EcoGather will initially serve five partner communities in Bhutan, Colorado, India, Puerto Rico, and Vermont.

When Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit Puerto Rico within weeks of one another in 2017, the record-breaking storms left hundreds of thousands of people without fresh food, clean water, electricity, or shelter for months. Export crops, such as coffee and bananas, were stripped from hillsides, eliminating a large piece of the local economy and important food sources. In the years since the storms, the trauma of the experience has morphed into grave concern. Concern borne of the expectation that super storms will hit the island again. In the age of climate change, it’s hard to know what it will mean to be ready.

In the state of Maharashtra, India, where the effects of climate change are different than in Puerto Rico, the consequences are just as severe. Intense heat from rising temperatures is made less bearable by recurring drought. The land is parched. Monsoon seasons are no longer reliable water bearers. When prayed-for rains do come, they ferociously wash the land of its poor topsoil — degraded by years of tillage, monocropping, and heavy synthetic inputs. The poor conditions and miniscule yields have resulted in an alarming rise in farmer suicides.

Recognizing that communities like these endeavor to become more resilient and prepared to navigate life during this climate emergency, Sterling College — based in Craftsbury, Vermont — has created a collaborative learning network dedicated to the vitality of ecosystems, communities, and economies called EcoGather.

EcoGather combines Sterling’s place-based approach to education with a suite of online tools to foster collaboration, and to share the knowledge necessary for life to thrive. Accessible, affordable, and adaptable through guided lessons, interactive discussions, and intensive, community-based projects, EcoGather is designed to help communities navigate the ecological crises and social challenges driven by extractive approaches to meeting human needs. Challenges that have manifested in climate change, biodiversity loss, and rising inequality. Through EcoGather, these networked communities will become more resilient by locally controlling the production and means of access to nourishing and culturally appropriate foods.

In its initial phase, EcoGather will connect five partner communities in Puerto Rico, India, Bhutan, Colorado, and Vermont, and enable them to compare their strategies, challenges, and successes in building transformative communities and food systems. 

Using the expertise of its faculty, alumnx, and extended network of ecological changemakers, Sterling College has begun to co-create a series of 24 modular online courses with the five partner communities. Together they are developing modular learning materials that can be used as a foundation for experiential, project-based learning. The first foundational courses will address Agroecology, Food Systems Thinking, and Communities of Care. Subsequent courses will cover subjects such as Soil Health, Water Management, Seed Saving for Food Sovereignty, Alternative Markets for Small Producers, and Culture, Coalition, and Change.  

While Sterling will use its expertise in developing the courses, these are not the only sources of knowledge that will inform the courses. “Deep wisdom exists in communities. It is derived from relationships to place that unfold over time and is revealed through conversation,” observes Sterling’s Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Nicole Civita, a food systems educator and advocate who is leading the development of EcoGather. “Unfortunately, much of the ecological knowledge that enabled humans to live harmoniously with their environs was devalued when community-centered agriculture gave way to global agribusiness — a tech-heavy, extractive, profit-driven enterprise that inures to primarily to the benefit of a few multinational conglomerates.” This is not to say that traditional knowledge and modern advancements are incompatible. It is just a matter of selecting relevant technologies to support human-scale and community-oriented farming and knowledge transfer. “By blending place- and project-based learning with remote teaching tools, EcoGather can connect communities with similar struggles and shared objectives in their work with the land, enabling them to share knowledge and strategies that point the way toward a more vibrant and balanced future,” Civita explains.

Each of the five initial partners was invited into the network because the communities they serve face considerable challenges and they have already begun to address those challenges with a commitment to values-based action. The initial EcoGather partners are: the Gross National Happiness Center Bhutan, the Maati-Paani-Asha Center in India, FrontLine Farming of Colorado, the Puerto Rico Trust for Science, Research and Technology, and The Center for an Agricultural Economy in Vermont. 

Through EcoGather, these five communities will be working to recover the ecological knowledge that was devalued and displaced when community-centered agriculture gave way to the purported advancements of industrialized global agribusiness. The necessary next shift involves respecting place-based knowledge, returning power to communities, and carefully integrating select technologies for human-scale farming and education.  

The introduction of EcoGather to communities in Maharashtra, India, is an excellent example of how the partnership will work. EcoGather is being facilitated by the Maati Paani Asha Center of Student and Education Support Association (SESA) in collaboration with Gopikabai Sitaram Gawande College, which uses education to create opportunity in an impoverished region that is poised to face some of the worst impacts from a changing climate. 

