Indigenous Knowledge and Seed

Mar 08, 2012
Indigenous Knowledge and Seed: A conversation with Seeds of Freedom Adviser, Teresa Anderson
by Arianne Shaffer, Kindle Project


Seeds of Freedom – Trailer from The ABN and The Gaia Foundation on Vimeo.

“Global agriculture has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000. Nowhere is this conflict more poignant than in the story of seed.”

The opening words of the Seeds of Freedom trailer grabbed us. As we’ve been studying seed issues for the past several weeks, the sheer amount and at times disturbing nature of information has been overwhelming. It begs us to question:

How can we possibly make sense of this tremendous shift in agriculture? How do we resolve the conflict this shift has created and where do seeds fit in?

What have we learned in our research? Genetically Modified (GM) seeds and the companies that produce them are providing catastrophic results for many communities around the world; they are grossly responsible for the devastation’s that make up our current state of affairs in human food systems. Seed banks, through their actions and collections are leading the way in navigating this disturbing shift. Their creators are among the many individuals and organizations that are fervently working toward food sovereignty. These points are clear, but still, there are so many other pieces of the puzzle.

What are the areas of knowledge that we are missing to understand the whole picture of seed issues? Seeds of Freedom gives us one essential answer to this multifaceted question. Our conversation with one of the film’s advisers, Head of International Advocacy for the Gaia Foundation, Teresa Anderson, helps to uncover some of the other aspects of this quandary.

Overall, the film aims to paint a more global picture of how agriculture is shifting, illustrating how harmful changes in local seed knowledge affect local food systems, how that affects local ecosystems, and how that ultimately affects global food systems and ecosystems. However, the unique angle that Seeds of Freedom takes is focusing less on the effects of GM seeds and more on an issue not widely covered in the media: stories of indigenous knowledge from the Global South.

When I asked Teresa how communities in both Northern and Southern contexts can benefit from this film, she explained that the lessons of indigenous knowledge and biodiversity preservation are applicable everywhere. She added seed issues are “often communicated in a dry way, especially the way the policies have influenced the changes in the food systems. People don’t really have access or understanding of this, which is why we wanted to communicate it on film…to communicate the difference between biodiversity and monoculture.”

During my conversation with Teresa, I was most taken with the reality of cultural loss when biodiversity is lost. With most countries having little or no legislation to protect biodiversity in the face of GM seeds, it makes it all the more easy to ignore local and indigenous knowledge that has been informing farming systems for thousands of years. The Gaia Foundation has partnered with the African Biodiversity Network to create this film, and it seems as though they will have great success in getting this important message across. One of the great strengths of the African Biodiversity Network, Teresa notes, is their incredible capacity for finding those communities who are already working with indigenous knowledge as a part of building a sustainable and healthy ecosystem.

Seeds of Freedom will juxtapose two farming situations: One, a community in which farmers have the opportunity to use organic, local, and saved seeds that preserve biodiversity, nutritional diversity and cultural heritage. Two, a community in which farmers only have the opportunity to buy one or two varieties of seed that are designed not to be saved. “When you contrast the two it becomes clear what the problem is – it is reviving our biodiversity.” Teresa goes on to explain, “In order to understand the changes in our food systems it is critical to understand what diversity used to be. Those systems (from the past) made a lot of sense. They met farmers’ needs.”

How cultural and indigenous knowledge comes in, Teresa explained, is through the hands of the elders. By working with local elders in communities, in various African countries primarily, the Gaia Foundation is helping to revive seed diversity.

“Indigenous knowledge is completely ignored by modern seed,” Teresa shared. Community dialogues that include elders, specifically to ask them about the old practices of seed and agriculture innately incorporate the cultural element into the conversation. “Opening up a space for the indigenous knowledge to be shared allows room for younger generations to undo some of the damaging knowledge they’ve received from the GM seed pushers in their regions.  The younger generations hear, learn and compare, and by integrating this knowledge, they are effectively reviving ecosystems.”

Teresa and I spoke about how the common Non-Governmental Organizational processes in dealing with cultural and/or environmental preservation are often not sustainable because there is an omission of the cultural and indigenous knowledge. Without this piece it becomes extremely difficult to sustain local biodiversity. Every person I’ve interviewed over the past weeks about these issues has reminded me that in order to build a sustainable seed bank, for example, I must also learn the local and indigenous practices of my region. Seeds of Freedom is echoing this reminder on a larger scale – and is placing it as a part of the broad conversation about GM seeds and modern agricultural practices.

As Teresa and I spoke, we shared some of those overwhelming sentiments of knowing a fair amount about the issue of GM seeds and the loss of biodiversity on our planet. We uncomfortably giggled even at the wave of tragedy that can wash over us with this knowledge, but this is why we do this work. Kindle Project is in a privileged position to meet people like Teresa and get to know organizations like the Gaia Foundation who remain committed advocates for this planet and the people on it.

Teresa shared that the role of Gaia “has always been about bringing issues and knowledge into the collective consciousness.” It seems as though their film is really going to help do that, and cliché as it may sound, knowledge is power. The more knowledge we can collect about this important issue, the more power we’ll have in working towards preservation of non-GM seed in our communities.

When Seeds of Freedom is launched in May we will be sharing it here. Stay tuned…