Cover photo shows Hannacroix Creek where it empties into the Hudson River, July 2016
If I have learned anything since moving to the Hudson River, it is that the imagination is always perfect, but practice is messy and full of surprises. Before I moved in, it was easy to imagine supporting the biodiversity of these few acres of riparian land. That easiness vanished once the work began. I realized that environmental restoration is always a gift and, at that moment, it was a gift I could not afford.
The Barbets Duet
I bought this place in 2010 to be the first Barbets Duet learning site in the USA. The Barbets Duet is an experiment developed in partnership with friends in East Africa. We got to know each other while working together between 1998 and 2008 to imagine different futures East African societies might face in the next 20-30 years. (See SID’s East African scenarios.) That work was often hard and emotionally exhausting, but it created durable relationships and a high degree of personal trust.
In 2006, myself and Oby Obyerodhyambo from Kenya, began talking about learning from Western and African knowledge, modern and traditional, to create new ways to support people who support high biodiversity and healthy habitats, whether in Africa or the West. Could we find better ways to manage our own land and improve local livelihoods? Could we build businesses that sold goods or services that would support abundant ecosystems and the people who restore or maintain them? Could we learn from each other, and our different institutional histories, to create new rules that would achieve our goals? We quickly agreed that whatever we did, it needed to happen in real time and real places. We needed “learning sites” where we would try out different approaches and demonstrate the possible.
We were not talking about solving a few problems; we were deliberately starting a process of systemic invention rooted in our cultural and ecological differences.
In October, 2009, we held our Invention Convention, hosted by Mwajuma Masaiganah and her neighbors, the Msichoke Seaweed Farmers Cooperative of Mlingotini, Tanzania. In addition to the Msichoke learning site, Oby and Sammy Muvelah offered two learning sites in Kenya; Rose Lyimo wanted to create another site in Tanzania; Magode Ikuya planned to work with clan land in eastern Uganda; and I made the case that even a small London garden of pots could be a learning site. Over two to three days, we each described what we had and what we hoped to do.
In October 2018, we met again for the seventh time, more than ten years after our original thinking had begun. We called this our “Tin Anniversary” Convention and were back on the coast of Tanzania, in Bagamoyo.
By this time, Woodland Valley Farm in Cornwall had become our first UK learning site; I had moved from London to the Hudson River at Hannacroix Creek; and the Mwasama Pre and Primary School in Bagamoyo, founded by Mwajuma Masaiganah, had become an eighth site. In addition to the 2009 founders, four primary pupils from the Mwasama School were at the Bagamoyo Convention, along with young people from Uganda, Kenya, Msichoke and the UK.
Individually and collectively, we shared a strong identity, describing ourselves in Kiswahili as a jumuiya – a collective, or constellation of learning sites experimenting with ways to support people who support the natural world. To have survived and modestly expanded was a distinct achievement, as was our growing self-confidence.
Qualities of This Experimental Space
So what makes the Barbets Duet and its learning sites an example of experimental spaces, capable of having a systemic impact? Several qualities come to mind.
The first important quality we share is our ignorance. No one knows how to create new social, ecological systems while surviving in the systems, with all their inherent flaws, we have used for many generations. Our shared ignorance puts us on an equal footing with every other effort in the world to address today’s challenges. It is frustrating, but also liberates us to try whatever might work.
No right answers
Our ignorance means that we lack the certainty of right answers and are forced to be open to whatever might succeed in achieving our aims. We are forced to learn as quickly as possible. Each one of us has repeatedly tried something and failed, but learned something valuable and tried again in a new way. Mistakes are simply a normal part of the process we have begun where good ideas can come from anywhere.
A different sense of time
When we started, we said this project would take twenty years, then we revised our estimate to say it was a project of generations. This disqualified us for most grants, but gave us the liberty to move at a pace we could handle. Our longer sense of time underpins the persistence of each site even when we have experienced setbacks and frustrations. Our only option has been to keep going.
Diversity as learning
With each of us was working in very different learning sites with very different conditions, we evolved an organizational style that was self-managing, self-financing and self-regulating. This was based on a high degree of personal trust that each of us would behave ethically on our sites and in our relationships with each other and the natural world. As Mwajuma Masaiganah of the Mwasama School wrote recently, “We are a unique ‘jumuiya’ … that strongly adheres to our belief that the earth, the land – pacha mama – is the nucleus of life.”
These differences and our common goals have accelerated our ability to learn. “Working together, as people of different nations, different races, different ages and different backgrounds; sharing both indigenous, traditional and academic knowledge and at same time learning from each other … makes us create positive experimental spaces towards a sustainable future,” said Mwajuma Masaiganah.
For this diversity of people, places and knowledge to succeed has required an equality respect across social boundaries. As Oby Obyerodhyambo put it: “The participatory, democratic non-hierarchical learning approaches are core to the experimental sites.” We are, said Oby, “a coalition of opposites… developing a different paradigm.”
In 2008, Kenya was on the verge of a civil war after a disputed election result. In the middle of that crisis, I sat down with Oby and his wife, Hilda, in Nairobi to discuss what we should do with the Barbets Duet idea. Their response was immediate: “We just begin. You can see we need this now more ever.” With that simple phrase each site has been learning by doing, by trial and error, using apprenticeships, mentoring, site visits and conventions to share whatever we learn. In the process, we are creating our own libraries of experience, drawing on practice allied to whatever books, ideas and knowledge helps us move towards our goals. ‘Just Begin’ recognizes that there are no perfect times, conditions or theories for testing inventive responses to the challenges we face. We just begin.
Changing the Rules
The first time the Barbets founding partners met in Mlingotini, Tanzania, we talked about the concept of ‘mosaic rights’ – the pre-industrial system in Africa where no one owned the land, but everyone in a group had rights to some benefit from it, as described in the third post in this series, titled “Why Smallholders Matter”.
Soon after realizing that I could not manage the restoration of my Hudson River land alone, three young men came to ask for permission to hunt at my place, led by Eric Remillard. “You can hunt,” I said, “but you must give me land management in return for hunting rights.” I explained that they would be part of an international experiment called the Barbets Duet and that our agreement would test the utility of the African concept of mosaic rights in upstate New York.
Since then, our agreement has become a successful partnership in environmental restoration with regular negotiations over what to do and how to do it. Into this partnership we bring different skills, education and knowledge, as well as personal trust and respect. It began with a shared willingness to test a change in the rules by converting permission to hunt into a right to hunt based on shared responsibility for the health of the land.
When this blog began, environmental restoration at my place on the Hudson River was described as a gift I could not afford. As things stand now, restoration is still a gift, but it is a gift of rights in which I have divided and shared the land – not physically, but in the way it is used. Along with the other experiments of the Barbets Duet, this one may point the way towards wider systemic change. Perhaps, one day soon, we can experiment with new ways to reward smallholders for their carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services.