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Agroecology in Asia and the Pacific

A summary of outcomes of the regional consultation

Conscious of the need to embed agroecology within local and regional socio-ecological realities, the first Multistakeholder Consultation on Agroecology for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok in November 2015 assessed the contributions of agroecology in a context of climate change, the need to transform knowledge building and research, and made suggestions for policy change, including the creation of appropriate markets to further agroecology in the region.

Civil Society delegates deciding on the priorities, to influence the work of FAO and governments, to support agro ecology in Asia and the Pacific region
Civil Society delegates deciding on the priorities, to influence the work of FAO and governments, to support agro ecology in Asia and the Pacific region

The relevance and urgency of the agroecological approach is felt acutely in Asia and the Pacific, where the challenge to meet the food and nutritional needs also demands protection of agroecosystems from further degradation and damage. In this region, the Green Revolution helped to increase production, but this was, and still is associated with the destruction of landscapes, soil and water contamination, high farmer debts and loss of traditional farming systems and traditional knowledge. Combined with the challenges of climate change, it is clear that a new agricultural paradigm is needed, and that the search for an alternative approach is vital. Agroecology was brought into the international arena as a pathway out of this situation in 2009 by the prestigious International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD).

Agroecology emerged as an existing but undervalued approach that focuses on the harmony and vitality of natural systems, while improving food security and building the autonomy and agency of family farmers. Agroecology, being knowledge intensive, locally-rooted, and relying on family farmers’ management of local resources, demands appropriate support through practice, policy and research at various levels.

From Rome to Bangkok

“Agroecology offers win-win solutions: increased productivity, improved resilience and more efficient use of natural resources” said José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations during the International Symposium on Agroecology for Food and Nutrition Security in Rome, hosted by FAO in 2014. The aim of the Multistakeholder Consultation in Bangkok was to continue and expand upon these discussions in Rome.

The public sector, academia, farmer delegates, and organizations behind social movements from more than twenty countries across the region were present. Following the consultation, they agreed on a set of recommendations to take agroecology forward in the region. Below, we highlight some of the most relevant contributions and suggestions made at the consultation.

Agroecology in the Asia- Pacific region

Various agro-ecological practices have existed in the region, primarily as an alternative to conventional ‘chemical-intensive farming based on Green Revolution prescriptions. These alternatives are often directed at enhancing soil fertility, through organic matter management and water conservation. Throughout Asia and the Pacific, different terms are used for specific practices including: Integrated Farming, Integrated Pest Management, SRI, Conservation Agriculture and agroforestry. Shimpei Murakami of the Asian Farmers Association shared a telling example of yet another name: “Around 3 lakh farmers in 549 villages in Bangladesh are following the Nayakrishi method, which includes ten principles of farming that are largely based on agroecology”.

Agroecological approaches are being practiced in fishing and pastoralism, embracing similar values underlying agroecology. “Fishing has a social aspect, a cultural aspect and is also a religion to us,” said Gilbert Rodrigo from World Forum for Fisher People (WFFP). He stressed that artisanal fisherfolk are very conscious of the need to sustain the aquatic ecosystem as they “don’t cultivate but only harvest”.  Pastoralists play a similar role:  “We take care of common resources like grazing lands and mountain lands through sustainable pastoralism, which we have practiced for ages“, said Dinesh Desai (MARAG) from India. Unfortunately, since these lands are increasingly being acquired for non-agricultural purposes, such agroecological systems are under threat, he added.

Social movements and farmer networks in the region, such as La Via Campesina and the Asian Farmers Association seek to amplify agroecology as a path towards food sovereignty. In this light, social movements presented the Declaration of the international Nyéléni Forum on Agroecology held in February 2015, which defines agroecology as not just a set of practices, but rather a political tool to transform society.

