Workers’ rights activists around the globe rejoiced on Friday after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government will repeal three corporate-friendly agricultural laws that the nation’s farmers have steadfastly resisted for more than a year.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over 40 farmers’ unions that led the protests, called the development a “historic victory” for those “who struggled resolutely, unitedly, continuously, and peacefully for one year so far in the historic farmers’ struggle,” India Today reported, citing a statement from SKM.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to repeal three farm laws is a welcome step in the right direction,” said SKM, though the organized labor coalition did not commit to ending its mobilization. “SKM hopes that the government of India will go the full length to fulfill all the legitimate demands of protesting farmers, including statutory legislation to guarantee a remunerative MSP [Minimum Support Price].”
Rakesh Tikait, a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, welcomed Modi’s announcement but said that “we will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament,” where the winter session starts on November 29. He added that in addition to the MSP demand, “the government should talk to farmers on other issues.”
Modi’s announcement—and the sustained resistance of India’s farmers—were celebrated by progressives worldwide.
BREAKING: After a year of strikes — and having faced brutal repression that claimed some 700 lives — India's farmers are victorious in their struggle. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will repeal his highly-unpopular farm laws.
“We will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament.”
Al Jazeerareported that Modi’s “sudden concession comes ahead of elections early next year in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and two other northern states with large rural populations.” Opposition parties attributed the prime minister’s move to sinking poll numbers, characterizing it as part of an effort to appeal to voters who support or sympathize with the nation’s struggling farmers.
According toCNN, “Farmers are the biggest voting bloc in the country, and the agricultural sector sustains about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. Angering farmers could see Modi lose a sizable number of votes.”
As India Today noted, “Hundreds of farmers have been camping at three places on the Delhi border since November 2020, demanding the repeal of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.”
For over a year, CNN reported, “Indian farmers have fought the three laws, which they said leave them open to exploitation by large corporations and could destroy their livelihoods.”
Al Jazeeraexplained that “the legislation the farmers object to,” passed last September, “deregulates the sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum price.”
Modi’s cabinet said the laws are “aimed at giving farmers the freedom to sell directly to institutional buyers such as big trading houses, large retailers, and food processors,” Reutersreported. While Modi claimed the legislation “will ‘unshackle’ millions of farmers and help them get better prices,” opposition parties said that “farmers’ bargaining power will be diminished.”
Small farmers expressed alarm about the legislation, saying that “the changes make them vulnerable to competition from big business, and that they could eventually lose price support for staples such as wheat and rice,” Al Jazeerareported.
Beginning last September, farmers from regions of India that are major producers of wheat and rice blocked railway tracks, which was followed by larger, nationwide protests, including some that used trucks, tractors, and combine harvesters to block highways leading to New Dehli, the nation’s capital.
By last December, “protests spread across India, as farm organizations call[ed] for a nationwide strike after inconclusive talks with the government,” Reuters reported, adding that demonstrations also took place throughout the Sikh diaspora.
In January, “India’s Supreme Court order[ed] an indefinite stay on the implementation of the new agricultural laws, saying it wanted to protect farmers and would hear their objections,” the news outlet noted.
Over the course of several months, which included a brutal winter and a devastating Covid-19 surge, farmers continued to agitate for full repeal of the three laws. Repression from Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party resulted in hundreds of deaths.
At the largest rally to date, more than half a million farmers gathered in Uttar Pradesh on September 5, roughly 10 weeks before Modi announced that he will repeal the laws.
In response to Modi’s decision on Friday, “farmers at [the] protest sites of Ghazipur, Tikri, and Singhu borders celebrated by bursting crackers, distributing sweets, and welcoming the [government’s] move,” India Today reported.
The Transnational Institute praised “the resilience, courage, and determination of India’s farmers who succeeded in overturning the pernicious farm laws,” calling it “the power of movements.”
Inspired by the resilience, courage and determination of India's farmers who succeeded in overturning the pernicious farm laws. This is the power of movements.
“The repeal of the three farm laws… is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement.”
That sentiment was shared by numerous other observers.
“The repeal of the three farm laws—unconstitutional, with no demonstrable benefits, and aimed to expand corporate control over agriculture—is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement,” said R. Ramakumar, an economics professor in the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “Their resolute struggle has shown and amplified the power of dissent in our democracy.”
Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, placed the overturning of Modi’s unpopular reforms in a broader context, arguing that “the victory of farmers in North India is not a local matter.”
“This is a victory of global significance,” she added. “Immense class and oppressed caste solidarity, fierce determination, [and] deep courage defeated the combine of chauvinist authoritarianism and corporate greed—our common enemy.”
Only two members of Brazil’s Piripkura tribe are known to live in the territory, though others are also believed to live there, having retreated to the depths of the forest. Many Piripkura have been killed in past massacres.
