Corn, Bolivia
Corn, Bolivia

Day 6: The Future of Agriculture is the Future of Mother Earth

16 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

Nothing is as ironic as the fact that we indigenous peoples, who brought so many foods to the world, lack the means to escape poverty and malnutrition. Having control over what we produce, how and when we do it, and power over its distribution will allow us to build sustainable livelihoods. We call that food sovereignty.

By Tarcila Rivera Zea, Director of the Centre for Peru’s Indigenous Cultures (CHIRAPAQ)

For the women and men who work the land to have complete and equal control over the resources they need and the food they produce, a series of conditions would have to be met. Without them, any attempt to think about that scenario would be pointless.

“In our society being a peasant is viewed as better than being indigenous.”

Control over the economic, social, and political resources that make production economically feasible and sustainable—and then turn that into livelihoods that allow producers to support themselves—means having the power to decide how those resources are used. At this moment indigenous peoples do not have that power. However, before exploring how we might get there, let’s be clear about who the actors are in this drama.

Peasants and Indigenous People
In our society, a strong social distinction has been drawn between peasants and indigenous people, whereby being a peasant is viewed as better than being indigenous. People often understand indigenous as “Indian” or “cholo”, words that convey social and cultural scorn. “Peasant” refers to an occupational category, whereas “indigenous” means a social condition. In this sense, while it is true that a large proportion of peasants are indigenous, in practice they are not the same thing, a distinction that gets translated into laws, policies, and people’s perceptions.

The word “peasant” refers to a job, and the economic aspects predominate over any holistic link to the land. One can be a peasant and practice agriculture using industrial inputs or other methods that damage the land. In contrast, “indigenous people” refers to a cultural totality in which agriculture is an important part of our daily activities and reflects different social, spiritual, economic, and political relations.

“Indigenous agriculture is based on ancestral knowledge and practices, which ensure genetic diversity according to the varying geography.”

Indigenous agriculture is based on ancestral knowledge and practices, which ensure genetic diversity according to the varying geography and in response to different climatic, environmental and social conditions. Evidently, indigenous people use industrial inputs, given market pressures and the lack of alternatives to respond immediately to the climatic impacts, which range from pests to water shortages. But ancestral practices for managing land, water and climate variances are gradually coming back, a process we call “indigenous geographies.”

From the perspective of indigenous peoples, agriculture ought to be the foundation for sustainable land stewardship, as well as a source of food sovereignty and of germ plasm diversity, which has proven useful for combating malnutrition.

Building the Present
At this time, indigenous organizations are developing different models of farming based on our cultures, with the intent of drawing from them concrete proposals for building sustainable livelihoods. During this process, control over the resources needed to make these proposals viable is of utmost importance.

“If indigenous peoples gain complete and equal control over farming resources and over the food produced, the situation would be utterly without precedent in our history as part of the global system.”

We are completely conscious that any solution must emerge from the encounter of our cultures and traditions with global cultures. This dialogue between cultures must take place under conditions of equality and that is the scenario we are working toward. It is why we talk about “farming systems” and not about transposing our culture to all of society.

If indigenous peoples gain complete and equal control over farming resources and over the food produced, the situation that would arise would be utterly without precedent in our history as part of the global system. It would mean for our societies:

At the ecological level:

  1. Living things would be raised with respect for the land’s natural ways of renewal
  2. Biodiversity would fit the different geographies and support sustainable harvests
  3. Production would be based on smallholdings, linked by production chains that would allow them to supply local and regional markets
  4. People would have a rich, healthy and diverse diet
  5. Diversified food systems would exist, and
  6. Biodiversity would be strengthened, given that agro-ecological pest control would reinforce native biological chain.

At the social level:

  1. The conflicts and social divides that have characterized our societies would be healed
  2. Agricultural work would be considered dignified, and the role of indigenous peoples would be redefined
  3. The social value of labour in organic and sustainable production, in harmony with nature, would be reinforced
  4. Indigenous peoples would see a substantial improvement in income and living standards, which would allow them to invest more in education and professional training to improve indigenous economic systems, and
  5. Food sovereignty would be achieved, with livelihoods based within different geographical spheres and linked to complementary activities, such as traditional fishing and herding.

