top of page

Building Peace Through Resilient Seed Systems

The Potential of Community Seedbanks in Protracted Crises




Introduction


Protracted crises driven by conflict, climate shocks, economic instability, and other disruptions undermine agriculture and food production in affected regions. Farmers struggle to access quality seeds of well-adapted varieties, and entire seed systems are fractured. Rebuilding resilient, robust seed systems in such situations is crucial not just for strengthening food and nutrition security, but also for supporting wider peacebuilding and stability. Community-based seed systems and institutions like community seedbanks offer particular advantages in volatile contexts, with the potential to reinforce both social cohesion and agricultural resilience. This article explores the impact of protracted crises on seed systems, highlights experiences of community seedbanks in crisis response, and analyzes how seed system resilience can be leveraged to promote peace, reconciling divided communities and laying foundations for recovery.


Crisis Impacts on Seed and Food Security


Seed security denotes reliable access by farmers to sufficient quantities of quality seed and propagating material of preferred crop varieties at all times. It is a key determinant of food security – without seeds to plant, agricultural productivity falters. Food security, in turn, depends on seed security.


Protracted crises disrupt seed and food systems through multiple pathways. Armed conflict and civil strife destroy standing crops and stored seeds, displace farming populations, and interrupt production cycles. Looting and pillaging by armed groups and militias deprive households of productive assets and food reserves. Market access and supply chains disintegrate, leading to seed shortages. Social capital erodes as mutual support systems break down in the face of violence and lawlessness. Infrastructural damage hampers storage and distribution, while trade restrictions affect availability and affordability of key inputs like fertilizers. Recurrent climate shocks and extremes compound these pressures, devastating harvests and seed stocks. The impacts intersect, creating cascading risks that entrench poverty and hunger.


Women bear a disproportionate share of the burden. As traditional stewards of household food security and nutrition through their agricultural activities, stresses on seed systems translate into heavier workloads for women. Their childcare and reproductive responsibilities grow acute in crises. Food insecurity impacts mothers and children most severely. Conflict heightens threats of gender-based violence that restrict women's mobility and participation in farming. Their access to land, inputs, and services declines relative to men.


The loss of locally adapted crop diversity exacerbates vulnerability. Erosion of agrobiodiversity undermines farm productivity and sustainability. Dependence on external relief seeds often unsuitable to local environments increases. Suboptimal crops affect incomes, diets, and capacities to cope with climatic extremes. The consequences are complex nutritional and health challenges.


Without well-functioning seed systems, achieving food security in precarious regions becomes nearly impossible. Availability and access determine whether farmers can obtain seeds. Quality influences productivity potential. Diversity provides resilience against shocks. Affordability ensures farmers can procure seeds. Timeliness enables cultivation of preferred crops in optimal seasons. These facets of seed security are fundamentally disrupted during protracted crises spanning years or decades, requiring dedicated efforts at restoration.


Community Seedbanks for Seed and Food Resilience


Community seedbanks offer an approach to rebuild robustness in fragmented seed systems, boosting community resilience and adaptation in crisis contexts. They are community-managed, locally controlled institutions engaged in the conservation and sustainable use of seeds, primarily local crop diversity including farmer varieties adapted to local environments. The seedbanks provide communities access to quality seeds of traditional varieties best suited to marginal growing conditions. They enable farmers to restore lost diversity, meet cultivation needs, and reduce reliance on external seed sources.


Community seedbanks perform integrated functions that strengthen community seed security:


- Seed sourcing and collection to assemble genetic diversity of traditional crops and varieties

- Characterization and evaluation of collected seeds

- Community-level storage and maintenance of seeds with distribution to members

- Local seed production, bulking, and dissemination

- Exchange of seeds and information among communities

- Capacity building of farmers in seed security and business skills


These functions are undertaken through participatory processes that engage diverse community members equitably. The seedbanks are embedded in and accountable to their communities. Local governance mechanisms like membership rules and benefit-sharing norms foster inclusion and sustainability. Their decentralized nature provides flexibility and reach at the grassroots.


Importantly, community seedbanks reinforce social cohesion and cooperation by mobilizing collective action for mutual benefit. Bringing farmers together around shared concerns of seed and food security promotes solidarity. Jointly managing community resources builds bonds and interdependence. The capacity development and community organizing dimensions add resilience and self-reliance beyond just seed system stability.


The integrated, multifunctional nature of community seedbanks makes them apt 'boundary institutions' strategically bridging farmers' traditional practices and formal seed systems. They counteract the vulnerability of reliance on external interventions through community-driven sustainability. Their social processes mitigate drivers of crisis and conflict, promoting peacebuilding.