The overflight was conducted last month for the “Uncontacted or Destroyed” campaign and petition organized by COIAB (the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon) and OPI (the Observatory for the Human Rights of Uncontacted and Recently Contacted Indigenous Peoples), with the support of APIB (Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil), ISA (Instituto Socioambiental) and Survival International.
The campaign has just released a dossier “Piripkura: an indigenous territory being destroyed for beef production.“ It’s revealed:
– Land clearances for cattle ranching have now reached an area where the uncontacted Piripkura are known to live.
– Roads, fencing and even an airstrip have been constructed, and hundreds of cattle brought in.
– The rate of deforestation in the territory has “exploded” – by more than 27,000% in the last two years.
OPI has also released a report on the invasion of the Piripkura lands. Their research has revealed that the Piripkura’s is now the most deforested uncontacted indigenous territory in Brazil. More than 12,000 hectares has already been destroyed.
The Uncontacted or Destroyed campaign highlights several uncontacted territories currently shielded by Land Protection Orders which are due to expire soon.
The only contacted Piripkura, a woman known as Rita, recently told Survival in a unique video appeal that outsiders operating illegally inside her people’s territory could soon kill her relatives, and described how nine of her relatives were massacred in one attack.
Sarah Shenker, head of Survival’s Uncontacted Tribes campaign, said today: “There could be no greater proof of the total impunity – indeed, active support – that land invaders enjoy under President Bolsonaro than this: commercial ranching operations in a vitally important indigenous territory that’s supposed to be protected by law. The invaders are fast approaching the uncontacted Piripkura. They’re resisting with all their might, and so must we. Only a major public outcry can prevent the genocide of the Piripkura and other uncontacted tribes. And an added bonus? A far cheaper and more effective way to protect Amazon rainforest than the fatal ‘solutions’ pushed by governments at COP.”
Elias Bigio of OPAN said today: “That area we flew over has been newly-cleared for beef production. They’ve already logged it, now they’re turning it into pasture for cattle.”
OPI said: “The Indigenous Territory and the Piripkura are extremely threatened. It’s the same thing that’s happened in other uncontacted tribes’ territories – the destruction is the ‘Bolsonaro Effect’, as it’s accelerated since 2019.”
Editor’s note: The strong focus on mapping forests mentioned in this article makes one suspicious. Mapping is needed for governments to control “natural ressources” and give concessions to companies to exploit them. It was never needed for indigenous populations, so far as, since they’ve known their landbase for millenia. Wherever you are, don’t trust governments. Never. People worldwide must understand that governments always serve the rich and powerful exploiters and never the local residents.
Featured image: Mangrove forests around the Segun village in West Papua, Indonesia. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.
Indigenous villagers in Sorong district, West Papua province, have for years resisted the arrival of the palm oil industry into their territory, yet still saw their ancestral forests signed away by the government for an oil palm concession.
Earlier this year, the Sorong district government revoked the concession, citing a litany of violations by the concession holder.
The villagers have welcomed the move, but are demanding the government take further action to ensure the legal recognition of their rights to their customary forests.
They say it’s important to prevent the customary forests from being given away to other companies in the future.
SORONG, West Papua — Indigenous people in Indonesia’s West Papua province are fighting for the rights to their ancestral forests, now that the local government has rescinded licenses for oil palm concessions on their lands.
For years, the residents of Segun village in West Papua’s Sorong district feared that their forests would be razed to make way for the overlapping concession awarded to PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo (SAS), a palm oil company.
So the announcement in April by Sorong district head Johny Kamuru that the concession had been revoked came as a major relief for the villagers.
In revoking the company’s permits, Johny’s administration cited myriad violations, including SAS’s failure to obtain a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU, the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting. As a result, the concession had been left uncultivated and abandoned for years.
“We are really grateful for the Sorong district head,” Felix Magalik, a Segun village elder, says. “I really support the district head’s [decision] because that’s what’s right for the future of our children and grandchildren.”
Yet despite the permit revocation, the villagers’ rights to their ancestral forests still hasn’t been officially recognized by the government. In fact, no ancestral forests in the region have been recognized as such by the national government, and the process to gain this legal recognition is usually a costly and time-consuming one.
The Segun villagers are now asking the government to grant them legal recognition to their land rights to prevent their areas from being given away to other companies in the future.
“We, the Indigenous elders in Segun, don’t approve of palm oil companies,” Felix says. “We don’t want our forests to be bald. Where would our children and grandchildren eat [if the forests are gone]?”
West Papua is home to some of the richest swaths of forest remaining in Indonesia, and Indigenous communities like the one in Segun rely on the forests for their livelihoods.
Samuel Ketumlas, the Segun village secretary, says the forests provide everything the villagers need.
“Since we were young, we have lived from nothing but the trees,” he says. “We think ahead by looking back at the lives of our elders. People who live from the forests — they will not live a hard life.”
