harry. Policymakers he met couldn’t believe that a singer/songwriter seemed to know more about the issues than they did.
Q: In your book, Felling Big Trees, the main character Fran Stewart is a disgraced politician who is searching for meaning and an answer to global injustices. Do you relate with the main character and why?
A: Yes, I think it’s not uncommon to come away from a career on Capitol Hill wondering why more can’t be done to effectively and humanely deal with the problems our nation and the international community face. I had to think for quite a while on how to portray a single act that captured his lashing out at Washington. Congressman Fran Stewart wonders what could have been done, for example, to halt genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. Having visited both areas, those questions always burned in my mind.
Q: Why did you choose to write about poverty, hunger, and homelessness from the point of view of Capitol Hill?
A: I wrote this novel 15 years ago. I had just retired from a career on Capitol Hill, so that seemed to be the perspective from which I could relate with authenticity. The novel format gave me an opportunity to create characters struggling with personal issues, as they also tried to better understand and deal with issues and themes I thought important.
Q: What has a career in politics taught you about social issues and how we can help?
A: It is important to be persistent in seeking change, but not to the degree that you can’t recognize that those who earlier have opposed change are now ready to talk. I’ve seen some real opponents come around to seeing the merit in one’s position.
Q: Why do you think it is important to support community-led solutions to hunger, poverty and homelessness along with policy change?
A: It’s important, as Fran Stewart recognizes, to ask some universal questions, questions as relevant today as in the 1990s: What breeds inaction and apathy? How do we jumpstart a deeper connection to injustices we see every day? How far will we humble ourselves to help those with few resources? Community led solutions, such as those advocated by the work of WhyHunger, focus on these types of questions in the face of the realities of changing obstacles. WhyHunger has served its supporters well in doing this over the years and in alerting policymakers of the voices and stories of the people, who are a force to be reckoned with.
Q: How do the challenges of our current political climate dovetail with the challenges in your book, Felling Big Trees, and how do you see that affecting the state of hunger, poverty and homelessness in the U.S.?
A: Ben used to urge us to keep our powder dry until we knew exactly what we were dealing with; to see the best way to get what we wanted from any given situation. I think that’s sound advice, and a position embraced by Fran Stewart. At some point, he realizes long-established ways of doing things are not the best ways. He raises one person’s voice and does what one person can do to the fullest extent possible. I believe in any political climate, that’s the measure of a person.
Rich Garon received both his M.A. and Ph.D. in Politics from New York University and began a career on Capitol Hill that lasted more than 25 years. For the last six of those years he served as Chief-of-Staff, Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives. He currently chairs the Serve (Outreach and Mission) Committee at the Immanuel Anglican Church in Woodbridge, VA and coordinates the Homeless Ministry, with an emphasis on those living in the woods. He was named to the Board of Directors of the Greater Prince William County [VA] Community Health Center, and conducts mission trips with his wife, Karen, to Bolivia to support church-building in several areas including what began as a tent city.
Proceeds benefit WhyHunger.
Originally published on http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
I went on the March on Washington in 1963. It changed my life forever. I became a small part of the Civil Rights Movement, marched with Doctor Martin Luther King several times and have spent my life trying to fight hunger and poverty afflicting all people, but especially people of color, by following a dual path: first, supporting positive laws and government policies that reduce hunger and poverty as well as promoting racial justice. Second, being a part of a grassroots movement of community based organizations all over the country that are working diligently and often with few resources to help people to get out of poverty and change the systems that create poverty.
We live now in uncertain times. There is a possibility that federal programs which have helped tens of millions of Americans stay out of hunger and poverty may be cut drastically or eliminated. The plan seems to be to cut taxes for the wealthy and cut benefits for everyone else, especially people of color, but also including millions of middle class folks who depend on Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act to stay out of poverty. Will the new administration support efforts to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour? Will they block grant Food Stamps, now known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)? Will the Federal Government gradually withdraw resources from the fields of education, housing, healthcare, environmental protection and voting rights? Right now, we do not know but the future does not look good. So, how should we concerned citizens organize and move forward for economic and racial justice for all?
There are two parallel tracks of equal importance, both of which involve political and social action. First, we need to ally ourselves with and support Congress members, governors and attorney generals, as well as mayors and other city officials who believe in government of and for all people, not just the super-rich. The campaign to preserve and improve our government programs means developing a list of priorities and identifying champions in the House of Representatives and the Senate who will fight the worst outrageous budget and service cuts and promote compromise on issues where reasonable legislators can agree such as investment in our Infrastructure. It also means encouraging governors and mayors to make their voices heard in protest of bad legislation and in promoting some of their best state and city programs that could be models for other cities, states or the country. National and state nonprofit organizations as well as businesses and labor unions need to overcome their differences and join in a movement to protect our rights and the functioning of our governments.