At the political level:

  1. Decision-making power over production and marketing would bring substantial changes to the economic system regarding land tenure, with the right to territory as a cornerstone
  2. Countries could proceed to change the social and political paradigms they live by, and
  3. Indigenous peoples and agriculture would be at the heart of the design, content, and rollout of national sovereign efforts to achieve internal development.

Our vision for the future puts us in a scenario where the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples will no longer exist. Indigenous peoples will have improved their living conditions by producing organically and in this way will have contributed to the recovery of ecosystems. Germ plasm diversity will be a guarantee of a diet rich in nutrients and suited to geographical locales. Production and distribution systems will feed the entire population.

“Improvements in the quality of life of indigenous peoples would also contribute to strengthening the position of indigenous women as the ones who create and care for life.”

Legislation and the constitution would reflect this new reality by securing territorial property rights and encouraging food sovereignty. The agricultural frontier could be broadened based on diversified production, where science and technology would help deepen indigenous knowledge so it can be applied elsewhere, respecting its spirit and style.

Improvements in the quality of life of indigenous peoples would also contribute to strengthening the position of indigenous women as the ones who create and care for life, placing them in positions of leadership and representation for our peoples.

Power to make sovereign decisions
This entire process can be summarized in the concept of food sovereignty. It implies in first place, control over production systems to be able to decide what, how, and when to produce, as well as control over the cultural environment in which that happens. It also implies control over what is produced and where and how that is placed in different markets. In recent decades, experiences show that such processes require an agriculture that is diversified and sustainable, one that respects Mother Earth.

CHIRAPAQ, the Centre for Peru’s Indigenous Cultures, carried out a food sovereignty program during the decade of the 1990s in the region of Vilcas Huaman in Ayacucho. We did so right in the middle of the war that affected our country, and right in the war zone. It involved:

  1. Reestablishing diverse varieties of potatoes, corn, beans, and medicinal plants
  2. Resurrecting farming methods and technologies, expanding farming into new areas, and establishing water sources
  3. Renewing organic pest control methods and fertilizers that have increased yields and diversified family diets
  4. Reintroducing native small animal species
  5. Improving the nutrition of participating families, with a consequent improvement in school performance of boys and girls
  6. Strengthening community organizations
  7. Valuing and making evident the work and contribution of women and girls.

The primary basis of this initiative was the linking of traditional farming cycles, water management, and the in-the-field improvements of the crops cultivated. While it is true that improvements in nutrition and in the quality of life of the communities involved in the program were achieved, the scope was still quite limited.

Between Reality and Potential
According to the latest studies, food insecurity is concentrated in regions where indigenous peoples live and in poor urban communities made up mostly of indigenous migrants and their descendants. Nothing is as ironic as the fact that indigenous peoples, who provided the world with so many different kinds of foods, do not have the means to use our knowledge to escape from malnutrition and poverty.

We indigenous people have been building mechanisms to address our poverty, but the central issue – power – requires structural changes in our societies, regarding who belongs, who contributes to development, and what development models and economic systems can make society viable.

“To speak of the future of agriculture is to speak of about the future of the earth, of indigenous peoples, and of humanity as a whole.”

It is not mere rhetoric to say that a pachacuti (big change) is needed to transform our situation. The world as a whole needs a paradigm shift, and in the current circumstances agriculture – as a visible expression of our love for Mother Earth – shows us just how hard this will be. To speak of the future of agriculture is to speak of about the future of the earth, of indigenous peoples, and of humanity as a whole.

Download: The Future of Agriculture is the Future of Mother Earth


Risk, Aspirations and the Goodness of Agriculture

It was most appropriate to begin this exploration of the future of agriculture with a four letter word: RISK.  An element of risk – more precisely, the need for risk management – lurked somewhere in each of the essays, and it looms large in the lives of all farmers, particularly smallholder farmers.

In my reporting, I have seen how smallholder farmers, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa, have been left to bear 100% of the risk of this inherently risky business.  And in these essays we’ve read about the risk connections to climate, markets, prices, politics, soil health, youth, sustainability and energy.

Risk management is vital if smallholder farmers are to confidently improve their livelihoods and adopt new practices.  Access to financing and insurance, better storage facilities, more efficient markets, reliable infrastructure, stress-tolerant seeds, information sharing are all essential elements in reducing risk and giving farmers incentive to produce surplus harvests and diversify their crops to better their nutrition, income and resilience.  This confidence and incentive fosters a willingness to invest in their farms, to commit to sustainable practices, to embrace land ownership, to raise their voices.

