Memory and Imagination
Exploring their role within the history and future of agriculture.
Stories usually navigate between two spaces; memories and imagination.
The word “memory” is generally defined as the capacity of our brains to retain information, and “forgetting” is the act of losing it. We can try to define memories as vivid images rooted in our lives’ events and experiences, forming an essential part of who we are. Imagination, on the other hand, springs from an infinite source of possibilities; it is creativity in its purest state, contemplating everything we would like, or not, to see materialised. At their very essence, remembering and imagining are acts that invoke life.
In this instalment, we want to reflect on the role of memories and imagination within the history and future of agriculture, and Indigenous and peasant struggles around the world.
Let’s begin by reflecting on the creative nature of memory and imagination — both sources and channels for stories. Suppose we use water as a metaphor to visualise these two concepts. We can picture imagination as an infinite current, effortlessly flowing downstream, creating new channels in its wake. Memory, on the other hand, is a path that pushes against that current in an effort to trace its way upstream.
Remembering and imagining are fundamental elements for the sowing and growth of our cultures and identities, and just like water, they can also flow with or against — be contained, diverted or interrupted.
Vanishing streams of culture: Colonisation.
It is a fact that colonisers made their greatest effort to erase the knowledge, languages, and worldviews of entire communities, violently altering ancestral agricultural practices for their benefit and profit. The forced introduction of new and extensive monocultures, the prioritisation of export crops, and the over-exploitation of peoples and nature eroded sacred and diverse ways of caring for the land, stripping communities of their intimate relationships with their territories — relationships that had been built and honoured for millennia.
Through evangelisation, boarding schools that displaced and indoctrinated Indigenous youth, and the many abuses and severe punishments for anyone who fought to preserve their native heritage and identity, cultural imposition has forcibly transformed landscapes and traditions the world over.
If we picture culture as a wild, ever-flowing current, its interruption drives the depletion of entire cosmovisions and the decaying of ancestral traditions, silently draining the shared identities that coexist with, and are shaped by, a territory’s nature. When jungles and thick forests are evicted and demarcated through fortress conservation, deforested for timber, or handed out to corporations for mining pits or arid monocultures, ecosystems once capable of providing nourishment, diversity and autonomy end up barren.
Drying out life: The Green Revolution
The introduction of failed technologies, proposed as “better” and more “profitable” ways of working the land, also hinders the cultural memory of communities and their ability to reimagine alternative futures.
The Green Revolution brought a wave of false promises under the cloak of government subsidies and corporate lobbies, carving away pluralistic local food systems around the world, and spreading uniformity and control over the diversity, richness and sovereignty that previously existed.
Countries around the world have had to adapt to this absurdly flawed, homogenous industrial production model under the premise of “feeding the world”. Since then, the loss of traditions and ancestral knowledge in agriculture has worsened to the point of extinction, with the disappearance of seeds, native foods, and the social dynamics woven around them.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
— Milan Kundera
Battling against oblivion, the rise of thousands of Indigenous and peasant communities against agribusiness is a radical reclamation of our food systems and cultures. The honouring and cultivation of Milpa systems in Central America, Indigenous pastoralists resisting forced displacement in Tanzania, peasant farmers recovering and openly exchanging native seeds in India, defenders of land and life protecting the Peruvian Amazon from extraction; these examples of global resistance clearly show the vital role of land sovereignty in the conservation of historical memory and territorial identity — two things the corporate food regime is not interested in preserving.
Flowing with nature: Agroforestry as a channel of memories
Just as memories are fundamental for recovering histories, they can also be key in constructing new narratives.
As we’ve mentioned in previous instalments, some of us write in our native language first, then work on resembling the original piece’s spirit in the translation. In this process, we came across the etymological differences between the word “remember” in English and Spanish.
In English, “remember” comes from the late Latin “rememoraris”, as in (re): again and (memorari): mindful, meaning “recall to mind”. While in Spanish, “recordar” comes from the Latin “recordaris”, as in (re): again and (cordaris): heart. For Spanish-speaking communities, recordar, to remember someone or something, is to feel them “crossing past our hearts again”.
