Tag Archive: sustainability


Sustainable food matters

Sustainability in agrofood systems can be defined a variety of ways. To summarise a few common notions: a sustainable food system should minimise the use of non-renewable inputs; should not take more from the environment than is put back in; should act fairly with regard for all other human beings both now and in the future; should care for the Earth and our environments, including other living beings; and should create healthy, nourishing foods to be consumed mindfully.  Furthermore, sustainable agriculture works with local farmers’ knowledge, improving self-reliance and building on human and social capital.  This weekly column explores these ideas and reports on examples of sustainability projects from around Zimbabwe that are working towards these goals.

 

Dr Pamela Ngwenya is a postdoctoral researcher at DITSL, School of Organic Agricultural Sciences, University of Kassel. This research was undertaken as part of a fellowship at the School of Built Environment and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Advertisements

Part I: the context of ‘sustainable’ and ‘alternative’ agri-cultures in Zimbabwe

International media is notorious for reporting a disproportionate amount of ‘bad news’.  Likewise, scholarly research on ‘less developed’ countries, such as Zimbabwe, tends to focus primarily on negative aspects. This has been the case in the context of the land reform that was implemented in Zimbabwe in the post-2000 period. We are consistently reminded that Zimbabwe was the ‘Bread Basket of Africa’, but, in the international media, we are rarely informed of solid plans or ideas for the much-needed revival of agriculture.  The following essays will not entertain or deconstruct the complicated politics or outcomes of the Zimbabwean land reform. It is now more important, I suggest, to explore the new possibilities of agricultural development for the future.

I chose to open by referring to the land reform because this is a key aspect shaping the foodscape in Zimbabwe and forms a backdrop to current local food politics and possibilities in the country. The land redistribution program is still underway and re-allocation of land continues, but in terms of the roll out of skills training and development strategies, we mainly hear of concern about lack of donor funds available to purchase necessary inputs (The Chronicle, 6th September 2010).  What is of concern, I suggest, is that the discourse dominating reports seems to be the expectation of (re)building a highly modernised, corporate and commercialised agro-food system. It is a critical time to ask if this approach is likely to bring the environmental and socio-economic benefits that are needed. In considering highly modernised agro-ecological systems elsewhere, it is pertinent to question the wisdom of pursuing a single agricultural development path that has so often led to dire social and environmental consequences (Pretty 2002; Magdoff et al. 2004; Tilman et al. 2002).

As discussed by Tony Weis (2007), the (bio)technological revolution and corporatisation of agrofood systems has in many places led to less employment in the agricultural sector (pp.25-28).   Furthermore, globally speaking, we are becoming more and more dependent not only on a handful of huge global corporations, but on an increasingly limited stock of crops to supply our staple foods:

‘As many as seven thousand plant species have been cultivated or collected for food in human history, but this diversity is shrinking precipitously. There was a drastic decline in both the diversity of crop species planted in agricultural systems and the genetic diversity within species (…) during the twentieth century, with these declines as great as 75 to 90 percent according to FAO estimates. Thirty crops now essentially feed the world, providing 95 per cent of humanity’s plant-based calorific and protein intake’.  (2007: 16)

On top of this we have the increasing prevalence of biotechnology and associated bio-politics, with genetically modified maize now prevalent in neighbouring South Africa and lobbyists encouraging cross-border importation (Irin, Newsday April 2013), which is already taking place informally via remittances.  In the case of Zimbabwe, the Community Technology Development Trust in Harare has highlighted the serious risks posed by the importation or ‘dumping’ of corporate genetically modified (GM) maize and maize seed into Zimbabwe in the guise of ‘food aid’, which has been occurring over the past five years, contaminating local stock, without any accompanying public information program (Thompson 2010).

These concerns and observations echo broader trends in the ‘global food economy’. This economy is characterised by the increasing dominance and agglomeration of transnational corporations, the vertical integration[1] of food chains, the globalisation of diet and the increased branding of food commodities. Scholars and activists alike have illuminated ongoing issues of uneven development, the transformation/destruction of the ‘family farm’, the increasingly uneven distribution of value in commodity chains and the rise of retailer-power.  Overall, it has been argued that the global food economy’s push for large scale, intensive, high input mono-cropping, oriented towards export markets, has in too many cases gone hand in hand with increased socio-economic inequalities, the exploitation of land-owners by corporates and of labour by land-owners, import dependency and outrageously, food insecurity (FAO 2003).  These trends have to varying extents all been witnessed in Zimbabwe over the past decades.

But it is important to look at what happening on the ground, which given the political-economic situation in Zimbabwe and the fragmenting tendencies of the land reform, is rather more complicated and unpredictable than the ‘global’ trends outlined above.  The unique constellation of interacting forces, in specific places, shapes the unfolding of ‘development’; not always in a way that renders the domination of corporate agriculture inevitable.   Can we not, instead of assuming an inevitable doom and gloom, start by attending to the more optimistic notion that “another world is possible” and by looking for positive examples of how local events and contingencies have engendered healthy, sustainable, locally-embedded agri-food systems in Zimbabwe? This is what I have attempted to do in my research. Eschewing the grim and reductionist problems associated with the global food economy, I have begun by engaging instead with ‘on-the ground’ alternative food networks, locally embedded food economies, short food supply chains and holistic sustainability projects.

