Some of the most important lessons I know about grassroots organizing come from the poet Wendell Berry, who advises, “Invest in the millennium; plant Sequoias.”
Growing trees, like organizing for social change, may not provide the short-term gratification. (A tomato plant will feed you this summer, and a bake sale might provide books for a single classroom, but a forest preserves soil for generations, and good educational policy funds entire school systems.)
While they are not planting Sequoias but other indigenous trees, grassroots organizers from Latin America to the Middle East and beyond personify the vision that Berry describes. Combining their great work with Berry’s insights, here are some of the organizing principles on which our survival depends.
1. Hope is a tangible thing.
If we are going to invest in the future – or at least the millennium – then we need to shift our return-on-investment timeframe. If, as Berry says, you see your “main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest,” you have to believe someone will ultimately be in a better place because of your work. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, of Haiti’s Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), has been running a tree nursery and agroforestry program for more than 35 years.
“I can say for sure that the country will continue to go from catastrophe to catastrophe if nothing is done to change the situation,” Jean-Baptiste observes.
Each year, the MPP plants tens of thousands of saplings in Haiti’s deforested hills – planting more than 20 million so far. Each year, they watch many of them die from hurricane winds, floods, or drought. Then they repeat the process. In the decades since the agroforestry program started, vibrant pockets of green have started to dot Haiti’s brown landscape. Inches of soil have returned to the nutrient-depleted ground. Fruit trees offer a source of food as well as shade. And children learn how to plant and nurture trees for themselves and the generations to come.
2. Investment requires ongoing attention.
The Johnny Appleseed myth not withstanding, it takes more than one person to change the landscape. Grassroots organizing involves collective action from the bottom-up to create sustainable change. Sure, we may have our charismatic leaders who propel us forward, but without a base of supporters doing the nitty-gritty work, we will not see the changes we seek. “You cannot save the environment without the active engagement of peasant organizations. They must be the principal actors,” says Jean-Baptiste.
Likewise, without ongoing attention, you can lose what you already have, which is the challenge in Palestine, where land reclamation and protection projects involve constant use of land even when you cannot physically get there. The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) organize on the West Bank to terrace land, plant vegetable gardens and nurture and harvest olive trees. The land must be actively used or it may be seized by Israeli settlers or defense forces.
In Israel, they work with allies like the Ahali Center for Community Development to keep under cultivation the land Palestinian farmers have lost access to because of the Separation Wall. The crop is more than olives and squash. It is resilience that requires ongoing care and commitment to survival.
3. Think big.
As community organizers will tell you, winning a campaign for a stop sign or cleaning up an abandoned lot is a stepping stone, not an end point. It builds momentum for the bigger wins ahead, whatever they may be. “We want a revolution, where people come first,” says João, a peasant member of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in Brazil.
The MST has legally settled 1.5 million peasants on unproductive State land or land left idle by big land owners. But that’s just a part of the journey.
“As long we have a situation where fewer people control the land and industrial agriculture dominates the way we grow our food, we’re all vulnerable, and the land itself is vulnerable and suffers,” João says. “But when small farmers and communities own and care for the land, we all win. We can feed ourselves and save the planet.” Now that’s thinking big.
4. Work with the soil you’ve got.
Farmers, like organizers, wish that all seeds could be always planted in a fertile soil, but often we face harsh circumstances. Or, as Berry tells us, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Members of PARC plant gardens on rooftops or small plots of land behind piles of rubble because that is the only space available in the densely populated Gaza Strip. Like their crops, their organizing efforts are born out of the struggle; the challenges and difficult conditions help nurture their growth. To be successful as organizers, we need to observe and learn from our current conditions on the ground and work with what we have.
Francisca, a member of the Association in the Settlement Areas of the State of Maranhão (ASSEMA), harvests nuts from the Babaçu, a native tree of Brazil. “I was schooled in collecting nuts. I didn’t have a chance to learn from a teacher. The Babaçu was my teacher.” Taking the example of peasant leaders like Francisca, we learn from, and in, the struggle. The women of ASSEMA protect Babaçu trees and thus the arid northeastern landscape from deforestation.
Berry tells us, “If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his throat every time it hailed.” As a novice gardener, even I know that I have to plant several seeds in the ground in hopes that at least one or two will germinate, and the strongest will survive. It’s not enough to plant one tree for each one felled. So it is, in organizing. It’s not enough to have a simple majority in Congress, or to win a stop sign, or keep a library open in the face of budget cuts. While important and good, those are not enough.
The MPP has planted more than 20 million tree saplings because logic dictates not all of them will survive. Even more importantly, as a grassroots organization, the MPP has trained more than 6,000 activists through the agroforestry project, using the project as an introduction into community organizing for social change. Each of those trainees return to their communities, to share their knowledge and vision for the future with their friends and families, and winning more adherents to the cause.
6. Practice resurrection.
All the planning in the world cannot stop a hurricane from blowing down even the most carefully nurtured saplings, or produce rain in the midst of a drought. Sometimes we just have to start over, but not from square one. Using lessons learned and valuing the knowledge and leadership of those who are affected the most, we select our seeds, plan our campaign, and move ahead.
“People in the Movement say that even when things are pretty ugly, we need to keep ourselves in one piece. Our struggle is too big,” summarizes Joba Alves of the MST.
Of all the occupations in the world that teach lessons in resurrection, none are more systematic than farming. Seasons come and go, harvests bloom or fail, but the farmer always carries on.
Berry offers another lesson for organizers when he tells us that “the finest growth that farmland can produce is a careful farmer.” That is a lesson to be practiced again and again.
Note: All of the organizations mentioned above are partners of Grassroots International. The poems referenced are “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” and “Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer,” both by Wendell Berry.