Earlier this year, in the company of our friend and food journalist Dan Saladino, we had the opportunity to visit the Clementina family farm in Guasca, Colombia, to learn about conservation and agroecological practices. Intrigued to know the story behind this place, upon arrival, we realised that the land tells it by itself.
Tall, lush trees protect the soil from the sun, hail, and heavy rains that lash the town this time of year. Different greenhouses and outdoor crops house over 100 different fruits, vegetables, legumes, aromatics, and medicinal plants, all planted in coherence with the needs of the soil and the collective protection between species. Black soil, rich in biomass and homemade compost, spread throughout to nourish the earth and protect the purity of the waterways that border the farm.
The Clementina farm is named after the wise, hard-working peasant woman who runs it. Before we sit down to talk in her kitchen, she brews a fresh pot of coffee, sweetened with the first batch of honey from her recently installed apiaries. The farm’s origins, intrinsically woven with Clementina’s love story with her husband, Luis, is also a story of rebellion, rooted in memories of her father and grandparents farming chemical-free for much of her childhood until the Green Revolution frenzy hit her town.
As big seed corporations rolled out an unprecedented, pro-herbicide and pro-fertiliser propaganda campaign, accompanied by promises of “abundance” and government subsidy schemes, Clementina and her family witnessed as their neighbours, one by one, began to adapt or even abandon long-stewarded farming practices to fit this new industrialised model that promised higher profits and better opportunities. Given the hopelessness of the rural reality — living in a town where ecological and social dynamics changed under the silent consolidation of big agribusiness — Clementina migrated to the city in search of a new life. Years later, already married and with children, she decided to return to the countryside with the dream of having her own farm. At the time, her father-in-law got cancer. After undergoing surgery and a long but successful recovery, cancer returned to his body when he returned to farm labour. It was clear to Clementina that the use of agrochemicals was at the root of his illness and the leading cause of his passing.
Once Clementina and Luis got a plot of land, she found herself in the position to bring her dream to life. Unwilling to resort to the dependency created by industrial farming that had her neighbours trapped in debt, illness, and scarcity, she held tight to her childhood memories to find the strength to create an organic farm in the middle of an acidic, over-exploited terrain. “If my parents and grandparents could do it, why couldn’t I?” she stated firmly. The passing of her family through her heart again propelled Clementina to sail away from industrial agriculture’s whirlpool, sowing hope in her land under the scorn and scepticism of many neighbours.
Having done a couple of classes on agroecology in public education, Clementina began to remember and relearn how to reforest and grow food with the utmost respect for the soil, the seeds, the environment and the cycles of the land, bringing to existence the diversity and abundance she experienced as a child, all with the support of other farmers through knowledge exchanges and without the use of a single agrochemical.
Recordar led her to reimagine, and in the process, she built a farm that eventually fed her entire family, and in just a few years, the farm’s harvest went from feeding her house to more than 100 homes in the capital. Narratives about “yield” or the “improvement” of seeds depend on spreading a false sense of scarcity. They claim that peasant farmers “lack” the skills and knowledge to feed us, and undermine native seeds’ capacity to give life to plentiful harvests — to adapt and respond to the conditions and needs of the soil. These narratives serve to further the process of seizing sovereignty, imposing failed models, and consolidating food systems, all for the sake of increasing corporate profits.
Today, the farm safeguards local biodiversity, gives home to hundreds of native trees, and is a source of clean, diverse and nutritious foods. Still, most importantly, Clementina’s effort to free her land from industrial-corporate capture has created a ripple effect, a source of inspiration for other farms in Guasca and the region, receiving more visits from neighbours willing to learn how to transition their farms to agroforestry models like hers. “They are already starting to plant trees,” says Clementina, pointing to the house next door. “They realised that this works. We tell no lies. Growing without chemicals is possible.”
When we talk about growing organic, many people ask, “Why don’t more farmers simply just shift to this model?” A question that, while valid, is often rooted in the assumption that all farmers have a) the choice to decide, b) inherent knowledge in organic farming, and c) support and resources to make the transition. We have discussed this issue in depth in a different instalment, and the invitation we want to leave here is to ask ourselves the following question ever more often: What lies behind the forgetting of traditions and agroecological practices in Indigenous and peasant communities?