Being ‘alternative’ in Zimbabwe is not as easily definable as elsewhere, where – for example in North America ad Europe- ‘alternative food networks’, contentious as they may be are more clearly identifiable (at least superficially) by those that market and consume them (think for example, of FairTrade and certified organic products).  There, various territorial and ethical qualities have come to be associated with such food networks, such as social justice, ecological stewardship, cultural identity and geographical origin. They are often (questionably) defined as resistance or opposition to practices pertaining to the mainstream ‘globalised’ industrial food system.  However, here in Zimbabwe, there remain many places where supermarkets have not penetrated and subsistence agriculture still provides the bulk of the (62%[2]) rural community’s staple foods. Consequently, there is not the same division between the ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ that can be found in more industrialised nations. There is also not the consumer awareness or demand for alternative (organic/fairly traded/ ethical) products that can be found in the global North.  According to Economy Watch, gross domestic product (based on purchasing power parity) is only about US$589 per capita in Zimbabwe, compared to a global average of US$15,174.[3] Furthermore, drought and food scarcity are perennial issues, with United Nations World Food Program estimating that at least 1.6 million of the almost 13 million total population would need food aid this year (the 2012-13 dry season).[4]  So the notion of ‘alternative’ food networks becomes strange territory here; alternative to what exactly? Significantly though this context, there are many people forging ‘alternatives’ and not just to hunger and food insecurity.

In such communities, it is well-recognised that much of the drought and food insecurity issues are a direct result of unsustainable agrofood practices. As Allan Savory has demonstrated[5], we have in many places created barren landscapes through our own unsustainable livestock management practices (Savory Institute, 2013). ‘Alternative’ in this context, can then broadly be defined in opposition to the unsustainable (mainstream) agro-food practices that have contributed to desertification, degradation of soils and ecosystems, exploitation and impoverishment of  people and communities, climate change, poverty, malnutrition and disease. As Julious Piti of Zimbabwe’s PORET Trust conveyed, “People need to learn how to live with their natural resources in a sustainable way, without hunger” (personal communication, Feb 2011).

Sustainability in food systems can be defined a variety of ways. To summarise a few common premises: a sustainable food system should minimise the use of non-renewable inputs; should not take more from socio-ecological systems than is put back in; should act fairly with regard for all other human beings both now and in the future; should care for the Earth and our environments, including other living beings; and should create healthy, nourishing foods to be consumed mindfully (Bell 2004).  Furthermore, sustainable agriculture should work with local farmers’ knowledge, improving self-reliance and building on human and social capital (UNCTAD-UNEP 2008). I use the term sustainability in these essays in a broad sense, cognisant of the constancy of change and the contingency of context.  In other words, to sustain is not necessarily to remain unchanged but rather to be resilient in the face of ongoing and multiple challenges.

Considering the array of negative consequences associated with the now dominant trends of the global food economy highlighted above, there are many reasons to follow alternative, more sustainable models of agriculture and food ways. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that crises often precipitate moments of opportunity, or ‘fault lines for transformative possibilities’ (Weis 2007: 8). Considering the crises and upheavals of recent history, it is a key time to explore alternatives and more sustainable strategies in Zimbabwe; and to create and share knowledge of these alternatives to a wider public.  The ‘alternatives’ for a more sustainable agro-food future are too often silenced by the dominant calls for ‘modernisation’, without questioning what kind of modernity is hoped for.

This ongoing research project has taken the approach of seeking out active examples of sustainable agro-food projects. Between October 2011 and July 2012, I visited 18 different projects or organisations across the country, conducting semi-structured interviews with 32 people involved such initiatives. Recognising the importance of sharing ideas, positivity and hope, the following essays draw empirical evidence and inspiration from these active examples of successful ‘sustainable’ agriculture projects in Zimbabwe. The essays consider: 1) food security and sovereignty; 2) building sustainable community and; 3) eco-social imaginaries and transformations. Several of the projects were documented with video, photography and/or in textual form and are available to view here on the blogsite. The aim is to create a useful resource for the organisations themselves and for people interested in learning about these initiatives. It is hoped that this information and discussion will ‘invigorate alternative imaginations and strategic action’ (Weis 2007: 8) for agro-food futures in Zimbabwe.  In doing so, I hope to bring together and contribute to the significant body of ideas already circulating at these diverse project sites, and assist in their efforts to create a more sustainable, positive agro-food future for all.

References and key readings, Part I

Bell, G. (2004) The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps To Create a Self-Sustaining World, Hampshire: Permanent Publications.

Bouagnimbeck, H. (2008) Organic farming in Africa. In Willer, H. M. Yussefi-Menzler and N. Sorensen (eds.) The world of organic agriculture: statistics and emerging trends 2008. IFOAM (Bonn) and FiBL (Frick).

Conway, GR and J. Pretty (1991) Unwelcome harvest: agriculture and pollution. London: Earthscan.

Cousins, B. (2010) ‘Time to ditch the ‘disaster’ scenarios’ Mail and Guardian, May 21st, 2010.

