Uganda, nestled in the center of East Africa, has a remarkable wealth of biodiversity, integral to its gastronomy and culture. Crops and animal production together account for about 90% of East African employment.
Together with two Brazilian filmmakers, Henrique G. Hedler, a sociologist, multimedia producer and food activist, and Fellipe Abreu, an independent photojournalist, cinematographer and documentary director, Slow Food has addressed major issues facing small scale farmers, particularly land grabbing. Their depiction of Uganda comes with a firm belief that filmmaking and photography are the most effective forms of advocacy, as they seek to bring the voices of local farmers to the outside world.
Collaborating with Slow Food Uganda, the team produced a series of 6 documentaries highlighting the challenges faced by small scale farmers of Uganda’s most important exports: bananas and coffee. The series begins in Mbale, Eastern Uganda, a picturesque landscape of majestic waterfalls, meandering rivers, and exotic fruits. Uganda has over 50 varieties of banana, and is a major producer of Arabica, Liberica, and Robusta coffee. Fellipe and Henrique explain how they filmed the documentaries, “In the opening scenes, we attempt to portray the natural environment, the lifestyle of small-scale farmers, and the biodiversity that thrives in these communities. Most videos start with drone images portraying the abundance of food in rural areas – bananas, coffee plants, jackfruits, chickens, etc. It’s a short introduction that shows that, for the most part, small-scale farmers in Uganda live in a symbiotic relationship with nature. But, ultimately, it’s our attempt to connect viewers to local realities, showing that small-scale farming in Uganda is the means of living for most people and allows them to live comfortable and dignified lives.” Following this introduction, the topic of land grabbing rears its ugly head. Land grabbing, which has plagued Uganda for the past 10 years, is “the acquisition (lease, concession, or outright purchase) by corporations or states of large areas of land on a long-term basis (often 30 to 99 years),” Dotta, Martina, et al., (2017, 2). Residents of Mbale are being evicted from their land, local magistrates are indifferent to their cries, and the government continues to hand over areas of land for foreign investment. “We’ve visited over 20 African countries over the years, and land grabbing is an issue that we’ve experienced in most regions. It’s a growing problem and those that bear the heaviest burden are often small-scale farmers. Despite their ageless traditions working the land, local farmers often rely on informal land tenure systems, and they don’t understand the legal technicalities that should protect them from land grabbers. They are easy targets for displacement and eviction.” The film makers have equally seen land grabbing back home in Latin America, “These experiences are shared by our friends back home. All across Africa and Latin America, small-scale farmers are being evicted from their land.”
The banana in Uganda is a big deal and it touches every aspect of Ugandan culture, with different varieties significant for different occasions. Bananas help people to make a living, to send their children to school, to make alcohol, to feed their livestock, to fertilize their crops, and to celebrate different moments in life. “Banana is Uganda’s staple food. For Ugandan people bananas are not simply nourishment, but a manifestation of their culture, habits and daily practices. Each variety of banana is used for a specific purpose in Uganda. Some are meant to be eaten as a dessert, others as a snack or as a main dish, also known as matoke. We even heard stories that some varieties are used in wedding ceremonies or to celebrate the birth of twins. It’s in the best interest of the Ugandan people to protect all of these varieties. If these banana varieties go extinct, an element of Ugandan culture goes with them.”
Beyond land grabbing, the filmmakers highlighted the vulnerability of small-scale farmers to climate change, through the two documentaries they filmed about coffee production in the country. Currently, countries that pollute the least tend to bear the brunt of climate change’s effects. Addressing climate change requires the promotion of the traditional knowledge of small scale farmers. “From what we saw working in Uganda, the best way to battle climate change is to support agricultural practices that work together with nature, creating a harmonious relationship between farmers and the environment around them. Currently, global agricultural production is unsustainable and climate change is, to a certain extent, a result of that. Modern agriculture is reliant on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels, that emit greenhouse gasses, and drive climate change. Ugandan farmers who have implemented more environmentally sustainable practices like intercropping, have proven that there are ways of farming that can build more resilient communities. We met farmers who grew coffee trees together with banana trees and other fruit trees: Banana trees provide shade, creating a micro-climate and decreasing evaporation rates, ultimately keeping the humidity in the soil for coffee plants. As a result, these farmers experienced fewer problems during periods of drought.”
For several years, Henrique and Fellipe’s projects have run parallel to Slow Food ideals, prompting them to reach out to Slow Food for this collaboration. “We’ve seen Slow Food’s work in Africa: back in 2015, in Mozambique, we learnt about the Slow Food Gardens projects, while in South Africa and elsewhere, we’ve met farmers who attended Slow Food conferences overseas. Then, as we published more articles on food and agricultural issues in Africa, people began to ask us about the role of the Slow Food Movement in communities we’ve visited. That’s when we thought, why not collaborate with the movement?” As their work involves building relationships with producers, it matches the work of Slow Food, an organization that they say is unlike any they’ve ever encountered. “Unlike most international organizations – mostly focused on a top-down development approach, Slow Food is working at the grassroots level, taking a bottom-up approach. We’ve seen locally trained Slow Food staff members – many of whom come from rural areas, working directly with small-scale farmers, local chefs and their own communities. This experience has taught us a valuable lesson: as a movement, we should all work together to promote a good, fair and clean food system at a global level, but that change begins within our communities, following our local practices, and respecting local values.”