Edith van Walsum
I grew up in a village in the eastern part of the Netherlands and studied Nutrition, Extension and Rural Sociology at Wageningen Agricultural University. During my studies, I lived in a beautiful farm house overlooking the Rhine. We produced vegetables, fruits, walnuts, cheese, honey, elderberry blossom wine, and kept bees, chickens, sheep and pigs. This abundance of self-cultivated food was part of our own ‘Wolfswaard culture’.
Wageningen University was and is a lively place. We critiqued the Green Revolution which was taught in our university. With a group of creative scientists and young graduates we formed a project group, The small farmer and development. We experimented with alternative approaches and coined the term Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA).
The basis of my professional career was laid here. Over the thirty plus years that followed I have been working at the interface of LEISA/agroecology/organic farming, nutrition and women’s empowerment; and of practice, science and movement. What I enjoyed most was seeing women farmers empowered by their own learning experiences.
In the early 1980s my husband and I worked as a ‘junior experts’ in Northern Ghana in an agricultural programme that introduced farmers to ‘modern agriculture’. Ironically, there were no chemical fertilisers available because the Ghana Government was facing a financial crisis. Our team decided to practice what we preached: we asked farmers to share their wisdom with us, and together with them we designed an alternative strategy.
From 1986 till 1991, I worked as assistant professor Gender Studies in Agriculture in Wageningen. This helped me to deepen my understanding of the social, cultural and gender dimensions of rural development.
In 1993 I moved with my daughters and husband to Pondicherry (India). I became team leader of the Agriculture Man Ecology Project (AME), famous for its intensive courses on ecological agriculture. We got to know many inspiring farmers, NGO leaders, activists and scientists and developed collaborative projects. One of these was a comparative study of organic and conventional farms, conducted by members of IFOAM in India and coordinated by AME, which was one of the members – this is where I became familiar with IFOAM. See proceedings of the thirteenth technical conference of IFOAM (2000), p.433 - 437. Over the years, we succeeded in institutionalising the (Netherlands Government supported) AME project into an Indian resource NGO. AME Foundation, now in Bangalore, is alive and kicking and builds on a track record of 35 years.
From 2002 onwards, I engaged in global knowledge networking on agroecology and organic farming. I conducted evaluations and facilitated knowledge systematisation exercises in South Asia, West Africa and Europe.
In 2007 I joined ILEIA as its director. Based in the Netherlands, ILEIA has been the Secretariat of the AgriCultures Network for over twenty years. ILEIA’s major strengths are its magazine Farming Matters (earlier LEISA magazine) and track record in systematisation. ILEIA will soon hand over the Network Secretariat to IED Afrique, a regional knowledge NGO based in Senegal.