Dorwald, A. (1999) Farm size and productivity in Malawian smallholder agriculture. Journal of Development Studies, 35(5), 59-92.

Economy Watch (2013) Zimbabwe GDP Per Capita (PPP), US Dollars Statistics. http://www.economywatch.com/economic-statistics/Zimbabwe/GDP_Per_Capita_PPP_US_Dollars/  last accessed 10th August 2013.

FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) (2003) The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2003: Monitoring progress towards the World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals. Rome: FAO.

FiBL (2000) Organic farming enhances soil fertility and biodiversity. Results from a 21 year field trial. FiBL Dossier 1 (August). Zurich: Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL).

Freidberg, S. (2004). The ethical complex of corporate food power. Environment and Planning D-Society & Space 22(4): 513-531.

Funes, F et al. (2002) Sustainable agriculture and resistance: transforming food production in Cuba. Oakland, CA: Food First Books.

Gereffi, G., J. Humphrey, R. Kaplinsky, and T. J. Sturgeon. 2001. Introduction: Globalisation, value chains and development. IDS Bulletin-Institute of Development Studies 32 (3):1-8.

Gliessman, SR. (1998) Agroecology: ecological process in sustainable agriculture. Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Press.

Goodman, M. K. (2004) Reading fair trade: political ecological imaginary and the moral economy of fair trade foods. Political Geography 23(7): 891-915.

Index Mundi (2013) Zimbabwe Demographic Profile 2013, http://www.indexmundi.com/zimbabwe/demographics_profile.html  last accessed 10th August 2013.

Irin, (2013) Maize shortage renews GM debate in Zim, April 30th. Accessed at http://www.newsday.co.zw/2013/04/20/maize-shortage-renews-gm-debate-in-zim/

Klein, N. (1999) No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, New York; Picador.

Magdoff, F., Foster, J.B. and Buttel, F. (2004) Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Marsden, T. (1997). Creating Space for Food: the Distinctiveness of Recent Agrarian Development. In M. Watts and D. Goodman (eds). Globalising Food   Routledge, London.

Mascarenhas, M. and Hatanaka, M. (2005) Governance in the global agro-food system: Backlighting the role of transnational supermarket chains, in Agriculture And Human Values 22 (3): 291-302.

McMichael, P. (1994). The global restructuring of agro-food systems, London: Ithaca.

Merchant, C. (2005). Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. London: Routledge

Merchant, C. (2013). Reinventing Eden: The fate of nature in Western culture. Routledge.

Morgan, K., T. Marsden, et al. (2006). Worlds of Food: Place, Power and Provenance in the Food Chain. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press.

Piti, J. Personal communication: Interview at PORET Trust, 21st October 2011.

Pretty, J. (2002) Agri-culture: reconnecting people, land and nature. London: Earthscan.

Pretty, J.N, T. Lang, A. Ball and J. Morison (2005) Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the weekly food basket. Food Policy 30 (1), 1-20.

Pretty, J.N. (1995) Regenerating Agriculture: Policies and Practices for Sustainability and Self-Reliance, London: Earthscan.

Richardson, P.E. and Whatmore, S. (2009) ‘Alternative Food Networks’ in Kitchen, R. and Thrift, N. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography.

Roberts, P. (2008) The end of food: the coming crisis in the world food industry. London: Bloomsbury.

Rosset, P. (1999) The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture in the Context of Global Trade Negotiations, Food First Policy Brief no. 4, San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Studies, September.

Rukuni, M., & Eicher, C. K. (1994). Zimbabwe’s agricultural revolution. University of Zimbabwe Publications Office.

Sanchez PA. and MS. Swaminathan (2005) Hunger in Africa: the link between unhealthy people and unhealthy soils. The Lancet 365, 442-444.

Savory Institute website, http://www.savoryinstitute.com/ last accessed 10th Aug 2013.

Smil, V. (2000) Feeding the world. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Ted talks (2013) Allan Savory: How to fight desertification and reverse climate change, http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change.html last accessed 10th August 2013.

The Chronicle (2010) ‘Communal farmers urged to seriously take farming’ Monday 6th September 2010, p2.

Thompson, C. (2010) Our Food Future: African Alternatives to Agribusiness. Seminar given and the Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu-Natal, 18th March.

Tilman, D., KG. Cassman, PA Matson, R. Naylor and S Polansky (2002) Agricultural sustainability and intensive production practices. Nature 418, 674-677.

UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity Building Task Force on Trade, Environment and Development (2008) Organic agriculture and food security in Africa, New York and Geneva: United Nations Publication.

United Nations World Food Programme (2013) Zimbabwe Overview, http://www.wfp.org/countries/zimbabwe/overview last accessed 10th August 2013.

Weis, T. (2007) The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming, Zed Books, Ltd, London.

Whatmore, S. (1995) From Farming to Agribusiness: Global Agrifood Networks. In Watts, M. and Johnston, R.J. (eds.), Geographies of Global Change, London: Blackwell.

Whiteside, M. (1998) Living systems: encouraging sustainable smallholders in southern Africa. London: Earthscan.


