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DEVELOPMENT: Agroecology Gaining Ground

Mario Osava

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Mar 10 2006 (IPS) - The convergence of views between promoters of small-scale farming and defenders of the environment was remarkable at the second International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD), which ended this Friday in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre.

“Agroecological strategies centred on peasant and family farming and small-scale fishing” are a feature of the “new agrarian reform” proposed by the ‘Land, Territory and Dignity’ Forum, organised by rural social movements during the ICARRD. The ICARRD itself was organised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) with support from the Brazilian government.

These strategies are based on logic and economics: a rural family must maintain the environment where future generations of its members will live, whereas a large agribusiness company, which can move to another location or country, tends to exploit natural resources without troubling to preserve them, seeking short-term profits, a FAO expert explained.

“Remuneration for environmental services could provide alternative income for peasant farmers,” Tomás Lindeman, a FAO expert on rural institutions, told IPS. This could save, for example, small-scale agriculture high up in the Andes mountain range, which is a “water factory” that supplies people, agriculture and the mining industry lower down and along the coasts of the Andean countries, as well as most of the Amazonian rivers, he said.

The rural exodus which led to the desertion of terraces and water channels in the Andean mountains has caused the local environment to deteriorate. “People with a maintenance-oriented culture” are needed to halt the losses of water sources, he stated. But training is also needed, as some “traditional methods,” such as burning woodland and agricultural residues, have negative effects, he added.

Lindeman believes it is necessary to find alternatives for rural development, because he “personally” disagrees with the “excessive emphasis” being placed on land tenure by defenders of agrarian reform, as happened at ICARRD. In today’s world where commerce and trade are increasingly free-market, “small-scale peasant agriculture isn’t profitable enough” to compete with subsidised farm production in rich countries and big agribusinesses, he argued.

That is why the exodus from rural areas continues unchecked and “alternative solutions” are needed, such as payment, by those who benefit, for environmental services carried out by small farmers, and gainful rural employment that is “not necessarily agricultural.”

The alliance between environmentalists and peasant movements, indigenous people and consumers is growing, especially in Latin America, Mario Ahumada told IPS. Ahumada leads the Latin American Agroecological Movement, and is a regional coordinator for the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, which organised the ‘Land, Territory and Dignity’ Forum in Porto Alegre.

Agroecology involves a change in production methods that unites small farmers and environmentalists. It also presents a particular vision of society, since it includes the rights of peoples, and the recovery of natural resources and biodiversity using traditional knowledge, according to Ahumada, a Chilean veterinary scientist.

Agroecology techniques are still not widely practised, but are spreading rapidly. The Brazilian Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST) decided to promote agroecology when it saw the improved yields obtained on agroecological farms.

The Latin American School of Agroecology was founded in August 2005 by a partnership between MST, the international peasant movement Vía Campesina, and the governments of Venezuela and of the state of Paraná in the south of Brazil. Seventy students from Brazil, Paraguay and Venezuela are attending its university level course, which lasts three years. Classes at the School in Lapa, near Curitiba, the capital of Paraná, alternate with field activities in peasant communities.

Agroecology is “a set of principles for designing a production system based on biodiversity and sustainability,” which are applied in accordance with local conditions, Miguel Altieri, a recognised Chilean scientific expert in the field and a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, explained in an interview with IPS during the ICARRD.

Major agricultural problems, such as pests and soil deficiencies, “are symptoms of a systemic illness: monoculture,” or the lack of functional biological diversity, he explained. Where there is a diversity of organisms, as for example those that “make a forest work, with a given biological equilibrium,” there is no need for pesticides, fertilisers, or other agrochemicals, he said.

“There is no single formula,” as local conditions must be observed and researched, but the basic principle is “polyculture which makes logical and economic sense, and promotes synergy.” One example is to grow beans, which fix nitrogen, together with cereals, he remarked. Introducing flowers, whose pollen fulfils a necessary function, and livestock, is also recommended.

Agroecology is different from organic farming because the latter often merely substitutes biological inputs for chemical ones, without solving the basic problems, which is why it has given rise to so much frustration, he clarified.

Also, agroecology can be commercially competitive, because of cost reductions, including environmental costs such as soil erosion, Altieri said.

Agroecology is closer in nature to some traditional practices, such as those of indigenous people, he acknowledged, while observing that small-scale farmers may also practice monoculture. Family farming is highly compatible with agroecology because of its greater efficiency and its social benefits, said the professor, who will also be teaching courses during his stay in Brazil.

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