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Enhancing biodiversity through the belly: Agroecology comes alive in Chile

  • Agroecology, the practice of ecological principles in farming, is coming to life in a corner of Chile through different faces and practices.
  • Like individual bees working toward a common, greater goal, practitioners of agroecology tend have a positive multiplication effect in their territory.
  • From food producers to beekeepers to chefs, these practitioners show that scaling up agroecology requires deconstructing implicit knowledge hierarchies, a disposition to learning continuously, and sharing through horizontal networks.

Consider the bee. It’s small, and while over a lifetime it can pollinate up to 5,000 flowers, that’s only enough to produce a single teaspoon of honey. But bees don’t work in isolation. As part of buzzing swarms, both wild and domesticated, they pollinate much of the food crops that humans the world over depend on.

Humans, too, work together addressing challenges — environmental, social, public health — through the lens of the global food system. Human beehives are everywhere, applying, replicating, learning, and sharing the principles of agroecology, the practice of ecological concepts in farming .

This piece focuses on three people bringing agroecological principles to life. Through their tireless contributions, they help local food systems and agrobiodiversity thrive during a critical time for humanity. They do so in a bioculturally diverse region in the southern Andes region of Chile: at school; taking care of the pollinators that make agrobiodiversity possible; and recovering native foods and educating taste.

Southern Chile, the gateway to the Patagonia region, is part of Wallmapu, the ancestral territory of the Indigenous Mapuche. Today, it’s home to a wide diversity of inhabitants. Among them is Lilian Barrientos Espinoza, 62, an agronomist and member of an agroecology demonstration center for family agriculture in Rulo, in Chile’s La Araucanía region. The center is called Mongelechi Mapu and has become a key point promoting agroecology and a source of trustworthy agrobiodiversity. For Espinoza and her colleagues, home gardens are the minimal unit for family agriculture.

Fresh foods tasting during a workshop with female peasants and children in Mongelechi Mapu in Oct. 2019. Image courtesy of Lilian Barrientos.

Espinoza ventured into agroecology looking for a form of agriculture that could allow humanity to thrive. “We work with Mapuche families conserving their identities, their foodways, and their daily practices looking at the sustainability of these practices for future generations,” she says. “We don’t only stand ideologically for agroecology, we link the practice to the self-provision needs, generating income in a productive and sustainable way.”

After 34 years, she says, “we have a production that allows us to confirm that the agroecological practice can provide sufficient and good-quality foods for the local and regional context, and we have more volume of production each year!”

Emanuel Canales, 39, is a beekeeper and farmer who chairs the School of Regenerative and Natural Apiculture in Loncoche, also in La Araucanía. Through this training center, Canales shares his 18-year learning process and the methods developed with people starting in the beekeeping practice. Canales first started practicing self-taught organic apiculture, the nurturing of bees and their hives that avoids the use of artificial products.

During his practice, Canales started questioning the industrial beekeeping system, and felt it didn’t respect the biological cycles and behavior of bees. That is why he calls his approach “natural,” as it follows the principles of the hive.

For Canales and his colleagues, regenerative approaches to agriculture and farming have provided inspiration and a more systematic view in the relationship between the health of the ecosystem, from the soil to the biodiversity, and the health of the beehives.

“We cannot keep healthy bees in a sick ecosystem, which is how we arrived to regenerative apiculture,” he says.

His practice also draws from the late U.S. biologist Lynn Margulis’s theories of symbiosis as the trigger of evolution of life on Earth. For Canales, agroecology requires practitioners “to observe and to understand living ecosystems and life overall.” From these observations, the beekeeping approach perceives the beehive as a super-organism, i.e. the individual is not the bee but the hive itself, and it is interdependent with the health of the plants and the soil.

Bee boxes in Chile. During his practice, Emanuel Canales started questioning the industrial beekeeping system, and felt it didn’t respect the biological cycles and behavior of bees. Image by davitydave via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

While Canales and Espinoza have dedicated their lives to food production, Lorna Muñoz Arias, 41, is more concerned with how it’s consumed. Originally from Castro, the main island of the Chiloé archipelago, Muñoz owns a restaurant where she revives traditional recipes and flavors. After becoming a chef, she realized that her knowledge at school was not consistent with the foods she liked. Chiloé has a strong food tradition and is recognized by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for its Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems, in order to protect its agrobiodiversity.

Muñoz discovered that to offer good food to others, she had to please her own taste first. She also found that local foods are often left behind because they are considered precarious, and there are feelings of shame related to them. Nonetheless, local preparations have a distinctive flavor and have become more relevant through time, as the FAO certification proved.

Through time, Muñoz also started to teach in the rural context. She noticed that children who grow up in houses where the kitchen is the most important place in the house learn from a young age to be in contact with food, its cultivation, and the care of the soil.

“Home gardens and food preparation are still female spaces and where children are always present,” Muñoz says. “With them, I learned about cooking along with the natural cycles of the foods, for example, there is a time where the seafood is tastier, or about the importance for women to produce [meals] free of chemicals to feed their families.”