[1] Vertical integration refers to how individual TNCs coordinate and profit from activities in all spheres of exchange. There has been a strong trend for TNCs, (such as British Associated Foods, Proctor and Gamble, Nestlé, etc.), to buy out operations/firms mediating the food supply chain (Whatmore 1995).

[4]  United Nations World Food Programme 2013: http://www.wfp.org/countries/zimbabwe/overview

[5] Ted talks (2013)

Part III: Reinventing community

All projects are dependent on the participation of a group of people who, through their common practices or purpose, form a ‘community’.  Group cohesion and commonality of vision are therefore essential to the sustainability and resilience of a project. Conflicts within community are often the key cause of a project collapsing. Two particular projects in Zimbabwe that, having both run for over 10 years, demonstrated resilience also had inventive and quite radical ways of re-making community: Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust (CELUCT) in Manicaland and Kufunda Learning Village in Mashonaland. In both these projects, building vibrant and sustainable communities has become the main focus, with food and agriculture being only one element contributing to that overall sustainability.

These projects are continuously and consciously building and re-building their communities and there are three inter-connected aspects of this that I wish to highlight here.

1)    Practices of governance

Participatory practices are integral to both these communities. At Kufunda, I was fortunate to join one of their regular Monday morning community meetings. We all sat in a circle and a ‘talking stick’ was passed around the circle, with all respecting the sole right of the holder to speak (or not to speak) at that time. As the object moved around the circle, each person shared how they were feeling and what had been going on with them in the past week.   This patient process is designed to encourage active, democratic participation and honours each person’s unique talent, standpoint and contribution. After this process of ‘tuning in’, specific village tasks and issues were discussed with different issues then passed on to delegated cluster/interest groups. There was no individual leader or ‘chief’; instead all were equally invited to participate in making collective decisions.

At Chikukwa, their model of learning also follows a participatory model, having been ‘horizontal’ or ‘peer-to-peer’ since the project began. They started their own “permaculture school” in 1995, where people in the community would take it in turns to address each other on topics that they were deemed to have a particular interest in or experience with. So for example, farmers with a fruitful orchard at home were invited to talk about agroforestry. The community would then be encouraged to put into practice what they were learning, to ‘look and learn’ by visiting good examples and eventually, clusters of specialist groups formed. So the community are their own teachers and all teachers are also learners too. This is not unlike the ‘communiversity’ concept that is active at Kufunda, although there, more trainers tend to visit from elsewhere and their remit is much broader than permaculture.

In both projects, various forms of conflict have arisen. As Phineas Chikoshana from Chikukwa put it, “conflicts are everywhere. As an individual, you always have conflicts within yourself (…) and when one is not at peace with him or herself, then that person is bound to have conflicts with others as well. So it’s very important to cultivate a spirit of peace within the community.”  In 2006, in response to the emerging community conflicts, CELUCT initiated their ‘Building Constructive Community Relations’ (BCCR) program. This has since, out of a natural necessity, become a central pillar of the Chikukwa project. As time passed and new problems began to arise, (as people worked together in new ways or with new agendas), it was recognized that conflicts (always) arise and so people must know how to effectively deal with them.  Through the BCCR program, CELUCT members worked to sensitize each other to conflict resolution methods, in particular the ‘Three Circles of Knowledge’ approach (Westermann 2008), so that the community could move forward and not allow conflicts to destroy what they had achieved. As Phineas shared with me, “development needs peace [in order] to thrive” and so “we must learn how to transform conflict situations”. In other words, as an organization, CELUCT identified that one cannot avoid community conflict and so the project had to integrate these conflict management trainings into their core practice. This, I feel, is likely the key to their success in maintaining a community-led project over such a long period (22 years!).

Likewise, at Kufunda, the community has integrated several peace-building tools into their village life, including personal tools for transformation such as yoga, aikido and Warrior of the Heart practices.  Like at Chikukwa, the villagers have experienced periods of conflict and crisis but have learnt to (a) expect these as part of community life, (b) to minimise them through community practices and (c) to address them through innovative participatory communication methods. These aspects of community governance have ensured that such projects thrive and endure.

2)    Opening up subjectivities and reconfiguring power relations

As can be gleaned from the brief overview of community governance practices above, both projects stand out as sites of inventive and radical experiment in “what it means to live in community” (Knuth- Kufunda founding member). This obviously has implications for the subjectivities of those participating in such communities.  While respecting and valuing many ‘traditional’ (ancestral and gender-based) roles through, for example, gender-specific meetings, consultations and celebrations, both communities have also found ways to adjust or reform power relations to integrate and honour a spirit of democracy. This, I think, has had considerable implications for gender relations and youth subjectivities in particular. In contrast to more ‘traditional’ communities, these villages have empowered women and young people through an emphasis on participation and encouraging the individual spirit, as well as the community, to flourish.

