Trust Networks as Opportunities to Learn and Grow.
LC: Tell us how things are going with Nature For Justice.
KB: Our work is really in the very early stages and we are still learning about the key issues and concerns for Black and Indigenous farmers in the Southeast of the US. That said, there are some interesting lessons that we have learned already, and those lessons are driving a conversation about how Nature For Justice can be a different kind of environmental organization.
We are confirming that communities often have the solutions to their problems; they need groups and institutions that will support their ideas, rather than organizations that helicopter in with their proposed panaceas, get a few million dollars from big funders to implement those ideas, and then leave the communities once they have completed a project without really understanding whether that effort has truly supported the needs of those communities.
We can and we have to be better, to do this differently. I think the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) farmers project here in the US that is supported by the The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust is a key point in how we think about doing this work differently.
LC: How is your work with the BIPOC landowners project coming together? What are you learning?
KB: Well, it’s been six months and we’ve been able to do some learning. Some of that learning has taken the form of research, some as interviews with farmers and some in the form of visits to farms so that we can learn a bit more about what their needs are. We care about climate, climate change and climate disruption. We also care about farmers and how to improve their lives and we’ve needed to reach out to them and get a sense of what’s first and foremost on their minds. What we have found is that access to capital (which is the first pillar of our theory of change) is the biggest issue.
This comes as no surprise, as we know that people who can adapt to climate change are the ones who have the greatest access to capital.
How then do we leverage capital? Does it come from government agencies like the Department of Agriculture or State Extension services? Could that capital come from private sources of funding such as impact investors who are willing to assume some risk to have positive environmental and social impacts in agriculture, particularly for smallholder Black and Indigenous farmers here in the U.S.? I believe we can say with a great deal of confidence: if we want to support Black and Indigenous farmers as they face climate disruptions, we have to address access to capital to support their efforts.
From this learning, we know now that we will need to build connections between farmers and institutional partners that can work together to expand access to capital. We also know it will also be necessary to support existing and new farmer networks to share information and learning and to organize activity among farmers and between those farmers and institutional partners. That’s probably the most important work we can do over the next six to eight months.
LC: Nature For Justice talks about Trust Networks: How do you plan, evaluate and leverage Trust Networks within your work with BIPOC landowner projects?
KB: We are starting to form some farmer cohorts, and we are also beginning to form partnerships with some of the scientific organizations, research institutions and academics who are deeply interested in these issues and who are working in this area and we are starting to establish some relationships with them and farmers, particularly in North Carolina.
We know farmer networks already exist in some places throughout the US. How we can support those networks and support them as they address issues that they are identifying? In spaces where they don’t exist, how can we help support the development of new networks that can leverage the collective power of individual farming households so that they can procure the resources they need going forward? And as we support their capital and resource needs, Nature For Justice can then work with those farmer networks and institutional partners to explore other opportunities, such as carbon markets for agricultural lands, regenerative agriculture, and so on.
LC: Tell us more….
KB: Some farmers have been doing regenerative farming for centuries. They haven’t called it regenerative farming as such; it’s just the way they have managed the land and the soil. These methods have been passed down for generations. Now we are looking at how some of those methods match with Western scientific methods that have been developed and identified over the past 30 – 50 years.
We need to ask: can we think about ways to utilize both knowledge systems together in ways that improve and regenerate soil health and create more productive farms that are more resilient to climate change?
LC: Can you expand more on where not having access to capital is failing farmers and where Trust Networks could maybe assist?
KB: I met some farmers in southern Virginia recently and had a chance to visit their operations there. They are really thinking about agriculture in a very different way. They are thinking about not only no-till farming but also at agro-tourism, looking at ways to bring people to their farms so that they can see a different way of life. They view farming as a means for healing and regeneration – not just for the land, but for the humans, flora and fauna that depend on that land.
But they have a difficult time obtaining the resources for projects like that. The extension office in Virginia will say well you need to grow crops in a certain way to be effective. Why can they not get the support in the way a corporate rancher can get resources to expand their livestock operation? This is a real example of the need to think differently and to get outside of these constraints on conceptualizing farming in one way.
Let’s support the innovative farmers who want to think differently about farming, agriculture and landownership, particularly when it strengthens communities and it strengthens the land itself along with its ability to respond as climate disruptions come to us over time. In our model, we build the networks of these entrepreneurs, hear their concerns and needs, and support those networks by connecting them to the institutional partners that can be supportive of their efforts.
It’s really important for us to think about these networks as opportunities to learn across the board so that lots of ideas are being shared. This is a way to leverage power for people who don’t normally find themselves in the seat of power. That is really to large extent why we are focused on the networks.
LC: Thank you Kevin for your time and giving us some insight to your work here at Nature For Justice. We look forward to catching up with you soon.