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. …