Many of the initial and current volunteers at CELUCT, for example, are women, as this is a community with high levels of male-outmigration; men often leave to seek employment on Chimanimani’s forestry estates or in the cities.  Patience Sithole, a founding member and one of the original six volunteers, described how the project has acted as an empowering force for women, who learnt how to make their own decisions, manage and solve their problems together and create their own livelihoods through activities such as bee-keeping, jam-making and selling garden produce. The community-led nature of the project also acted to bring people together in a more democratic and constructive way, which enabled issues such as gender violence and abuse to be discussed more openly. Moreover, in the act of coming together to take collective responsibility for problems such as deforestation, soil erosion and flooding, the people also began to address other issues such as HIV/AIDS.

In both projects, youth are a central focus and are offered various leadership training programs and are invited to participate in village meetings on an equal footing with elders. They are found to be active leaders in various fields at both sites and this is celebrated and respected by those that benefit from their energy and enthusiasm. This is rather different from more traditional community dynamics where younger people are often expected to be quiet and to honour the wishes of those older than themselves.

3)    Connecting with other communities

The third characteristic of these two projects is their active and long-term connections with other communities. CELUCT is funded by various overseas donors and has received international attention in permaculture circles.  They now act as a host organisation for training workshops and also have outreach programs. They network and collaborate with other regional organisations such as TSURO and Kufunda. CELUCT host conflict resolution trainings and even ran such a workshop with Kufunda Village in 2013.

Kufunda is remarkable in Zimbabwe in the way it is shaped by contemporary emergences at the international level, such as the internet, social media, the global village concept and the transition movement. This is evident in, for example, the inception of the project through an international email invitation. International volunteers and trainers, researchers and visitors like myself, as well as youth trainees, also regularly pitch up and participate, becoming an ephemeral part of the local Kufunda community. Moreover, through social networking sites such as Facebook, such participants are able to maintain an emotional and discursive connection to and involvement with the village. In fact, most of the material donations that fund the youth program and other developments are generated through these online and trans-local connections. Kufunda is thus actively participating in global networks and mobilisations, whilst simultaneously it is embedded in a unique context and constellation of villagers.  In communion and connection with other communities in disparate geographical locations, Kufunda receives not only funding and in kind trainings from outsiders, but is also exposed to alternative configurations of power in community, and to wide networks of ‘emotional’ support. This, I suggest, enhances the resilience of the project, which is highly conscious of its own significance and is able to learn from further afield. However, the dependence on outside sources of funding is a risk, common to most of the other projects in Zimbabwe and must be addressed.

To conclude, the longevity or sustainability of these two particular projects, I would argue, is deeply connected to their innovative and holistic approaches to community-building. Both projects are attentive to local conditions and traditions while remaining open to cosmopolitan influences.  As such, I found that at these sites, people conveyed a broader outlook and sense of interconnectedness, were fluent in global environmental concerns (eg. climate change) and also had a more radical sense of social justice. Moreover, at both Chikukwa and Kufunda, there is close attention and responsiveness to the dynamics of local community, whilst they remain open to (and expectant of) change.  Finally, both projects communicated a sense of responsibility to share their experiences and we must thank them, as there is much we can all learn from them about resilient and inspirational ‘re-inventions of community’.

References and key readings, Part III

Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Hocdé, HJ. E. Vázquez, E. Holt-Gimenez and AR. Brown (2000) Towards a social movement of farmer innovation: campesino a campesino. ILEIA Newsletter, July, 26-27.

Holt-Gimenez, E. (2006) Campesino a campesino: voices from Latin America’s farmer-to-farmer movement for sustainable agriculture. Oakland, CA: Food First Books.

Kinpaisby, M. (2008) Taking stock of participatory geographies: envisioning the communiversity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 33: 292–299.

Mukute, M. (2009) Cultural Historical Activity Theory, expansive learning and agency in permaculture workplaces. Southern African Journal of Environmental Education 26, 150-166.

Murwira, K., H. Wedgewood, C. Watson, EJ Win, and C. Tawney (2000) Beating hunger, the Chivi experience: a community-based approach to food security in Zimbabwe. Intermediate techbology Publications, London.

Njovana, E., & Watts, C. (1996). Gender violence in Zimbabwe: a need for collaborative action. Reproductive health matters, 4(7), 46-55.

Søndergård, B., Hansen, E. O., Holm, J., & Kerndrup, S. (2004). Creation and sharing of environmental knowledge across communities and networks. Aalborg Universitet.

Uphoff, N. (2002) Agroecological innovations: increasing food production with participatory development. London: Earthscan.

Westermann, E. (2008) The three circles of knowledge: how to build constructive community relations by understanding conflicts in rural African communities. Tien Wah Press: CELUCT.

Wheatley, M., & Frieze, D. (2011). Walk out walk on: A learning journey into communities daring to live the future now. Berrett-Koehler Store.

Wolf, P. R., & Rickard, J. A. (2003). Talking circles: A Native American approach to experiential learning. Journal of multicultural counseling and development, 31(1), 39-43.

Woolcock, M., & Narayan, D. (2000). Social capital: Implications for development theory, research, and policy. The world bank research observer, 15(2), 225-249.

 

Part IV: Eco-social imaginations and transformations

Here, I draw a connection between imaginations, ethics and practices in sustainable food projects.  An interesting dimension to the projects I visited in Zimbabwe is their different ways of thinking about and working with the eco-social world. By ‘eco-social’, I draw attention to the inseparability of the ecological and the social, or natural and cultural worlds, which have become largely separated in modern modes of thought. This term draws attention to relations involving humans and nonhumans. I found that different people and projects have different ways of imagining ecosocial relations, making a difference to the depth and breadth of their approaches to sustainability.