Agroecology in the context of climate change

Agroecology is a powerful tool to reduce greenhouse gases and attain food security”, said Vili A Fuavao, Deputy Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific of FAO. Agreeing that conventional agricultural production causes many problems, especially in a changing climate, participants at the consultation emphasized the positive contributions agroecology can make. Agroecological practices that build primarily on local knowledge and short chains can result in enhanced productivity, food and nutrition security, food sovereignty, biodiversity, more resilient farms and preservation of the environment.

A number of initiatives were discussed through which farmers adapt to the impacts of climate change: farmer selection of hardy varieties for sowing, changing the time of planting, managing water more efficiently, and agroforestry, among others (box 1). These agroecological practices and systems can enable family farmers to continue producing after extreme weather events, and play a role in mitigating the effect of climate change as they increase options for carbon storage through enhanced biodiversity, increased organic content in the soils and reintroduction of trees to the landscape.

The final recommendations of the Bangkok consultation call for greater support of traditional management practices, for local varieties of food crops, and for neglected and under-utilised or drought-resistant crops. Devoting more means to research on the link between agroecology and climate change, with an emphasis on on-farm selection of varieties and species, was also recommended.


Adapting to climate change through farmer-led action research in Indonesia

The rice production center of Indramayu is located in the North Coast of Java Island, Indonesia. Long dry seasons, hot temperatures and irregular water availability affect rice production which leads to explosions of pests and diseases and causes slow and stunted crop growth. In response, Ikatan Petani Pengendali Hama Terpadu Indonesia Indramayu (IPPHTI), a local organisation of Farmer Field School alumni, works on an integrated pest management program, while increasing farmers’ understanding of the impacts of climate change and developing strategies for adaptation.

IPPHTI facilitates processes in which farmers record their own observations. Currently, hundreds of farmers in 24 sub-districts of Indramayu are observing their rice fields and collecting data on rainfall, pest and disease and plant growth. Their observations are carried out once a fortnight and the data is collected and evaluated monthly as source of information for learning processes. Farmers organise monthly meetings, discuss their observations and problems and arrive at solutions. They develop their own adaptive responses such as selecting varieties based on location, delay in planting time etc. Recently, farmer leaders from 28 districts in Java and Lampung have formed the Gerakan Petani Nusantara (GPN), a national farmers network on agroecology, where the results of this farmer action research are being shared for wider adoption.

Building knowledge in agroecology

Agroecology is highly location specific and knowledge-intensive, so any agroecological strategy must be based on the local know-how, experimentation of family farmers, and may be further supported by science.  Knowledge building needs to be decentralised, interdisciplinary and include social technologies, participants stated. Fundamentally, ‘people-to-people learning’ was identified as key in facilitating the spread of knowledge. Farmer Field Schools (FFS) can be an effective means to build knowledge at the local level, as voiced by participants.  However, participants stated, FFS needs to be reoriented away from the present commodity programs towards the broader concept of agroecology.

Education, and the way we educate, needs to be transformed.  The present agriculture education system is highly specialised and does not recognise the cross-sectoral nature of agroecology, and the multiple ‘ways of knowing’.  “Agroecology is clearly multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Understanding such complexity calls for a different type of thinking, a paradigm shift”, said Damayanti Buchori of Bogor Agriculture University in Indonesia.  In order to effectively support agroecology, “FAO needs to take education more seriously and develop a strategy with a budget for restructuring education extension and knowledge sharing”, said  Wayne Nelles from Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.

Several positive examples of building local knowledge and innovations were presented. One initiative was presented by the International People’s Agroecology Multiversity (IPAM), which is an online initiative of Pesticide Action Network Asia-Pacific and provides a grassroots-oriented and network-based alternative educational environment to promote agroecology and related issues in relation to land, agrochemicals, food cultures, food sovereignty, gender equity, and community empowerment.

Participants called attention to the difference between formal and informal education and the need to have public support to complement both models. The informal system is based on the experience and knowledge of the smallholder producers, which is transferred through generations. Informal education is one of the most important vehicles to move agroecology forward in different parts of Asia and the Pacific. This is particularly relevant for women and youth. Protecting future generations as well as women’s inherent knowledge, values, vision and leadership, requires proper consideration for the particular needs of women and youth in all agroecological education. The final declaration strongly emphasised the need to recognise, support and document producers’ knowledge while designing educational interventions on agroecology.

