Cross-sectoral reflection on the knowledge gained in several meetings/processes held by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, National University of La Plata (Argentina)
Three meetings supported by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences (UNLP, Argentina) since 2015 have provided fruitful conceptual outcomes that could serve to nurture the actions of agricultural actors. These meetings – the Latin American Congress of Agroecology (October 2015), the Peri-urban Reunion (May 2018) and the International Seminar on Agricultural Farming and Rural Development – Pampa Biome (March 2019)- were the subject of a systematization and analysis work complemented with diverse conceptual contributions. The political crisis in the Southern Cone has somehow stimulated these gatherings while directly heightening the contradictions of the current models.
What these processes have in common is that they brought together the actors involved in the fight of counter-hegemonic and innovative models, trying to reinstate the sociocultural, environmental and economic dimensions into agricultural practices. Although each process possesses particular characteristics, the perspectives surfacing in their conclusions require that perceptions be refreshed and the gaze be raised. It should be noted that this is not about a lowest common denominator circumstantially “forcing” the building of bridges between thematic fields that are often well defined (agroecology, peri-urban agriculture, agricultural farming, rural development, etc.). It is rather a cross-cutting set of guidelines that transcends pre-established borders and supports the ways of thinking and acting from a new perspective.
Central to these guidelines is the notion that each thematic area -or rather the imprint that is promoted by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences and other stakeholders – is an aspect of a single strategic horizon: respond to the deep and growing divergence between territories, ecosystems and agrifood systems, whose balances have been upset by the classic methods of production and social organization. The aim is to go from a dominant matrix, which follows a productivist, vertical and hermetic logic, towards a reterritorialized, horizontal and multifunctional logic, creating new socio-productive systems, ecosystem balance and citizenship. Agrifood systems are resignified as a collective good capable of being the link between territorial economy, ecosystems and citizenship, above corporate interests. Such a horizon opens up extraordinary broad prospects. Irrespective of how much this may exceed the capacity of action of many agricultural actors, discussions have shown that these challenges must be faced and their contributions should be revamped.
The contributions or the new “paradigms” that are tried out in the face of this divergence are developed in a continuum that begins with ethics, culture and conceptions. It extends to the forms of governance and organization, working methodologies and technologies. In other words, there are no segmented responses to a reality that pivots as an integrated block on the ways of feeling, thinking and acting. With all these dimensions at stake, the art of looking deeply into the alternatives consists of seeking a systemic action and cohesion between them, taking into account that there is resistance present across all fields of action.
While each debate process cannot be narrowed down to another in terms of approach and scope of contributions, three strategic horizons stand out.
1. A new reference framework of conceptions and modes of knowledge development. A deficit of understanding lies at the root of the growing contradictions in the field of agriculture. This deficit hides or prevents having a comprehensive approach to spaces (most prevalent in peri-urban areas), hinders the understanding of the inter-dependencies between each subsystem, generates irresponsibility in production patterns, arranges knowledge according to inadequate criteria. Instead of applying a fragmenting, instrumental and anthropocentric logic, the question is to move towards a relating, complex and biocentric logic. The sense of agrifood practices relativizes productivism to cover other more inclusive and interconnected purposes. The sensitive-aesthetic and ecological dimensions appear in the debates on agroecology. But this is expressed with various intensities in all processes. It is even about decentralizing thinking, recognizing the dynamics, subjects and knowledge contextualized in their environment. All these elements contribute to a kind of cultural movement -still subterranean- for a resignification of farming systems.
Reterritorialization, rooting, complexity, integration, pluri-legitimacy of knowledge, centrality of learning processes are the key words in this theme. They involve several epistemological ruptures. Academic enlightenment or transferencism are replaced by social constructivism and a more flexible and circular mode of knowledge development. Instead of pre-established solutions and a scientific conformity to certain “recipes” or dogmas, the aim is to reach knowledge relevance, that is, to use the methodological approaches that are best adjusted to each context. A greater back and forth between practice and theory is required, the systematization of experiences being central to this relationship. Reasoning tries to be more dynamic between the micro and the macro, constantly questioning the relationship between the proposed goals and the means mobilized in the action. Territories tend to be modeled through systems of relationships, and actors tend to organize themselves in networks. In general, knowledge becomes a fundamental input to sustain more complex, evolutionary and collaborative agro-productive processes. All this also implies that there should not be a centralized pilot in agro-productive transformations. Neither the State nor the university nor the local actors have the only keys to the knowledge required to drive the models described. A new reference framework is necessary and it is at the intersection between multiple sources of knowledge.