Enter palm oil
In 2006, the Segun villagers were approached in by businesspeople and politicians who had plans to raze the village’s ancestral forests for oil palm plantations. Some of the villagers welcomed the plan after SAS promised them better livelihoods, infrastructure and money, according to Perminas Hay, the current village chief.
The company gave each of the five clans in the village 10 million rupiah ($700), he says.
Then, in 2007, a local lawmaker invited two villagers, Saung Salagilik and Josias Ketumlas, on a trip to visit oil palm plantations in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, Perminas says.
“Once there, the native people in Kalimantan told Saung, ‘If you return to Papua, don’t accept the company. If you do that, you’ll end up suffering like us. You’ll end up with nothing,’” Permias tells Mongabay during a visit to his house.
Once Saung returned to his village, he spread the word of caution to his neighbors. In the end, the villagers rejected the palm oil company’s offer. At the same time, however, other villages in the region, like Waimon and Gisim, were signing agreements with other palm oil companies.
The Segun villagers held their ground. Yet despite this opposition, SAS managed to obtain licenses from the government to convert the community’s forests for oil palm plantations.
The villagers were left in the dark.
“We already rejected [the company]. We didn’t know how they got in,” says Ishak Mili, the cultural leader in Segun.
Following the latest developments, the local government has taken over SAS’s concession and is preparing the next steps to ensure that the villagers’ rights to their ancestral lands are legally recognized by the national government.
“After [the permits are] revoked, our journey is not over yet,” says Benidiktus Hery Wijayanto, head of the West Papua provincial agriculture department. “There are more processes to make sure that these areas are returned to their customary owners because de facto, even de jure, there’s not a single centimeter of land in Papua and West Papua provinces that doesn’t have owners.”
The first step toward the recognition of the ancestral lands is mapping the Indigenous territories.
“Actually the key is in the mapping process of customary lands,” Benidiktus says. “If that process is completed, it’ll be the basis [for recognition of customary lands].”
But he adds it’s a big challenge.
“In my opinion, this task is quite heavy because [we have to] map vast territories,” Benidiktus says. “We all know that in one region there can be a number of clans.”
Sorong district head Johny says his government began mapping Indigenous territories in 2018, following the issuance of a local regulation in 2017 that serves as the basis for acknowledging Indigenous rights.
He says his government will continue to facilitate the mapping by working with the LMA, the umbrella organization for Indigenous communities in Sorong.
Once the maps of the Indigenous territories have been drawn up, the local government can issue an executive decree formally recognizing the Indigenous status of the community.
This decree and the maps will then be submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which in turn will issue its own decree recognizing the rights of the Indigenous community to their forests under the customary forest scheme.
That will mean the state would finally relinquish control over the forests to the Indigenous community.
Every step of this process is long, arduous, and expensive. Nationwide, the ministry has granted titles to just 80 communities for a total of 59,442 hectares (146,900 acres) of land under the customary scheme as of July this year — far short of the 10.56 million hectares (26 million acres) of customary forests that have been independently mapped by 833 Indigenous communities across Indonesia. Those maps were submitted to the ministry in 2019.
There have been no customary forest titles granted in the provinces of West Papua and Papua, despite Indigenous communities across the region having mapped their territories.
Since the Sorong government facilitated the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights to their customary forests through the issuance of the executive decree in 2017, the ball is now in the court of the national government, according to Suroso, an adviser to the Sorong district head.
Indigenous communities in the Malaumkarta Raya area of Sorong have already mapped out their territory and applied to the environment ministry for title to more than 12,000 hectares (29,600 acres) of customary forests, Suroso says. They’re still waiting for their application to be verified by the ministry.
“But to date, no verification team [has been sent by the ministry] to declare the customary forests,” Suroso says. “The determination of customary forests still falls under the authority of [the national government in] Jakarta as stipulated in a regulation issued by the environment ministry. Local governments have no rights [to declare customary forests].”
Suroro says the special autonomy granted to West Papua and Papua provinces should allow local governments here to declare customary forests for their Indigenous communities. But it’s overridden by the regulation issued by the environment ministry.
District head Johny says the special autonomy should be followed up with an implementing regulation that grants local governments in West Papua and Papua the authority to declare customary forests.
“The special autonomy law shouldn’t be seen only as a law that facilitates the disbursement of money [from the national government to local governments],” he says, adding it “will become a ticking time bomb” if it fails to protect Indigenous peoples in these provinces. “And at some point, it will explode.”
For now, a special committee in the West Papua provincial legislature is tasked with drafting the implementing regulations for the special autonomy law.
“Please communicate [this issue] to the committee, so that it comes to their attention and [the authority to declare customary forests] is included in the draft of the implementing regulation,” Johny says. “That’s what’s most important if we want to protect and keep customary forests in Papua.”
