Saving Our Lives one Seed at a Time: Part II

Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance + Earthlore (Mupo Foundation) and Dzomo la Mupo

Photo by Hiltrud Möller-Eberth (CC BY 2.0)

This is Part II in a series describing just a few of the many inspiring projects that are dedicated to keeping local seeds and the cultures they feed alive today.

Read Part I here.


Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance // Thailand

“The word pun in Thai has two meanings,” the founders of the Pun Pun Center for Self-Reliance explain. One is “a thousand.” The second is “varieties.” So, pun pun together means ‘A Thousand Varieties.’ We named the farm this to represent our quest for biodiversity in species as well as ideas, people, and experimentation.”

Photo by F_A (CC BY 2.0)

Located 50 km north of Chiang Mai, Thailand, Pun Pun is an organic farm, intentional community, and a center for seed-saving and sustainable living and learning. Members of the Pun Pun community also run two restaurants (one with a great review from the New York Times) in Chiang Mai City, where they serve local, organic, GMO-free food — much of it grown at the farm. The mission of both restaurants is to highlight the value of the diverse traditional seed varieties grown and saved at Pun Pun.

Pun Pun farm was founded in 2003 by Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents. Jo, from Yasathorn Province in Thailand, has been farming all of his life; Peggy is originally from Colorado, in the US, but has been living in Thailand since 2001. Before founding Pun Pun, Jo and Peggy shared a passion for sustainable farming, and both had considerable experience with earthen and natural building techniques.

They wanted to spread these ideas, and decided that the best way to do so was by creating an inspiring example for others to follow. The land Pun Pun sits on today was seriously degraded when they acquired it — it had been used for mono-cropping corn. Jo and Peggy figured that if they, with almost no money, could turn the land into a thriving self-sufficient farm, learning center, and home, then people coming there to learn would have to believe that anything was possible.

Today, the crops at Pun Pun are diverse and thriving. The land yields rice, many local perennial edibles, herbs, vegetables and varieties of fruit; they also have fish ponds and laying hens. The roughly fifteen people who live on the farm full-time include Jo and Peggy’s 12-year old son, Than — one of a number of children homeschooled on the farm. Hundreds of guests and workshop attendees also pass through every year.

Pun Pun’s workshops encompass organic gardening, natural building, and the use of appropriate technologies like solar heating and water pumping and filtration systems. Their core educational philosophy is: “We believe in learning by doing…. We don’t believe in experts, but in learning together by sharing our collective experience.” This philosophy of diversity in ideas (and seed varieties) has certainly led to the creation of a beautiful and vital project at Pun Pun.

Learn more at punpunthailand.org.

You can also listen to Jo Jendai’s TEDx Talk ‘Life is easy. Why do we make it so hard?’

VhaVenda women, Limpopo Province. Photo by Darren Smith (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Earthlore (Mupo Foundation) and Dzomo la Mupo // South Africa

In the Venda language, Mupo describes all the natural creations of the universe. This includes soil, seeds, plants, all animals and human beings, the sound of the wind and running water, the feeling of the air, the light of the stars. In other words, says Mphatheleni Makaulule, a founder of Mupo Foundation, “Mupo is life,” and the people cannot be healthy if Mupo is not healthy.

The Indigenous Venda people live mostly in the Vhembe District of the Limpopo province, in the far north of South Africa. In terms of cash income the region is poor, with high rates of unemployment; at the same time, it is a lush place of waterfalls, mountains, clear rivers, diverse forests full of edible and medicinal plants, and many sites sacred to the Venda.

But Vhembe District has also been targeted for plantation expansion, coal mining, and tourist industry development. Ever since the Apartheid era, when white farmers replaced Indigenous forests with paper plantations based on monoculture and chemical fertilizers, Venda farmers have been losing the soil, seed varieties, and clean water they nurtured for generations. Today, with increasing pressure from mining, tourism, drought, and GMO seeds — and without adequate legal protections and enforcement — the future of Mupo is more threatened than ever.

Photo by Juan Antonio Sánchez (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Supported by The African Biodiversity Network, Mphatheleni Makaulule founded Mupo Foundation with several connected goals in mind: to protect seed diversity and ensure food sovereignty; to restore the traditional power of Venda women; to empower youths by reconnecting them with their elders and heritage; and to protect Mupo by strengthening the Indigenous Venda knowledge system in which spirituality is rooted in ecology. As Makaulule explains, in the traditional Venda worldview, policies and punishments do not need to be enforced because the laws that protect the earth are rooted in people’s hearts. She emphasizes the importance of trying to return to this value system, even if government officials and mining interests may not move to do so any time soon.

Mupo Foundation’s partner organization, Dzomo la Mupo (Voice of Mupo) was founded with similar goals. It is led by a committee of elders, chiefs, and Makhadzis — the female leaders of Venda communities, equivalent to male chiefs. Both groups see the return to Indigenous ways as especially important for women. Throughout Africa, it is common that women select which seeds should be saved from year to year, and their power in the household has been undermined by the arrival of cash crops, which are often marketed specifically to men. Makaulule explains, “When the soil is damaged, when the forest no longer has trees to pick fruit from, it affects women first. In Africa, most women are not employed. Our income is the soil where I can grow food, the forest with trees where I can harvest wild, organic fruits, the stream and river where I can fetch clean, pure water.”

Blyde River Canyon, Limpopo Province (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mupo Foundation has also fought several court battles to protect sacred sites. Venda communities are concerned about the destruction of these sites and their associated ceremonies, rituals and practices, because they see it leading to community and environmental breakdown. In one case, Mupo Foundation successfully halted the construction of tourist chalets beside Phiphidi Falls, where Makhadzhis have always gone to pray for rain.

As a consequence, word of Mupo Foundation’s work has spread. Its new name, Earthlore, is intended to reflect the growing numbers of communities — in Zimbabwe and in other regions of South Africa — that collaborate with Mupo to fight the threats of coal mining, fossil fuel extraction, and deforestation. At the same time, these communities are showing their desire to reconnect to the Indigenous knowledge systems and sacred places that have kept seeds diverse, soils healthy, water clean and communities thriving for generation after generation.

To learn more, visit Earthlore. You can also visit Mphatheleni Makaulule’s personal website: mphatheleni.co.za. Read this article in Truthout: African Women Organize to Reclaim Agriculture Against Corporate Takeover. Or this: “The Rain Will Fall for Everybody”: Protecting Sacred Sites as Indigenous Cultures, Livelihoods, and Ecosystems.’

To learn more about the African Biodiversity Network, visit: africanbiodiversity.org.

Pierre LaÏly (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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