Day 9 was simultaneously the worst day and perhaps the best day of my trip to Bolivia. How is that so? We began our day at a dairy and then skipped lunch to hurry to Agroecología Universidad Cochabamba (AGRUCO) for a several hours long presentation that I mostly skipped because it gave me a migraine. By the time we made it to dinner at a traditional "Cochabambino" (Cochabamba-style) restaurant that served nothing vegetarian except french fries where I ate almost nothing and watched the guy across from me eat an entire guinea pig, I was cranky, hungry, and in a lot of pain.
On the other hand, I could tell almost immediately that AGRUCO is AMAZING. What an exciting organization to meet up with and to learn about. And - what's better - today was just the prelude because tomorrow AGRUCO was taking us to meet a Quechua indigenous community they work with. For me, AGRUCO is where ideas I've only read about in textbooks come to life. Since it's a long presentation, I've broken it up into more than one post.
What follows is more or less a word for word translation of the presentation AGRUCO gave, with a few parts left out if I felt they were irrelevant or uninteresting.
The first presenter gave us the following introduction:
AGRUCO was founded in 1985. It began in the agronomy department with an agrobiology project with ecological technology transfer from Switzerland to Bolivia. They were the first such project in the Cochabamba area. Their first work was with vegetable crops. They were still a very small project, doing an analysis of whether or not campesinos in this region need this kind of support. They realized there were poor populations in Cochabamba that really did need this kind of support. So they did a diagnosis of the kind of problems campesinos faced and what kind of technical support they needed. From that first site, which was about 2000-2300 meters in altitude in the valley region of Bolivia, they moved up into high altitude communities, all the way to the border of Cochabamba and Oruro, where there was an altitude of 4000m. They were working with smallholder agriculture. During this first period, mostly agronomists worked on the project. They were working with potatoes, tubers, Andean roots, Andean grains, and forages.
To gain access to communities, they had to bring something. When you go to a community in Bolivia to work with them, the first question is "What did you bring us?" So they began by providing an organic fertilizer. They would talk to the people about problems with their soil and then would provide soil amendments made from cow horns. They got the cow horns from slaughterhouses and then they mixed them with chicken litter, ashes, and other materials to produce the fertilizer. This got them into the communities they hoped to work with. They also studied a phosphoric rock found locally as a potential alternative fertilizer.
They realized working with these communities, they worked in the harshest conditions, but they were maintaining massive varieties of crops. The began working to conserve and increase the biodiversity of crops, such as potatoes. In this way, they have been able to help support production, increase production, and even disperse varieties among the communities where they work. They began to work with students to study agriculture in the area, and they also began including students and faculty from areas outside of agronomy (sociology, economy, accounting, communications). That helped grow the program and provide it a more holistic approach. An interesting note about their work is that they changed the name from "Extension" (i.e. agricultural extension services) to "Social Interaction."
Recovering Traditional and Local Knowledge
The next presenter, who studied agroecology in Cordoba, Spain, told us he would tell us about their work recovering traditional and local knowledge.
Over the last 25 years, AGRUCO's work can be separated into about 8 different phases. They started in the first phase that they would transfer the idea of organic agriculture from the Global North to the campesinos in Bolivia - basically teach them how to do organic agriculture. Then they were financed by the Swiss development agency and this is their philosophy of technology transfer. What they realized quickly in working with the communities is that they were already using agroecological methods and "we really had nothing to teach them." To this day, Andean farmers manage all kinds of agroecological methods in production.
They then moved into another phase, where they realized they needed to focus on recovering the local knowledge and valuing it. From there, they moved into really having a clearer idea of certain concepts, such as agroecology.
They began using the word agroecology a lot, not only referring to local production and food systems, but as a scientific discipline with various components: a technical component, a socio-cultural component, and a socio-political component. This approach is in contrast with other kinds of agriculture approaches that follow a more technical approach that's less integrated. They see that as one part of the whole. Especially in Andean agriculture in Bolivia, they see it as critical to address all of these components. This way of thinking allows them to move from seeing agriculture just as a system of production to seeing it as a development model, which they call Endogenous Development.
The technical element is pretty clear. It involves producing food sustainably. But the other two elements allow them to focus on social situations and political elements that need to be dealt with and also allows them to work on learning about and respecting local knowledge and the local worldview. They look at how local cultures see the relationship between humans and nature, which is a very particular worldview. It's very different from the Western worldview.
