Beginning with Mothers
While as a profession I’m practicing a nature based landscape architect, I also have a role, as an advocate, with the charity Mothers First. We went from our field assessment work in Varanasi to the SUN Global Gathering in Katmandu this November. Our story sharing and discussion illustrated how interconnected gender inequality, poverty, malnutrition, climate and biodiversity crisis are in affecting people and fragile ecosystem health in every country and how the return to nature and nutritious food systems are key along the road to people and planet centred sustainability.
Established in 2004, Mothers First work in the field in Varanasi, India and advocate on a global level for, in simple terms, for good nutrition for the pregnant mother, with the basic aim that the child is born free from malnutrition.
Intervening in this critical first window may seem an obvious choice given the long term benefits in cognitive health, vital organ health and general resilience but the harsh reality on the ground is, it’s not happening. That is why we are advocating for a paradigm shift in current practice to include provision of nutritious food to the pregnant mother to break the inter generational cycle of malnutrition.
We were doing assessment work in the field in Varanasi just prior to the SUN Movement Global Gathering. Being a witness in the field of malnutrition is new to me. We met new children who were very malnourished, one 7 year old, Rossi, weighs just 10kg. To bring this into context Rossi’s weight is less than my 2 year old Irish niece who weighs 12kg and is considered light for her age. It seems impossible doesn’t it?
Even in these conditions the children lived in a community in the city, happily playing together as children do. They are innocent.
We also met children and their mothers who had been through the maternal nutrition program, meaning the mothers had fit the criteria which deemed her to be malnourished and from there been given highly nutritious locally available food on a once monthly basis, until three months after their children were born. We found these children to be still healthy a year and a half to two years after the intervention.
The SUN Movement is 61 Countries and 4 Indian states ‘leading a global movement to end malnutrition in all its forms’ The theme of the 2019 SUN Movement Global Gathering was “Nourishing People and Planet Together”, acknowledging that globalisation, urbanisation, inequities, humanitarian crises and climate shocks are driving unprecedented negative changes in people’s nutrition around the world. Stemming this requires food systems to deliver nutritious, safe, affordable and sustainable diets for all, within sustainable planetary boundaries.
As a nature based landscape architect I’m certainly crossing silos here. But the thing is, crossing silos like this has only served to reinforce through our listening and witnessing how everything is interconnected. As participants gathering with 1200 people who are working at many different levels to create a world where everyone has an opportunity, a choice to eat healthy and be nourished, we shared stories. We spoke to and listened and networked and advocated. As someone relatively new to this field of endeavour the truth is mostly I listened, seeking to understand.
Stories illuminating interconnectedness
As human beings we are hardwired to respond to each other’s stories. The stories I heard illuminated the reality of interconnection. Climate change, in the form of extreme weather events is impacting countries including their ability to sustainably produce food and have access to nourishing food. Nature based solutions and moving back towards less intensive and organic food production systems in an empowered, people centred way are thankfully becoming increasingly understood and practiced. There were so many stories and examples, and I’ll share just a few that impacted my thinking and my resolve.
Mozambique’s Ms Claudia Lopes told us with great humility and dignity the harrowing story of how following a recent cyclone, their people had to be put into camps, how this made the women vulnerable to frequent abuse and how they have worked and continue to transition and build resilience. 120,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women were at high risk of malnutrition post-cyclone, emphasising the need to integrate nutrition into disaster preparedness and humanitarian responses
From Fiji, The Honourable Inia Seruiratu told us of how they are turning to nature based solutions to address the causes and mitigate the effects of climate change. They are planting a million trees, annually, which if it’s really nature based will mean specie selection will be inspired by existing and potential ecology in parallel with multifunctional benefits to people.
Minister for International Development, Norway, H. E. Dag Inge Ulstein told us Norway has just launched it’s action plan for sustainable food systems, it’s called ‘Food, People and the Environment – to promote sustainable food systems in the context of Norwegian foreign and development policy in the period 2019 – 2023’ He said he believes Norway to be one of the first to create such an action plan. He told us while in Kathmandu he visited some of the villages where climate smart projects had a simple starting point – nutritious food. This was very interesting for me because the project supported this systems based approach to food production and security. The villages looked at pesticides, moving to organic approaches to fertilisers, rainwater harvesting, resulting to increased health in the children increased income and clear empowerment and resilience building of the 40 women he met who led on the project.
