Politics of Poverty

Agroecology as an organizing principle

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Oxfam staff and partners met last month with farmers in Cambodia who are using the system of rice intensification. Photo: Gawain Kripke / Oxfam

Wrestling with agriculture in a heterogeneous world

Wrestling with agriculture in a heterogeneous world

What I knew or had heard about agroecology was pretty jumbled and a bit vague. So I spent a couple of days learning what agroecology really means from colleagues and experts, and also thinking about how an organization like Oxfam can approach this idea.

I came a away with a rough idea that agroecological approaches are characterized by:

  • making maximal use of indigenous knowledge, techniques, nutrients, biomass, and localized resources;
  • minimizing loss of soil nutrients and orient towards close-loop systems;
  • improving and restoring soil conditions, coverage, increasing soil organic matter and nutrients;
  • understanding and promoting biodiversity, and biological interactions and synergies; and
  • seeking to align agricultural production strategies to take advantage – and facilitate – these for purposes like pest management, weed control, waste management.

In addition, agroecology can be thought of as a scientific or analytical approach, or a set of agronomic practices and strategies. Agroecology has also taken on cultural and political dimensions, and has been embraced by some social movements in countries like Brazil and internationally, e.g. La Via Campesina.

With all these ways to describe agroecology, I still have a hard time defining it.  This is, perhaps, inherent to an approach which is rigorously context-specific. Paying so much attention to local conditions, local ecology, and local cultural and social institutions leads inevitably to diversity and variability. This diversity and variability can make it conceptually complex and hard to operationalize, much less take to scale. This can make it hard also to measure rigorously – both inputs, outputs, and impacts.

For an organization like Oxfam, agroecology has a lot of attractive features.  In particular, the validation of farmer initiative, localized knowledge and learning, and the prospect of improving livelihood resilience are very appealing.  The possibility of reducing some forms of risks – for example from input price volatility – is important.

Without taking formal or centralized decision, Oxfam has embraced agroecological approaches in many programs and places.  For example:

However, as I learned more about agroecology, I had to wince from time to time. It’s pretty clear to me that a lot of Oxfam’s existing and legacy program – including my own work – might contradict agroecological principles, at least in their purest form.  For example, I spent years championing the cause of African cotton producers.  This was good and important work.  But it would hard to describe the agriculture practices by these farmers as agroecology.  Oxfam has supported initiatives to develop organic cotton production.  But even that would be a far cry from agroecology as I understand it.  Other work that I’ve been involved in on shrimp, coffee, sugar, maize, chocolate – really anything engaging in value-chains (especially for export markets) is at best unrelated, and at worst contradictory to agroecological approaches.  I’d be happy to be shown that I’m wrong.  But I’m concerned that embracing agroecology would necessarily mean abandoning important efforts to help farmers get more power and benefits from markets.

SRI rice ready for harvest in Cambodia. Photo: Gawain Kripke / Oxfam

For me, agroecology is a field still evolving and emerging.  Agroecological practices have been around for thousands of years, and the field of agroecology study and strategy has been developing for decades.  And yet, it’s still in it’s infancy.  Certainly ecological studies are evolving and we know a lot more about how natural systems work today than we did 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago.  Remember when contour plowing was a new and important idea?  Remember when no-till farming was a new idea?

At it’s core, agroecology has a simple compelling insight.  There are huge advantages and benefits to aligning agricultural practices and strategies with natural systems and with traditional knowledge.  Among the potential benefits is higher productivity (land), lower input costs, reduced environmental costs and externalities, and social harmony.  Among the potential risks, however, are higher labor demands, lower productivity (especially labor productivity), and economic stagnation.

For me, it’s pretty clear that agroecology is something that Oxfam should take on board.  The potential to reduce agricultural risk and dependence on uncontrollable variables is important.  Agroecological approaches could be particularly important for farmers in specific situations: farmers who face serious risks of input access and volatility; farmers who are remote from markets and infrastructure; and farmers facing marginal or deteriorating growing conditions.

But I should say that I don’t think Oxfam could or should adopt agroecology to the exclusion of other approaches – at least not at this stage in Oxfam’s development and at this state in agroecology’s development.  It’s not clear to me that agroecology offers much support in the struggles that many producers face in claiming larger market shares and larger shares of value in markets.  This has been a central concern for Oxfam and something I think we have made some progress on.  Likewise, some important questions and information gaps remain about how agroecological approaches work out; in gender impacts for example, and longer-term viability.  Can agroecological approaches co-exist with in landscapes with more conventional agricultural approaches?

Lastly, while it’s right to be skeptical of simplistic or silver-bullet solutions it’s also true that the diversity and complexity of agroecological approaches is a big challenge – not just to Oxfam, but also for farmers themselves.  If simple solutions are often stupid, complex solutions can be unworkable.  Finding a happy medium seems to be the challenge.


Note: Thanks especially to Oxfam colleagues Stephane Parmentier of Oxfam-Solidarity for his excellent background discussion pape, “Scaling-up agro-ecological approaches: What, why and how?” and to Gina Castillo for providing useful insight and background.

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