None of this will be successful by itself. The national effort needs to partner with grassroots organizations that are on the ground, working with and listening to the needs and creativity of poor and middle class Americans who are hurting financially and emotionally and who feel isolated and unheard. It also must encourage and support leadership from the Black, Latino, Native American and Asian communities.
An important example of this kind of grassroots action, which I’ve spent my life working to help build, can be found in the Hunger Movement. It started out some forty years ago as an unorganized group of emergency food providers who saw the problem of hunger in their communities and decided to do something that seemed obvious- feed hungry people. Over the years a growing number of these community based organizations realized that feeding people was only the first step to fighting hunger. They needed to help people access a better quality of food to prevent obesity and diabetes so they partnered with small farmers, community gardeners, farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and local food stores that were willing to donate healthy food. They needed to go beyond feeding to building social justice. They needed to prioritize the leadership of those most affected by hunger, especially communities of color, women and youth.
They also partnered with organizations that would help folks to connect with other resources to help them get jobs, housing, healthcare and childcare. Many also joined the Fight for $15 campaign and connected with efforts to provide benefits to low wage workers. Their work has borne fruit in dozens of states and cities.
To truly “Reinvest in America” we must have both of these parallel tracks to grow in health and power: legislative action on all levels and community organizing driven by those most affected by hunger and poverty to help grow resources locally AND amplify their voices on a local, state and national level. WhyHunger, the organization that the late Harry Chapin and I co-founded in 1975, is a grassroots support organization that works with hundreds of community based organizations all across the country and partners with many other national and state organizations to support community organizing, build the capacity of local organizations, promote positive legislation and prevent severe budget cuts to the very programs that keep people out of poverty.
This is a time when we all must stand together for the values that we believe in and the resources we need to help eradicate hunger and dramatically reduce poverty. It is indeed a time of challenge but also a time of opportunity for all who care.
Follow Bill Ayres on Twitter: www.twitter.com/whyhunger
Sign On! Calling all community-based, state and national organizations to join WhyHunger and The National Anti-Hunger Organizations (NAHO) in sending a clear message to the incoming Administration and the Congress that we must protect a strong and effective national nutrition safety net for low-income individuals and families! Programs like the National School Breakfast and School Lunch, SNAP, Summer Meals and WIC are a critical part of ensuring everyone has access to nutritious food and the first line of defense against hunger.
As we work together to transform our food system, build social justice and invest in community-led solutions that attack the root causes of hunger and poverty, we must also ensure these critical programs keep providing the food and support our neighbors need day in and day out. Join us today and sign on to this important message! (Organizations only please).
Action Needed: Read and Sign On today to join other national, state, regional and local organizations to demonstrate the diverse groundswell of support for the federal nutrition programs.
Deadline: Wednesday, March 1st! This letter will be a key advocacy resource for the National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, March 5th-7th in Washington, DC. For more on the conference, click here. Please sign your organization onto this letter by Wednesday, March 1st to ensure your organization is listed in the Lobby Day (March 7th) materials.
WhyHunger and Hunger Is are proud to support breakfast programs around the U.S.
Children who miss meals regularly, especially breakfast, are more likely to be held back a grade, and receive special education services and mental health counseling than children who do not struggle with food insecurity. Children who eat a healthy breakfast have increased brain development, ability to focus, better attendance and overall academic capacity, according to the Illinois School Breakfast Financial Sustainability Report written by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
I spoke with Suzanne Lee who works in the Policy and Advocacy Department of the Greater Chicago Food Depository Breakfast Program to learn about how policy, breakfast and social good are helping nourish kids in Chicago. Suzanne explained that a new state law has been passed in Illinois that mandates free After the Bell breakfast for any school that has a seventy percent or more poverty rate. This law will be implemented this coming year to help 78,000 children in Chicago access healthy, free meals to start their day!
To prepare the schools and the families for this major change, the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) has leveraged a grant from the Hunger Is initiative to host five events throughout Chicago to make sure the whole school system is prepared and the children and families know how this new After the Bell breakfast program will work. They also printed and distributed educational material that further explains the new system.
The GCFD utilizes a dual strategy for promoting healthy breakfast for children; offering community support for legislation on a state and local level, like After the Bell breakfast, that will benefit children and families in need alongside educational events, as well as creating literature and campaigns to explain the benefits of the legislation and encourage participation. All too often the very people who can benefit the most from a piece of legislation like this have not heard enough about it to embrace it enthusiastically and support it.