And protecting customary forests in the region means ensuring the future of the Indigenous peoples there, for whom the forests are an integral part of their lives, according to Paulus Safisa, the chief of the Indigenous Moi peoples under the LMA in Sorong.
“Our friends in Java can cultivate rice. But we in Papua, we depend on our forests,” he says. “For the Moi Indigenous people, forests are like their birth mother who breastfeeds them every day. Or like their backbone. If it’s broken, we can’t walk and live. It’s the same as death.”
Editor’s note: The reporter traveled to West Papua as a guest of the EcoNusa Foundation, which advocates for sustainable resource management. EcoNusa does not have any editorial influence on this or any other story Mongabay produces.
Coopcerrado, a farmer’s cooperative of 5,000 families, won the United Nations’ Equator Prize under the category of “New Nature Economies” due to its more than two decades of work in developing a farmer-to-farmer model of mutual support for training, commercializing and setting up organic and regenerative businesses in the Brazilian Cerrado.
The Cerrado savanna, a biodiversity hotspot holding 5% of the world’s biodiversity is also among one of the most threatened, with almost half of the biome destroyed for agriculture and a process of desertification already underway, scientists say.
To save the Cerrado, farmers and traditional extractivist communities have developed an expandable model of collective support in knowledge and resource-sharing while restoring the biome and providing an income for thousands of vulnerable families.
Bureaucratic and logistic hurdles in Brazil traditionally leave small farmers and traditional communities out of mainstream markets and industries, but bridging this gap has been one of the keys to the cooperative’s success.
When farmer Mônica de Souza Ribeiro moved into her landless settlement in the state of Goiás in central Brazil in the late 1990s, she was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of agrotoxins and chemicals deployed in the cattle- and soy-dominated region. At first, she followed suit, using chemical fertilizers to grow the vegetables that she sold for her family business. But she became increasingly concerned as she watched the destruction around her.
Brazil’s Cerrado, a Mexico-sized tropical savanna, holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity, but almost half of the natural vegetation has now been replaced by agribusiness — mostly soy and corn monocultures as well as cattle pastures. The vast destruction is now fueling desertification, threatening regional climate stability, biodiversity, and Brazil’s energy and food supplies.
“When we moved here, I wouldn’t see a single bird. The poison would kill everything,” Ribeiro told Mongabay in a telephone interview from the settlement in rural Guapó municipality. “I wanted to take care of nature and the Cerrado, but I didn’t know how.”
That changed when she joined Coopcerrado, now a 5,000-family-strong organic farmers’ cooperative and the 2021 winner of the United Nations’ Equator Prize under the category “New Nature Economies” for its two-decade-long fight to make regenerative and organic production possible for smallholders. Coopcerrado is today made up of 238 smallholder and traditional communities across five states in Brazil’s agribusiness stronghold.
Life has gotten harder for the region’s vulnerable communities under Brazil’s anti-environment president, Jair Bolsonaro. As economic and political pressures continue to favor the nation’s powerful agribusiness lobby, traditional communities find themselves under increasing threat of violent eviction, with land conflicts breaking records last year. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on the sector, burying a number of small businesses, the cooperative offers a glimmer of hope.
“The cooperative stood out as an effective model for the sustainable use of a vulnerable biome by successfully commercializing over 170 non-timber forest products,” Anna Medri, a senior analyst at the United Nations Development Programme, told Mongabay. “It provides a blueprint for sustainable supply chains that leave ecosystems intact.”
Less exploitation, more conservation when Cerrado communities are supported
Twenty years ago, the overharvesting of a bean pod called faveira was damaging the Cerrado and exploiting its pickers. With pharmaceutical companies creating high demand for the plant, which is rich in several flavonoids used to make medication for high-blood pressure, middlemen would source it from the region’s most vulnerable, often women and children without land.
At the time faveira cost the equivalent of only 0.22 reais, or 4 U.S. cents, adjusted for inflation. People harvesting the pods could barely make ends meet, according to Alessandra da Silva, a coordinator at Coopcerrado and one of its longest-standing members. Faveira was so cheap in its raw form that it could be exchanged for an equal weight of salt.
“The lowest price was paid to the people collecting this plant. It was devalued by the exploitative supply chain, and the environment suffered too,” Silva said. “No one had an incentive to protect nature.”
The cooperative’s first project, in 2000, saw faveira collectors organizing with the help of consultants and agronomists. With organic certification and improved techniques, and without the middlemen, the cooperative was able to collectively negotiate with local pharmaceutical companies. The result was that people at the bottom of the supply chain saw a price jump of more than 1,000%, now selling their faveira for 2.60 reais (50 cents). This agreement also put a stop to the predatory extraction that was harming the environment.
For the plant to have time to regenerate, farmers need to skip a harvest every two years. The collective planning and increased income for the families gave it the time required to thrive.
