Understanding and Building Power: Cultivating a “Peoples” Agroecology

, JANUARY 9, 2017 tagged as agroecology

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:

  • Revalorizing local and traditional knowledge
  • Centering the leadership of and direction from women, and gender non-conforming peoples of color
  • Systematization and transmission of ancestral, traditional agricultural thought and practices – “scaling out”
  • Development of community-controlled/owned infrastructure
  • Collective and innovative forms of leadership and social-organization
  • Vision guided by farmworkers, farmers, indigenous peoples and food system workers of colors
  • Alignment with other grassroots sectors – immigration and labor, climate justice, the prison abolition movement, Black Lives Matters, etc.

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?

Read 1262 times Last modified on Wednesday, 15 March 2017 13:52

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