In the not too distant past food banks and emergency food providers saw their role simply as giving food to hungry people. Fortunately, that has changed and GCFD is a good example of a more holistic approach to fighting hunger and poverty. The support from Hunger Is has helped GCFD and organizations across the country to strengthen this trend and multiply the impact of their strategies to reach many more hungry people, and especially help children access nutritious meals.
This is the second article of the series “People’s Agroecology”, written by Blain Snipstal, a returning generation farmer in Maryland, at Black Dirt Farm. Blain is a youth member of the global movement La Via Campesina International. As part of the continuation of the Campesino a Campesino Agroecology Encounter led by farmworkers in the US, Blain visited four of the leading organizations in this effort to learn more about challenges and current practices to advance their goals through Agroecology.
“Our work is grounded in the larger political and social struggle for equality, dignity and self-determination of indigenous citizens, migrants and border communities on the U.S.-Mexico border…” Alma Maquitico, 2015
This history of labor in the food system is long and vast; from its beginnings with indentured Irish servants, then onto enslaved African peoples for over 200 years and to present day with laborers primarily from México, Central America, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean. Today, as was before, the experience of labor in the food system, specifically that of farmworkers, holds a central importance to understanding the true nature of our food system, and the needs and visions for what the alternatives are, and how agroecology is being built and used on the ground.
As part of this series, we are amplifying the experiences, visions and actions of each participating organization. Three of the four organizations, Community-2-Community (C2C), Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), and the Farmworkers Association of Florida (FWAF), are farmworker-led, with Boricua (Puerto Rico) being primarily a small-scale farmer’s organization. This “part 2” of this series will go into detail about the various elements that are being evaluated, studied and integrated into their organizing efforts around agroecology. This piece will then share examples and experiences of those elements in action.
Political and Social Formation: the basis to organizing and scaling-out Agroecology
“Training is always connected to the objectives of the social movement - in the case of the MST, the struggle for land, agrarian reform and social transformation. In order to construct those objectives, what type of person do we need to struggle for land, agrarian reform, and social transformation? Training is an integral process where it includes production, education – how can we construct a new society without people that can’t read and write? In the training, we need to understand how the systems of oppression function and the human relations.” Janaina Stronzake, MST–Landless Workers Movement
From the experience of social movements that form the International Peasant Movement – La Via Campesina, a variety of forms, techniques and methodologies have been in development to equip rural peasant, indigenous and farmworker activists with the tools to address the complex issues they face. The organizations that are highlighted in this series organized a study-group to deepen their understanding of agroecology and political training and situate it in relation to their current work. The inspiration to form this study-group came out of the 1st Campesino-a-Campesino Agroecology Encounter that was organized by the Farmworkers Association of Florida and the Rural Coalition – both are members of La Via Campesina North America. This group of four organizations – C2C, CATA, FWAF and Boricua, is informally referred to as “El Grupo de Formación en Agroecologia” or the “Group of Training in Agroecology.”
Formación is translated literally into English as training or formation. It involves a deeper social vision of strategy that refers to the construction of a better human being through “critical reflections and actions” (McCune, Reardon & Rosset, 2014). This form of training is centered upon the constant and consistent elevation of the political and critical consciousness of activists and leaders. Formación, or formation as it is conceived of here, is not an intellectual exercise based on expounding upon theories or a-political ideas. This form of deeply political and cultural training is suggesting that, as stated by Paulo Freire, “the more radical the person is, the more fully he or she enters into reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can transform it”. This form of training is often structured, or systematized, as a methodology that combines many influences – history, gender, ecology, organizing, food production, etc. The core of this form of training is centered upon the lived experiences of a given base-community and the cultural and political values they identify that are central to transforming their contexts.
In relation to this understanding of political and cultural training, the organizations highlighted in this series, sought to merge this form of training with their deepening understanding and use of agroecology. As a result, they utilized a concept and methodology developed by La Via Campesina called Formación Agroecologica or Agroecological Formation - a political and cultural formation process, in conjunction with agroecological practices and techniques. (McCune, Reardon & Rosset, 2014; Snipstal, 2015). This particular practice and methodology was centered throughout the 1st Campesino-a-Campesino Agroecology Encounter in Florida, in 2015, and with the formation of this group, was taken to the next level so as to move closer to integrating these concepts within their respective organizations.
Within this formation, the organizations planned a series of learning calls with accompanying articles to be read prior. Each call was led by various members of the group, in conjunction with visiting leaders and technicians from various movements within La Via Campesina. They covered themes like popular education, feminism and gender, farmer-to-farmer methodology and more, to give a broad stroke view from critical and leading farmer-based perspectives and efforts in relation to agroecology, human rights and political training. The themes also provided concrete and real-world examples to examine and place next to the experiences of each organization in order to draw similarities and see ways to integrate the learnings into action. This experience was viewed as a virtual and tele-based expression of the farmer-to-farmer methodology. On the ground the seeds of this multi-year process are starting to sprout and take root within the various communities of each organization- all of whom have been engaged in agroecological movements for 5 years to over 30 years. The agroecology encounter and the experience of the “Grupo de Formación en Agroecologia” are seen as culminating moments and processes that are helping to take the historic struggles of each organization into the next phase through the elaboration and use of a socially, culturally and politically-centered agroecology – a People’s Agroecology (Agroecologia Popular in Spanish).