Working under one unified contract also made life easier for everyone. Pharmaceutical companies no longer needed to negotiate hundreds of separate contracts and had a reliable source for the ingredient. And faveira farmers could avoid having to deal with red tape.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Silva said.
Today, Coopcerrado has applied similar strategies for 170 native Cerrado species harvested by the cooperative, sold to local markets, nationwide supermarket chains, multinational companies, and for export. The cooperative negotiates billing, packaging and sale of the products collectively as well. The cooperative also takes responsibility for transportation, providing access for hard-to-reach families and communities in rural areas.
Sharing resources and skills key to success
Members of the cooperative subdivide into hundreds of smaller units. Every 10 families make up a local nucleus that meets monthly to receive support and training from the cooperative’s agronomists and share skills. “Recently, I shared my natural remedy for fending off an aggressive ant attacking the plants,” Ribeiro said. “We share the knowledge we carry between us and also learn from the technical, professional assistance from agronomists.”
Thousands of families and communities now make a better living restoring the environment and protecting the region’s biodiversity. But the challenges are still huge.
“Banks won’t dole out credit for this kind of project. They still don’t think it’s a worthwhile investment,” Silva told Mongabay, adding that government support has also fallen under both the Terner and Bolsonaro administrations.
Resource sharing among members helps bridge that gap. A pay-it-forward cyclical credit scheme, which is not always available to due funding limitations, and a free seed bank help support new and existing members.
In 2010, the project granted Ribeiro access to a cyclical project-based credit subsidy to plant her first chili pepper harvest, making it possible for her to get started. Once she earned the money back, the funds reverted to the next farmer.
A path away from greed and exploitation
In coming years, Coopcerrado plans to reach 10,000 families. For this, it needs access to resources such as credit, grants and donations, as well as changes in public policy.
“We want to revert this path of exploitation and greed and show that there is another possible path for the Cerrado,” Silva said.
Government action could make a huge difference in expanding the horizons of sustainable land use in the region, she said, but the prospects under Brazil’s current administration are dim. For years, the cooperative’s farmers sold flour made from the nutritious baru nut to the government for public school meals. But the program was slashed in recent years, and the government terminated the contract.
Improved land rights and government measures to support traditional communities are also in dire need, Silva said. “Many communities face high levels of precarity, but the cooperative can’t replace public policy,” she said.
Ten years after joining the cooperative, Ribeiro says she sees a massive change on her own land, now an organic vegetable farm.
“People aren’t waking up to the fact that we’re killing the life on Earth. If we allow large-scale farmers to destroy everything here in the Cerrado and plant crops right up to the riverbanks, where are the animals going to live?” she said. “Today, my farm is a happier place. Nature feels more alive. Life around me has transformed, there are lots of birds in the sky. Even people around us who aren’t part of the cooperative have started reducing agrotoxins.”
There are four things you should know,” says David Fuertes to the youths he mentors. “You should know your origins, because your ancestors have paved the way. You should know your values and connect in those values, because that’s going to drive you to make decisions. You should know your purpose, because that will show the ‘why’ of what you’re doing. And you should envision the ultimate for yourself and your lāhui [or ‘people’].”
Fuertes is the executive director of Kahua Pa’a Mua, an education-focused agriculture nonprofit in North Kohala, on the bucolic northern tip of Hawai‘i Island (also known as the Big Island). It’s one of many organizations that have popped up in the past decade in pursuit of food security and resilience in the Aloha State.
Some of these organizations were founded in the wake of legislation introduced in 2012 that acknowledged that Hawai‘i had become “dangerously dependent” on imported food. At the time, 92% of Hawai‘i’s food was being imported, which meant that in the event of a natural disaster or global catastrophe, the islands would have only seven days to survive.
On the heels of the Food, Energy, and Conservation Act, a $288 billion five-year agriculture policy bill passed by Congress amid the Great Recession, Hawai‘i’s bill called for the expansion of agriculture in order to cut down on expenditures, create more jobs, and keep money within local economies.
However, before the state legislation was even introduced, North Kohala—an area zoned mainly for agriculture—already had a plan to reach 50% food self-sufficiency by 2020. The community has yet to chart their progress, but Kahua Pa’a Mua is one of the smaller nonprofits to help make big steps toward that goal.
Caring for the Community
Founded in 2010 by Fuertes and his wife, Carol, Kahua Pa’a Mua operates on the premise that true, lasting sustainability comes not only from partnering with the land, but from empowering community members to take care of one another.
With several years of business management experience, Carol Fuertes serves as the nonprofit’s secretary and treasurer. David Fuertes brought the vision, along with 30-plus years of teaching agriculture in the Hawai‘i Department of Education, and experience in youth mentorship after he retired. Both wanted to focus their work on area youth when they created the organization—initially an expansion of a family-oriented taro cooperative.