It is the foundation of a fundamental shift, moving from farming to live to farming to make a living.  This is a transition that so many young people in rural areas are looking for, Susan Godwin’s daughter among them.  Instead of just seeing the images of desperate struggle -- their mothers bending over in the fields working the soil, the deprivation of the hunger season – the youth want to see that farming gives them a reasonable future, that farming, as one essayist put it, can be an aspirational occupation.

While reading these essays, I’ve been thinking back to the smallholder families I met while reporting my new book, The Last Hunger Season.  One young man, Gideon, told me when we first met that he wanted to be a lawyer.  But at the end of the year, as he saw his mother’s efforts to produce a surplus pay off, he began thinking that studying agriculture and becoming a farm advisor and innovator would be the best way to help his community.  “I want to make sure no one suffers from hunger and poverty,” he said.  “I will make known to them the goodness of agriculture.”

Food sovereignty, business and land rights

After a full first week with dense essays and critical comments on fossil fuels, agriculture, technology and innovation, the debate continues. Comments on all essays of the first week are still possible and very welcome.

The authors of today spend considerable portions of their essays on the importance of clear property rights and secure access to land by small-scale farmers and indigenous peoples Niasse argues that increasing better and more secure access to land by women could increase productivity from twenty to thirty percent. But will this alone sufficiently assist in creating the markets, infrastructure, and technological support for small-scale agriculture? Poelma recognizes the need for clearly defined land tenure rules, as well as for increased education, and modern farming techniques. But does he take sufficient reconnaissance of the incremental steps necessary in the future to move toward these goals, or the niche that agricultural diversification can serve for nutrition, risk management, and soil health within smaller agrarian communities? Rivera proposes a future for Peruvian indigenous peoples that she aligns with the concept of food sovereignty, based on indigenous knowledge, and gives control to indigenous peoples to produce and market. What do you think?


RE: The Future of Agriculture

 @Tarcila, I enjoyed reading your posting. I would like to add :  Balancing regional and domestic markets and related value chains interventions provides new opportunities/market avenue  for small holders producers and  more employment along the chain, generally small holders are left out  to play upward roles or isolated in the whole market development dynamics ( here we need a strong value chain governance) , on the other hand, we have to have a strategy  of local value additions where  we can provide more jobs locally and retain  more money to boost the local economy. If we retain more money (Value) locally, there are high chances to have other inclusive business models/more local enterprises that process certainly minimises the poverty conflicts that we are greatly experiencing.

You talked about the value of indigenous agriculture knowledge and practices, if there are any ways we can develop and promote indigenous knowledge and practices so that we can create commercial value of them - like other BDS market. Currently the indigenous agriculture knowledge and practices are consider free of charge?. When I was working for UNDP supported South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme in Nepal, we introduced a “village specialists” concept on agriculture production, livestock (especially Vet.  services) and actually it worked well and the village specialists were able to make money by providing services to the local community . At some point, the village specialists were making more money that the Government trained vet specialists. Other aspects like provision of localised agro inputs (with specialised embedded services) is another important element to consider for future agriculture production system

Capacity enabling for female farmers' leader - SEA region

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Strengthening Rural Women's Leadership for Rights and Empowerment

21-27 Jan 2013

Are indigenous people immune of greed and profit?

I believe I share most of the vision of Rivera. 

I do wonder if the fact that indigenous people have been marginalised and opressed make them inherently "better" or "wiser" than others. Rivera writes: "If indigenous peoples gain complete and equal control over farming resources and over the food produced, the situation that would arise would be utterly without precedent in our history as part of the global system."

Sure it would make a difference, but the powers of capitalism and markets will most likely transform also indigenous people in the same direction that they have transformed everyone else. I don't think that there is a lot of difference between how an indigenous commercial farmer acts and any other farmer. Sure there are aspects of indigenous culture that has a certain resistance against the worst forms of commercialism, but I think those tendencies are inherent in all peasant populations, indigenous or not. But also peasant's culture erode under commercial pressures.

Another point of view

Thankyou for helping out, great information.

keys pressure

There certainly has to be a

There certainly has to be a breaking point. If people are suffering, especially kids, because of religous beliefs something needs to be done to help these people. It just doesn't make sense to allow this to continue.

chad with