Dr. Filiberto Penados gives new meaning to the term, “visiting professor”. He travels regularly from his Central American home in Belize to lecture at New College and elsewhere at U of T for the Equity Studies, Aboriginal Studies, Caribbean Studies, Human Biology and New One: Learning Without Borders programs.
In Belize, he directs the Institute for Sustainable International Studies, which hosts upper-year University of Toronto students for a week-long experiential learning program. The students learn from guided tours and hands-on experiences at Indigenous communities, many of which descended from the Mayan civilization which once thrived in the areas now mapped as Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize.
Penados’ participation was recently the highlight of another New College initiative: two panel discussions on agroecology in Indigenous settings, held as part of New College’s celebration of World Food Day this October.
Agroecology is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of projects that share a commitment to harmonize food production with processes and patterns found in nature. The range of participants in the Belize experiential learning program, which is open to students from Equity Studies, Caribbean Studies, Aboriginal Studies and Human Biology, exemplifies just how wide the umbrella is.
According to New College’s Food Systems Coordinator Lori Stahlbrand, unlike conventional North American-style agriculture and agribusiness, agroecological farming is commonly described as combining elements of a movement, a practice and a science of food production.
“Agroecology operationalizes the food sovereignty movement,” Stahlbrand said when introducing Penados at his first panel discussion, where he was joined by students who participated in the Belize program.
Both agroecology and food sovereignty are rapidly gaining ground in Indigenous communities of the Global South, and also among United Nations agencies dealing with food, human rights and global warming. Stahlbrand says both movements are endorsed in Canada by organizations such as the National Farmers Union and Food Secure Canada.
For Penados, agroecology is as much about education and culture as food production. Linking education, culture and food allows us to “decolonize education and economic development” in concert with each other, he told the packed hall of Equity Studies students and World Food Day participants.
Dr. Filiberto Penados, pictured right, with University of Toronto students during New College’s experiential learning program in Belize.
Agroecology challenges many Western norms of education, Penados says. Instead of the typical lecture hall with a professor standing at the front of the room lecturing seated students, he took students to forests and fields, where they worked alongside adults who were re-learning traditional Mayan ways of producing corn, cassava and cacao—three of the many staple foods Indigenous peoples of Central America contributed to the world’s food pantry, in what is often called “the Columbian exchange”, following Spanish and Portuguese colonization.
Penados says reclaiming the historic achievement of these Indigenous foodways “is essential to self-confidence, independence, dignity and sovereignty.”
During the panel discussion, nine students reported on their week-long trip to Belize, emphasizing its 360-degree impact on academic, personal and cultural growth.
“Every day was like 20 days in terms of emotional intensity,” said one student, who described the course as “the best experience in my life so far”.
She recalled the first moment she understood how completely different agroecological farming practices are from North American ones when she waited expectantly as they drove through a forest to get to the community farm.
“All of a sudden, I realized that we were [already] on the farm,” she said.
She had just discovered a basic principle of agroecology, which holds that forests and fields are equal partners in food production–in stark contrast to North America and Europe, where wilderness forests are separated and fenced off from exclusively domesticated spaces and built environments.
As part of a New College experiential learning program, students learn about traditional fruits and plants at a Mayan farm in Belize. In this picture, they are guided by Marti, a Mayan youth.
In Mayan tradition, similar to food production methods typical throughout the Global South, forests provide many essential foods, notably cacao, vanilla and a host of medicinal plants. But forest foragers may also bring home wood for cooking fuel and thatch for roofing material. A defining element of agroecology is this integration of fibre and fuel production alongside forest foods such as herbs, spices, honey and medicines.
Students’ awareness of the value of Mayan-style experiential learning was also broadened by the Belize program. It gave participants the opportunity to “open your mind to things you can’t imagine learning in a classroom,” said one student. “There is a world waiting to be your teacher,” said another.
Another student felt the most vivid lesson was that food’s importance is not just physical, but also “a tool for recovering Indigeneity,” which serves “a greater purpose of decolonizing and reclaiming.”
Struck by the passion and eloquence of student panellists, Penados said agroecology is not just a technique of food production, but also highlights “the power to transform lives” by incorporating heritage foods and practices with modern ones.
Nor is agroecology “just about preservation” of an ancient Mayan culture, he said. Traditional Mayan methods are practiced alongside newer methods and different crops. According to Penados, this is not reproduction of an old culture, “but production of a new one.”
Perhaps the conventional definition of agroecology needs to be amplified in terms of both Penados’ and New College student experiences. Agroecology is more than a science, a practice and a movement. It is also a cultural catalyst.