Seedbanking Initiatives in Crisis Response


There are several compelling examples of community seedbanks established specifically in response to crises, conflicts, and disasters to enhance food and nutrition security. They demonstrate the efficacy of seedbanking in precarious environments.


Ethiopia

The origins of the global community seedbank movement can be traced to Ethiopia in the 1980s, where villages began conserving seeds in collective community stores to withstand devastating famine and food shortages. The goal was to develop local capacity and resilience to avert future seed loss, hunger, and instability. The concept later spread to other African nations. The seedbanks represent a homegrown institutional innovation for risk mitigation.


Guatemala

After the impact of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 followed by two more hurricanes in 2010, village and family seed reserves were set up to provide readily available emergency seed stocks when disasters resulted in crop failures. Easy access to quality seeds of adapted varieties through seedbanks enabled farmers to quickly rebuild production after recurrent storms destroyed local seed supplies and systems. Similar initiatives were sparked in Nicaragua responding to hurricane damages.


Nepal

During Nepal's decade-long civil war from 1996-2006, community seedbanks enabled continued cultivation and functioning local seed systems in conflict-affected areas through cooperative action. Following the 2015 earthquakes that severely disrupted mountain villages, seedbanks swiftly supplied lost seeds to rebuild agriculture. The ability to mobilize and share seeds despite systemic disruptions highlights the resilience value of community institutions.


Uganda

In Uganda's long-running civil strife in the North, community seedbanks increased seed security and improved incomes in drought-prone, marginalized areas through access to diversified, resilient varieties donated by farmers nationally. Local cooperation on seed saving mitigated conflict drivers like poverty, hunger, and social division. The seedbanks bridged relief and development objectives, addressing emergency needs while enabling longer-term progress.


Zimbabwe

A network of community seedbanks was established in Zimbabwe starting in the 1990s to boost seed availability in drought-affected communities through collective action. The farmer-led, government-supported seedbanks focused on conserving and producing seeds of nutritious, resilient traditional crops. They increased social cohesion for seed saving and exchange, building stability in uncertain times.


These cases demonstrate that effectively functioning community seedbanks rooted in local cooperation offer a proven institutional strategy to strengthen seed and food resilience even amid complex, protracted crises. The social processes involved help reconcile social fragmentation worsened by conflicts and disasters.


Analyzing the Peacebuilding Potential


The characteristics of community seedbanks that engender seed system resilience equally foster social stability and cohesion conducive to peacebuilding in turbulent environments. Their integrated technical and social pathways support 'bottom-up' reconciliation and recovery.


1. Building interdependence and shared goals


Collective action around seed saving demands recognizing common concerns, agreeing on shared goals, and adopting inclusive, transparent norms to govern community assets like seedbanks. Participation revolves around reciprocal relationships of mutual learning and support. Working cooperatively counters divisiveness and compartmentalization in divided communities. Shared responsibility for the collective good seeds interdependence and stakeholder connections that endure beyond immediate project goals.


2. Broadening participation and trust


Participatory, representative decision-making processes build diverse stakeholder engagement and sense of ownership. Inclusiveness and transparency minimize capture by narrow interests that spark resentment. Participation in cooperative institutions like seedbanks fosters constructive interactions and dialogue across identity lines. Successfully doing things together teaches groups to trust each other beyond stereotypes. Broad involvement embeds seedbanking in the social fabric.


3. Linking self-help, empowerment, and wellbeing


Community seedbanks demonstrate the benefits of communities solving pressing shared problems through joint effort. They empower farmers to shape solutions grounded in local priorities. The wellbeing and nutrition gains of seed security give communities a tangible stake in cooperative self-development. Economic and food improvements demonstrate constructive power in unity. The capacity building and education components enlarge aspirations and skills.


4. Redistributing power and resources


Local people directing community seedbanks gain decision-making clout over resources that impact their lives. Shared control over seeds – a traditionally important resource – redresses imbalances of power that drive conflicts. More equitable access to seeds and incomes, on women-inclusive terms, alleviates rivalry over scarce resources. Rights-based participation creates stakeholder buy-in to collaborate. Diffusion of agency seeds 'bottom-up' stability and deters power abuses.


5. Restoring social institutions and recovering traditions


The organizational processes of seedbanks serve to re-establish norms, social relationships, and traditional support networks disrupted by years of conflict and displacement. Customs of reciprocity and exchange are renewed. Roles, responsibilities and local institutions gain structure and continuity amid flux. Reviving heirloom seeds recovers cultural heritage and identity. Strengthened social fabrics increase community coherence and unity.


6. Building capacities for self-reliance



Participation in seedbanking develops diverse skills for problem-solving, organization, and self-guided development centered on community priorities. Reduced dependence on fluctuating external aid fosters stability. Investing in assets owned and run locally cements sustainability. The focus on preserving local knowledge and crops underscores self-help. Agency and know-how remain within communities.


