africa food sovereignty forests

Do we care more about people or forests? This seems to be the question implicit in much of the current debate that pits forest protection and nature conservation against food production. A debate that involves much political hand wringing over the limited supply of land to do both. But this is a false conundrum. Yes, the fates of our remaining forests and our food system are intimately linked. But it is the combination of industrial farming and industrial forest plantation systems that is wreaking havoc. There are solutions out there, as our new report explains, if we transform the way we view and manage our farmlands, forests and natural commons towards agroecology and community forest management.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) works with governments, small scale food producers and academics to map out how to ‘scale up’ (provide institutional and policy support) and ‘scale out’ (increase geographical reach) agroecology. In order to succeed, it is crucial that decision makers understand that agroecology is about changing the social, economic and political system of food production not just about technical changes to farming practices. It is also key that we expand our perspectives on agroecology, including its link to ways of increasing the power and control of local communities over their resources, such as community forest management.    

Today, there is little doubt, even from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN FAO), that agroecology offers us a path away from the well documented ravages of the industrial food system, which include climate change, the collapse of biodiversity, diet related diseases, pesticide poisoning, land grabbing and evictions, abuse of workers, farmers’ debt and a failure to feed the world, especially the most marginalised communities. This is a major step forward.

But we need more. Friends of the Earth International and social movements of small scale food producers, the pioneers of agroecology and its main protagonists, recognise that in order for the agroecology movement to achieve its full potential it must address questions of power, control, autonomy and the very purpose of our food system.

Who do we produce for? The industrial system is focussed on producing agrocommodities – palm oil, soy, corn and meat traded in global commodity and financial markets whose sole aim is to extract the highest profit possible for food and finance corporations. These same agrocommodities are responsible for the majority of global deforestation.

Who controls the system? Currently the industrial food system is controlled by global food and finance corporations. This means in order to scale up agroecology, peasants and small scale food producers are continuously involved in the struggle to access, control, use, and shape or configure land and physical territory – consisting of communities, infrastructure, soil, water, biodiversity, air, mountains, valleys, plains, rivers, and coasts. In areas where agroecology has successfully spread to hundreds of thousands of food producers, it has been a method for peasants to gain control over their productive resources and territories in order to feed themselves and their communities with agroecological methods.

What social, political and cultural values is the system based on? The industrial system is geared towards gaining unprecedented market power and profits for oligopolistic agrifood corporations. It views the natural world and people as a source of extractive profit. The agroecology system has the potential to prioritize peoples’ wellbeing over profit – feeding the world with healthy local food, providing good stewardship of the rural environment, preserving cultural heritage and the peasant or family farm way of life, and promoting resilience to climate change.

Is this hoping for too much? No. There are approximately 500 million family farmers in the world who already produce 80% of the world’s food . These farms are already feeding about 70 – 80% of the world and, contrary to popular belief, their numbers are increasing. While not all of these farms are practicing agroecology or food sovereignty, many of them are already engaged in a battle with agribusiness over the future of our food system.

What’s more, peasants are not alone. The FAO estimates that there are about 1.2 billion people dependent on forests, many of whom also practice some form of agroecology in their day to day lives. Many of these communities, such as those of indigenous peoples. already manage their forests and territories for collective benefit. Numerous studies show that community managed forests are richer in biodiversity than those that are conserved under other forms of conservation.

Agroecology and community forest management are intimately connected. Both strengthen community control of the territory, promote the Rights of people over profits for market economies, recognize the role and autonomy of women, promote social and solidarity economies and local markets, defend and manage traditional knowledge, community heritage and common goods and promote and strengthen a vision that is not centered solely on humans use of nature but also on the value of nature itself.

As our report shows, there is a rich body of evidence and examples of people putting these values into practice. Our challenge is to create the institutional and societal mechanisms that will enable these solutions to flourish.

This article was originally published by The Ecologist