“If you want food for a year, plant taro. [If] you want food for more than a year, plant a tree. But if you want to feed the community for a lifetime, invest in our children,” says David Fuertes, who comes from a long line of homesteaders and community builders. He moved to Kohala in 1975, but grew up in Kauai, where his father, who emigrated from the Philippines, worked on a sugar cane plantation and helped organize fellow laborers to strike for better work conditions and pay.
Kahua Pa’a Mua now hosts a mentorship program that teaches students from ages 13 to 18 about animal husbandry and crop production to grow and distribute food throughout the community. The program gets its name from Ho’okahua Ai, which means, “to build a foundation of nutrition, sustenance, communication, and sharing.”
While other youth initiatives throughout the islands use organic farming, at Kahua Pa’a Mua, the students employ Korean Natural Farming methods that fertilize soil with indigenous micro-organisms (IMOs)—bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa—from one’s surroundings rather than inorganic fertilizers. Invented in Korea in the mid-1960s by Cho Han-kyu (also known as “Master Cho”), these methods have become widely used in Hawai‘i, but have yet to gain traction on the U.S. mainland. Besides producing high yield crops, these techniques help produce healthy soil and sequester carbon, which lessens greenhouse gas emissions.
“It’s pretty much growing nature by using nature,” says Jamiel Ventura, 21, who started off in Kahua Pa’a Mua’s youth mentorship program and has since returned as a farm assistant through the Honolulu-based nonprofit KUPU, which facilitates youth-focused environmental programs. Ventura first became interested in agriculture in middle school through a video game called Viva Piñata, where players plant crops in garden plots. It was Fuertes’ teaching of Korean Natural Farming that fully ignited Ventura’s passion.
But even Fuertes only began using these techniques in 2008, after being invited to the University of Hawai‘i to see Master Cho give a clinic. His motivation to teach this cleaner method of farming came when his son died of cancer.
Before the Fuertes’ son died, at age 36, doctors found trace amounts of 2,4,5-T (Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) in his body, one ingredient in an herbicide once used on their family farm. The acid was also a component of Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant used as part of chemical warfare in the Vietnam War. Banned by the EPA in 1979, 2,4,5-T was used during the plantation era, and still lingered in the community for some time after. According to David Fuertes, if you knew who to ask, you could still get it.
“Being born and raised on a sugar plantation, chemical usage was a way of life,” he says, adding, “We irresponsibly used it to get the job done without thinking of consequences.”
Now David Fuertes works to make sure the health of crops extends to the health of the people as well as the conservation and preservation of the environment.
“The idea is if you take care of the land, the land takes care of you,” he says.
Feeding One Another
In the mid-18th century, North Kohala was home to 40,000 people who used systems of subsistence they developed to protect and restore both the land and the ocean. During that time, the concept of private property ownership didn’t exist. After Capt. James Cook’s arrival on the island in 1778, however, foreign investors’ interest in sugar mounted, eventually upending Hawaiians’ way of life. In the 19th century, Kohala was home to six of the state’s dozens of sugar cane plantations, but by the 1990s, these exploitative businesses had dried up as sugar production moved to other countries.
Today Kohala has roughly 6,500 residents, most of whom work in the ailing tourism industry. The land that is zoned for agriculture has been bought up mostly by the wealthy, many of whom don’t use their property as farmland, making it largely inaccessible to the community to grow crops. This blocks Kohala from being the food basket it once was and could be again.
After working as a land custodian for a mainland developer, David Fuertes got lucky and was given 5 acres. That land, which is part of the nonprofit’s learning lab, contains their brand new certified imu, a traditional underground oven. They hope eventually, with enough funding, the lab will have a processing plant that can be used to cook food for schools and the community.
The other 5 acres Fuertes acquired came through a landowner Fuertes knew through Future Farmers of America. It had been sitting idle for 20 years before the owner asked whether Fuertes could use it. In addition to the youth mentorship program, this land houses the nonprofit’s Ohana Agriculture Resilience initiative. Launched in 2019 with the hope of creating a revolution in backyard food sustainability, it provides 10 families with two 100-foot crop rows on their farm for free. Over the course of a year, families learn various aspects of farming and animal husbandry, and can grow whatever they please.
Once they graduate from the program, the families have a choice of equipment to continue their own operations at home. Options include a mobile pen called a chicken tractor to raise chickens, an odorless pigpen that composts manure and processes toxins under the pig’s feet, or an aquaponics tank to grow fish and soil-less produce.
“I got so much out of the program, and we established a network with all the other families,” says David Gibbs, who, along with his wife, Leah, and two children, were part of the initiative’s first Ohana Agriculture Resilience cohort. The Gibbs had recently moved from Utah so their children could grow up in a place knowing where their food came from. Now, the Gibbs’ yard has a garden filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables as well as chickens, whose eggs they share with the community.