More conventional approaches to agriculture are generally guided by an imagined separation between society and environment, human and nonhuman worlds. They have technocratic, managerial or possibly ‘stewardship’ orientations towards working with the environment and often imagine a relation of control, domestication or guardianship of nature. More sustainable models of agriculture, on the other hand, often have a more ecological, holistic or integrated view. These approaches are more likely to imagine humans and nonhumans (of all forms) as part of an interconnected and complex web of life, where the interactions and relationships between different actors are central; (note that nonhumans are considered as active participants in these relations).  These different imaginations affect the kind of ethics that shape these projects, both in terms of the way that inter-relations and dependencies are understood, as well as the kinds of obligations and commitments that arise. These different ways of imagining eco-social relations and ethics are pivotal to how people behave and the practices that they enrol in food production; essentially, they affect the material transformations that can take place. In this way, ‘ethics’ are inseparable from ‘ethos’ (our everyday practical actions and ways of being).

I focus here on the community projects based on permaculture practices and principles.  Permaculture is ‘a global movement with many local actualisations. Its motto is ‘care of earth, care of people, return of the surplus’.  Generally speaking, it promotes ecological living (urban and rural), local food production, development of alternative energies and radical democratic forms of organisation: ‘Permaculture is about creating sustainable human habitats by following nature’s patterns’ (Burnett 2008, 8)’ (in Puig de la Bellacasa 2010, 151-152).  Permaculture tends to foster an imagination of mutually dependent and integrated eco-social relations, whereby humans are positioned as participants in a system where other parts of that system (animals, plants, waterways, etc) also have significant rights and roles to play.  Humans are seen less as managers and more as co-workers, with a vision of generating a system of health and abundance from which all (humans and nonhumans) benefit. By giving back the surplus, or creating a self-feeding system, there is no waste and no need for ‘external’ or non-renewable inputs.

At Kufunda Village, the community developed a holistic way of managing what is usually considered human waste, to instead ‘returning the surplus’ and thereby performing a key permaculture principle.   As a rural project, there is no sewerage or mains water system here. Unlike most other rural communities in Zimbabwe (where unproductive ‘long-drop’ loos and, in some places, open defecation, are the norm), at Kufunda, they recycle human waste (or ‘humanure’) using composting toilets. There are two types of composting loos at Kufunda. One is the ‘arborloo’, where a mobile upper loo is put above a pit, and moved on once the pit is three-quarters full. Topsoil is added and a tree is then planted in the pit. The other type is the twin composting loo, which cycles the process of decomposition and compost production over a period of about two years. Two pits are made inside a permanent outer structure.  Once the first pit is full, it is covered with a concrete slab and the other pit is then utilised. After about a year, the excrement in the first pit has decomposed into a safe compost and it can be emptied and used as an organic fertiliser. The cycle continues as the second pit fills. In both of these types of toilet, one puts a few cups of leaves, ash and soil into the loo after use and this helps to ward off evil smells and cover the deposit, as well as aiding the production of a fertile, well-structured compost.   In this way, human energy ‘outflow’ is transformed into a valuable input to the agro-ecological system; waste is transformed into non-waste, at no cost.

At the PORET Trust in Chaseyama, another key practice of permaculture is performed; that of encouraging ground cover.  Instead of sweeping the yard bare and burning the grasses in surrounding woodlands, the Piti family put mulch around their crops and encourage year-round ground cover.  This facilitates the infiltration of rainwater and reduces surface runoff, evaporation and soil erosion. It is therefore of benefit to the trees and plants growing here, which in turn, benefit the Piti family in the form of food and shade.  But the explanations I received for this practice (which is unconventional here), were not narrowly utilitarian and human-centered.  Piti referred to enabling a healthy habitat for wildlife, including birds, bees, butterflies, worms and such, and to helping restore the underground water catchment.  These aspects then have great benefits for human inhabitants too; there is no easy division between human and nonhuman when it comes to ‘who benefits’. The ideal is for healthy relationships to lead to an eco-social system where all should thrive and have life in abundance. Here we can clearly see the permaculture principles of ‘care of earth, care of people and return of the surplus’ being performed.

Through the Chaseyama Permaculture Club, the PORET Trust fosters community-based learning and sharing of knowledge about permaculture techniques. The idea is to facilitate the expansion of the above kind of eco-social system, to encompass and benefit an entire watershed.  This is an ambitious project, where not everybody will opt in to these unconventional practices. However, the eco-social imagination and some of the ‘care of people, care of earth’ principles are not far adrift from older, traditional notions of ubuntu[1]. For example, social giving to those in need, community sharing practices and respect for and minimal intervention in ‘nature’ are often explained as indigenous practices that ‘the ancestors’ favoured. Whether this is true or imagined, the explanation encourages people to easily adopt (some) permaculture practices as ‘traditional’ rather than viewing them as a ‘western’.