If we start with this question, we will surely reach deeper towards root problems; the interruption of life currents caused by the introduction of industrial models, forced displacement, rural migration, environmental pollution, and other collective traumas that impact not only the communities but the land they stewarded.
Going upstream: Restoring and reimagining food systems
To go upstream is to return to the very source of the currents that have been running down mountains, forests, and plains, pooling in ponds, and sacred lakes, unravelling into the sea, and crashing in waves on the shore. To go upstream is to fall into the realisation that a single raindrop falling from the sky was part of a larger body of water once, separated from that body only to condense into a cloud that would loom above and pour down, nurturing the soil beneath. It is to honour lifelong journeys of transformation, looking back to the places, people, and processes we often take for granted.
Going upstream encourages us to trace our stories, fears, and beliefs. To visit our relatives and ancestors. It can even make us face again the trauma inflicted by violent histories of oppression. But it can also lead to our most ancient ways of joy, solidarity, and collective care.
Ultimately, going upstream takes us to the source of life, and in that journey, we get the sacred opportunity to trace back our communities’ steps. It is a pathway towards recovering and uplifting our shared ability to regenerate and give back so that we can heal and restore our relationships to land, and each other, not only in the present day but also in the future.
Looking back and listening carefully to those who preceded us and by integrating their knowledge and spirit into today’s efforts to overcome Earth’s most pressing challenges, a whole new world can be unlocked.
For the Sicangu Lakota Oyate community, also known as the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, based on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the liberation and well-being of future generations is at the core of their work.
Nowhere is this more clear than in their Seven Generation Vision (7Gen), a food systems framework that calls for imagination and cultural memory to build pathways toward the community’s sovereignty 175 years in the future, relying on the wisdom and practices of their ancestors seven generations back. While 7Gen is a philosophy not exclusive to the Lakota, their efforts in developing sustainable local food systems serve as a lighthouse for other grassroots groups and movements around the world that are currently navigating through many different storms all at once — ecological collapse, land theft, cultural erasure and other manifestations of the interruption of life’s currents for the sake of profit and accumulation.
Since colonisation, many generations of the Lakota have witnessed the slaughter of buffalo in their lands, a tactic used by settlers in an attempt to destroy their primary source of nourishment, as well as their spiritual and social fabric. This genocide against the buffalo led them to go nearly extinct, threatening to leave the Lakota starved, both nutritionally and spiritually.
Today, several generations forward, the Wolak̇ota Buffalo Range is a result of going upstream to reclaim and protect their cultural heritage through the 7Gen Vision. Home to the largest Native-run buffalo herd in the world with over a thousand buffalo, the Range helps regenerate the soil, adapt the land to climate change, and provide their ancient source of protein in the community.
For anyone invested in the revitalisation of ecosystems and ancestral foodways, the Sicangu Food Sovereignty Initiative can be an infinite beacon of hope. Through a harvest market, a community garden, farming programs, seed distribution, and cooking classes, the 7Gen Vision is rooted in the firm belief that food is central to our collective healing and a channel for identity, pride, and cultural reclamation.
“I’m really excited for these next generations that are coming up to see that they don’t have to grow up not knowing their cultural foods or languages. It gives me so much hope that they’re not going to have these same kinds of disconnections or trauma, and I think it’s going to be part of this vision that we have, the seven-gen vision. […] And I’m just seeing that also in my own generation, seeing more and more people have this connection with their self, culture, and spirituality.” – Matte Wilson, Siċaŋġu Food Sovereignty Initiative
Just like water, the initiative carries life through every corner it reaches and takes shape depending on the challenges present and future generations might face. Whether growing food, teaching the Lakota language, providing housing, or restoring the ecosystem, the Sicangu community reminds us that in the process of reminiscing, honouring, and passing down traditional knowledge, we are getting the tools to reimagine and plant, seed by seed, the groundworks of sovereign communities for future generations.
We hope this piece inspires you to reflect on the role that memories and imagination play in your own stories and relationships with food and land, and that it serves as a reminder of how much they can help us leverage alternative pathways towards a more just and equitable future.
What makes it easier for you to reimagine what’s possible? What obstacles have you faced in the process of remembering your community’s ancestral or pre-colonial knowledge? Do you know any groups doing memory work in service of reimagining just futures? We would love to hear your thoughts!
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