One reason the programs are so successful is because of David Fuertes’ warmth. “He always makes us feel welcome,” says Joël Tan, who is part of the current cohort with his husband. Tan is the social impact director for a local organization called 1HeartHub. He found Kahua Pa’a Mua while conducting a needs assessment in the area. Tan and his husband are now growing napa cabbage, uala, and utong, and after the program, they hope to start a garden in their half-acre backyard. “At the end of the day, it’s grace in this time of quarantine,” Tan says.
Brandon McCarthy, who is also part of the initiative with his wife and children, says their wish is to grow some produce for local food drives. “I think the spirit of aloha is a real and tangible thing,” he says, “and it’s programs like these that make me feel it the most.”
David Fuertes says in Hawaiian culture that alo means many things, like “love,” “aina” [or “land”], “the universe,” and that ha means “breath.” So when you say aloha to someone, you’re actually giving your breath. “It’s more than just a greeting,” he says. “It’s giving part of your life.”
“Once our authoritarian technics consolidates its powers, with the aid of its new forms of mass control, its panoply of tranquilizers and sedatives and aphrodisiacs, could democracy in any form survive? That question is absurd: Life itself will not survive, except what is funneled through the mechanical collective.”1 LEWIS MUMFORD
There is so little time and even less hope here, in the midst of ruin, at the end of the world. Every biome is in shreds. The green flesh of forests has been stripped to grim sand. The word water has been drained of meaning; the Athabascan River is essentially a planned toxic spill now, oozing from the open wound of the Alberta tar sands. When birds fly over it, they drop dead from the poison. No one believes us when we say that, but it’s true. The Appalachian Mountains are being blown to bits, their dense life of deciduous forests, including their human communities, reduced to a disposal problem called “overburden,” a word that should be considered hate speech: Living creatures—mountain laurels, wood thrush fledglings, somebody’s grandchildren—are not objects to be tossed into gullies. If there is no poetry after Auschwitz, there is no grammar after mountaintop removal. As above, so below. Coral reefs are crumbling under the acid assault of carbon. And the world’s grasslands have been sliced to ribbons, literally, with steel blades fed by fossil fuel. The hunger of those blades would be endless but for the fact that the planet is a bounded sphere: There are no continents left to eat. Every year the average American farm uses the energy equivalent of three to four tons of TNT per acre. And oil burns so easily, once every possibility for self-sustaining cultures has been destroyed. Even the memory of nature is gone, metaphrastic now, something between prehistory and a fairy tale. All that’s left is carbon, accruing into a nightmare from which dawn will not save us. Climate change slipped into climate chaos, which has become a whispered climate holocaust. At least the humans whisper. And the animals? During the 2011 Texas drought, deer abandoned their fawns for lack of milk. That is not a grief that whispers. For living beings like Labrador ducks, Javan rhinos, and Xerces blue butterflies, there is the long silence of extinction.
We have a lot of numbers. They keep us sane, providing a kind of gallows’ comfort against the intransigent sadism of power: We know the world is being murdered, despite the mass denial. The numbers are real. The numbers don’t lie. The species shrink, their extinctions swell, and all their names are other words for kin: bison, wolves, black-footed ferrets. Before me (Lierre) is the text of a talk I’ve given. The original version contains this sentence: “Another 120 species went extinct today.” The 120 is crossed clean through, with 150 written above it. But the 150 is also struck out, with 180 written above. The 180 in its turn has given way to 200. I stare at this progression with a sick sort of awe. How does my small, neat handwriting hold this horror? The numbers keep stacking up, I’m out of space in the margin, and life is running out of time.