2. Revamp the modes of collective action. Such change of conceptions is closely linked to a marked shift in the way of doing. The agrifood models referred embrace diversity and invent reintegration processes. There are no change-inducing practices without roots contextualized in the plurality of local actors and dynamics. It is a starting point; it is not synonymous with withdrawal or localism. Together with this desire for reterritorialization, there is also a search to generate greater cohesion and unity in the actions undertaken. The greater the approach to diversity, the greater the need to unify conceptions and institutional engineering. In this field, there is still strong inertia. The lack of coordination, discipline segmentation, fragmentation into particular visions, centralization or standardization are seen as unadapted approaches that are still present in practices.
The ability to manage and rebuild relationships is a core principle in this new compass. From monolithic patterns, isolating objectives, themes, times, scales and actors, the aim is to invent ways of relating or complementing, in short of reconstructing the horizontal solidarity that underpins territorial balances.
This organizational equation deeply questions the traditional frameworks. Instead of placing diversity at the level of disciplines or administrative frameworks, it is radically relocated on the side of the territorial reality, creating the obligation to unify criteria within the institutional structure. Sustaining transformation dynamics over time and in plural contexts requires acting more on the basis of ethics, shared objectives and collective processes. Ethics -instead of rigid principles- allow to look into always unique realities and address dilemmas, emergencies and contradictions. Objectives and working methods are not deterministic. They are often the result of a negotiated conversation with the different stakeholders.
The organizational forms developed with these principles are always specific to each initiative, depending on the objectives and actors involved. However, they have in common that they place on a network and horizontally reintegrate actors and territorial dimensions. They formulate and pursue several objectives at the same time. They generate sociocultural transformations, including production expectations. They promote a sense of belonging, local roots, coordination and learning. They produce intelligibility and information that allow to leave the opacity of traditional systems. Building trust, cooperation and communication are elements firmly pointed out in the experiences. These aspects go beyond the extensionist or “project oriented” modality. They rather refer to what we might call a new modality of territorial action. All these characteristics refer to deep ruptures in public policies and collective action in general.
3. Deepen change strategies. Considering the nature of the transformations involved, it is necessary to reflect more deeply on a methodological compass for the changes to be made. First, because the dilemmas are so acute that they are present in the innovative dynamics themselves (from the personal to the collective). Second, because we should not passively expect that the State, the productive actors or the macro political situation will implement this agenda. All this requires giving rise to ethical, perceptive, conceptual and organizational changes that will interact with other models and which could recede in the absence of appropriate strategies.
A first strategy is to strengthen the counter-hegemonic battle, particularly relevant in agroecology. Although orthodox models are increasingly criticized, it is necessary to mount a more organized cultural battle and enhance the mechanisms of legitimation, “desirability” and discussion on innovative agrifood models. Another priority is the networking of territorial experiences and the structuring of actors. A sum of innovations does not necessarily lead to a modification of the current system. It is necessary to coordinate a mosaic of dynamics into a common agenda. In addition, innovations often occur on the margins or in institutional interstices. For certain topics, instead of attempts to directly influence public policies in order to institutionalize a change, it may be more appropriate to create the conditions to become an interlocutor of public power and leverage meeting opportunities, always according to the circumstances. For others, a direct confrontation may be necessary (claims of access to land, financial aid and rights, etc.). In general, the aim is to accompany the productive actors so that they become collective actors (with a sense of belonging, autonomy, organization and capacity for dialogue, etc.).
Finally, it is essential to coordinate the short and the long terms. The short term because the current circumstances and urgencies demand it. The long term because time is required for transformations to be consistent, basically depending on the continuity of initiatives. For all these reasons, the university has a responsibility to nurture new alliances and a broader reflexion on territorial governance and new agrifood models.