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Popular Resistance

It has been said that it is insane to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result. The present world system is not sustainable for the majority of the people or the Planet. What is urgently needed is transformation at the levels of the individual and society.

Someone asked my son when he was about three years, I think it was Dr. Zelalem, ‘what is the job of your father?’ He said ‘Sibseba’, which in Amharic means ‘meetings’. This was because every time he asked me where I was going, I used to tell him to Sibeseba. I was coordinating the Ethiopian civil society preparation for the Rio+ 10 held in South Africa back then. I laughed at it then but now, 15 years later, I globe trot from one meeting to another. Some of us are caught up in this cycle and there seems to be no way out of it. Anyway, this year so far, I have participated in nine international meetings. I was active in all of them either as part of the organizing group or as a presenter. There is one thread connecting all of them. I feel that it is ‘transformation.’

I am feeling that there is at last a realization that change, fundamental change in the way we are living, is at last being recognized by almost every one, except the few who are either stuck through their free will or through the system or those who benefit from maintaining the status quo. I think that the majority of us are all caught up in this paradox of deeply understanding the kind of transformation that is needed but being part of perpetuating the same system that we hate so much.

This year, I have already been to nine meetings. They all had transformation to sustainability at their core but have come to it from various angles. Many came to it through the transformation of agriculture and food systems to sustainability. Others talked about the role of learning for transformation and  some others looked at  from the angle of soil carbon sequestration for reducing the impact of climate change. There was a meeting in Kigali on SDGs and the World in 2050 where discussion was held on pathways to transformation beyond the SDGs. There was even a conference in Scotland with an explicit agenda ‘Transformations in 2017’. A meeting among learning and education professionals in Sweden went even beyond the word transformation and discussed about transformative and transgressive learning for sustainability. 

Here are some of the learnings.  

