Soil that does not have a network of roots running through it is susceptible to erosion by both water and wind. However, while tree roots are usually used to illustrate hierarchies, grassroots are distinguished by the fact that they form a surface network that – applied to human networks – underlines cohesion at the basic level.
With our blog and video project Learning from the Grassroots, we want to draw attention to networks of organic or zero-budget natural farmers who don’t just see themselves as food producers but want to take into account the specific conditions of the ecosystem in which they work.
Protecting the soil is the main goal of terrestrial grassroots networks – a term coined by philosopher Bruno Latour. „Terrestrial“ literally means belonging to the territory.
The concern of the terrestrial attitude is to protect the territory in which we have ‚arrived‘ (it does not have to be the same territory in which we were born and grew up). Terrestrials feel that they belong to their territory and that they are responsible for it, instead of making it merely an extension of their ego (my territory, my ground, my nation).
It also means arriving in the here and now (of our already rather damaged world), instead of escaping into a supposedly ‚wholesome‘ past or an even more technologically advanced future. It is about recognizing the realities and giving top priority to protecting the territory from industrial exploitation (through environmental toxins, sealing of the ground, or exploitation of resources) and revitalizing the soil through microorganisms.
The antithesis of this terrestrial attitude is the neoliberal globalization movement, which is always seeking new territories for the exploitation of the Earth – or, as is visible in the plans to make Mars habitable – even of other planets.
Responding to the soil’s ‚language‘
Ecologically sensitive agriculture is a very specific, creative, and intelligent response to the ‚language‘ of the soil. The soil gives clues (such as the proliferation of certain plants) whether soil organisms are providing plants with a good supply of nutrients or not. Organic farmers recognize these signs and are therefore, in the words of Sir Albert Howard, the „most intimate interpreters“ of this soil language.
The first meaning of learning from the grassroots is therefore that we learn to read the signs of the soil.
In the context of our project, learning means responding creatively or spontaneously to specific environmental and social realities.
The encounter with the interviewee’s terrestrial network should always include a tour of the territory, if possible, together with several members of the farmer’s network.
These encounters will take place first in Austria and later in India.
With over 25% of the agricultural land farmed organically in 2019, Austria has the highest percentage of organic farmland in the EU and the third worldwide (Steinwidder and Starz 2020).
The development of the regulated organic sector in Austria has a history of more than 35 years. Austria has a strong organic farmers‘ association (Bio Austria), which has even been encouraged by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Regions, and Water Management to facilitate the implementation of organic regulations.
As Austria has a high proportion of organic farms compared to other EU countries, the Austrian government has created a positive self-image as a country of organic farms.
At the same time, it is the Austrian Ministry of Agriculture that is torpedoing a legislative proposal by the EU Commission to reduce the use of pesticides by 50% by 2030.
The suicide of hundreds of thousands of peasants in India as a result of the Green Revolution, the liberalization of the agricultural market, and increasing conflicts over water on the one hand, but on the other hand a counter-movement back to zero-budget natural, organic, or permaculture farming, often initiated by well-educated people returning to the countryside after generations of working in the cities, and a long history of social and ecological grassroots-movements are reasons why it might be worthwhile to learn from the grassroots in India.
The question of HOW we can learn from the grassroots is not predetermined. Rather, it is to be explored through the process itself.
An established practice of learning from the grassroots in India is the Gandhian ‚Shodh Yatra‘ (Sanskrit: search walk). A group of grassroots initiators who want to work together to bring about a particular social or environmental change walk through villages, often over hundreds of kilometers, for several weeks to learn from the local people about the obstacles to this change.
The confrontation with nature, the uncomfortable conditions of this journey on foot (the travelers often spend the night in the open air), and the transformative encounters with people whose problems can point the way to the desired change, also make this walk a transformation for each individual participant. Discussion and self-reflection in the walking group also sharpen the collective consciousness.
Inspired by this practice, joint walks on the farmed land and visits to neighbors are an important part of the project. These encounters are always spontaneous responses to the circumstances that are part of the walk.
Each of these encounters is unique and can point the way to further opportunities for learning from the grassroots. This collective process will be documented on the ‚Learning from the Grassroots‘ blog and in the video documentaries.
Different Ways of Learning
As mentioned earlier, learning from the grassroots can initially mean learning from organic farmers how to read the signs of the soil.
The video documentaries are about learning from grassroots networks that have already succeeded in building life-sustaining community structures.
Last but not least, we can learn from farmers in countries of the global south who face a variety of difficulties in converting to organic farming: Depleted soils, drought, the destruction of their ecosystems, the overuse of pesticides and genetically modified seeds in the wake of the Green Revolution, the loss of biodiversity, as well as neocolonial political structures in their societies, the struggle against large corporations that damage and exploit their ecosystems, and the negative impact of subsidized imports of agricultural products from the US and EU.
But learning from the grassroots also means learning to break down hierarchies. Many problems in agriculture arise from intervention ‚from above‘ (through bureaucratic requirements and guidelines). The grassroots perspective rarely plays a role in policymaking in Brussels or Delhi. Rather, the decisions imposed on farmers are often the lowest common denominator between the interests of the industrial agricultural lobby and the goal of food sovereignty of the state or association of states.
It is for this reason that platforms where people can have a change of perspective are important. Learning from the Grassroots is intended to grow over time into such a democratic grassroots network. A grassroots network that is concerned with the common protection of the Earth. A network in which all participants can learn across borders and language barriers.