Twelve thousand years ago, the war against the earth began. In nine places,2 people started to destroy the world by taking up agriculture. Understand what agriculture is: In blunt terms, you take a piece of land, clear every living thing off it—ultimately, down to the bacteria—and then plant it for human use. Make no mistake: Agriculture is biotic cleansing. That’s not agriculture on a bad day, or agriculture done poorly. That’s what agriculture actually is: the extirpation of living communities for a monocrop for and of humans. There were perhaps five million humans living on earth on the day this started—from this day to the ending of the world, indeed—and there are now well over seven billion. The end is written into the beginning. As earth and space sciences scholar David R. Montgomery points out, agricultural societies “last 800 to 2,000 years … until the soil gives out.”3 Fossil fuel has been a vast accelerant to both the extirpation and the monocrop—the human population has quadrupled under the swell of surplus created by the Green Revolution—but it can only be temporary. Finite quantities have a nasty habit of running out. The name for this diminishment is drawdown, and agriculture is in essence a slow bleed-out of soil, species, biomes, and ultimately the process of life itself. Vertebrate evolution has come to a halt for lack of habitat, with habitat taken by force and kept by force: Iowa alone uses the energy equivalent of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year. Agriculture is the original scorched-earth policy, which is why both author and permaculturist Toby Hemenway and environmental writer Richard Manning have written the same sentence: “Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.” To quote Manning at length: “No biologist, or anyone else for that matter, could design a system of regulations that would make agriculture sustainable. Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron. It mostly relies on an unnatural system of annual grasses grown in a mono- culture, a system that nature does not sustain or even recognize as a natural system. We sustain it with plows, petrochemicals, fences, and subsidies, because there is no other way to sustain it.”4
Agriculture is what creates the human pattern called civilization. Civilization is not the same as culture—all humans create culture, which can be defined as the customs, beliefs, arts, cuisine, social organization, and ways of knowing and relating to each other, the land, and the divine within a specific group of people. Civilization is a specific way of life: people living in cities, with cities defined as people living in numbers large enough to require the importation of resources. What that means is that they need more than the land can give. Food, water, and energy have to come from somewhere else. From that point forward, it doesn’t matter what lovely, peaceful values people hold in their hearts. The society is dependent on imperialism and genocide because no one willingly gives up their land, their water, their trees. But since the city has used up its own, it has to go out and get those from somewhere else. That’s the last 10,000 years in a few sentences. Over and over and over, the pattern is the same. There’s a bloated power center surrounded by conquered colonies, from which the center extracts what it wants, until eventually it collapses. The conjoined horrors of militarism and slavery begin with agriculture.
Agricultural societies end up militarized—and they always do—for three reasons. First, agriculture creates a surplus, and if it can be stored, it can be stolen, so, the surplus needs to be protected. The people who do that are called soldiers. Second, the drawdown inherent in this activity means that agriculturalists will always need more land, more soil, and more resources. They need an entire class of people whose job is war, whose job is taking land and resources by force—agriculture makes that possible as well as inevitable. Third, agriculture is backbreaking labor. For anyone to have leisure, they need slaves. By the year 1800, when the fossil fuel age began, three-quarters of the people on this planet were living in conditions of slavery, indenture, or serfdom.5 Force is the only way to get and keep that many people enslaved. We’ve largely forgotten this is because we’ve been using machines—which in turn use fossil fuel—to do that work for us instead of slaves. The symbiosis of technology and culture is what historian, sociologist, and philosopher of technology Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) called a technic. A social milieu creates specific technologies which in turn shape the culture. Mumford writes, “[A] new configuration of technical invention, scientific observation, and centralized political control … gave rise to the peculiar mode of life we may now identify, without eulogy, as civilization… The new authoritarian technology was not limited by village custom or human sentiment: its herculean feats of mechanical organization rested on ruthless physical coercion, forced labor and slavery, which brought into existence machines that were capable of exerting thousands of horsepower centuries before horses were harnessed or wheels invented. This centralized technics … created complex human machines composed of specialized, standardized, replaceable, interdependent parts—the work army, the military army, the bureaucracy. These work armies and military armies raised the ceiling of human achievement: the first in mass construction, the second in mass destruction, both on a scale hitherto inconceivable.”6
Technology is anything but neutral or passive in its effects: Ploughshares require armies of slaves to operate them and soldiers to protect them. The technic that is civilization has required weapons of conquest from the beginning. “Farming spread by genocide,” Richard Manning writes.7 The destruction of Cro-Magnon Europe—the culture that bequeathed us Lascaux, a collection of cave paintings in southwestern France—took farmer-soldiers from the Near East perhaps 300 years to accomplish. The only thing exchanged between the two cultures was violence. “All these artifacts are weapons,” writes archaeologist T. Douglas Price, with his colleagues, “and there is no reason to believe that they were exchanged in a nonviolent manner.”8
Weapons are tools that civilizations will make because civilization itself is a war. Its most basic material activity is a war against the living world, and as life is destroyed, the war must spread. The spread is not just geographic, though that is both inevitable and catastrophic, turning biotic communities into gutted colonies and sovereign people into slaves. Civilization penetrates the culture as well, because the weapons are not just a technology: no tool ever is. Technologies contain the transmutational force of a technic, creating a seamless suite of social institutions and corresponding ideologies. Those ideologies will either be authoritarian or democratic, hierarchical or egalitarian. Technics are never neutral. Or, as ecopsychology pioneer Chellis Glendinning writes with spare eloquence, “All technologies are political.”9
There exists some debate as to how many places developed agriculture and civilizations. The best current guess seems to be nine: the Fertile Crescent; the Indian sub- continent; the Yangtze and Yellow River basins; the New Guinea Highlands; Central Mexico; Northern South America; sub-Saharan Africa; and eastern North America.
T. Douglas Price, Anne Birgitte Gebauer, and Lawrence H. Keeley, “The Spread of Farming into Europe North of the Alps,” in Douglas T. Price and Anne Brigitte Gebauer, Last Hunters, First Farmers (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1995).