Is there something distinctive about an agroecological approach to training and learning? How is learning a part of the struggle for food sovereignty, or other social movements for social justice and sustainability? What examples are there of this in Europe? And how can these projects be supported and developed?

An open access (free to download) article written by researchers at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience that addresses these questions has just been published:

Anderson, C. R., Maughan, C., & Pimbert, M. P. (2018). Transformative agroecology learning in Europe: building consciousness, skills and collective capacity for food sovereignty. Agriculture and Human Values.https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-018-9894-0

This article is a part of a special issue on learning and education in food movements.

We carried out the research with The European Coordination Via Campesina (ECVC) and involved identifying and interviewing organisations and people already engaged in some form of agroecological training and learning. This research involved accompanying and helping to create the European Agroecology Knowledge Exchange Network (EAKEN). After first mapping agroecology learning initiatives (see here and here), EAKEN has recently begun to programme a series of knowledge exchange events and the sharing of resources through its online platform.

The article documents both the collaborative process of forming the network and presents and analyses the content of the interviews.

We propose a framework (see Figure 1 for summary diagram) for thinking about a transformative agroecology learning as a part of social movement strategies for food sovereignty. This transformational approach consisted of four main interrelated approaches, detailed below.

Figure 1 – Transformative agroecology framework involves a pedagogical approach that always has practice as a central part, but also relies on four pillars (orange segments) to offer the ‘connective tissue’ to the political project of food sovereignty (yellow circle).

Pillar 1 – Dialogo de Saberes (wisdom dialogues)

The growing success of rural social movements, and particularly La Via Campesina, has been in part attributed to the ability to foster a diálogo de saberes (translated roughly as: dialogue between ways of knowing). In our European research, participants emphasized  these dialogues across three dimensions: Amongst food producers with different positioning and perspectives; Between food producers and other actors in the food system (especially food consumers); Between food producers and formal education and research institutions. See Inset Box 1.

Inset Box 1 – Judith Hitchman, [President of URGENCI] described the potential of extending agroecology learning to work across the farmer-consumer divide, focusing particularly on political education, as a part of a process of building a wider social movement: “The 2 million people [producers and consumers] in URGENCI all have passive knowledge. The average producer feeds 40 families so you can work out from 2 million people how many producers that is. But the issue is that a great many people have non-political motivation – they find it’s very fresh, very high quality it’s organic, irrespective of whether it’s certified or not. The issue is to bring the political knowledge to grassroots to both producers and consumers – as I said a moment ago they have passive knowledge…What concerns me is how to politicize the cross-cutting grassroots level.” (Photo: Urgenci

Pillar 2 – Horizontal Learning Approaches

Horizontal Learning is a central concept within popular education, and involves democratic communication for non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian relationships of learning and exchange. Horizontalism can be contrasted to what Paulo Freire called a ‘banking’ style of education where a teacher deposits expert knowledge into “deficient students”. Many interviewees acknowledged that all people can think critically, act strategically, and offer knowledge. Interviewees promoted horizontal learning experiences as:

  1. producing more effective and durable learning outcomes than top-down knowledge transfer approaches to extension.
  2. fostering confidence in participants, emphasising that everyone has experience and knowledge to give in any learning environment (i.e. as teachers)
  3. enacts democratic processes and relations that are consistent with the politics of food sovereignty itself or what could be referred to as a “Prefigurative politics”

See Inset Box 2.

Inset Box 2 – Jildou Friso [a small-scale farmer from the Netherlands] summarised it, ‘you shouldn’t just be telling people things but leading by example’. Thus, transformative agroecology learning can position learners not as the object of teaching, but rather the subjects of their own process of learning, discovery and agency, as well as participants in the joint production of collective knowledge throughout their horizontal networks. (Photo source: Colin Anderson)

Pillar 3 – Linking the Practical and the Political

Connecting learning about the practical aspects of agroecological production with the political project of food sovereignty emerged as a third key priority for EAKEN members. Through this practical-political learning, participants link localised learning activities to global discourses of food sovereignty and agroecology which provides a basis for developing critical consciousness, collective identity and participation in social movements. Further, the practical elements of agroecology was a strategic way to draw people into political learning, attracting a wider range of participants who may  not engage in such learning or collective action. See inset box 3.

Inset Box 3 – Ramona Duminicioiu [an activist and organizer from Romania], for example, pointed out that: “Agroecology training must also include the political…I come from a country where peasant farming is a way of life and it’s still very vivid in the rural area. So training on how to do agriculture is not a necessary thing. This is happening naturally in the rural communities. But what is missing, and this is what is happening in agroecology, is a more political training on how to articulate our political demands and how to act on achieving political aims.” Photo: Diana Quiroz)

Pillar 4 – Builds and Strengthens Networks

The last pillar focuses on building social movement networks. The first three pillars are largely dependent on coordinated-action made possible by local organizations and multi-scalar networks that bring people together for joint learning and action. Indeed, it is in organisations and networks that a knowledge commons is built and strengthened, and linked to the material and political project of food sovereignty. Thus, learning processes that simultaneously and intentionally strengthen social movement organisations and networks are critical. Multi-scaled networks are critical for the sharing of agroecological knowledges and pedagogy across places, building capacity for further learning. See Inset Box 4.

Inset Box 4 – Learning from Latin American social movements was important for EHNE-Bizkaia which now has one of the most extensive agroecology education programs among all the initiatives currently in EAKEN. Ana Gonzalez [a program coordinator from the Basque Country] explained, “The main strategy for EHNE-Bizkaia, and our experience with La Via Campesina has allowed us to learn from others how to do things or how to set up educational trainings which were creating a different perspective, we have received much more influence from Cuba on how to set up educational programs from the perspective of agroecology.” (Photo source: Colin Anderson. March 2017 meeting of European Agroecology Knowledge Exchange Network in the UK)

Despite the number and quality of organisations interviewed and involved in the study and that these different elements of transformative agroecology learning were present across EAKEN as a whole, they were unevenly developed. Indeed, this systematisation is one of the very purposes of the EAKEN network.

Going forward, we hope that the framework can help to strategically and reflexively systematize and strengthen a transformative agroecology learning approach as a key building block for food sovereignty. Future collaborations involving CAWR, ECVC and other collaborators will continue to develop a transformative agroecology learning approach.

Click here to download the full article and to cite this work please use:

Anderson, C.R., Maughan, C. and M. Pimbert (2019). Transformative Agroecology Learning in Europe: Building Consciousness, Skills and Collective Capacity for Food Sovereignty.Journal of Agriculture and Human Values, Open Access.

Other related resources that may be of interest:

The EAKEN Monkton Wylde statement on Agroecology Knowledge Exchange.

A short guide on Farm Hack from the European Agroecology Knowledge Exchange Network.

A short guide on, Learning as a Social Movement Strategy from the European Agroecology Knowledge Exchange Network.

A poster on Agroecology Learning and Training for Solidarity.