  • The importance of democratic space: I am sure you all agree with me that we cannot talk of transformation without participation. We know in Africa the space for civil society and civic engagement is narrowing by the day. And yet the continent is going from crisis to crisis. The doors of our government offices are wider open to rich corporations, philanthro-capitalist and northern development agents than to citizens. How can we get a space in the political arena to help shape our transformation?
  • Urbanization: There is a growing recognition for the need to manage the transformation of urban areas. It is not only that more and more people are living in urban areas but that they determine both the politics and the production of food in rural areas.  Urban areas themselves need transformation in how they are governed if there is going to be a better future for their inhabitants. Anyone who has seen the astronomical growth of urban areas in Africa and the impact that this is having on the urban social and environmental ecosystems can attest that things are not going very well. This is much more apparent in Africa where urban planning is at its lowest.  Even if the plan exists, it usually fails due to lack of capacity in implementation and mostly due to business and political interests. 
  • There is a growing collaboration between social and natural scientists. I think natural scientists are at last respecting the knowledge and perspectives that social scientists bring to the discussion on transformation and this is quite evident in all of the meetings.
  • Role of art: It is pleasing to the soul to see how in almost all of the meetings art was given a space to enthuse and visualize the transformation. Various types of artists were invited to open people’s hearts and minds to show them the possibility of transformation to sustainability. In one of the shows I saw a young woman come on stage wearing a white shirt and sat in front of us with a lot of fruits and wine. Without talking she drank the wine and ate the fruit while at the same time staining her white shirt with food and drink. You felt sorry to see the beautiful, white shirt spoilt like that but her message was that the shirt represents the earth and the act of soiling the shirt represents the behaviour of human beings on earth.
  • Creativity and humanity: There was a lot of talk about self-transformation. Almost everyone was saying that ‘how can we talk about transforming the world while we are deeply entrenched in our own values and beliefs that seek our temporary comfort?’ There were a lot of suggestions on how to do that. One of the presenters in Dundee, Scotland, for example, said we can do meditation every morning to help us be conscious of what we are choosing to do in every hour of the day. That will help us be conscious of what we are buying and how we are behaving. 
  • Importance of learning for transforming: This was emphasised time and again. We need to stop, take a breath and examine what we are doing in order to have a deeper level of transformation both at the personal level and at the bigger system level. I think this is where theories and practices in education have been really making an impact. Almost every meeting was repeating Einstein’s famous statement that ‘insanity is to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result.’ I think the implication is that you need to stop and think about what you are doing and change course for a better transformation.
  • Co-development of knowledge: Transformation cannot happen with knowledge that comes from one source, was the message. Better understanding comes from a confluence of multiple perspectives, was the mantra in most of the meetings. As such there was a wider level of recognition that we need to incorporate knowledge of indigenous and local communities in our planning for transformation to sustainability as they have a historical, temporal and spatial understanding of their landscape.     
  • Reconfiguring the mind: There was a big understanding that there has to be a mind shift at a higher scale and at a higher level for transformation to happen. There has to be a massive level of NO to what we are doing and a collective voice of YES to sustainability. There was an example of how smoking was almost normal in many places but how science and political decisions have changed the course even though industry fought hard to retain the status quo.
  • The planetary boundaries as a powerful framework: The planetary boundary is becoming a huge force in bringing consensus towards having economic and social development in the context of the Biosphere. These nine boundaries will put us in a huge problem if they are crossed. Mind you, we have already crossed the climate, biodiversity and phosphorous and nitrogen boundaries. There seems to be a growing consensus of going beyond sustainable development (with equal emphasis to economic, social and environmental goals) to where economy should be managed to serve the society and both the economy and society should flourish within the limits of the biosphere. This is quite radical in a world where economic development is the only driving force and a cause of much social destruction.
  • Complexity: I read a growing realisation in all of the meetings that we live in a complex world where it will be difficult to isolate and point to a single cause and effect to an experience. What we need is to understand that there are multiple causes and effects and we need to take interdisciplinary studies and multiple approaches to bring about a solution. Although reductionism, an attempt to explain complex processes through physical and chemical processes, can be good in creating machines, it has so many limitations in explaining complex social and natural phenomena. We need complexity in thinking to help us navigate through this unpredictable world that we live in. This is also at the heart of resilience thinking. Someone even said that a traditional evaluation framework forgets this fact and tries to measure progress through numbers. This is much bigger than you think, my friends. Does log frame analysis work, for example? Can you actually measure the success of your project by the amount of money that somebody gets or by the number of seedlings planted or is there another way of looking at it? Complexity assumes that we need to use all available information from as many sources as possible to reach a conclusion if our purpose is to foster resilience. 
  • Stewardship: I think one of the most exciting angles that resilience thinking is taking is stewardship. The basic premises are that people have other relationships with their environment than economic benefits.  They have cultural and spiritual relationships and that can be fundamental to the protection of the biosphere. Sacred natural sites are a best example of this. People stop cutting trees and polluting water, for example, even though not doing so can be economically beneficial, because they have other relationships with them. We should also show our stewardship by transforming degraded environments to better ecosystems and recuperating lost seeds and knowledge. 
  • Food systems: I think food systems are becoming a rallying agenda for transformation. A large body of research is coming out showing how industrial food production is affecting health and nutrition, harming the environment, eroding cultural values and affecting the rights of food producers. This is deeply worrying personally, as country after country in Africa is following this failed food system. There is an increasingly louder voice calling for the transformation of the food system. All statistical data show that our health, the environment and the rights of all involved in it will be much better if we fix our food system.

Let me leave you with a very positive story from my visit to a Swedish farm at a place called Hånsta Östergärde located in Vattholma, 20 km north of the city of Uppsala and approximately 85 km north of Stockholm. The farmers are Ylva and Kjell Sjelin. They have 170 ha of arable land, 10 ha grazing land and 100 ha of forest land. I visited them with some colleagues from the African Biodiversity Network and the GAIA Foundation almost 10 years ago. Pernilla Malmer of the SwedBio organized both meetings. When we were there last time, this farmer was complaining how the Swedish system is favouring big agribusiness and how organic farmers are struggling. We visited him in August after the resilience conference and the story is quite different. He said that the Swedish government has started subsidising organic farmers much more than industrial agriculture and banks prefer giving loans to organic farmers than to others. This, he said, has come partly through the demand by consumers for healthy and nutritious food produced in an environmentally sustainable way. I think this is a very positive story and may be an indication that the direction is turning towards sustainability.

* MILLION BELAY, PhD, is the Coordinator of Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA). [email protected]



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