At the base
“We understand agroecology as a series of agricultural principles that have been in existence and practiced by communities throughout millenary times. But it is also a series of political principles that allow communities to develop collective consciousness about restoring bodies, families, communities, and the land in which they live.” – Alma Maquitico, excerpt from WhyHunger’s “Agroecology: Putting Food Sovereignty into Action”
Each organization is very active, dynamic and strategic about the nature and depth of their work, and what is at stake for the base that they are accountable to and organized by – farmworkers and small-farmers - and have developed models of organizing that have come out of their respective historic struggles. Drawing from the richness that each organization has to offer, below are several chosen examples of agroecology and formacion in action that were lifted up during the site visits with each organization. The themes are organized within two frames – understanding power and building power.
Understanding Power: Dignity, Revalorizing Traditional and Local Knowledge, and the Leadership of Women
“For me, people’s agroecology -- what’s important -- is to return to our roots of our past ancestors, to rescue all of the values that we had before.” Linda Leon, FWAF Board Member, Homestead, Florida
Out of the dynamic visits with each organization, there were several strong currents that flowed through each organization and their efforts to construct and advance their models of agroecology. These currents include the centrality and leadership of women, valuing and systematizing traditional-local knowledge, and bringing dignity back to agricultural labor and rural life.
The Farmworkers Association of Florida (FWAF) is one the largest members of La Via Campesina North America. At 37 years of age, its standing and history within the farmworker community in Florida – and nationally, is well known. Since the early 2000’s, the organization has been developing various agroecological gardens among its five geographic areas of work – Pierson, Fellsmere, and Florida City/Homestead. These efforts culminated in 2015, with the first agroecology encounter in the southeast amongst Farmworker organizations (La Via Campesina, 2015).
FWAF has a rich and broad base of members and leaders, representing Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Within and amongst the agroecological projects they have underway, one can find a richness in the amount of ancestral and traditional knowledge in natural medicines, uses of plants and how to plant in harmony with nature.
At their Homestead location, they currently have two growing spaces or, as Claudia Gonzalez shares, “parcelas” (plots) – one just adjacent to their office, and another one acre plot down the road. At the experimental plot just adjacent to their office, which they call the “Huerto Familiar Agroecologico” or the Agroecological Family Garden, they germinate their seeds for transplanting, plant their medicinal and trial crops, and experiment with various biological teas and plant-based fertilizers to enhance the vitality of their plants and the soil. As you walk through the “Huerto” you may need a tour guide, for the majority of the medicinal and culinary herbs they have are native to their respective home countries of Mexico, Guatemala and Central America.
The leadership that surrounds both garden plots, and more broadly the leadership in Homestead, is intergenerational and made up of predominantly women. When asked about this, Elvira Carvajal, the lead organizer in Homestead, shares: “…change for our community, especially for our families - that is the significance of agroecology. A transformation, a change in our food ways, which is what’s significant for me. And in our gardens to recognize the participation and work of women, who are the majority in our gardens.”
Throughout the site visits, it was clear that the leadership and visions of women is fundamental to the agroecological processes happening amongst the organizations. In each case, especially that of FWAF, the various projects and initiatives at the organizational level and in respect to agroecology was being driven by women. This particular point is critical, given historic persistence and many forms of gender-based violence and violence against women that permeates all aspects of our society and our food system, inside and outside of our homes. The centrality of women – their visions, direction and support, is a basic pillar in the scaling-out of agroecology, and more broadly the transformation of society. For without their leadership - which shines a spotlight on patriarchy, we can be assured that our social movements, will not truly be transformative and challenge the relations of power within the food system, our communities and society at large.
The Farmworker Support Committee (CATA), is based out of Southern New Jersey, with offices in Maryland and Pennsylvania. CATA was founded in 1979 by migrant farmworkers. It started with Puerto Rican farmworkers, and now has members from Mexico and Central America. They organized themselves to “empower and educate farmworkers through leadership development” (CATA, 2015). According to CATA, there are an estimated 20,000 – 25,000 farmworkers in Southern NJ, living in 300-400 farm labor camps and rural communities. Their members provide the labor for the blueberry, tomato, fruit and mushroom industries through New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
CATA utilizes the Paulo Freirean methodology of Popular Education. They describe this as – “the theory that everyone has knowledge and experience that shapes their understanding of topics and that serves to create a better understanding for the entire group. Steps are consciously taken to see (look at a situation), to judge (measured against common understanding of how things should be), and to act (making collective decisions on how to respond)” (CATA, 2015).