A related and important aspect of permaculture, which has been commented upon elsewhere, is its situated or grounded approach. That is, all the principles, practices and techniques of permaculture are framed by a primary allegiance to the embedded locality; that is, where you are changes how you ‘perform’ permaculture.  This makes it a very flexible and context-dependent way of working.  Broadly speaking, it fosters an eco-social imagination that brings together humans and their nonhuman co-habitors and co-workers as a union.  The goal is not just sustainability or resilience, but abundance, balance and thriving of all lifeforms. Where this abundance is emerging, at sites like Chikukwa, Chaseyama, Zvishavane, Dimbangombe and Kufunda, there is then a strong chance that these projects can be sustainable in a deeply holistic sense, as when many forms of life benefit, these are all incentivised to participate, endure and ultimately thrive.

References and key readings, Part IV

Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous: Language in a more-than-human world. NY: Pantheon Books.

Altieri, M A. (1995) Agroecology: the science of sustainable agriculture. Boulder CO: Westview Press.

Altieri, M.A. (2004) Linking ecologists and traditional farmers in the search for sustainable agriculture. Frontiers in ecology and the environment, 2, 35-42.

Bell, G. (2004) The Permaculture Way: Practical Steps To Create a Self-Sustaining World, Hampshire: Permanent Publications.

Braun, B. and Castree, N. (eds.) (2001) Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Burnett, G (2008) Permaculture. A Beginner’s Guide. Westcliff on Sea: Spiralseed.

Devenan, W.M. (1995) Prehistoric agricultural methods as models for sustainability. Advanced Plant Pathology 11, 21-43.

Dewalt, B.R. (1994) Using indigenous knowledge to improve agriculture and natural resource management. Human Organisation 52(2), 123-131.

Donati, K., Cleary, S., & Pike, L. (2009) Bodies, bugs and dirt: Sustainability re-imagined in community gardens, In: Lawrence G, Lyons K, Wallington T, eds.

Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainability: New Chal-lenges, Future Options

. London, UK: Earthscan; 2009:207-222

In: Lawrence G, Lyons K, Wallington T, eds.

Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainability: New Chal-lenges, Future Options

. London, UK: Earthscan; 2009:207-222

in Lawrence, G., Lyons, K., & Wallington, T. (eds). Food security, nutrition and sustainability. London: Earthscan, pp. 207-222.

Esposito, R. (2008) Bios: biopolitics and philosophy. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Glanzberg, J. (1999) Permaculture as a Way of Seeing and Acting. In Cajete, G. (ed.) A people’s ecology: explorations in sustainable living. Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, pp.225-242.

Holgrem, D. (2002) Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Hepburn: Holgrem Design Services.

Koohafkan, P. and M.A. Altieri (2010) Globally important agricultural heritage systems: a legacy for the future. Rome: UN-FAO.

McNeely, J.A. and S.J. Schlerr (2003) Ecoagriculture. Washington DC: Island Press.

Merchant, C. (2005). Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. London: Routledge

Merchant, C. (2013). Reinventing Eden: The fate of nature in Western culture. Routledge.

Mollison, B. (1988). Permaculture: a designer’s manual. Permaculture: a designer’s manual. Tagari: Tyalgum, Australia

Peacock, Laurel. “Inventing Nature: Re-writing Time and Agency in a More-than-Human World.” (2009).

Puig de la Casa, M (2010) Ethical doings in naturecultures. Ethics, Place & Environment 13:2, 151-169

Sanchez PA. and MS. Swaminathan (2005) Hunger in Africa: the link between unhealthy people and unhealthy soils. The Lancet 365, 442-444.

Whatmore, S. (2006) Materialist returns: practising cultural geographies in and for a more-than-human world. Cultural Geographies, 13(4): 600-610.

Worster D. (1993) The wealth of nature: environmental history and the ecological imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

 

 

 


[1] Ubuntu is an Nguni Bantu term roughly translating to “human kindness”, used in Southern Africa (South Africa and Zimbabwe), it has come to be used as a term for a kind of humanist philosophy, ethic or ideology, also known as Ubuntuism.

Kufunda is a living, learning village and hosting centre located approximately 40km from Harare. It began as one woman’s personal vision and became a material and collective process of community-building. It is an active residential community that hosts training courses in youth leadership, permaculture, and other sustainable living themes.

Initiator, Marianne Knuth, hails from Zimbabwe but with Danish family on her father’s side, spent many years undertaking her formal education in Denmark. As a student, she was deeply involved with establishing Pioneers for Change. Shaped by living ‘between worlds’ and inspired by collective gatherings of people motivated to create a more sustainable world, Marianne shared her vision of Kufunda with her family in Zimbabwe and negotiated to utilise part of the family farm in Ruwa to begin the task of materialising this vision. She sent a ‘call’ out, by email, to all friends and contacts, communicating her idea for co-creating what has become a “communiversity” and inviting kindred spirits to join her.

Kufunda thus started as a group of 20 or so volunteers, with much emotional and physical support from the Knuth family. Supported by their own vivacious energy and passion, and donations from overseas friends, they began in 2001 by building eco-logical buildings that would form the physical structure of the hosting centre. Diving in with open hearts, Kufunda recruited and hosted their first youth leadership training in 2002.

