Strengthening Farming Communities from the Ground Up: An Interview with Groundswell International

Strengthening Farming Communities from the Ground Up: An Interview with Groundswell International
From foodtank.com, by Brianna Marshall

Founded in 2009, Groundswell International promotes sustainable agriculture worldwide. Serving communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Groundswell International provides resources for local farm development. Food Tank recently spoke with Groundswell International CEO and co-founder, Steve Brescia, about the organization’s global efforts.

Food Tank (FT): As the executive director of Groundswell International and one of its co-founders, can you share with our readers what initially got you involved? What inspired you?

Steve Brescia (SB): What initially inspired me years ago was working with social justice movements in Central America.  To create just, democratic, and healthy societies, we need to create a foundation of farming and food systems that are of, by, and for the people. Since then I have been constantly moved by the power of rural people in countries in the Americas, Africa, and Asia to organize, grow more food while regenerating their land, and create positive changes in their societies from the ground up. Over the years, we’ve seen ways of supporting improved farming and community development that work well, and others that don’t. We’ve seen that working to extend the technologies and logic of industrialized agriculture too often has negative impacts. Meanwhile, we’ve seen the effectiveness of farmer experimentation with ecological farming approaches, farmer-to-farmer sharing of locally generated solutions, and strengthening of community-based organizations to lead each proving consistently positive outcomes. Many agricultural development practitioners, researchers, and farmers’ movements are recognizing the power of farmer-led agroecology to allow people to improve their own lives. Working together, we have a real chance to address fundamental global problems like poverty, hunger, and climate change, by unleashing and supporting the power of family farmers working productively with nature.

FT: Groundswell International currently works in Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mali, and Nepal. Why were these countries selected as locations for sustainable farming development?

SB: Groundswell International’s co-founders represented local organizations from these countries. For decades, many of us have collaborated on people-centered development with rural communities in incredibly challenging circumstances. As these rural communities create better lives and improved farming production for themselves, they are also demonstrating the wider effectiveness of farmer-led agroecology. It is one reason we choose to work in very diverse ecological, cultural, and political contexts, so that local solutions can strengthen national and global movements for sustainable farming and food systems. We are gradually growing to include other partners who are seeking to collaborate and build on these same principles. 

FT: How do Groundswell International’s partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) help to further a global farming mission?

SB: If real and lasting change is going to occur, it has to be led by local people.  Farming and food solutions need to be constructed by people where they live, in each context around the world, using both traditional and new knowledge. We can’t just export the broken logic and technologies of our industrialized farming and food systems. So we very intentionally created Groundswell International as a partnership of local organizations and leaders. We tap into and build upon their wisdom and expertise, and create programs together to promote positive and lasting changes.  As partners, we all learn from each other, and work to strengthen our abilities to create more sustainable farming and food systems in each country. 

FT: Food access and sustainability involve a wide variety of issues. What are some of the focus areas for Groundswell International projects?  

SB: We focus on strengthening and spreading agroecological farming and sustainable local food systems from the ground up. That means supporting people to experiment on their own farms to generate solutions, and to spread both the ongoing learning process and successful practices farmer-to-farmer. It means strengthening local organizations to manage this agricultural improvement, as well as marketing, savings and credit, and related work. It means strengthen the leadership of women. It increasingly means strengthening urban and rural relationships to promote local food economies. It also means connecting community-level initiatives to wider networks and social movements that are working to create policies that enable, rather than undermine, sustainable farming and local economies. 

FT: Groundswell International works to support sustainable agriculture around the world. How do you tailor your efforts to meet the food culture needs of each country that you serve?

SB: When we start with and strengthen work led by local people, they take the lead in doing the work and generating the solutions themselves. People have a better understanding of their own needs and their own culture than we do, and they can and must have agency if positive and lasting changes are to be created. We promote agroecological principles that allow farmers to innovate and work in productive, regenerative ways with nature, managing soil, seeds, water, and biodiversity in process. The result is more empowered communities creating healthier local food systems rooted in their culture and traditions. 

FT: Gender equity is emphasized through Groundswell International’s mission and efforts. What unique role can women farmers play in sustainable farming?

SB: In most of the places where we work, women are now doing the majority of the farming labor, while also raising children and maintaining their families. While in many countries more men are being forced to migrate for work, women often remain more deeply connected to place, land, home, and family. Yet, women are often excluded from the learning opportunities, resources and decision-making power they need to improve their lives and those of their families. So any work to promote agroecological farming has to ensure women’s involvement and leadership. As they nurture the land, they nurture their children. We recognize that we need to make certain that agroecological farming also results in improved nutrition for families, and women are key to that process. I’ve also seen how the successful farming practices of women can influence men—for example, women in West Africa convincing their husbands to adopt practices that regenerate land, rather than continuously clearing new land to farm. Supporting the leadership of women is essential to allow them to realize their own potential, and to spreading sustainable farming and improve the wellbeing of families. The more we can do to support that, the more we can accomplish as an organization to bring about lasting change.

FT: Is there anything you’ve learned from your experience with developing communities that could help developed countries, such as the United States, become more sustainable?

SB: Absolutely. We are all human beings living on the same planet, and face similar challenges. Of course contexts vary widely, but effective principles apply across borders. We believe that, as we work with farmers in places like Haiti or Burkina Faso, we are working with pioneers on the agriculture and food frontier. They are generating viable alternatives to improve their own lives under incredibly challenging circumstances. These experiences can be relevant to people in other contexts. How do we manage climate change and drought? How do we build resiliency in the face of shocks? How do we better connect farmers and consumers to provide healthy food? How do we regenerate soils and strengthen diverse local seed systems? There is a growing recognition that we need to transition from our broken food and farming system in the U.S. and the developed world, to one that is more regenerative and in balance with nature, is healthier for people, and is more localized. That’s a task we all share. We have much to learn from people in different contexts as we work to create this transition. 

FT: How can readers get more involved with Groundswell International?

SB: Please reach out to us and let us know how you want to get involved (info@groundswellinternational.org). We need people with passion, creative ideas, energy and resources who want to help build this community and create healthy farming and food systems together.  We hope to hear from you.

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