I love food. I enjoy visualizing how flavors and ingredients come together from everywhere and how each chef contextualizes world cuisine and makes it their own. So naturally, I experienced a little taste of paradise when I travelled to Erechim, Brazil with my Inter-American Foundation (IAF) colleagues for the 10th EcoVida Conference agricultural fair.
I was surrounded by a vibrant mix of fruits and vegetables, many of which I had never tasted. IAF grantee partners from as far away as the Dominican Republic gathered with other organizations to sample agricultural products from Brazil, such as beans and corn as well as organic honey, tea, chocolate, and the famous pinhão seeds that come from a critically endangered conifer tree in the region. However, despite its celebration of all things gastronomical, EcoVida is about more than just food. Every two years the Rede de Agroecologia EcoVida conference brings together smallholder farmers and grassroots organizations to learn from each other about sustainable cultivation.
This year the IAF supported 34 men and 20 women representing 41 organizations from 14 countries in Central and South America to attend the conference from April 21 to 23. Besides food displays, participants shared seedlings of native varietals, and the air was filled with the sound of the all-important whispering of new tips and secrets to improve and diversify one’s agricultural regimen. They also to explored topics such as participative certification, consumer-producer linkages, and the role of women and young people to promote sustainable and ecologically sound agriculture methods, or agroecology.
From the outset, it was apparent that each farmer brought their own expertise and was responsive to incorporating other knowledge and experience to apply to their home countries.
What fascinated me was how common themes surged throughout and how each of our partners’ individual voice contributed to form a larger shared discussion, which was driven home by Maria Cristina Meléndez Mendoza, a member of an NGO supported by IAF grantee partner Corambiente in Colombia. She explained how the challenges of agroecology are very similar in all countries. For example, more needs to be done to raise awareness on gender equality. Women working in agriculture are often denied land rights and therefore are not advancing in the field as much as one would hope. Other themes that transcend national boundaries include commercialization, engaging youth in agriculture, and social economic solidarity.
Meléndez’s comment resonated with me and validated the need for a mechanism to further connect agroecological producers and promote meaningful exchanges throughout Latin America. Taking the issue of women being denied land rights, a network has the power to amplify awareness and tap into other experiences and ideas for solutions. In my current role at the IAF I am helping to develop RedColaborar, a social media prototype that is proposing to do just that with our grantee partners.
Sustainable smallholder producers are a key audience of the IAF grantee network and one of the principal pilot groups with which my team and I are building the platform. Rather than utilizing an existing generic social media tool, we are working from the ground up, creating a platform step-by-step to appropriately match the needs and interests of our grantees.
During the Brazil gathering, we asked participants to list their organizations’ strengths and needs. With this information were able to map thematic areas where the organizations volunteered to provide — or requested to obtain more — support. They are now able to connect so that peer-to-peer guidance can flourish through RedColaborar. Organizations like Fundación para el Desarrollo Socioeconómico y Restauración Ambiental in El Salvador already have video tutorials available that can prove useful in addressing others’ needs in such areas as organic production and soil and water conservation.
The potential for individual perspectives to brew, simmer and take on new flavors is not something that is limited to in-person exchanges like EcoVida. By further exploring through collaboration, user validation interviews and testing to build a dynamic agroecological network, we continue to diversify our palates and savor new tastes. In this way, we can achieve nourishment of the mind as well as the stomach.