This methodology, which is a basic tenet within political formation and agroecology, gives critical space for exploration and valorization of one’s own knowledge and the knowledge, experiences and wisdom of their traditions and ancestors. This is so vital, especially for the masses of black and brown folk within the food system today and historically, that have had their customs, ways of knowing and culture dehumanized, devalued, appropriated and abused by the interests of capital and agribusiness. Giving space for dignity and value to meet, truly builds power and love for ourselves, which cannot be ignored as a vital aspect to the methodology of agroecology – particularly amongst farmers of color and farmworkers.
During the site visit with CATA, members were participating in a dynamic workshop on medicinal herbs and traditional plant-based knowledge. It was a beautiful exchange of wisdoms and ways of knowing. For within the migrant farmworker experience, the path for agroecology must rely upon their traditional wisdom and knowledges from their places of origin (or homes), as they interact and find ways to adapt and infuse them into their current contexts. In this sense, political formation in agroecology within the migrant farmworker experience is a path based upon and towards resiliency.
As Katia Ramirez, one of CATA’s field organizers shares on her reflection of the intersections that exist between Agroecology and Formation:
“Agroecology and formacion is a way for these people to revive their culture and practices [that have been lost] due to extreme poverty…Because our current food system doesn’t give workers the opportunity to have access to healthy nutritious food due to the cost and low wages, our community gardens is the basis where CATA members have the opportunity to grow their own food using ecological methods and also by putting their knowledge into practice…Not only is agroecology reflected in the way people grow their food but also how they cure and handle their illnesses. CATA works a lot with the undocumented community who also do not have access to good health insurance due to their [immigration] status. Therefore, they have to find alternatives and ways to take care of themselves and their families. I can then say that agroecology is also reflected through natural herbal medicine. It is quite interesting how the many ways and practices people have known for many generations is now being described with all these technical words.”
Building Power: Leadership and Systematization
As we tease out a popular experience of agroecology in the US and Puerto Rico – a Peoples Agroecology (Agroecologia Popular) -- and ground it the real experiences of folk on the ground, the basics of mass social struggle hold true – building power from the base out is the starting point. To that effect, the process of building power within agroecology, or through agroecology, will ultimately be based upon the methods, models and ways we are able to scale-out and massify our proposal for a radical shift in the dominant agricultural paradigm, the industrial model of production and the relations of power throughout the entire agricultural model.
Community-2-Community Development (C2C) is based out of Bellingham, Washington. It was founded in 1980, by a group of women who were leaders in the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. During the 80’s, Bellingham was a national hub of organizing against the US intervention in El Salvador. Initially during that time, C2C was a fundraising organization to support the livelihoods and work of rural peasants and rural communities in El Salvador. After years of activity, the organization went dormant in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. After years of working with United Farmworkers, Rosalinda Guillen returned home to Bellingham in 2002, with the “full intention of forming a women-led non-profit” (Guillen, 2015).
Prior to reviving C2C in the early 2000’s, she visited Porto Alegre, Brazil for the World Social Forum and met various organizations and social movements, like the Movement of Landless Workers (MST). This trip was very influential and timely as she was exploring the ways to best merge the various theories and forms of organizing that came out of the farmworkers struggles, with more collective and women-led forms of leadership. While she was in Brazil, leaders of the MST pulled her aside and shared with her “that any organization that was going to form, should be 50% women leadership.” She went on to share that, “they were clear that society and the whole planet were on a cycle, that it was time for the feminist and the eco-feminist part of humanity to step forth and lead….and that we should really look at developing organizing models that were led by women, and that feminist and eco-feminist principles were built into the organizing” (Rosalinda, 2015).
C2C takes their form of leadership – collective, and led by women -- into their organizing work supporting farmworkers throughout Washington State. They work very closely with Familias Unidas por La Justicia, which is a newly formed farmworker union made up of roughly 300 members. Familias organized in 2013 in response to decades of wage-theft and abuses while working for the Sukuma Brothers Farms (Why Boycott, 2015). Together, C2C working with Familias Unidas launched the Boycott Sakuma and Driscolls campaign, which merges the nation’s largest retailer and distributor of berries – Driscolls, with the Sakuma Brothers Farms, who sell to Driscolls. This campaign is international for, with the support of C2C, Familias Unidas was able to make contact and build with “La Alianza de San Quintin,” which is the organization of farmworkers based in Baja California that formed after going on strike against the oppressive conditions they faced picking berries for Driscolls, as well.
