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Agroecology and De-romanticizing Ecology

These days, I find pleasure in the moment when someone manages to articulate a feeling, an idea, that I've been pondering for some time. That happened to me while reading Ivette Perfecto, a Puerto Rican ecologist who has studied coffee ecosystems for over 30 years. Her conceptualization of ecology seems relevant to me in these dark and discouraging times surrounding our environment.


In my last post, I talked about how people often see farming as bad for protecting nature. But I think it's time we looked at things more broadly. So, in this article, inspired by what Ivette has taught us, we are going to demystify ecology and introduce the concept of agroecology.

Our farm borders on a patch of Cloudy forest.
Our farm borders on a patch of Cloudy forest.

Ecology is based on Darwin's simple deduction: that evolutionary change is a process where a better-adapted organism displaces the less-adapted one. Important words here: change and process. How do we humans deal with change? By nature, our tolerance for change is very low; we want everything comfortable, and our brains feel at ease in ecosystems where we can assume what will happen. This condition has also been transmitted into our scientific concept.


The Myth of Untouched Ecosystems

What is certain in this life is change, and so it is for ecosystems. Their nature is transient. This is where the naturalists of the 19th century failed when setting up the scientific base for studying ecosystems. From their European perspective, to truly study the natural selection of the ecosystem, the most destructive species (or winner?) Homo sapiens could not be included in the picture.


For this reason, upon discovering the Americas, Asia, and Africa - the tropics - this conception of uninterrupted ecosystems, pristine forests, virgin habitats was born. This constant idea of balance was imagined there, as a perceived need to study natural selection in its purest form, without human intervention in European ecosystems.


This untouched mother nature conceptualization reminds me of what Carl Jung named the biggest archetype buried in our unconscious Western Society: the Golden Age Dream, the paradise on earth, where everything is provided with abundance for everyone, and the great, just, and wise force governs the human kindergarten.


Without belittling ecological efforts, I see this powerful archetype reflected always in these groups. We acclaim the same prejudices, hopes, and expectations for everyone. We believe in universal peace, in equity, eternal rights, in a state that provides for all. But the sad truth is that life consists of complex opposites - day and night, life and death, misery and happiness, good and bad – life/nature is a battlefield, it has always been so, and it will remain so, and if it were not this way, existence would come to an end.


And it is this reality that we must accept within our perception of ecology; while it may be uncomfortable for our minds resistant to change, it's crucial to recognize that nature is inherently dynamic, not static. That cycles of death and life are inherent in an ever-changing ecosystem. Moreover, we humans and our social structures, far from being perfect, are integral components of this natural landscape, also dynamic.


Agroecology: Humans are part of nature


At its core, agriculture represents the deliberate alteration of ecosystems by humans, involving the intentional introduction of plants and animals, often foreign to their native habitats, strategically chosen to cultivate food. In Ecology, this is now called a novel ecosystem which is a new type of ecological community created by human activity.


Take, for instance, in our farm we have coffee originating from Africa, bananas from Southeast Asia, and avocados from Mesoamerica—all cultivated within the same specialized environment. In contrast to monoculture, the introduction of diverse species in a productive system fosters their own intricate ecological interactions.


Avocado Plant in the Coffee Plantation
Avocado Plant in the Coffee Plantation

Consider nitrogen-fixing plants as an example. Erythrina sp., a tree commonly used for shade in coffee plantations, forms a symbiotic relationship with a bacterium called Rhizobium in its roots, enabling the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen into the soil—an essential nutrient for agriculture. You can also find different ecosystem services like pest regulation, pollination, and nutrient recycling.


Such ecological interactions play a vital role in enhancing the productivity of the ecosystem. The study of these interactions, encompassing floral species, animals, and also considering human culture and social structures as part of the ecosystem, defines the concept of agroecology.


Agroecology adapts farming methods to fit each area's unique culture and landscape. It considers farms as part of the natural environment, not just separate from it. This means seeing them as dynamic and changing systems, rather than fixed and unchangeable. Instead of feeling guilty about past damage to the environment, agroecology encourages us to focus on positive actions for the future. It's about embracing diversity and being open to change, just like nature itself. By doing this, we can create farms that work with the land, not against it, making them more resilient and able to cope with whatever comes their way.

"It is better to be engaged in the solution of a complex problem than to have no problem at all. If you have no problem, there is no purpose in being"

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