This is their current goal - to contribute to well being, to the idea of living well (Vivir Bien) through education, research, extension, endogenous development that values local knowledge and the local spirituality of the people.
Living Well is different than the idea of Living Better. Living Well is a development paradigm proposed by the Morales government, as opposed to Living Better. This vision of Living Well has to do with the Andean worldview. Living Well doesn't have to do just with living better as humans, but living well among all the plants and animals in nature. It has to do with living in harmony not just with plants, and animals, and life, but with inanimate beings, like mountains, which have a life in the Andean cosmovision. This idea put forward by the government as a paradigm, AGRUCO is trying to adopt it and contribute to it. AGRUCO's overarching policy is advancing Living Well through education, food production, innovation, and an alternative development that comes from the grassroots and from the campesinos.
In their extension work, they work with both Aymara and Quechua communities, recovering local knowledge and agroecological practices. They've discovered some really interesting techniques. There's also a nearby valley where they work with 4 Quechua communities. We went there with AGRUCO the next day. There, they focus especially on agroecological vegetable production. They work mostly in the Andes but they are also working with other indigenous groups in the lowlands of Bolivia. One of their projects focuses on saving local varieties and agrobiodiversity.
Their methodology focuses on the idea of a dialogue between knowledges. The dialogue is between scientific knowledge and non-scientific or local knowledge. To do this, you need to recognize that there is more than one single way of generating knowledge and scientific understanding. There are other ways to generate science, such as the traditional ways the local communities do it. They see this as a type of "cross-pollination" between academic and indigenous communities, to build new understanding through dialogue. Then they try to apply all of the results that come out of the dialogue.
They've developed a unique methodology for how to work with the campesino communities, both for research and for extension. This focus on 3 different elements: material life, social life, and spiritual life. Therefore, they have people from different disciplines (agronomists, sociologists, economists, political economists) allows them to take a more integrated point of view. An agronomist might only be interested in the material part of production but having other kinds of disciplines helps diversify the focus. Especially in the Andes it is important to take into consideration spiritual life. They have to respect the spiritual customs, practices, beliefs, because that's how the indigenous will relate to agriculture. If AGRUCO doesn't understand the spiritual life of the people, then they won't understand how the indigenous relate to the material world either.
From this focus they have developed a methodology of participatory "revaluing local knowledge" research. "Participatory research" can mean a lot of different things in Latin America. In addition to just participatory research, they add the word "revaluing" to differentiate themselves from other practices.
They do a lot of qualitative research, complemented by quantitative research. They prioritize qualitative over quantitative research. That means they look at social interaction, interviewing research, reviewing how they interact, over and above looking at the numbers (econometrics, soil analyses, etc). In order to understand the spiritual life of campesinos, it's necessary to have this qualitative research. However, it always falls into the risk of having too much subjectivity and seeming to not have enough scientific rigor.
He then showed a list of the qualitative methods they use, including: Semi-structured interviews, participatory observation, discussion groups, open-ended interviews, and case studies.
Their research program is very complicated but interesting. Using this research approach, they have programs, projects, and sub-projects. The three parts they look at (material, social, and spiritual) relate to three different programs. For example, they have one project that is agroecology, food security, and food sovereignty. Another project is biodiversity. Others are state policies; territorial management and autonomies; plural diverse economies; new paradigms of science; and alternative development. When a researcher at AGRUCO wants to carry out research, it must fall into one of those categories. Therefore, an agronomist might propose a project on Andean agrobiodiversity under the agroecology category, whereas an economist might look at the plural economies project. But if someone wanted to do research using GMOs or agrochemicals, they could not do it because it wouldn't fall in any of their project categories.
After the presentation, I asked for reading recommendations. Here is what they recommended:
1. Agroecology and Sustainable Peasant Agriculture in the Andes by Nelson Tapia Ponce (in Spanish)
2. Si Estamos de Buen Corazon, Siempre Hay Produccion by Stephen Rist (in Spanish)
3. Gobernabilidad social de las áreas protegidas y biodiversidad en Bolivia y Latinoamerica by Freddy Delgado B. and Juan Carlos Mariscal C.
4. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems by Stephen R. Gliessman (in English)