C2C, when asked about formacion and how they organize, shared simply “our formacion is through action. We just do it.” They offer a strong critique of traditional social justice non-profits and organizations that don’t truly work with leaders that are most affected by the injustices of the industrial food system. Rosalinda shares that they follow an action-oriented organizing approach and apply that in their work to build food sovereignty and agroecology. In relation to food sovereignty, she shares that, for them, “food sovereignty is about supporting autonomous movements and their leaders to see and understand themselves…to foster autonomous movements.”
In this exploration of what is a “People’s Agroecology”, we find that there are aspects that do not pertain to the ecological aspects of agroecology alone, and speak more to the social and political dynamics. C2C, highlights this quite well. If food sovereignty is the house, then agroecology is the foundation. C2C’s relationship to building that foundation is shown through innovative organizing approaches and structures.
La Organizacion Boricua de Agricultura Ecologica, is one of the more prominent and active leaders of the agroecology movement in Puerto Rico. With over 25 years in existence, Boricua is an organization with a broad base of farmers, activists, youth and urban supporters. Boricua is the only La Via Campesina member in Puerto Rico, it differs from the other organizations in this inquiry in that it is not a farmworker-based organization. The organization was founded by a core group of small-scale ecological farmers and activists. The core, the heart of the organization is the identity of the “peasant,” which in Puerto Rico are called “Jibaros.” Jibaros were/are those peoples who live from the land, cultivate it and develop a distinct cultural identity. One finds this identity throughout the membership and “feel” of the organization.
Boricua, utilizes a farmer-to-farmer methodology that they call Brigadas in Spanish, or brigades in English. Each month, a weekend or two is selected as a work-day. Various supporters and other members travel to said farm and spend the morning working and getting done whatever it is they need to get done. After a communally prepared “potluck” lunch, people transition into a “conversatorio” – which is a popular education tool used to stimulate and exchange ideas around a particular topic. Each brigade will have a different theme, with topics ranging from technical themes like soil and plant health, to more political and social themes like the push of GMO’s on the island, relation of US colonialism and agroecology on the island, etc.
Another area that Boricua has made advances in is the systematization of local ecological and cultural knowledge and values, and political training into a curriculum. An example of this is with the “Proyecto Agroecologico Josco Bravo” or the Josco Bravo Agroecological Project.
Josco Bravo has a 3-month course that trains people in various technical and political aspects under their formation of agroecology. This is roughly structured as 60% practical and hands-on training and 40% theory and political training. Upon completion of their 3-month course, participants graduate into “promoters of agroecology”. This is designed to give identity and distinction to the graduates as they are tasked with promoting agroecology within their communities, and strengthening the process within the organization of Boricua.
This form of training, which comes from the systematization of Boricua’s experience, is fundamental in the transmission and movement of agroecology amongst people. When we speak of scaling-out or “massifying” agroecology, we are talking about “how” agroecological movements transmit and spread their reach amongst broad swaths of the food system and society at large. This means the spread of agroecological farming practices amongst farmers, farmworkers and food producers more broadly, as well as the spread of ideas, systems and mechanisms designed to allow agroecology to flourish. Systematization, developing curriculum and trainings, training farms and schools, having brigades and “conversatorios” are all examples of ways to successfully build the movement for agroecology, and for food systems transformation.
In this short overview of the various examples of leadership and systematization as being enacted by these organizations, we find more elements to be considered in this current moment of the development of agroecology.
Implications for the debate around agroecology in the US
“I think as organizations that are doing this Food Sovereignty work, which I think is one of the most important political moments today….in the United States, our food producing system is at a time of great power in creating great peril for all of us, and destruction of the earth. And it has reached a certain level that is really dangerous but there’s still possibilities for creating change that would be marvelous for everybody. In order to move towards those changes, we will have to let go of our old styles of organizing, I believe.” Rosalinda Guillen, C2C
This political moment, where the context is at a critical juncture, with a clear need to have a comprehensive and aligned movement to confront industrial agriculture and agribusiness, the centering of the experiences of frontline and leading organizations and groups – representing farmworkers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and food system workers of color is critical.
The voices and experiences offered in this piece, begin to give us a framework that grounds the debate around agroecology in the US. These points, summarized below, highlight dynamic aspects and values from leading organizations which, if centered into the current evolution of agroecology in the US, could bring the movement to a tipping point:
This second part of the series on People’s Agroecology, served to amplify the experiences of each of these organizations in order to introduce critical and real perspectives from efforts and actors that have been historically marginalized in the development of the food system, and even throughout the recent debates around “alternatives” to confront industrial agriculture and agribusiness.
