The struggle for popular control over food systems is present in all
parts of the world today. As free trade agreements have come to include food as a major export-import commodity, strong social movements have emerged to challenge neoliberal policy and defend ecological family farming (Rosset and Martinez-Torres 2012; Rosset 2013). These movements denounce the corporate agribusiness model, in which access to food, land, knowledge and nature is increasingly negotiated through exploitative capitalist relations, alienating and excluding the world's vast majority from control over their necessary means of survival. In the case of La Via Campesina (LVC), an international alliance of social movements that challenges transnational agribusiness and indeed the entire neoliberal model through peaceful protests, policy proposals, and global articulation, some 200 million families and their organizations are now working together to achieve food sovereignty (Desmarais 2007; Martinez-Torres and Rosset 2010; La Via Campesina 2013).
The industrial agriculture model is only about 60 years old, but has already contaminated water sources, replaced tens of thousands of seed varieties with a dozen cash crops, diminished soil fertility around the world, accelerated the exodus of rural communities toward unsustainable megacities, and contributed to global inequality. Additionally, the corporate food system currently contributes between 44 and 57% of global greenhouse emissions (Grain, 2011). La Via Campesina rejects the industrial agriculture model, at the same time as it rejects the predominance of the profit motive over any other principle in the capitalist structuring of global food systems. In collaboration with civil society and consumer groups, rural social movements propose distinct methods for a different kind of food system.
Ecological agriculture, or agroecology, is an element of this broad effort to recuperate food systems from the corporate agribusiness model. Agroecology is sometimes contrasted with the input-substitution model, found in much organic agriculture in the United States, in which synthetic inputs are simply replaced by purchased off-farm organic inputs without changing the structure of monoculture and agribusiness. Applying ecological principles to agriculture, on the other hand, emphasizes internal inputs, nutrient cycling, energy efficiency, and local knowledge in the construction of greater autonomy. Peasant organizations have increasingly embraced the idea of agroecology, in order to make themselves less dependent on costly, petroleum-based farm inputs and markets controlled by transnational capital. Agroecology also defends peasant wisdom and traditional agricultural systems, most of which have been sustainable over hundreds or thousands of years.
Member organizations of La Via Campesina have built (or are currently building) some 40 schools of agroecology--ranging from informal farmer training centers to more formal universities--all created and directed by the rural organizations themselves. Among their objectives, the schools have come to combine the tradition of popular education with the farmer-to-farmer methodology--the horizontal, "movement" form of agroecological education and promotion. Finally, the schools have the added challenge of generating intergenerational dialogue--passing along the historical memory of elders to peasant youth activists.
Popular Education, Agroecology, and the Dialogo de Saberes
Popular education became intensely well-known in Latin America with the work of Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire in the late 1960s. The challenge of creating horizontal, problem-posing educational processes--and the commitment to systemic social change led by the historically oppressed--proved to be highly important in Latin American revolutionary movements of the 20th century. Popular education is conceived from trust in all peoples' ability to think critically and act strategically if given the tools to analyze their own lives. Its commitment to forging dialogue--rather than preaching or depositing knowledge "packages"--is based on the idea that learners cannot be considered mere objects, but must be active subjects of the process of learning as discovery.
In contemporary rural social movements, the concept known in Spanish as the dialogo de saberes (roughly the equivalent of "dialogue between ways of knowing") expands on popular education by suggesting that there are many equally valid "ways of knowing" the world (Martinez-Torres and Rosset, forthcoming). Given the enormous diversity of organizations and actors in LVC, the dialogo de saberes (DS) has characterized LVC processes of education, training, formation, and exchange in agroecology. DS takes place at the level of training centers and schools of the LVC organizations, as well as the larger scale of agricultural landscapes and peasant territories. Local peasant knowledge, indigenous and feminist ways of knowing, among others, are validated and considered on an equal basis with logical, Cartesian, historically Eurocentric knowledge. Agroecology is a field of practice and theory which challenges many of the dominant prepositions of modernism (like universally applicable practices in agriculture based on rational application of chemistry laws, the enshrinement of the urban proletariat as history's sole anti-capitalist protagonist, and the "bigger is better" approach to change) and thus provides a basis for the dialogo de saberes within LVC (Toledo, 1992; Rojas, 2009; Sevilla-Guzman and Woodgate, 2013). To describe its agroecology trainings, schools, workshops, and exchanges, LVC uses the concept of formacion, which may be roughly translated as training, although it refers to the construction of a better human being (the new man or new woman of the new society) through critical reflections and actions.
The organizations that make up LVC have increasingly developed agroecological formacion processes aimed at accelerating historical transitions to food sovereignty. In agroecology schools, the dialogo de saberes takes place between scientific, peasant, rural proletarian, and indigenous ways of knowing. Over time, LVC has developed a better understanding of how schools and processes of agroecological formacion can benefit rural social movements and create new understandings at national and societal levels. The three case studies that follow show the evolution of LVC's concept of how to structure agroecological formacion--first as an institute (in Venezuela), then as a territorial process (in Cuba), and finally as a combination of both under the umbrella of popular education (in Nicaragua). In each case, common themes arise: the need...