In mid September I attended the annual Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) Seminar, which was held just outside Durban. Participants from NGOs, social movements, gene banks, universities and research institutions in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Peru and Switzerland came together for the event. The Seminar sought to share knowledge and information as well as develop a vision statement and a strategy for moving forward for the group.
The keynote address was given by Alejandro Argumedo from the famous Potato Park in Peru. Alejandro is the Director of the Association ANDES. This organisation, based in Cusco, is an NGO founded by indigenous people with the goal of protecting biological and cultural diversity, as well as the rights of indigenous people of Peru. Alejandro also coordinates the International Indigenous People’s Biodiversity Network (IPBN), and is a Senior Research Officer for Peru on the ‘Sustaining Local Food Systems, Agricultural Biodiversity and Livelihoods’ Program of the International Institute for Environment and Development for England.
In his talk, Alejandro spoke about the Peruvian prophecy of the condor and the eagle which speaks of dualisms such as the divide between the mind and heart and between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. In this prophecy, the eagle (science, rationality, mind) has come to dominate the condor (heart, tradition, intuition). This began at the time of colonial encounter, however, the prophecy tells of how they will come together again after some 500 years following the split. This brings us to the current period in which we are experiencing a call for these supposedly different knowledges to come together.
A key theme of the seminar this year which was explored by many presenters was the idea that seed is intrinsically embedded in cultures and traditions. Alejandro explored the link between seed, knowledge, tradition and spirituality using examples of the farming practices of indigenous framers in Peru. Alejandro showed us a short documentary that followed the journey of a group of farmers from the potato park as they took a sample of their sacred potato seed (which they refer to as family) to Svalbard in Norway in 2011 to keep it safe in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault against changing climates. This journey is one accompanied by prayer and song and much emotion as seeds are not mere commodities but sacred and living for these communities. Following the prophecy, he provided an example of a collaboration between farmers and scientists in the preservation of seed.
Alejandro also spoke about the repatriation of seed and how this provides the ‘seed’ for relearning, reinventing, rejuvenation or inventing social-ecological or cultural practices. Building on the idea of repatriation, a conversation developed around how we may think of the link between culture, indigenous knowledge and seed. An enlivened discussion followed about how seed, like culture, is always changing, adapting and shifting. Through the repatriation of seed, new cultural patterns may emerge, sometimes it will be a rebirth or renewing of the old but sometimes it can also be the start of a new set of practices and relationships. I was very interested in this conversation in relation to what I am working on in Northern KwaZulu Natal. While I am looking at various ‘cultures of agri/culture’ these are by no means bounded and all agri/cultural systems are made up of changing and diverse social-ecological relationships and elements. We only have to look to the often mentioned label of maize as a ‘traditional crop’ in Southern Africa despite it only having been on the continent for 400 years to see how farming systems and traditions develop rapidly and in diverse ways.
Kudzai Kusena, coordinator of the National Gene Bank of Zimbabwe and PhD student through the Bio-economy Research Chair presented on how he feels seed banks need to adapt beyond keeping “sleeping seed” frozen in time. Many of the participants are involved in seed banking initiatives throughout Africa and compared their experiences and ideas around best practice. The importance, merits and challenges of various seed bank models/or scales (such as household seed banks, community seed banks and national seed banks) was discussed. In the potato park in Peru community members manage a central seed bank, similarly in Ethiopia centralized seed banks house seed for groups of farmers. However in Zimbabwe the importance of household seed banks is being explored. Participants explored through this how a resilient farmer led seed system could be bolstered and supported. One participant from Malawi who is involved in helping farmers develop their own seed and look for ways to certify it locally and make it available for sale spoke of the challenges they face with certification standards not being suited to local varieties. It was clear that if small-scale seed systems supporting diverse seeds are to be protected and strengthened there will need to be a diverse set of support systems established. Seed diversity necessitates legal and technological diversity and all other elements that support systems of agri/culture. For so long, commercial agriculture has been supported by laws, policies, research and development and other inputs that have been geared at maximizing profits and boosting yields. If diversity is to be respected as a key tenet of resilience, such arrangements need to be sensitive to this.
The three days of the seminar were a wonderful experience and opportunity to think about the social-ecological relationships surrounding seed, as well as to reflect on the importance of bringing together different bodies of knowledge, whether it be science and traditional/indigenous knowledges, knowledges from different geographical locations, or different disciplines. The conference was recorded visually by Sonja Niederhumer who practices a technique called graphic harvesting where she makes drawings of the discussions. It was wonderful to see how she captured so beautifully the discussion in the room using images and few words. It was a reaffirming and inspiring few days from which to reflect on work I am about to start in the field. I am excited about seeing where the collection of visual and narrative information will lead me in trying to understand better the changing social-ecological relationships around seed.