Our struggle, the Peoples’ struggle, is a matter of inclusion. That is, including the most amount of people in the political and social process of agroecology, and of centering the diverse perspectives of frontline groups actively transforming the food system from the base out. What we find in this dialogue of knowledges is that agroecology and food sovereignty/food justice, if removed from the voices and interests that they were created to represent, will only leave us movements and intentions that are hollow. For ultimately, agroecology is not just a question of more ecological and harmonious models of production alone. It is, ultimately, an organizing question - How will the most marginalized sectors of the food system be supported to take their rightful place as food system leaders and lead us in massifying and building-up agroecology?
“I feel that that’s the revolution; a just way to live, a way in harmony with not just with the environment—with people, with everything around us because we are nature, we are a part of nature. Agroecology for me represented the most harmonious way to create that way of life.” - Josué Lopez
On November 11th to 13th, social activists and farmers from La Via Campesina member organization Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica de Puerto Rico, El Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo, and other activist collectives organized the Campamento Agroecológico de Formación Política [Agroecological Encampment for Political Formation] at the Siembra Tres Vidas farm in the mountainous municipality of Aibonito, located one hour south of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The encampment’s 25-plus participants brought activists and farmers involved in agroecology projects throughout the island, as well as participants in other social struggles, such as the Campamento Contra la Junta and Jornada Se Acabaron Las Promesas. I participated in the three-day encampment as a representative of WhyHunger, to develop our understanding of the current context in Puerto Rico and to learn more about the organizing work happening on the island around agroecology.
The goal of the encampment was to bring people together to work and learn with one another and study agroecology as a tool of struggle within the current political context. The methodology of the encampment consisted of farm work in the mornings, followed by facilitated discussions on topics including the agrarian history of Puerto Rico, agroecology as a tool for social struggle and gender dynamics within social movements. Those facilitated discussions were followed by more informal conversations around a campfire, during which the participants further discussed ideas generated throughout the day. Tasks such as cooking and cleaning were shared among teams of participants during the encampment, and one team also assumed the task of note-taking during discussions. Towards the end of the process, they synthesized the ideas generated into a draft declaration that was then edited and approved by the encampment’s participants.
I had the great privilege to listen and participate in the rich dialogue and debates that took place that weekend. In thinking about how the conversations in the encampment compared to similar conversations I’ve participated in the U.S., I noticed that, similar to the way many conversations and work around food justice, food sovereignty and agroecology are grounded in an analysis of how U.S. historic and structural settler colonialism and racism have shaped and continue to manifest in the food system today, the conversations during the encampment about the need for agroecology were grounded in Puerto Rico’s history and current status as a colony and their own struggles for self-determination and decolonization.
That history begins with the Taíno indigenous people, who cultivated root crops like cassava, sweet potatoes, squash and corn in mounds called conucos. With the brutal colonization of the island of Borinken by the Spanish in the late 15th century, many Taínos fled to the interior of the island as the Spaniards introduced plantation-style agriculture in the lowlands. This form of agriculture was dependent on the labor of enslaved Taínos and Africans to produce crops to export to the Spanish Empire’s metropole. With the acquisition of Puerto Rico by the United States in 1898 following the Spanish-American war, the focus on the production of cash crops (sugar, coffee, tobacco) for export continued, with little support for jibaros/as, the islands peasant farmers who mostly farmed the mountainsides. Following World War II, small-scale agriculture in Puerto Rico declined further. Largely unable to access land and credit, neglected rural populations migrated to the newly industrialized cities in Puerto Rico and the United States in hopes of better opportunities and higher salaries. The introduction of the food stamp program in the 1970s transformed the diets and consumption patterns of Puerto Rican consumers, who began purchasing more imported and processed food at supermarkets rather than from local markets. Today, more than 80% of food consumed on the island is imported.
These processes resulted in the mass exodus from the mountains and the disconnection of many in the subsequent generations from the land and agriculture, and well as the widespread loss of jibaro/a growing techniques and peasant seeds. Luckily, a back-to-the-land movement similar to that of the United States grew in the 70s and young people returned to the mountains to start organic farms. Many of these folks built relationships with the few remaining peasant farmers and learned how to farm Puerto Rico’s tropical mountainsides. Those returning farmers and the jibaros/as they learned from now make up Organización Boricuá’s most senior members.