“EcoGather will accelerate our efforts to reclaim indigenous knowledge as the foundation of a viable agrarian society in this region of India,” says Sumeeta Gawande, Director of Student and Education Support Association and co-creator of the Maati Paani Asha Center. “It will enable us to support farmers in transitioning to agroecological methods that regenerate soil, water, and hope — Maati Paani Asha. These vital components must be restored so that our community can increase its resilience in the face of climate volatility, drought, and other shocks, such as the pandemic that has caused so much devastation in our region. An important element of EcoGather that cannot be overlooked is that it connects people who can offer support, encouragement, and camaraderie, in addition to practical solutions.”

The Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan (GNHCB) has joined EcoGather as a way to re-ignite youth interest in agriculture. Relatedly, it will also contribute to the development of curriculum on integrating the principles of wellbeing and a Wellbeing Economy. “Gross National Happiness puts forward a holistic, equitable, and sustainable approach to development centered around measuring and balancing nine domains of progress, which include: living standards; education; health; environment; community vitality; time-use; cultural diversity and resilience; psychological well-being; and good governance,” says its Programme Director, Julia Kim. “We are eager to share this approach with other EcoGather partner communities and to benefit from their expertise as we seek to inspire youth in our country to recommit to land-based livelihoods that preserve our nation’s pristine environment and lush biodiversity.”

Similarly, FrontLine Farming, a BIPOC & Womxn-led farmer and food justice advocacy organization in Colorado’s Front Range aims to expand opportunities in farming for people of color and is especially interested in helping agricultural laborers make the transition to farm ownership and self-determination. FrontLine’s Co-Founder, Executive Director, and Head Farmer,  Fatuma Emmad observes, “our organization already knows a lot about farming with nature and about farming as a liberatory practice. We are delighted to share that knowledge and to use the EcoGather platform in ways that will also make it easier for us to spread knowledge within our own community. But importantly, we also expect that our ambitious efforts to help the essential farmworkers who perform risky jobs on other people’s land for low wages will be strengthened by our ability to glean new ideas about alternative markets, commons management, and land access from other partners.”

The Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE), located alongside Sterling in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, is poised to contribute some of this needed knowledge to EcoGather. “The CAE uses a whole system approach to support farm and regional food system viability. We firmly believe that other regions could benefit from learning more about our model — and that we stand to discover additional ways to bring about economic and ecological stability and abundance in our rural Vermont communities by being in dialogue with the other EcoGather partners,” says its Executive Director, Jon Ramsay. “Though their landscapes are quite different from ours, we all share a commitment to supporting land-based livelihoods and communities connected through the production of and secure access to good food.”

Resilient farms and local food sovereignty are also clear priorities for the Puerto Rico Trust for Science, Research & Technology. The Trust is building upon knowledge derived through its Recuperacion Agricola program, which provided recovery assistance, resources, and materials to farmers affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, by setting up an Academia del Cacao, to address knowledge and expertise gaps among farmers and educators about agroforestry and the diversified production of high quality cacao.

The resources of EcoGather are being made perpetually available to the five partner communities free of charge, as part of a $1.5 million grant that Sterling College received to establish the platform. “For decades, Sterling College has been at the forefront of advancing ecological thinking and action,” says Matthew Derr, President of Sterling. “EcoGather allows us to transcend the boundaries of our campus in Vermont and more effectively use education as a force to address critical eco-social challenges.”

To support wide access and inclusion, EcoGather courses will eventually be available for anyone in the world to purchase and participate in, providing Sterling College and EcoGather the capacity not just to sustain, but to expand its reach and impact.

For more information about Sterling’s EcoGather program and to see profiles of the partner communities, visit  ecogather.sterlingcollege.edu.

Who can I talk to about EcoGather?

If you are an individual or organization who would like to learn more about how to enroll in EcoGather, please email: ecogather@sterlingcollege.edu

If you are a journalist who would like to learn more about EcoGather for a story, please contact: media@sterlingcollege.edu

If you are an expert or academic with a desire to participate in EcoGather, please contact: ecogather@sterlingcollege.edu

If you are an individual or organization who is interested in supporting EcoGather, please contact Christina Goodwin, Vice President for Advancement (cgoodwin@sterlingcollege.edu)


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