THE BLOG

A Small Village in Mali Is Farming Toward a Viable Food Future

05/02/2015 08:39 EDT | Updated 05/02/2016 05:12 EDT
Faris Ahmed

By Faris Ahmed

In a far flung village called Sélingué in Mali, near the Guinean border, something of great global significance happened recently.

It's not related to Ebola, ethnic conflict, or natural disasters. It's a good news story -- and good news stories don't seem to travel very far from this region. Sélingué recently hosted the International Forum on Agroecology which attracted more than 300 people from 45 countries.

Sélingué has a name far bigger than its size, for those who follow global agriculture and food issues. There in 2007, more than 500 food movement leaders gathered at the landmark Nyéléni conference to coin the "six pillars of food sovereignty." They gave name to the idea that farmers can and should make choices, grow their own food and work with their communities and ecosystems to feed their families, and sustain their food systems for generations to come.

Eight years later -- in February 2015 -- hundreds of farmers, pastoralists, fishers, agricultural workers and food movement leaders came back to the same place to put forward a bold new vision for agroecology -- a vast body of science and knowledge that for them, holds answers to the major problems facing the world's food system, among them persistent and growing rates of hunger and malnutrition, a huge ecological footprint, alarming climate change, and the increasing disenfranchisement of farmers.

One of those farmers is Fanta Traoré, from the village of Sorokoro near Mali's capital, Bamako. Fanta grows sorghum, millet and niébé for her family and for the local market. Every season, she "test plants" a range of her crop varieties in her field, and decides what to select, based on which ones perform best under which conditions. She knows about climate change from firsthand experience: the Sahel region is one of the most vulnerable to erratic rainfall patterns, changing growing seasons, and harsh droughts. Generations of farmers have had to dig deep into their experience and creativity to find ways to adapt.

Agroecology is a way of life for farmers like Fanta. They use their ingenuity and time-tested knowledge to work with ecosystems, soils, seeds, water, and biodiversity, while producing food for communities and sustaining farm families on the land. Crop rotation and diversification, integrating animals, crops and trees, recycling and composting nutrients, natural insect and weed control, and water conservation are among the many techniques farmers use to build natural resilience in their food system.

Yet while agroecology holds much promise and is spreading around the world, it has many challenges. Those who prefer the linear, industrial model of agriculture claim that this way of farming may be good at a very local level, but it can never feed the world. Agroecology can feed the world -- and it already does. In 2012, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 500 million small farms in the developing world provide livelihood to two billion people and produce 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. For millions of these small farmers, peasants and indigenous peoples around the world, agroecology is what feeds them, and provides them with a range of ecological, social and economic benefits.

Other critics dismiss this vast body of science as primitive, rather than modern. In fact, the rainbow of practices within agroecology, applied differently to each ecological and social context, are a tremendous source of innovation. Leading edge research in agriculture today comes from the agroecological practices of small farmers. In addition, valuing farmer knowledge helps them retain control over their natural resources, seeds and lands.

These are among the many questions addressed by the Declaration from the Agroecology Forum. For Fanta and members of the Dunka Fa Cooperative -- supported by USC Canada partner organization Cab Demeso -- the Forum was an opportunity to share knowledge and seeds. It was also a moment of pride -- to be part of a bigger movement that is changing how we grow our food.

The ideas that Fanta and others planted in Sélingué didn't make headlines, but will undoubtedly deepen our understanding, influence food movements, researchers, and policy makers across the globe for the years to come. A basket of ideas and hope, to be harvested around the world by future generations.

Faris Ahmed isUSC Canada's Policy Director.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC or its members

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