Minister Francess Piagie Alghail of Sierra Leone, reminded us of the need for respectful engagement dialogue between would be donors and the countries they are aiming to help. Irish Aid have worked with Sierra Leone since 2005 and reducing gender inequality is high on the priorities. Teenage years are a perilous time for girls in Sierra Leone. 46% of women aged 15-19 have experienced physical violence while 50% of teenage girls have experienced forceful sexual relations. 13% of girls are married by age 15 and 28% of girls have begun childbearing between ages 15 and 19, the leading causes of early school-leaving. Teenagers account for 47% of maternal deaths.
Irish Aid are also piloting projects for food security and good nutrition at community level, the minister gave a strong presentation on the resilience and strength of the people who have been through so much.
Professor Anna Lartely, Director of Nutrition, FAO and Sun Executive Community Member spoke to us about the changing nutritional quality of our food, which due to industrialised practices, the use of herbicides, pesticides in addition to degradation of climate, earth and water systems mean ‘Our food is killing us’ and globally our farmers are among the poorest and most malnourished people.
It seems impossible doesn’t it? But we heard many countries with these kinds of stories.For many Irish small farmers, the life of our rural heartland is no different, as illustrated in the farmers own stories and perspectives gathered in the recently published book, Duhallow. A living landscape for farming and wildlife. (Asselin, J. Mee, A. 2019) The book develops the idea that the narrative for farmers is changing though, and on the horizon we are hearing how High Nature Value farming practices are being increasingly valued and supported, though as yet not enough to lift farmers out of poverty.
One of the most moving stories was from David Nabarro when he chaired the workshop on Nourishing the world within planetary boundaries: Food systems in the face of climate change.
He told us, very powerfully how he had been present at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. As Greta Thunberg addressed the General Assembly, David recalled, How ‘the smell, in the room, changed. It changed to the smell, of shame.’
For the UN Action Summit in New York there were 195 global responses to the call out for Contributions in the form of Nature Based Solutions.
Back in Kathmandu we in the workshops were encouraged to share and in this we discussed how interconnected our food systems are to climate. Food systems are vulnerable to climate change. Potentially contributing to climate vulnerability or if managed less intensely and organically perhaps as contributing to resilience in the face of climate change. We discussed supporting farming communities to grow food and care for nature, a recurring theme.
The Global Youth Leaders also held a high energy panel discussion beginning with a powerful performance illustrating malnutrition affecting adolescents all over the world. In fact this might of been a very powerful way to close the conference. The discussion which followed was powerful also, as Lawrence Haddad stated, this generation are not ‘the future, they are the present’ Our own Sophie Healy – Thow from Cork is one of 27 global nutrition champions appointed as a member of the SUN Lead Group. She told us UCC have a food bank for students who need it, I was shocked that bright university students in Cork, Ireland need such a service. Can we say injustice, and poverty exist everywhere, in every country for people and planet?
Crossing generational silos also, being open to evolving processes, I appreciate the brand new and brilliant Advocacy Toolkit developed for and designed by young advocates, its clear and very practical.
I can’t help but wish however that all conferences would publish and disseminate such important knowledge in the form of an interactive PDF to the same standard as the report issued following our National Biodiversity Conference held in February this year. Here too were silos crossed and narratives of biodiversity crisis, climate crisis and soil water and ecosystem degradation discussed along with food production, and land use changes. The interactive report gives easy access to high quality video recordings of every speech, and break out session in an intuitive way.
I highly recommend this approach to dissemination of such globally important events and conferences for transparency and shared learnings, but also for justice. Because, not everyone can make the journey to share their story and influence the outcomes of such conferences. Especially not the furthest behind, the vulnerable, those who have no voice. We propose the furthest behind on the path to sustainable development will always be the malnourished pregnant mother and her yet to be born into this world child, who is innocent. Within Mothers First we have a mandate to speak for mothers and children, simply asking and seeking to understand how to make possible the access of enough nutritious food so that the child can be born free of malnourishment.
In this challenging time in humanities history I’m heartened to see this understanding of interconnected systems thinking and the strength of crossing silos gaining traction. The We many stories we heard of Nature based solutions and un-intensive organic land use management practices being implemented at different scales, restoring the health of our planet’s natural systems and bring us back to nutritious food production.
If we take this path truly together, we will go far.
Note 1. Nature based solutions are inspired by nature and people.Nature-based Solutions are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems, that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously providing human well-being and biodiversity benefits”. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/medellin-shows-how-nature-based-solutions-can-keep-people-and-planet-cool