(Photo of the Huerta Resistencia in at the protest camp San Juan against the junta. Among other things you can see okra, basil, lemongrass, oregano and a small papaya tree growing)
At over 25 years old, Organización Boricuá has played a huge role in growing the agroecology movement in Puerto Rico. Through Boricuá’s network, farmers and other supporters of agroecology organize monthly work parties to provide support for farmers across Puerto Rico. Additionally, Boricuá has been able to mobilize in support of campaigns such as resisting Monsanto’s presence in Puerto Rico, as well as the successful fight to prevent the spraying of the Naled insecticide throughout the island in response to Zika. Members of Organización Boricuá promote agroecology through exchanges, events, and trainings, such as the training program offered by El Proyecto Agroecológico El Josco Bravo. A number of encampment participants had gone through that training program and were actively looking to establish farms, yet they encountered many of the same barriers that exist for many beginning farmers in the U.S.; issues with land access, financial barriers, and a lack of support from the government.
One participant, Josué Lopez, had recently started a cooperative farm and hoped his experience would inspire others. He and some friends who had been involved in Puerto Rico’s student strikes in 2010 and 2011 became interested in agroecology as a way to achieve food sovereignty for Puerto Rico, and as new way to live; “I feel that that’s the revolution; a just way to live, a way in harmony with not just with the environment—with people, with everything around us because we are nature, we are a part of nature. Agroecology for me represented the most harmonious way to create that way of life.” Josué and his friends, who didn’t have much money, pooled their resources and purchased some land to start a farm; “it’s a difficult landscape, but that gives us inspiration, you know? Because it’s what we can do . . . the perfect conditions will maybe never arrive, and if we sit around waiting for the perfect conditions to build our revolution, I think it will never happen. We create the conditions. And if we can give this example of working that land and living there and making an agroecological project that teaches in those conditions, no one has any excuses.”
The farm was created for the participants personal consumption and to sell surplus to meet their living costs, but Josué was clear to point out that their “vision isn’t necessarily to generate more money than conventional agriculture, but to allow us to require less money in order to live . . . we know we don’t control this monetary system, we know we don’t control this economic system, and if we are totally dependent on this economic system we will always remain enslaved.”
Josué offers a good example of the connections between those involved in the agroecology movement with other social struggles in Puerto Rico.
Like Josué, many of the encampment’s participants had been active in the student strikes of 2010 and 2011 and developed their radical politics through that process. Additionally, many participants in the encampment were also involved in the current protest movements against the PROMESA bill and the federally-appointed fiscal control board (colloquially known as la junta), which has been granted the authority to unilaterally restructure Puerto Rico’s finances in the wake of the debt crisis. Given the recent developments regarding the PROMESA bill, I was expecting the current debt crisis to be a central theme of the discussions. However, I came to understand that to many of the participants, the junta was not understood as a completely new situation for Puerto Rico, but merely a more explicit manifestation of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and the continuation of the process of colonization that began over 500 years ago. This analysis was evident when I returned to San Juan and visited the protest camp against the PROMESA bill and the junta in front of the federal court building. Signs, banners, and messages painted on the sidewalk presented their current struggle against the junta within a global narrative of colonialism and anti-colonial struggle. The messages connected the fight for a self-determining Puerto Rico to current struggles against police violence against black, brown, and indigenous people, to the fight of the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the middle of the camp across the street from the federal court building, protestors had cleared a strip of land in the sidewalk and created a small garden, where they were growing herbs, vegetables and fruit with a sign reading ‘Resistance Garden: for an agroecological Puerto Rico.”
The conversations of the encampment also reflected upon the internal dynamics of the agroecology and other movements. Conversations around the campfire addressed the need for focused outreach to groups whose voices needed to be a part of discussions around agroecology and food sovereignty. Additionally, during discussion on gender and patriarchy, the participants agreed that the participation and contributions of women and non-binary folks to social movements—the agroecology movement included—needed to gain more visibility. During the self-critical conversations of the agroecology movement, many positive attributes were discussed. Magha Garcia of Bosque Jardín Pachamama, made the observation that the agroecological movement in Puerto Rico is the only place she’s seen multiple generations organizing together; “I started as an activist in 1980, 81, and it was always either the young folks or the older folks, each one in their batey [a Taíno word for a gathering or meeting place] as we say in Puerto Rico.” Magha explained that the agroecology movement has produced a historic moment for social struggles in Puerto Rico where she’s seen “two and three generations all sitting and sharing and that has allowed us in some way to draw this social continuum . . . in that sense, now we are sharing the same batey.”
Though the encampment was short, the mixture of group farm work with thoughtful discussions, reflection, delicious shared meals and laughter, created the conditions for the kind political education and relationship-building necessary for developing strong social movements. The encampment left participants (myself included) feeling inspired and renewed, and with a collective statement outlining a shared analysis and steps forward for Puerto Rico’s agroecology movement. In times like this when strong social movements are greatly needed, meaningful processes like Organización Boricuá’s Agroecology Encampment for Political Formation are essential for building and sharing the practice and politics of agroecology as well as building bridges to other social movements.