The potential of agroecology to achieve food sovereignty – the experience of the Shashe Agroecology School
Members of the Shashe Agroecology School in Zimbabwe are an emerging ‘community of excellence’ in agroecology that is providing a framework for the transitioning into sustainable food systems. Nelson Mudzingwa, National Coordinator at Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), explains the potential of agroecology to achieve food sovereignty through the adoption of bottom-up economy.
The Shashe Agroecology School refers to an area of 184ha in ward 6 of Masvingo Rural District Council, Masvingo Province in southern Zimbabwe. It has been allocated to 12 farming families that are developing into an endogenous development learning centre, an initiative of landless farmers who were allocated land during the Government of Zimbabwe’s (GoZ) Fast Track Land Reform Programme. It is an A1 Self-Contained Resettlement Model area in a semi-arid agroecological region IV (at 1054 m.a.s.l.), characterized by sandy-to- sandy, loam soils of low natural fertility. Severe dry spells during the rainy season and frequent droughts are common.
Endogenous development is initiated from within the local communities’ cosmovision, building on their local resources, enhancing the in-situ development of their local spiritual and technological knowledge systems. This programme was designed to understand the diversity of rural people’s knowledge, encourage local experimentation within smallholder farmers’ worldviews, have inter-cultural dialogues on farmers’ knowledge and indigenous learning to stimulate ecological, economic, social and cultural development.
The farming families have developed their plots, dubbed “Centres of Excellence”, using good practices of water harvesting, manure making, agro-forestry, crop and livestock diversification besides the production of diverse food that includes small grains (millet, rapoko, sorghum), pulses (round nuts, beans, cow peas) and oils (ground nuts, sesame and sunflower). These “Centres of Excellence” are living demonstration tools to showcase the potential of agroecology to achieve food sovereignty, promote farmer-to-farmer training and exchange of experiences. They are imparting knowledge and skills both vertically and horizontally while also disseminating practices on agroecological and sustainability to smallholder agricultural communities as a local solution to the climate crisis.
Food sovereignty initiatives that favour resilience over efficiency
The smallholder farming families are guided by the realization that living things have entered an uncertain world and that the pathway to recovery is undefined. The imbalances in the cycle of nitrogen, genetic erosion associated with the spread of mono-cropping, soil degradation, the repeated shocks that result from climate changes and the logistical planning associated with the congestion of urban centres are some of the challenges that impact on food sovereignty. These well-documented threats mean that the future is more unstable and volatile and urgently call for more local solutions.
With resilience at the heart of the Shashe Agroecology School farming families’ movement, it has become their major concern to develop bottom-up and farmer-led initiatives that claim a right to food sovereignty. Their key messages are around localization and diversity, and thus reduced dependency. The more solutions are designed locally using local resources, the less vulnerable this “Community of Excellence” is to outside shocks such as a sudden increase in energy prices, a breakdown of supplies or an economic crisis that may place basic items out of reach of the poorest. Outside resources, that operate as a back-up solution should local systems break down or prove insufficient, are also explored.
The farming families’ experiences on the potential of agroecology
The motivation and interest to achieve food sovereignty for the Shashe Agroecology School farming families are rooted in their practice of agroecology. They have reduced the use of external fossil-based inputs, are recycling waste and are combining different elements of nature in the process of production to maximize synergies between them. They believe that agroecology is more than a range of agronomic techniques that present some of these characteristics. It is also a way of thinking of our human relationship with Nature. It is growing as a social movement.
Agroecology has become the true “Green Revolution” that is needed for this century, inviting all people to embrace the complexity of Nature. They view such complexity not as a liability, but as an asset. The smallholder farming families are, therefore, the discoverers. They proceed experimentally, by trial and error, observing what consequences follow from which combinations and learning from what works best, even though the ultimate “Scientific” explanation may remain elusive. The strategy is empowering the smallholder farming families to be on the driver’s seat, where they are constructing the knowledge that works best in the local context in which they are operating.
Building bridges to consumers by finding ways to rebuild local food systems
The diverse healthy food that is being organically or agroecologically produced locally by the farming families is providing decent livelihoods even to the vulnerable, whilst sustaining agro-biodiversity, mirroring local culture and religion. Alliances are being built at local level between farming families, urban consumers, schools and hospitals, to directly supply diverse, high-quality and nutritious foods in the demanded quantities. The farming families, especially women and youth, are now concentrating on farming to feed their households, neighbours, local towns and cities, thereby building their local economies.
Democratizing the various innovations that form food sovereignty
Through awareness raising, passive consumers have now become active citizens seeking to reclaim control over their food systems and exercising their right to choose. The act of consuming has become political within the environment of the Shashe Agroecology School farming families. It has grown. There is a gradual movement of consumers, especially amongst the local Great Zimbabwe University Campus lecturers and students, who are now seeking to learn from the practicing farming families and contributing to co-designing the food systems. Other consumers are participating in shaping and recapturing them, opening eyes to the concept of food democracy.
Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), is an indirect partner of ABN through PELUM Zimbabwe, a strategic partner of the ABN under the southern sub-regional node. Through this collaboration, ABN continues to build communities that are resilient to multiple pressures on sustainable food production systems in the South.
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