Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Guide to World Domination

In my aimless pre-going-to-bed surfing, I stumbled over this gem: "A Brief Guide to World Domination" by Chris Guillebeau. Basically, it gives you some tips and tricks on how to 'live an unconventional life' and do something that really matters. While, you know, many of these motivational  speeches or posters are sometimes a little idealistic, I do think it's important to refocus your attention and efforts sometimes on the bigger picture. In his guide, Chris asks two basic questions: "What do you really want to get out of life?" and "What can you offer the world that no-one else can?" and then stresses that, if you really put your energy into it, it is very possible that you can achieve your goal. If you consider the amount of time you spend with mindless tasks, I think he has a point. In talking about what you need in order to succeed, he talks about passion, supporters, the usual... until he mentions a very valuable point: 

"Expertise: When you take the time to become a real expert in something highly specialized that really adds value to the world, the people you help will start looking to you for answers about seemingly unrelated topics.  It’s always better to start highly focused and then work outwards than to begin with a broad, unspecific mandate." 

In a way, this point validated my current path for me. I am so caught up in studies at the moment that I sometimes feel guilty not volunteering, working, gaining experience or adding value one way or another - but seeing this point in time as an investment in my future contribution (which form that will eventually take..) makes me feel better about hitting the books. 

Because, as Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly said, 

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

Sometimes I also leave my room and go on awesome walks, I swear! 

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Buen Vivir concept - more than just Dolce Vita

My conference this weekend was extremely interesting, both from the agricultural perspective (although not many new-to-me points were brought up, I think a lot of the other participants that did not come from a food/ag background learned a lot) as from the larger Latin American context. There were many topics brought up that could be discussed in-depth, but I wanted to learn and write more about a socio-cultural and socio-political concept that I had never previously encountered: that of Buen Vivir. I listened to a presentation by Thomas Fatheuer and have most of my information from this presentation as well as his (very recommendable) publication with the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on the topic. 

"Buen Vivir" entered the socio-political discourse in the Andean countries of Bolivia and Ecuador after the election of left-oriented, progressive governments under Rafael Correa (elected 2006 in Ecuador) and Evo Morales (the Bolivian president since 2005). In an attempt to break with their past - both with (neo-)colonialism and the more recent neoliberalism -, both countries adopted new constitutions in 2008 and 2009, respectively, and the constitutional project that lasted from 2006 to 2008 saw considerable democratic and indigenous consultation about these so-called "transitive" constitutions: constitutions geared towards change that "create new worlds with words". They were supposed to not only document the status-quo, but also create a conceptual road map and answer questions such as "where do we want our country to go in the future? What do we care about? What is our vision of society?"

This is where "Buen Vivir" comes into play. Based on the indigenous traditionally close connection of humans with nature, on an ideal focused not on development and growth but on an equilibrium condition known in Quechua as Sumak Kausay, the concept recognizes the rights of nature and moves away from an anthropocentric view of sustainability. From this viewpoint, the "good life" is a life in community and solidarity with others - both human and non-human-, with respect for the diversity of preferences and needs, based on harmony and reciprocity. According to the President of the Constitutional Assembly of Ecuador, Alberto Acosta, “Buen Vivir is a category in the life philosophy of indigenous societies that has lost ground due to the effects of Western rationality’s practices and messages. Nevertheless, without committing the error of false idealization, it makes an important contribution as an invitation to accept other practices and wisdom.” 

The impressive side of the story in my eyes is that this indigenous viewpoint not only exists on a societal, non-governmental level, but has been enshrined in the constitutions of both countries (considering that indigenous peoples constitute large proportions of the population of both Ecuador and Bolivia, and are even in the majority in Bolivia, this is a very positive example of actual representative democracy). Ecuador's constitution defines Buen Vivir as one of its central objectives - including both the equivalent to the UN - ESC rights (economic, social and cultural), but also the definition that “Buen Vivir requires that individuals, communities, peoples and nations are in actual possession of their rights and exercise their responsibilities in the context of interculturalism, respect for diversity and of harmonious coexistence with nature” (Article 275). And true to its plurinational objectives, the constitution of Bolivia refers to a multitude of indigenous concepts such as : amaqhilla, ama llulla, ama suwa (do not be lazy, do not lie, do not steal), suma qamaña (vive bien), ñandereko (vida armoniosa – harmonious life), teko kavi (vida buena), ivi maraei (tierra sin mal – Earth without evil, also translated as‘intact environment’), and  qhapaj ñan  (Camino o vida noble – the path of wisdom).

The application of these practices in reality is complex and controversial, especially since a period of neo-extractivism has arrived in Latin America in which it is tempting to exploit natural resources in order to finance (amongst others) social projects. But our presentation did also mention a fascinating attempt at a direct translation of principles into practice - the Yasuni ITT initiative.