The centre practices and offers workshops and training in permaculture, herbal medicine, sustainable technologies and leadership skills. Integrated into this, are regular yoga, aikido and other holistic therapies, community development activities and ‘art of hosting’ events. There is now a whole village complex of thatched dormitories and rondovals, A-frame houses, a communal dining room and kitchen, pre-school, classroom, bomas, herb lab and gardens, nestled amidst verdant forests and fields. In summer, you’ll find an uncanny array of wild mushrooms sprouting up from the carpet of dense leaves and rich humus beneath the trees. Cutting down trees for firewood is not allowed here and the ground is not swept bare of all life, for fear of snakes, as in most Zimbabwean homesteads.

The core community comprises of about 15 resident families, who either began as founders or joined after participating in a Kufunda youth program. Different tasks and roles are delegated among the community depending on skill base and interest. There are cluster groups, such as the technology/energy group, the herb team, the permaculture team, and the youth team. There are also paid cooks and pre-school teachers, for working with the resident children and the visiting youth.

The community have a meeting every Monday morning, where a participatory communication and learning model is followed. The group passes an object around their circle gathering, and all respect the sole right of the holder to speak (or not speak) at that time. As the object moves around the circle, each person shares how they are feeling and what has been going on with them in the past week. This patient process is designed to encourage active, democratic participation and the honouring of each person’s unique talent, standpoint and contribution. After this process of ‘tuning in’, tasks and issues are discussed. The cluster groups also have similar, more focussed meetings on a regular basis to plan and deal with their special responsibilities.

A wonderful and pioneering aspect of this community is their human waste management! Early on in its development, the community had to grapple with these ‘toilet’ issues. As a rural project, there is no sewerage or mains water system here. Unlike most other rural communities in Zimbabwe (where unproductive ‘long-drop’ loos and, in some places, open defecation, are the norm), at Kufunda, they recycle human waste (or ‘humanure’) using composting toilets. There are two types of composting loos at Kufunda. One is the ‘arborloo’, where a mobile upper loo is put above a pit, and moved on once the pit is three-quarters full. Topsoil is added and a tree is then planted in the pit. The other type is the twin composting loo, which cycles the process of decomposition and compost production over a period of about two years. Two pits are made inside a permanent outer structure. Once the first pit is full, it is covered with a concrete slab and the other pit is then utilised. After about a year, the excrement in the first pit has decomposed into a safe compost and it can be emptied and used as an organic fertiliser. The cycle continues as the second pit fills. In both of these types of toilet, one puts a few cups of leaves, ash and soil into the loo after use and this helps to ward off evil smells and cover the deposit, as well as aiding the production of a fertile, well-structured compost. In this way, human energy ‘outflow’ is transformed into a valuable input to the agro-ecological system; waste is transformed into non-waste, at no cost.

The village has existed for over 10 years and it has been a changing and challenging journey so far. As with all projects that are embedded in community- indeed, as with anything that involves people working together- conflicts of interest and divergences in opinion have arisen many times. A key challenge has been for individuals to develop full a sense of collective ownership and responsibility. Particularly when times are tough, it has been difficult for some residents to come to terms with the challenges of joining a volunteerist and collective enterprise, given that most of the time, people are living without a salary/income. In hard times, it is all too easy to question one’s own past decisions and current options, or to look to displace responsibility onto someone else, a presumed ‘leader’. But at Kufunda, the goal has been to consciously distribute and collectivize leadership and responsibility at the whole community level. This is a courageous and inspiring model of community living, not without its challenges.

But ultimately, Kufunda is a place of hope. Having first visited in 2011, I have since returned five times and each time, I come away with a sense that despite existing in a context where economic hardship, political unrest and environmental degradation are rampant, another world is possible and is in action here. This is a community that constantly seeks to be together in a way that nurtures and values each individual, while at the same time working to appreciate and sustain ecological life.

Although deeply grounded in a local, place-bound community, this project is very much shaped by contemporary emergences at the international level, such as the internet, social media, the global village concept and the transition movement. This is evident in, for example, the inception of the project through an international email invitation. International volunteers and trainers, researchers and visitors like myself, as well as youth trainees, regularly pitch up and participate, becoming an ephemeral part of the local Kufunda community. Moreover, through social networking sites such as Facebook, such participants are able to maintain an emotional and discursive connection to and involvement with the village. In fact, most of the material donations that fund the youth program and other developments are generated through these online and trans-local connections. Kufunda is thus actively participating in global networks and mobilisations, whilst simultaneously embedded in a unique context and constellation of villagers. In communion and connection with other communities in disparate geographical locations, the village actively experiments with building a more compassionate community, positively transforming relationships and thus creating more holistic, healthy and sustainable socio-ecology. In pursuing this agenda, Kufunda eschews any sense of completion and is instead an exciting place of promise, consciously unfurling like a spiral.

Other resources:

http://kufunda.org/

http://kufunda.org/author/kufunda/

Wheatley, M., & Frieze, D. (2011). Walk out walk on: A learning journey into communities daring to live the future now. Berrett-Koehler Store.

Watch a Kufunda video introduction here!