As the climate warms, industrial farming operations are becoming increasingly viable in the NWT. But a new paper suggests agroecology would better serve communities.
In the past few years, a wave of reports has heralded a phenomenon some have named “climate-driven agricultural frontiers.” Essentially, traditional farming areas are drying out and land previously too cold for conventional agriculture is warming up.
In some parts of the world, farming companies are moving north.
Mindy Jewell Price, an author of a new paper exploring the subject, feels the word “frontier” is no accident. She is concerned that as land claims in the NWT remain unsettled, much of the land in the territory’s south is vulnerable to exploitation.
“Global large-scale land grabs for agriculture are the norm these days, not the exception, and the combination of money, power, and technology is able to do some pretty stunning things,” she said in a written interview with Cabin Radio.
Acknowledging that large-scale agricultural transformation of the NWT is not top of anyone’s list of concerns right now, Price says that’s the point.
“Few people would have believed 50 years ago that we could drain the Brazilian rainforest, cut down its trees, destroy some of the world’s densest biodiversity, build infrastructure where little existed, and create some of the largest soybean fields in world,” she wrote.
Caroline Wawzonek, the NWT’s industry minister, sees the territory’s situation differently.
Wawzonek argues the NWT’s climate and issues around land access are significant limiting factors to unchecked agricultural growth.
In meetings with southern colleagues, Wawzonek said, she hears “what’s described as agriculture to those colleagues versus what’s described as agriculture in the Northwest Territories… it’s a really different scale.”
In her role as minister, Wawzonek has spoken about making significant investments “in large-scale development on established and growing commercial farm businesses” and describes the area as a “quickly growing industry with enormous potential.”
But she says there’s a difference between industrial farming in the south and commercial agriculture in the NWT, and offering grants to small farms, many of which are Indigenous-led, is a far cry from encouraging the kind of agriculture that strips land of nutrients and water and leaves behind deserts.
“They’re probably selling [produce] within the community or within the region, so there’s a real ecological benefit in not having to transport that food elsewhere, and in not having to rely on transported food from outside,” the minister said. “It’s tying that commercial side to food security in the North.”
Agricultural grants in the NWT are offered through the federal Canadian Agricultural Partnership, and while eligibility focuses on market-oriented farming, Wawzonek says community-focused farming or gardening may qualify for other territorial funding.
But while large-scale industrial agriculture might feel far away from the Northwest Territories, Price argues that could quickly change.
The current agricultural system, she says, “is adept at finding new markets and exploiting new geographies of land and labour.”
“We have seen this type of development happen before in places we never expected it would,” Price wrote, pointing to a project in Alaska that aims to farm more than 100,000 acres of land. Private bidding for companies looking to farm in the region opened on June 1.
“We will see it again unless something else is already in place that supports smallholders, defends Indigenous rights, and protects ecosystems against production-centred agriculture. We argue agroecology is the system that should be in place.”
Price says industrial farming in the North would be disastrous for the environment, a perspective echoed by others in the field. She also believes it could be harmful to Indigenous northerners, as industrial farming could encroach on traditional hunting areas and undermine community-led farming efforts, hurting local livelihoods.
In unpacking the concept of “agricultural frontiers,” the paper traces the historical and ongoing practice of settler colonization, in which the Canadian agricultural sector played a critical role in Indigenous land dispossession and assimilation, resulting in child labour on residential school farms and restrictive government programs that prevented hunting and encouraged farming.
The paper warns that as long as governments see profit and production in the agricultural sector as the most critical measure of success, there will be socio-cultural and ecological consequences.
What is the alternative?
Agroecology, the alternative put forward by Price, is a method of farming that some describe as an ongoing relationship between humans and the land based on respect and reciprocity.
Proponents try to produce food as efficiently as possible in a way that conserves and enhances natural ecosystems. Food security, land stewardship and community-building, rather than profit, are primary goals. Some proponents also see agroecology as a way of improving economic resilience.
Jessica Jumbo, a co-author of the study with Price, says this simply puts a new name to what the Dene have done for generations.
“You’re paying attention to the soil and how it grows things, and you’re choosing a location that is prime for sun and water. You understand that growing is not a rushed process,” Jumbo said.
“You have to have a lot of patience. It’s about working with, rather than against, the natural cycle of life. And that’s what living Dene is.”
In the small Dehcho community of Sambaa K’e, she said, residents are becoming involved with small-scale gardening.
“A lot of traditional knowledge is incorporated through discussion and getting advice from older community members,” she said. “We’re also expanding our agricultural program into our school, so kids can learn while they’re young about growing and being self-sustaining.”
Lloyd Chicot, who is Chief of Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation and sits on the Territorial Agrifood Association’s board of directors, is another co-author of the study.
Chicot says he’d like to see governments make major investments in community-led farming projects the way they did for farms based in Hay River, but many of these initiatives aren’t eligible for Canadian Agricultural Partnership grants.
Instead, sustainable farming projects like the one he leads in Kakisa have been funded by Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo. He says smaller grants from the NWT government weren’t nearly enough.
“It’s ironic that we have a southern arm that’s supporting the community instead of our local government,” he said.
“We’d like to have more input in how agricultural development happens here and how projects get funded.”
In 2019, he attended a global conference on agroecology and met with Indigenous farmers in Brazil.
“We were able to see their growing practices, things they encountered and overcame, small-scale farming techniques. And we were able to get ideas from them, from people in Brazil and Uganda, in regards to food sovereignty, climate change, governance,” he said.
“We were able to see first-hand some of the things that are going on over there – some of the things that are similar in the Northwest Territories, as to what they’re up against.”
Chicot isn’t against large-scale farming, per se, but he says Indigenous people should lead their own efforts toward reaching food sovereignty.
“There are people out there trained in universities to do things in a way that benefits people in the south, but up here, it’s totally different,” he said.
“The government needs to realize this, but still they push through policies that fail and they end up paying more than they should have.
“Some of the ideas people have in the community, if they were actually supported, could go a long way. But the process of colonization… we’re still in it.”