1. Ireland has one of the least diverse landscapes in Europe. How did Ireland become so lacking in landscape diversity?
Like everywhere else, Ireland’s landscape has been shaped by political and social forces through its history. I’ve always said that Ireland has a very unique land history in Europe. Ireland was a colony in a Europe of empires - and was treated just as colonies were treated in other parts of the world; ruling forces prioritised extraction of raw materials and resources - be they agricultural, mineral, petrochemical, even labour or whatever. We also had a land reform which has no equivalent in any other European country. So even though we’re geographically in Europe, our land history is radically different.
That extractive system was supported by the land ownership model; the huge landowners, many of them absentees, whose only interest was maximising value. The first barrier to maximising value was that there were simply too many people on the land - the Irish famine (s) provided a great opportunity for landowners to depopulate the countryside through mass starvation/emigration and replace people with sheep and cattle.
Unfortunately we can’t just blame the mistakes of the past - since independence there have been a lot of missed opportunities to develop a real indignous farming system which incorporates the best aspects of our climate and the potential of farming communities to build long term livelihoods from the production of food, fuel and fibre for use and processing here. Instead the focus has always been on a continuation of the old extractivist model - maximising production and selling milk or beef wholesale at the expense of all else. Maximising production will always mean the wild areas are pushed to the edges and there is less and less space for diversity.
Farmers have lost more and more power in this system and many find themselves in a very weak bargaining position. They have also been locked into a production system which serves agribusinesses rather than the community or Irish citizens. At the same time, this history has left us with a very skewed understanding of our role in the landscape and in the natural world. In Ireland for a long time the land has only been used for base survival or maximum exploitation for profit. It’s partly the fault of our history that we haven’t seen a third way, one where we nurture the landscape and develop and embrace diversity. For us in Talamh Beo that’s what we’re trying to do - show that there is another way, and that in spite of all our history there are still lots of farmers doing great work who understand and embrace that.
2. What needs to be done to rebuild our landscape and ecological diversity?
We need to move away from the obsession with production. That’s not straightforward - the agricultural system and agribusiness lobbies are deeply integrated into the Irish state and have been since its formation. At the same time it should be said that we still have a lot of small to medium sized farms, which is largely thanks to successful lobbying and agitation from farmers unions over the years. Unfortunately many of those unions are also locked into that productivist mindset and are missing a real opportunity to transition Irish farms and communities into a new model. They don’t seem to be responding to the needs of most of their members, and are failing to see where the potential lies - which is in an agro ecological transition in food and farming.
The only way we can shift the strategy - and reshape the landscape and ecological diversity is by engaging citizens to think critically about our food systems, and show that we all have the right to have access to high quality food, that we all have the right to swim in rivers and lakes that are not polluted, that the landscape belongs to future generations and is not ours to exploit in the present.
We need to make food a social justice issue, and ensure that people living in cities are engaged in the debate about why the Irish state is failing to provide them with high quality, locally produced agroecological food which is grown/raised/picked/baked/slaughtered/made by farmers in fair conditions working for a good wage.
An agroecological transition would take years, and would include programmes for access to land for new entrants, new institutional criteria, income supports and training for local producers, expansion of organic production systems and programmes, retraining, diversification and restructuring of deeply indebted farms for example, and a long term investment strategy for diversification in areas where Ireland could be adding value - wool, hardwoods, hemp, energy production etc which can be produced on farms across the country.
3. Talamh Beo campaigns for Ireland to aim for food sovereignty. What does food sovereignty mean and what could it be like? What do we need to do to start moving in that direction?
Food Sovereignty is our right to define our own food and agricultural systems. It’s one of the most powerful and subversive ideas to come in generations - we need to recognise that the idea of food sovereignty comes out of peasant culture and is a response to neo-liberalism and the globalisation of capitalism - and in particular its impact on peasants - people who up until now have been disregarded in history. Now they are offering us a way out - a new way of looking at how we interact with the land and our environment and the food we produce to put into our bodies...questions so fundamental and important that they have been in the hands of states, private industries and other powers for a long, long time. The old saying is that civilization is only three meals deep; well imagine if suddenly citizens took it upon themselves to control and democratise our food production - we are really taking control of the basis of our civilisation. The basic needs; food, shelter, community - they need to be the focus. How can we challenge corporate power when so many of our basic needs are met by systems beyond our control? Food is an entry point to understanding what we are locked into, Food Sovereignty is the key to getting us out.
What would it look like? Well for citizens it would mean good quality, healthy, affordable food produced as locally as possible, and an end to the scandals that accompany the industrial food model. It would mean food production and consumption being understood as key to societal and environmental health - using farming systems which regenerate ecosystems and producing highly nutritious food to feed our population. It would also mean a change in the landscape - the bucolic ideal of the grassy field with the fat cow in the middle which has been peddled to us for years by the likes of Bord Bia and agribusinesses instead would shift to a diverse landscape of agroforestry, fibre crops, small scale horticulture and native diverse grasslands feeding our cattle. It would mean a new forestry model which focuses on native woodland establishment and establishment of old growth forests.
In order to move in that direction, the first thing we need to do is start planning on a new time scale - we need to start planning, changing and transitioning our society for where it needs to be in 50 years time. That’s difficult in today's world where everything needs to be instantaneous and everyone is looking for an easy fix. We need to build a new culture around our food and agricultural systems and around our land use. It will take time. In the short term we need young people to get involved in the political debate around agriculture. We need to listen to and support the work of progressive farmers. And we need to bring together the different actors - environmental groups, citizens organisations, farmers, social justice groups - and build the Food Sovereignty movement here.
4. Talamh Beo has spoken about the need for a social movement to achieve the landscape diversity and sustainability changes that are needed, what would that social movement be like?
We set up Talamh Beo because there was a gap in the discussions - many farmers felt they were not being heard. The debates were going in circles without questioning the overall model. We think Talamh Beo can open up the political space for a broader discussion, and can help citizens begin to engage in systems which also affect them. Firstly though, we want Talamh Beo to represent farmers who are doing things on the ground - producing food for their communities, farming with nature, who are challenging the preconceived notions of how we manage the land and how farming should work. We think we should be able to make a living from producing food for people, not for global agribusiness corporations. Some of our work should also be ensuring that we restore our degraded ecosystems. That’s in all our interests.
We need to find the resources to help organise ourselves, and build the organisation. We know it will take time but we are used to things taking time because nature takes time and we are patient. We know that we are stronger together and we want to see how we can work with other groups to amplify the voices for change, to show that there are other ways of doing things, to help educate and articulate the alternatives.
5. Talamh Beo marked International Day of Peasant Struggle in April. What is the importance to Talamh Beo of connecting with international struggles and movements?
Talamh Beo is the only Irish member of La Via Campesina, the world’s largest social movement. La Via Campesina is made up of farming and peasant organisations all over the world who are united in their defense of peasant culture and struggle for Food Sovereignty. For us it’s hugely important to link with groups in other countries to remind us that we’re not ploughing a lonely furrow and that there are other people out there on the land in every country working for similar goals.
We are not the only place where there are problems with the democractic functioning of our food and agricultural systems - it’s an issue almost everywhere, and almost everywhere there are citizens and farmers coming together and working for change. They’re talking about Food Sovereignty, about climate change, about solidarity, about sustainable livelihoods, agroecology, regenerative farming. The same discussions we are starting to have here in Ireland. And there are great examples where they have brought about real change. That’s what we want to see here in Ireland.
This interview was first published in the magazine "Rupture" www.rupture.ie