File:Mono ardilla - Saimiri sciureus.jpg

The Ecuadorian rainforest is a haven of biodiversity. Image By ggallice (Geoff Gallice)
[CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a proposal by the Ecuadorian government under the general concept of accounting for Net Avoided Emissions in the fight for climate change. The principle is easy - Ecuador agrees to aims to leave 20% of the country’s oil reserves, located in the Ishpingo, Tambococha, Tiputini oil block at the Yasuni National Park, un-exploited. Not only could valuable eco-systems be saved, this 'pact' would also avoid the emission of 407 million tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In return, the international community would pay Ecuador 50% of the expected returns on the oil if exploited, thereby paying for 'Avoided Emissions', while Ecuador would agree to contribute the other 50% as an act of good global citizenship. The plan was proposed by Ecuador in 2007, and the global concept of Net Avoided Emissions was presented at COP 16, the meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancun in 2010. There is a UNDP-administered trust fund that started up in 2010 as well that is aiming to raise $3.6 billion over 13 years until 2024. Though from what I found online the fund-raising efforts are still at the very beginning, the initiative is going strong, and lobbying around the world (for example recently at the World Economic Forum in Dubai) for some more global citizenship. I hope they don't give up! 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Can Organic Feed the World?

Oh dear. Has it really just been 6 weeks of grad school? It feels much, much longer - but in a good, whirlwind kind of way. I am daily reminded about how little I know and how much there is to learn - but also, what an important, valuable topic I chose as my (hopeful) career path. Before coming here, I was thinking a lot about how to process all the information I undoubtedly would gather here, and thought, blogging might be a great tool both for me to organize the thoughts swirling through my head - and to get the word out on the issues I am so passionate about. These first few weeks, though, I felt like a sponge, just soaking up knowledge and way too busy to do anything with it, but now I feel... ready, I think, to share. I am hoping to make this as regular a feature I can muster, focusing on things I learn in class, in seminars, through readings and just on the go talking to my fellow classmates, but we will see whether these expectations can be met. I think it might be a nice veering-away from my travel-blog theme (though there will most definitely be more pretty Bonn pictures like this one -> 

I just think it might be more interesting to know WHAT I am learning about than to listen to me yap on about how nice the library is that I am learning it in. If anybody is still listening? Hello? :) 

Starting out sweet and short (edited to add - not really that short..), I just finished watching a documentary that our teacher in the class "Ethics of Food Production and Consumption" recommended we see at the beginning of the semester - and am so glad I found time for it! It is called "Die Zukunft pflanzen - Bio für 9 Milliarden" (Planting the Future - Organic for 9 Billion People) and is a Franco-German co-production by ARTE. I tried and failed to find a version with English subtitles online, but saw that the DVD (with subtitles) will be out by the end of November and will be available through Amazon. German-speakers - there is an easily google-able Youtube version online. 

It follows the French producer Marie-Monique Robin around the world onto all continents to explore the question whether organic and sustainable production methods would have the potential to mirror the yields of industrial agriculture or whether, as often claimed, it is simply a niche concept without worldwide applicability. In doing so, we explore 
  • Milpa-agriculture in Mexico, which takes advantage of the unique interactions between corn, bean and squash crops (also traditionally known as the "Three Sisters" in North America) which are grown symbiotically together on one plot, enriching the soil and contributing to the food sovereignty of small-scale producers in the region; 
  • the push-pull method, developed by the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya and spreading throughout Africa, which uses particular plants to "push" out weeds and pests from in between the food crops and "pull" them towards alternative plots in the vicinity (this method is becoming a cheap and sustainable alternative to costly pesticide use for example in Malawi, where Robin visited local producers - see this illustration for a visual explanation); 
  • the origin of Community-Supported-Agriculture (CSA) schemes in Japan - the so-called Teikei system, where consumers purchase their produce and rice directly from farmers which they know personally - in the example given, the farmer doesn't even ask for particular prices, but delivers his food and, in return, receives a "thank-you-donation". This enables a family/community feeling about food production and consumption and fosters real appreciation for the importance of farmer's jobs - namely, to feed the population. 
  • There are also other examples of organic production methods in Germany, market intervention schemes in Senegal, and many interviews of leading researchers and scientists in the fields of agro-forestry and agroecology. All in all a super interesting documentary! 
  • My take-home messages: 
    • To answer the question, from what we know, organic production methods might very well be able to replace industrial ag. The Rodale Institute - which was also featured - compared organic and conventional production methods on two adjacent plots of land over 30 years and did not find significant differences in yields - except that the organic soil was more resilient in the case of drought. Also, the organic system used 45% less energy and emitted 40% less greenhouse gases. 
    • The Rodale Institute also found - very importantly for developing countries - that organic farming, which is far less reliant on expensive inputs, are more profitable in the long run. 
    • Expert after expert in the documentary stressed the importance of small-scale farmers and more localized systems for the achievement of both food security and food sovereignty, particularly in the Global South. If I may add my two cents, already reducing barriers to market access or to a successful shift toward organic production methods can help small-scale farmers significantly and are attainable policy change objectives. 
    • Organic, agro-ecological or agro-forestry-based methods of production are not a "reversion back towards the Stone Ages", as supporters of the industrial food system like to point out, but based on cutting-edge scientific research and a much deeper understanding of nature and ecosystems than the current system. 
    • Woohoo change is possible! 
I will definitely look into a lot of the issues mentioned above more, particularly the different components of agro-ecology, but would recommend the movie to anybody interested in looking behind the scenes of current shifts in thinking about how our food is grown. And if you don't have an hour and a half - this is a good starting point:

Tomorrow I am going to a conference on Food Behavior and Globalization in Latin America - I will be sure to report back! Until then!