In the spotlight

In the spotlight 1

Agricultural biodiversity and agroecology: peasants, families, artisans and Indigenous People’s relationship with nature

Peasants, farmers, pastoralists, forest dwelling people, artisanal fisherfolk, Indigenous Peoples and other small-scale rural and urban food providers are considered a part of our global biodiversity. According to many ancestral worldviews, nature, Mother Earth, maintains a mutual nurturing relationship with human beings as a family – we are not separate from her. This ancestral relationship of mutual interaction shapes our existence in a type of “co-evolution”. Peasant practices that care for our biodiversity are not only determined by food and material needs, but also by spirituality, culture, health, and emotion.

Despite the pressures associated with modernisation, where traditional worldviews and practices are still in place, biodiversity continues to respond to this mutual nurturing. In places where these practices had been lost and are now being reclaimed, biodiversity is being revived in new forms. These practices and the caring of farming communities and families – the systems of knowledge of small-scale food providers – are at the heart of what the international community refers to as “biodiversity”.

This agricultural biodiversity supports – and is the fruit of – ancestral peasant strategies for subsistence, health, and autonomy. It manifests the creativity and knowledge of peasants and their relationship with the natural environment. As a tapestry of dynamic relationships, agricultural biodiversity embodies a constantly changing mosaic between people, plants, animals, and other organisms, water, the forest, and the “environment”. Agricultural biodiversity can be seen as the result of the interaction – in all ecosystems and over thousands of years – of cultural diversity and biological diversity.

Some agricultural production systems exhibit an extraordinary variety of crops, animals, and associated species. Small-scale food providers not only develop and sustain most of the planet’s biodiversity, they also provide most of its food.

Despite the challenges posed by the powerful trend towards the homogenisation of lifestyles and food habits, and the strains on territories, there are significant local actions of resistance. There are a wide range of initiatives such as improving the diversity of household gardens in rural and urban areas, undertaking agroecological cultivation, restoring mangroves, developing sustainable fishing protocols, and managing waters. These and other practices contribute to promoting food and nutritional sovereignty, and conserving and protecting ecosystem functions.

Peasant-led, agroecological agriculture, practised by small-scale food producers, is an essential tool for building Food Sovereignty and defending Mother Earth. Communities committed to producing food for themselves and others in an independent, non-corporate way know that caring for biodiversity and practising agroecology is a way of life and is the language of nature. It is not a mere combination of technologies or production practices, nor is it universally applicable in all territories.

Agroecology is based on principles that are similar everywhere, but which require specific features and careful respect for the local environment and culture. Thus, agricultural biodiversity is fundamental to autonomy and agroecology. The food autonomy that a peasant agroecology allows for displaces the control of global markets and promotes collective self-governance.

In this way, Indigenous Peoples and peasant communities reduce the consumption of purchased products, which come from outside. As the people who feed the world, having control over their native seeds is fundamental to Food Sovereignty. Millennia-old connections between people and crops perpetuate innovation, research, selection and breeding of their own crops and livestock. Communities like this do not produce raw materials or commodities for export, but are the ones who produce the majority of food, and care for biodiversity and territories.

Fundamental to this is:

● Respecting the collective rights of everyone who maintain and enhance peasant agricultural and food biodiversity, and uphold their knowledge and the integrity of their crops through the use of agro-ecological principles and the exchange, breeding, and above all self-reproduction of their own seeds, livestock breeds, and fish.

● Strengthening our interconnected and collective rural-urban food systems and networks and local markets, promoting agricultural biodiversity and agroecology.

● Promoting comprehensive agrarian reform.

● And the most important thing is to promote and ensure the self-determination of rural and urban peoples, communities, and collectives that care for biodiversity and the integrity of their territories, and ultimately a life of justice and dignity.

Food Sovereignty, a healthy environment, and above all our future, depend on it all.

In the spotlight 2

Biodiversity’s planned dispossession

The Green Revolution established the ascent of corporations in their push for control over the growing of food. It urged peasants in different parts of the world to boost “agricultural productivity in what is today the global South”. The promoters said they were concerned with “filling hungry stomachs”, and insisted that traditional agriculture was redundant.

