Reflections on the FAO regional meeting of Agroecology for Africa

| 11.18.2015

Reflections on the FAO regional meeting of Agroecology for sub-Saharan Africa1

By Paul Rogé, Clara Nicholls and Miguel A Altieri. Sociedad Cientifica LatinoAmericana de Agroecologia (SOCLA)?With collaboration of Jahi Chappell, The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

The FAO Regional Meeting on Agroecology in sub-Saharan Africa was held in Dakar on 5-6 November 2015. The meeting allowed an opportunity for many people to present various perspectives on agroecology for the African continent. Diverse views were presented by panelists eliciting active involvement of participants thus revealing a rich experience in issues related to agroecology in Africa. The facilitation and structure of the meeting was generally conducive to promote participation and exchange.

However the “mainstreaming of agroecology” that was referred to by multiple panelists presented certain contradictions that deserve further exploration. The mainstreaming of agroecology articulated by Mr. José Graziano da Silva, General Director of FAO by video stressed the need for a more sustainable production with less environmental costs. He stated that the focus at FAO is on sustainable agriculture and Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) toward a “zero hunger generation.” In fact, this vision that CSA and Agroecology are compatible with one another from a technical perspective to advance an ecological vision for agriculture was also promoted by other participants. SOCLA among more than 350 organizations – including Via Campesina, Greenpeace, Slow Food, The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Friends of the Earth, the African Food Sovereignty Alliance, Actionaid, Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité (CIDSE) and many more have rejected the term Climate Smart Agriculture and have made it clear that CSA must not be confused with Agroecology.2 This rejection of CSA is supported by UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Hilal Elver3 who states that genuine climate-resilient sustainable agriculture approaches grounded in agroecological practices are urgently needed to help food systems adapt to and mitigate climate change.4

The apparent contradiction between Agroecology and CSA were most directly challenged by Naseegh Jaffer, Director of Masifundise and International Coordinator of the International World Forum of Fisher People, and Kirtana Chandrasekaran of Friends of the Earth. They argued that the funding, objectives and support behind Agroecology and CSA are distinct: Agroecology is supported by small farmers, pastoralists, farmworkers, and fisherfolk while Climate Smart Agriculture is a development initiative funded by corporate and state interests. Jaffer, in particular, felt that Agroecology was capable of encompassing and speaking to fisherfolk, pastoralists, and farmworkers—speaking of “small-scale producers”, not just farmers—while CSA does absolutely nothing for these groups. In the roundtable on “values and practices associated with ecosystems in agroecology” facilitated by Paul Roge, transhumance herders were concerned that their traditional practices were being threatened by the notions of sustainable/ecological intensification and climate smart agriculture.

After the FAO International Symposium on Agroecology held in Rome in 2014, SOCLA warned about attempts to co-opt agroecology by some governments, multilateral institutions, research centers and corporations who are now recognizing the validity of agroecology. As La Via Campesina states “…have tried to redefine it (agroecology) as a narrow set of technologies, to offer some tools that appear to ease the sustainability crisis of industrial food production, while the existing structures of power remain unchallenged…This cooptation of Agroecology to fine-tune the industrial food system, while paying lip service to the environmental discourse, has various names, including ‘climate- smart agriculture’, ‘sustainable-‘ or ‘ecological intensification’, industrial monoculture production of ‘organic’ food, etc.”5

During the first panel on “Agroecology as a pathway for food and nutritional security for the agricultural transition in Africa”, panelist Dr. Etienne Hainzelin of CIRAD argued for a least common denominator definition of Agroecology that acts as an umbrella term for various development platforms including among others, CSA and ecological intensification of African agriculture. A critique of this view was articulated by Jahi Chappell from The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who pointed out that Agroecology and farmer innovation are grounded in social justice, which gets side lined by a least common denominator vision of Agroecology. He argued that a least common denominator definition is not an appropriate definition for Agroecology.

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In his chapter on the proceedings of the International Symposium on Agroecology, Hainzelin says that agroecology does not have a consensual definition; and that Agroecology has many and diverse ‘incarnations’ and that the expression “ecological intensification” refers even more to the range of pathways to transform agriculture though Agroecology. He even advocates for common research ventures between conventional and agroecological approaches as a solution to some hard-to-solve agricultural challenges (pests. macronutrients, etc.).

At the Rome and Brasilia FAO agroecology conferences, SOCLA has maintained that agroecology is a well established science (blending scientific and traditional knowledge) originating in Latin America more than 30 years ago and that it is based on well defined agroecological principles which are used in the design and management of sustainable and resilient agroecosystems that do not require external (agrochemical or transgenic) inputs. Agroecological systems are not intensive in the use of capital or chemical inputs, but rather rely on functional biodiversity and the efficiency of biological processes that it mediates, to enhance soil quality, plant health and crop productivity. The “inputs” of the system are the natural processes themselves; this is why agroecology is referred to as “agriculture of processes.” The technological dimension of agroecology emerges from the fact that contrary to Green Revolution approaches that emphasize seed-chemical packages and “magic bullet” recipes, agroecology works with principles that take multiple technological forms according to the local socio-economic needs of farmers and their biophysical circumstances.

Agroecology is not neutral (rather it is self-reflexive) and underplays the strengths of social movements, which actively advocate for Agroecology as a tool for social transformation and a path towards food sovereignty

In a second panel on farmer innovation where Dr. Hainzelin was featured again, (reflecting the influence on the agenda of the French government who partially funded the meeting), his central argument was that there are issues that farmers can directly influence and others that are beyond the realm of farmers but of great importance. For this reason, the agroecological transition will not be possible without favorable policy. This perspective is valid when considered from the viewpoint of mainstream institutions and agribusiness promoting a narrow science based version of agroecology that conforms to, rather than transforms, the industrial food system. It further ignores the fact that Agroecology is not neutral (rather it is self-reflexive) and underplays the strengths of social movements, which actively advocate for Agroecology as a tool for social transformation and a path towards food sovereignty. As others pointed out during the meeting, a merely technical view of agroecology also ignores vital issues of power imbalances and inequalities—issues that Agroecology properly recognizes must and can only be addressed by working with and in social movements.socla

Rural social movements understand that opposing corporate control over production and consumption, dismantling the industrial agrifood complex and restoring local food systems must be accompanied by the construction of agroecological alternatives that suit the needs of small-scale producers and the low-income non-farming population. Overall the rich experience of farmer-to-farmer movements in agroecology was under-represented in the meeting and in the panel discussion on farmer innovations in particular. Several civil society members commented after the meeting that it had been overly onerous to secure travel documents and invitations to many other groups in Africa, and there was insufficient support offered to allow farmers’ and social movement members’ travels.

In the spirit of a more inclusive and transparent dialogue, it would be important for FAO to open up these meetings to a broader group of people representing farmers organizations, indigenous peoples and civil society. This would ensure inclusion of the visions of local people to better ground discussions relevant to the needs and aspirations of rural communities.

1 These reflections are based on observations made by Dr. Paul Rogé, Research Associate at Michigan State University who represented the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA) at the African agroecology meeting.



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