In mid-September 2016, around 40 participants gathered in Salt Rock on the KwaZulu-Natal coast for the third annual seminar of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative, titled: ‘How do we maintain, restore, and strengthen resilient and diverse seed and knowledge systems in southern Africa?’ The seminar comprised of an inspiring and energetic set of presentations, panel discussions, and group work, and included a day trip to the Zimele Project outside Mtubatuba – visiting a group of agroecological farmers affiliated with the NGO Biowatch. Lasting three days, the overall goal was to work together towards a shared vision and strategy for the revival, restoration and strengthening of farmer-led seed systems.

The keynote address was given by Alejandro Argumedo from the famous Potato Park in Peru. Alejandro is the Director of Association ANDES, a Cusco-based NGO founded by indigenous people with the goal of protecting biological and cultural diversity, as well as the rights of indigenous people of Peru.  He also coordinates the International Indigenous People’s Biodiversity Network, and is a Senior Research Officer for Peru on the ‘Sustaining Local Food Systems, Agricultural Biodiversity and Livelihoods’ Program of the International Institute for Environment and Development.

In his talk, Alejandro introduced the prophecy of the ‘Condor and the Eagle’ which is still frequently told in the Andean region and is salient in these times of food and climate uncertainty. Alejandro relayed how this Incan prophecy

“tells us that back in the mists of history, human societies divided and took different paths: that of the condor (representing the heart, intuitive and spiritual) and that of the eagle (representing the brain, rational and material). In the 1490s, when the European colonisers arrived in South America, the prophecy announced that the two paths would converge and the eagle would drive the condor to the verge of extinction. Then, five hundred years later, around the new millennium, a new epoch would begin, one in which the condor and the eagle would have the opportunity to reunite and fly together in the same sky, along the same path. If the condor and eagle accept this opportunity, they would create the most remarkable offspring, unlike any seen before.”

The prophecy caught the imagination of the participants and became a theme that was referred to many times over the course of the seminar. It spoke deeply to the challenges that exist in the dualism perceived between scientific knowledge related to seed and agriculture and traditional or indigenous practices. The prophecy supported an enlivened dialogue about the need for bringing together indigenous knowledge and science for maintaining, restoring and strengthening resilient and diverse seed and knowledge systems. Alejandro expressed how ‘if relations are based on respect and not on subjugation, synergies and cross-fertilisation between scientific and indigenous knowledge have the potential of creating cutting-edge innovations to revive and restore our local seed systems.’ To illustrate this, Alejandro showed the group a short documentary that followed the journey of a group of farmers from the potato park as they took samples of their sacred potato seed (which they refer to as family) to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway in 2011. Intended to safeguard the genetic material against changing climates, this journey was one accompanied by prayer and song and much emotion as seeds are not mere commodities but are regarded as sacred and living.

Alejandro also spoke about the repatriation of seed (where seed is returned from seed banks to communities) and how this provides the ‘seed’ for relearning, reinventing, rejuvenating or inventing social-ecological or cultural practices. Building on the idea of repatriation, a conversation developed around how we may think of the link between culture, indigenous knowledge and seed.  A lively discussion followed and continued over the three days about how seed, like culture, is always changing, adapting and shifting.  Through the repatriation of seed, new cultural patterns may emerge – it may be a rebirth or renewing of the old, but could also be the start of a new set of practices and relationships.

The next speaker, Stephen Greenberg, presented a talk that looked at corporate power within seed systems and the impacts of the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ (new and limited seed varieties, irrigation, technologies and credit) on small-scale farmers and seed systems. Stephen is a researcher with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) and Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) at the University of the Western Cape and is also affiliated to the African Centre for Biodiversity.  In his talk he outlined how research and development associated with seed has become orientated towards standardisation of seed, and described how farming systems become part of overall political and economic projects. Within this paradigm, yield rather than diversity has become the key focus and the goal is to produce surplus which farmers could profit from. However offsetting the high cost inputs against the creation of surplus has become a balancing act for most farmers and small-scale farmers are particularly affected by this. Greenberg’s presentation provided a basis for thinking about the macro-scale challenges affecting small-scale farming systems. It stimulated conversations around how, within this environment where corporate seed has been so strategically supported, we may be able to provide support to farmer-led seed systems. In order to support the diversity of seed within small-scale farmer systems and the needs of small-scale farmers a diverse set of support systems need to be established. Seed diversity necessitates legal and technological diversity and all other elements that support systems of agri/culture. For so long, commercial agriculture has been supported by laws, policies, research and development and other inputs that have been geared at maximizing profits and boosting yields through a large scale model. If diversity is to be respected as a key tenet of resilience, such arrangements need to be sensitive to this and to the scale of small-scale agriculture.

Kudzai Kusena, curator of the National Gene Bank of Zimbabwe and PhD student with UCT’s Bio-economy Research Chair presented on the need for genebanks to adapt beyond keeping ‘sleeping seed’ frozen in time. Many of the participants were involved in seed banking initiatives throughout Africa and compared their experiences and ideas around best practice. The importance, merits and challenges of various seed bank models/or scales (such as household seed banks, community seed banks and national seed banks) were discussed. In the Potato Park in Peru community members manage a central seed bank; similarly in Ethiopia centralised seed banks house seed for groups of farmers. In Zimbabwe, the viability and importance of household seed banks was being investigated. Through these examples, participants explored how a resilient farmer-led seed system could be bolstered and supported.

On the second day, the group travelled north along the N2 highway, passing endless hectares of sugarcane fields and extensive eucalyptus plantations. This large-scale commercial agriculture contrasted starkly with the diversity of crops farmers are growing at the Zimele Project – where agroecology is practiced by farmers who are affiliated with Biowatch South Africa. Participants were welcomed with singing and this was followed by introductions and talks by members of the group. Mrs Ndlovu, the head of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development district office in Pongola also attended and shared her enthusiasm for what farmers are doing in Zimele. Visits to nearby home gardens revealed the extra care taken when growing crops for seed, rotation of vegetables, and the space needed to feed families ranging from 10 to 15 in number. The group also visited a market garden, farmed by a collective of farmers in the area. Originally planted with a diversity of vegetables, at the time of the visit, the garden was solely dedicated to growing Swiss chard, and as a result of this monocrop, pests were proliferating. This illustrated the difficulties small-scale farmers face when dealing with market pressures. The framers had some years ago entered into an arrangement with a nearby retailer whom they would provide with vegetables. However the retailer was not interested in other crops, demanding only large amounts of Swiss chard. As farmers had little access to other markets this led to a focus on growing only chard. Farmers expressed their frustration as while they don’t want to give up their agroecological principles which involves mixed cropping, they were struggling to balance the retailer’s demand for spinach with best practice. On the following day participants discussed how they felt farmers at Zimele could be supported in various ways so that they could sustain their agroecological practices while also being able to access markets. After visiting the gardens the group was treated to a feast of traditional foods prepared by the farmers which exhibited the amazing diversity of foods grown.

On the third and final day, participants reflected on inputs and discussions, and in small groups designed actions to be taken as first steps towards realising SKI’s shared vision. This was captured in a joint Statement.

The seminar provided the space for a vital and vibrant set of dialogues, ideas and partnerships. It reflected the importance of bringing together diverse knowledge in order to think creatively about the complex tasks of maintaining, restoring, and strengthening resilient and diverse seed and knowledge systems. The dialogues from the three days were captured magnificently by the artistry of Sonja Niederhumer from Graphic Harvest, who produced two super-sized visuals (see, for example, the cover photograph for this news item). These depict the context, the actors, the actions, and the combined vision of the seminar.

Authors: Maya Marshak and Jaci van Niekerk