Corporate executives and government policy makers disregarded the enormous amount of work, and the centuries-long continuity involved in the careful relationship peoples have with Nature, with their land, forests, and waters, with seeds and their infinite transformation. This relationship is responsible for “the incredible biodiversity and cultural prowess that brought us crops like wheat, maize, rice and potatoes”.[1]

The promoters of the Green Revolution replaced all the above with “radically standardised, so-called high-yielding types. The new seeds, as farmers would come to learn, required a package of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and irrigation to grow well”.[2]

Of course, all this move was not taken lightly and “met deep resistance from peasant farmers, local communities and civil society at large”.[3]

But although there was resistance, the damage was done. The era of research institutes assuming the role of international agricultural crop and seed developers substituted the millenary knowledge and strategies of thousands of real life agricultural communities in the world and pushed a corporate narrative that is still in place: that peasants do not know what they do, that their cultivation strategies are wrong, that their yields are extremely poor. This opened space for hybrids and even GMOs. The effects were devastating for the peasant population and for small farmers. For anyone that relied on native seeds and traditional methods of growing food or taking care of their animals.

Industrial agriculture went to impose techno-fixes to raise the yields with a lot of agrochemical toxic substances involved. It diminished the varieties and even the species involved in growing food, and the livestock breeds that before were normal.

According to FAO’s figures, since the 1900, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity “has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties… Today, 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species”.[4]

The Green Revolution is not the only culprit, although there were huge sudden losses during its implementation. Free trade agreements, intellectual property rights, the incisive attitude of contract farming, luxury fashions in export crops (berries, avocados, agaves, tomatoes, and other greenhouse varieties) are also to blame. Now synthetic biology wants to substitute the whole agricultural process.

Resisting industrial agriculture and its monocultures involves enormous efforts if communities want to remain independent. But it is crucial for biodiversity to stop these schemes.

In the spotlight 3

Nature Based Solutions: a corporate smokescreen that won’t stop biodiversity loss

The concept of Nature Based Solutions arose from large conservation organisations as a way to promote funding for their vision of protected areas. Despite using the word “nature”, the vision of NBS promotes the idea of “natural capital” i.e., a capitalist approach of paying for services provided by ecosystems. This often goes hand in hand with the commodification and financialisation of nature.

More recently, the driving force of NBS comes from the need for nature to be a climate solution. This is driven by the escalation of so called “net-zero” climate targets where the “net” is carbon emitted minus the carbon removed from the atmosphere. So, trees, soils, and lands are needed to provide carbon offsets and carbon removals to enable fossil fuels, agribusiness and other corporations to expand their emissions and extraction heavy plans. This comes with several dangers: land grabbing, further commodification of carbon and nature, enclosures of land, failure to stop climate chaos and the destruction of nature. It can also allow corporations to profit from new nature based market schemes.

Just the scale of land required for NBS to be a climate solution is a danger for biodiversity. The most influential paper on ‘Natural climate solutions’[5] advanced the claim that “nature based solutions”[6] could help mitigate up to 37% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The calculations in the paper on closer inspection appear to be technically problematic, implausible, and politically unrealistic.[7] For example, it suggests that an area of 678 million hectares is potentially available for reforestation. This is twice the area of India, or more than two-thirds of the United States! The paper also suggests up to 10 million hectares of new tree plantations, to make NBS profitable and therefore worthwhile for companies to pursue.

Even if only a fraction of the corporate net zero pledges are pursued through “nature based solutions”, it will significantly deepen and expand corporate control over land. This is because of the sheer scale of emissions released by the corporations and therefore the need for them to find forests and lands to claim they are offsetting their emissions.

NBS is a vaguely defined term with very little political analysis behind it. Therefore, anything can be defined as a nature based solutions, from monoculture plantations to agroecology. Brazilian company Suzano, the biggest producer of pulp is just one of those taking advantage of vaguely defined NBS to promote their genetically engineered plantations as achieving nature based solutions to climate change.

Conservation organisations and corporations are also rebranding discredited REDD+ schemes which do not value the role of local communities and Indigenous Peoples in managing forests and have caused huge divisions, and displacement of forest communities as NBS.

[1] GRAIN, Funding industrial agriculture vs agroecology: not a simple binary

[2] Ibidem.

[3] All the above passage is in the blog by GRAIN.

[4] FAO, What is happening to agrobiodiversity

[5]  Griscom et al, 2017. Natural climate solutions, PNAS, October 31, 2017. vol. 114. no. 44. 11645–11650.

[6]  The Nature Conservancy calls them Natural Climate Solutions

[7] REDD-Monitor. Offsetting fossil fuel emissions with tree planting and ‘natural climate solutions’: science, magical thinking, or pure PR? , 2019