The role of research

The need for collaboration for knowledge building in agroecology was emphasised. Various speakers advised caution with regard to the sustainability of action research and the potential domination by the scientific agenda over local knowledge. “The scientific community is new to the concept of agroecology and lacks the culture of working with other partners in development. More openness is required”, said Abha Mishra from the Asian Centre of Innovation for Sustainable Agriculture Intensification (ACISAI). Research should be based on farmers’ needs.  It should be location and culture specific and should recognize farmers as co-researchers and innovators.  Current research driven by multinational corporations should be replaced with community oriented research that is inclusive and has the agenda of farmers at the center. Hence research should be conducted on the field and not only in University campuses, opined the participants  and recommended building a regional network of agroecology researchers, involving civil-society and small-scale food producers, facilitating learning from each other.

The final declaration recommends that agroecology be integrated in the curricula in primary and higher education and in all farm educational programmes, and that content and focus should be derived from the knowledge generated by small-scale food producers.

Agroecology and markets

Markets are both a challenge and a solution for agroecology. It is therefore important to create specific market channels for agroecological products of small scale family farmers. Markets can perform an important role in creating sustainable short value chains for agroecology by making agroecological practices more visible; allowing small-scale farmers to create their own ‘brand’; ensuring reasonable selling prices in short chains where middlemen are generally avoided or scarce; and could be used to communicate and promote agroecological practices directly to supportive consumers.

Short chains boost the local economy and ensure that economic benefits remain inside the region. The short value chains are often more sustainable cutting their carbon footprint with less food miles. In addition, they enable consumers to access fresh food that is culturally appropriate and in tune with local food habits. The region has good examples of how markets can enhance agroecological production (box 2).

Box 2 Farmer leadership from production to marketing

In the mountains of Mae Win, Mae Wang of the Chiang Mai province of Thailand, roughly 1,144 families are production and processing coffee while re-foresting the area. The CLUMP Foundation, which stands for Communal Life of Love and Unity of the Mountain People, embodies the hope of returning life and prosperity back to the mountain land through the use of restorative techniques of agroecology and agroforestry.  Coffee grows well under big trees, as it benefits from the shade provided by the forest.   This new method allowed them to increase the production from 3 TBH per kilo in 2014, to 5 TBH in 2015, and this year, 2016, 8 TBH per kilo.  Meanwhile, 25 hectares were transformed into a rich array of life of the otherwise barren highlands. This is why the farmers say: “to grow coffee is to re-forest”.

The mountain farmers are involved in all parts of the production and marketing process: from selecting the coffee cherries to roasting, and even selling their organic, high quality coffee throughout Chiang Mai.  Their system offers multiple prosperities including a regeneration of the forests, a strong and united community, and an end product Chiangmai is excited to share.

This project was built without any kind of official support or government funding. The farmers now want to take their highland development experience as the model for a new cacao plantation and chocolate production for the lowlanders. They are also preparing the production of pepper as a herb to stimulate the revival of many other local herbs.

‘Scaling up’ agroecology with better policies

Agroecology is, by definition, an innovative, creative process of interactions among food producers and their natural environments.  As these innovations often take place on a small scale, achieving wider impact calls for ‘scaling up’ efforts. This means spreading a way of farming that also implies a transformation in the ways that farming is supported, not just spreading technologies but changing systems.

Some suggestions for scaling up were made in the Bangkok consultation including the following: unlocking ideological barriers to political recognition, supporting farmer-to-farmer networks, funding research and education at various levels, providing an enabling public policy environment, taking specific actions for empowering women, and making strategic alliances with social movements. “Scaling up ecological intensification from farm to land to landscape requires a lot of social processes and institutional changes,” summarized Rada Kong of the Cambodia Acid Survivors Charity.

