Land, food and inter-generational resilience

Fergus Walker
1st December, 2017

This article was first published on Bella Caledonia on 30/11/2017

Land, food and intergenerational resilience – what is ‘indigeneity’ in a Scottish context?

We need inspiration and a fresh approach to create a food system in Scotland that meets our needs as citizens and not as economic units – and the ideas proposed by the Alliance for Intergenerational Resilience may provide the insights we need to do this.

I am currently the chairperson of Common Good Food  (CGF) a non-profit organisation which was set up in 2015 to be a practical advocate of food sovereignty in Scotland. We believe that food should be a common good rather than a commodity and our aim is to deliver innovative and strategic actions to help instigate a shift to resilient, ecologically sustainable food production, while celebrating Scotland’s unique food culture.

In the last year we have made links with the Alliance for Intergenerational Resilience (AIR), an international network currently composed of seven hubs in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and now Scotland. AIR is set up to revitalise traditional knowledge and draws its guidance from indigenous ways of thinking and relating to the non-human world. CGF is currently their main connection in Scotland, and is tying this approach into a programme of work next year where we want to bring farming and crofting old-timers together with new pioneering food producers to share practical knowledge, skills and philosophies that can give strength to a better food system.

Next week, Common Good Food is delighted to be hosting a visitor from Canada: Dr Lewis Williams, founding director of AIR. Originally from Aotearoa/New Zealand, Lewis is a Ngai Te Rangi woman, of Maori and settler (Scottish, Isle of Arran) ancestry. Lewis will be giving a talk on Tuesday 5th December at the Melting Pot in Edinburgh, on “working with indigenous and non-indigenous people to strengthen intergenerational and interspecies connections through the revitalization of indigenous knowledge”. We hope this is an opportunity to look at what is going on in Scotland in a fresh light - in the context of climate change, land reform, food poverty, food sovereignty, patriarchy, cultural heritage and more.

You may be asking; where do ideas of being ‘indigenous’ fit into a country like Scotland, former partner in crime in the British Empire? This is a question I have been asking myself for quite some time, as a local food activist, Gàidhlig speaker and believer in self-determination. I hope to show that this is something that is worth considering as part of a nascent international movement. The story however must start with colonialism.

The shadow cast in these islands by colonialism is a long one. The Romans arrived in Britain over 2000 years ago and since then we have a history full of more invasions, settlement and turf-wars than you can shake a stick at. Currently we are experiencing the incessant erosion of rights that is the hallmark of neoliberalism, aided and abetted by a Westminster government rife with cronyism. All of these examples can be interpreted as the result of a world-view based on domination and imperialism - a paradigm with which increasingly fewer of us identify.

One of the areas where this world-view can be observed most starkly is in agriculture. Our economic system classifies agriculture as just another business sector, and an under-performing one at that, reliant on subsidies, but we forget that it is a fundamental ‘sector’ upon which all others are reliant. It provides us with many of our fundamental needs – notably food, but also wood or biofuel for warmth and fibre for clothing. Since the advent of chemical agriculture in the 1950’s, most farmers have become reliant on a source of artificial nutrients that is independent of the health of the soil meaning that loss of soil life, and thereby loss of fertility, goes unchecked. There are some pretty dire predictions as a result, with some saying that we have fewer than 100 harvests left in the UK. A report by Scientific American put it at less than 60 years globally and Michael Gove has just warned that it might be as few as 30 or 40 years. You don’t have to look far to find examples of catastrophic decline in ecosystem resilience – they are everywhere. However, although we know the costs to our future are enormous, we seem to be frozen in our habitual patterns of behaviour.

It is very difficult to take action based on abstract facts, no matter how dire. I see the same pattern in the Scottish Government’s commendable first Good Food Nation consultation report (2014) which was nevertheless heavily biased towards growth in GDP terms, especially in exports, with a disconcerting disconnect from the importance of food as nutrition for the citizens of the country. However there is fantastic work being done by Nourish Scotland and the Scottish Food Coalition and calling for a Right to Food to be enshrined in Scots law.  With luck this call will get incorporated into the Good Food Nation bill if enough of us shout loud enough. Keep an eye out for the consultation, which the Government has promised to launch before the end of 2017 - Nourish will be hosting a series of events to coincide with and promote engagement.

The important question for me is how do we, as individuals, community groups, social enterprises or small scale food producers, tackle these huge challenges, and sustain our energy while doing so?

Like the dire predictions, many proposed solutions are hard to grasp. There have been significant UN Studies that show that small scale agriculture is the only sustainable way to feed the planet, but this seems far removed from the Scottish situation, where it is very difficult to make a living from the land. The international community of small scale food producers (led by Via Campesina) has made a call for food sovereignty, based on six principles or demands. These are a commendable set of values but again the risk is that these values are eclipsed by the urgency of fighting against a system that seems to be encroaching on every front.

I’m not saying that if we want to change things that it will be easy, but I am looking for a way that doesn’t seem like such a struggle. I’m looking for a bigger picture.

I have recently found inspiration in the work of Chilean economist Manfred Max Neef on fundamental human needs. He argues that human needs are finite, few and classifiable and makes the case for a Human Scale Development model that gives people the power to define their needs. If we in Scotland can find a way to collectively articulate this, then we have a much greater power than calling for rights, which have to be bestowed upon us by authority.

I believe that we have thoroughly learnt in Scotland to be deferential to authority, to wait for others to define our needs. It’s evident in many aspects of our lives, for example what Lesley Riddoch calls the ‘stand there till we fix you’ mentality. Struggling to galvanise others without understanding this situation is the probably the cause of burnout for many activists. I believe that we need to learn to decolonise ourselves before we can create a vision for a better Scotland that we can truly own as ours – including a vision of a better food system.

I see this as one way of side stepping the oppressive weight of colonialism. The clearest route I have discovered so far begins with this idea of developing a language of needs - what the founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg calls ‘knowing what is alive in us’. Similarly to Max Neef, he defines a finite set of universal needs, all of which are important to human wellbeing. His methods are based on developing a dialogue that expresses feelings and needs rather than moralistic judgements, then identifying strategies that meet those needs without compromising the needs of others.  This can be seen as a paradigm shift from the internalised habits of thousands of years of colonisation. I think there is a clear parallel between this interpersonal process and the bigger picture of what the Alliance for Intergenerational Resilience calls ‘re-indigenisation’ – calling for us to consider the fundamental needs of the land that sustains us.

In a Scottish context, the concept of ‘indigeneity’ is problematic. The term is hard to define, in fact the UN refuses to define ‘indigenous’, preferring instead to recognise self-identifying groups of people who ‘practice unique traditions and retain social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live’ For a country like Scotland, being able to value our unique traditions without getting mixed up in judgements linked to our colonial legacy can be very difficult. This is where Rosenberg’s work is vital in distinguishing which of our cultural practices promote cooperation over domination: each of us, individually and collectively, need to take ownership of, and celebrate the traditions that nurture us, and wave goodbye to those that drain us. Then we can begin to create a working language of the commons in Scotland.

We invite you to come to Dr Lewis Williams talk on Tuesday if you are intrigued. Book your tickets on Eventbrite here. Tickets are free but donations gladly accepted on the night. Hot mince pies provided!

AIR are currently running an international crowdfunder to support their Seeding Intergenerational Resilience project, which includes Common Good Food's work on Farmhack Scotland. Find out more and donate to the crowdfunding campaign here.