Currently, her restaurant is a platform to showcase local cuisine, where she works with local and fresh products produced by local women and goes along with the way food is consumed in Chiloé. This way, Muñoz keeps alive the ancestral memory related to the local diversity of foods through flavors, enhancing biodiversity through the belly.

Children learning to prepare compost in Mongelechi Mapu in April 2019. Image courtesy of Lilian Barrientos.

Agroecology has many faces, and in order to scale up and remain a legitimate approach in bioculturally diverse contexts such as Latin America, it has to keep the balance between science, practice, and social movements. Espinoza, Canales and Muñoz, these three human bees working for a greater good, are catalyzers for agroecology in their territories. And, like bees, they enhance their effect on their surroundings, pollinating minds, flowers and bellies at the same time. Their practice has gifted them with valuable reflections about scaling up agroecology, which are consistent with more academic reflections on the subject.

Espinoza, Canales and Muñoz all agree that one key aspect in the scaling-up of agroecology is a more horizontal flow of communication, doing away with the implicit hierarchies between local and scientific knowledge.

Canales says we need to acknowledge the crafters as the living sources and producers of knowledge they are, not as mere informants. “Hierarchies are harmful and we need to be careful that agroecology doesn’t take the same path that agronomy did,” he says. “We need to land the theory into practice and to clear the communication channels.”

In their experience, the generation of networks between scientists and farmers, producers and consumers, informing and exchanging knowledge in horizontal ways is the first step to scale-up agroecology. This process implies the co-creation of knowledge that is constantly transforming and diverse by nature. The horizontal networks enhance scientific knowledge to be enriched by local experiences and ways of knowing, advancing knowledge further.

Canales says there are lessons the scientific, practitioners and social movements of agroecology can learn from beehives. “There are no hierarchies in the beehive, there is no such thing as the queen, which is a human construction, and the hive does not work as a society but as an organism,” he says.

An integrated understanding that perceives agroecosystems as living organisms could allow the agricultural production system to generate a similar effect to that generated by beehives in the ecosystem. “More bees, more flowers, more fruits, more seeds, more plants and more animals that depend on those plants,” Canales says. “Bees increase the diversity of their ecosystem. Simultaneously, beehives self-regulate, avoiding competition over resources. It is the industrial production model that breaks self-regulation and the carrying capacity of ecosystems.”

Canales says there are lessons the scientific, practitioners and social movements of agroecology can learn from beehives. Image by PollyDot via Pixabay (CC0).

For Espinoza, the agroecological practice rests first on biodiversity, and second on the understanding of cycles of nutrients, biomass, and life in the soil. “The third pillar is the love and commitment to nature and future generations,” she says.

On the importance of dissolving hierarchies and establishing a dialogue of knowledge, Espinoza says: “For peasants, and especially for female and Indigenous peasants, there have been generations of disdain toward their knowledge, their foodways, wild foods, and native seeds for example … Giving back our local wild foods and seeds their prestige is the first step to reestablishing our food system.”

According to Espinoza, the intergenerational transmission of knowledge and practices remains a great challenge for agroecological approaches. “We need to work with grandmas, mothers, and schools, because how are we going to conserve territories and local foods if new generations don’t know them, don’t like them, and don’t know how to take care of them?” she says. “We need more consistent work.”

From the food industry perspective, Muñoz says that for agroecological principles to be scaled up, there’s a need to sensitize consumers. Informed and engaged consumers can drive the demand for better practices around food and agriculture, preferring food with identity. Muñoz perceives this need in her immediate surroundings: “In an island which is a great potato producer, it doesn’t make sense that restaurants sell reconstituted potatoes rather than fresh ones.”

According to her experience, the kitchen, home gardens and rural livelihoods are the spaces where we can revalue local foods and sustainable practices. Muñoz emphasizes the importance of daily actions, going from discourse to practice. She says the first action can be in each individual kitchen: “Learning to cook is self-care, at the same time I can take care of my surroundings.”

Sharing compost techniques with producers in Mongelechi Mapu. Image courtesy of Lilian Barrientos.

Despite the challenges, these human bees, working tirelessly within their beehives, continue to co-create, learn, and pollinating others. When asked which valuables lessons we can learn from bees, Canales says: “Regardless of the adverse conditions, bees continue to work for the well-being of the organism, of the beehive, and the well-being of the whole ecosystem that surrounds them.”

According to his own experience, scaling up agroecology can be accelerated if the notions of development and progress are challenged. “What is abundance?” he says. “A full wallet, or having time to enjoy playing with your children with a full belly? I think the last is what we achieve with agroecology.”

Espinoza also shares her hopes and appreciation for the achievements: “I am convinced we are making progress through our networks, we nourish and encourage each other, we establish reciprocity … this is scaling up in itself.”

According to these human bees, the power of local networks, including children; the de-construction of colonial perceptions toward native foods and rural livelihoods; and the dissolution of hierarchies between the different ways of knowing and learning — these are some of the key lessons of agroecology in practice within the Latin American context. These insights are crucial to scaling up agroecology not only in scientific terms, but in practice and social movements as well.

Banner image: Children harvesting cucumber in Mongelechi Mapu. Image courtesy of Lilian Barrientos.