In continuous efforts to achieve this, civil society and social movements have been advocating for supportive policies for agroecology. Some of these proposals are articulated in collective declarations like the Colombo Declaration (2010), the Surin Declaration (2012) and the aforementioned declaration of the Nyéléni Forum on Agroecology (2015). “But not much has been implemented. There is still a lack of supportive public policy in favour of agroecology,” said Georges Dixon Fernandez of the International Federation of Rural Adult Catholic Movements (FIMARC). Current policies are unsuited for scaling up agroecology, agreed Pham Van Hoi of CARES, Vietnam: “The present nature of policies is top-down and they are largely influenced by chemical companies. As a result, they are not effective in dealing with the complexity of agroecological production”.

Estrella Penunia of Asian Farmers’ Association emphasised the crucial role of local level policy support for sustainability of farmer owned enterprises
Estrella Penunia of Asian Farmers’ Association emphasised the
crucial role of local level policy support for sustainability of farmer
owned enterprises

Rony Joseph from FIMARC in India listed some specific policy proposals including: greater investments in formal and non formal education of agroecology, identifying and consolidating best practices in agroecology from countries in the Asia-Pacific region, and promoting linkages between farmers to local youth, academia, decision makers, and consumers.

Participants recommended that coherent policy for agroecology prioritising resource-poor environments should be designed and formulated inclusively through a collaborative, participatory process including policy makers, scientists, educators, UN, development partners, CSOs, farmers and farmer organizations. Agroecology should become an integral part of sub-national, national and regional agricultural policies – appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks should be developed. Investments in smallholder food producers should be the priority.  Systems and practices of social innovation led by farmers should be promoted to create agroecological territories at community and collective levels.

The multistakeholder panel suggested ways to scale up agro ecology in Asia and the Pacific region
The multistakeholder panel suggested ways to scale up agro ecology in Asia and the Pacific region

Moving forward

“Agroecology will become part of agricultural production systems in the region,“ assured Dr. Subhash Dasgupta of FAO’s Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “We will take these recommendations forward which will serve as a basis to formulate future work plans of FAO, if governments are in agreement,” he added cautiously. The final document with recommendations is proposed to be presented during the Regional Meeting of FAO member states in April or May 2016.

The participants to the consultation recommended that the FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific further address the question how agroecology can be better supported in national policies and programmes during the upcoming 33rd Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific. They also proposed that FAO promote agroecology in ongoing regional programmes and initiatives, such as the agroecosystem-based Regional Rice Initiative, the Zero Hunger Initiative and the Blue Growth Initiative. In addition, the suggestion was made to set up a new regional initiative on agroecology that includes a monitoring system of all the activities of FAO and governments in the region in regard to agroecology.

In keeping with the Declaration of the Nyéléni Forum, representatives of civil society reiterated their defense of agroecology as a focal point for structural changes in agri-food systems. In doing so, they reject any attempt to reduce the concept of agroecology to a set of technologies designed to alleviate the harmful impacts of industrial agriculture. They stated that concepts such as “climate-smart agriculture” and other similar buzzwords in the international debate must not be confused with agroecology.  Agroecology cannot be restricted to organizing a niche market for organic products for a handful of producers and consumers, they said, and added; agroecology will only be successful as the guiding principle for changing current societies and their relationship with nature, if it strengthens smallholder food producers, including traditional and indigenous communities.

The consultation made clear that agroecology is a way of life for family farmers and other small scale producers in Asia and the Pacific. Through agroecology they keep their cultural values alive.  Agroecology provides food and nutrition security for urban and rural areas, putting peasants and other food producers at the centre to feed the world in harmony with nature.  In conclusion, agroecology contributes to food sovereignty, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. The next steps for FAO’s agroecology process in the Asia-Pacific region should focus on defining further steps on how to strengthen these key aspects of agroecology as a practice, a science, and a movement focusing on developing strategies to defend it from the threats posed by the industrial agricultural model.

T M Radha
AME Foundation
Bangalore, India
E-mail: leisaindia@yahoo.co.in