These intersecting pathways demonstrate the peacebuilding value generated through participatory processes of implementing resilience strategies like seed banking. The shared struggles, dialogue, skill gains, and cooperative relationships developed spur individual transformations and wider social change towards stability and reconciliation from the bottom-up.


Key Design Considerations for Seedbanking in Crisis Contexts


While the benefits of community seedbanks are substantial, protracted crises pose particular challenges for seedbank establishment, sustainability, and effectiveness that require adaptations. Careful attention is needed regarding:

Seedbank Location and Physical Infrastructure


Given chronic insecurity, the location and physical infrastructure of seedbanks must be prudently selected to minimize risks to people, collections, and assets. Placing seedbanks in relatively secured spaces like schools or religious sites helps mitigate possible threats. Where tensions between specific groups run high, locating seedbanks at neutral civic institutions like universities or local government offices provides protection. However, proximity and easy access for surrounding communities should be balanced with security needs. Buildings and storage facilities should be designed for durability, with safeguards against hazards like flooding that can destroy seeds. Low-cost, locally available materials may suffice, without elaborate infrastructure that could raise risks of looting. Where threats are ongoing, distributed underground storage offers resilience. Mobile seedbanks may help ride out acute instability. Physical access routes need to remain viable during unrest to enable functioning.


Membership, Leadership, and Decision-making


In communities fragmented by conflict, membership policies and leadership structures should promote broad inclusion, power-sharing, and transparency. Seedbanks captured by narrow interests can aggravate divides. Broad local participation in decision-making fosters perceptions of neutrality and mitigates grievances. Women's involvement on equal terms counters gender biases. Rotational leadership drawn from different socio-economic and identity groups encourages pluralism and stakeholder investment in the collective interest. Legal registration as cooperatives or associations can smooth governance through agreed rules. However, imposed templates may overlook local dynamics, requiring context-specific norms aligned with traditional principles of reciprocity and community welfare.


External Support and Local Ownership


While externally facilitated technical training, material support, and financing often remain essential for seedbanks in under-resourced areas, these should aim to reinforce local agency and control rather than dependence on outside actors. Facilitation through participatory methods enables communities to guide seedbank objectives based on their priorities and values. Accountability mechanisms like community oversight and transparency norms minimize risks of elite capture that breed disillusionment. The end goal should be self-directed, self-resourced institutions sustainably embedded in social relationships and community life, rather than isolated development projects vulnerable to shifting donor priorities.


Partnerships and Networks


In fractured seed systems, networking among community seedbanks and with other seed sector actors is crucial to enhance flexibility, redundancy, and complementarity. Expanding the web of relationships builds in functional overlaps and alternatives – if one node fails, others can fill gaps. Information sharing improves capacities. Technical skills and training may be pooled for efficiency. Exchanges of seeds, ideas, and social support increase systemic resilience. Building common platforms for coordination, despite divergent identities and interests, fosters mutual understanding and recognition of interdependence. Polycentric networks guided by communities avoid over-centralization. Over time, the relationships contribute to reconciling social divisions through working constructively across differences.


Policy and Legal Environment


The broader policy context should enable rather than hamper community seedbanking under crisis conditions. Legal recognition protects seedbanks and incentivizes institutionalization. Favorable regulations around community access to and exchange of seeds prevent hindrances to operation. Integration into national seed system policies and development plans ensures sustained technical backup and funding. Decentralization of governance and services delivery augments local capacities. Cordial coordination with local authorities and civil society organizations expands outreach. Regional cooperation frameworks may assist through harmonizing rules and sharing experience. Enabling policies empower seedbanks as pathways to seed security and social stability.


Ultimately, no uniform formulas exist, given the singular challenges of each crisis setting that call for responsive design adapted to context. The underlying principle remains centering community agency and leveraging social processes to construct developmental peace and reconciliation over time, from the ground up.


The Road Ahead


Rebuilding seed system resilience is pivotal for food security and agricultural recovery in regions facing protracted crises. Community seedbanks offer important strengths to this process through integrated capacity to conserve threatened local diversity, sustain availability of well-adapted seeds, and rebuild farmer access and exchange. The participatory, cooperative pathways they foster equally strengthen social cohesion and stability as foundations for peacebuilding amid fragmentation. Their localized nature provides reach into communities otherwise marginalized.


Yet major gaps remain in policy, investment, research, and coordination support for seedbanks as a pro-poor institutional innovation evolved from grassroots ingenuity and collective effort. Their potential in crisis response and recovery remains under-explored and under-utilized. Much scope exists to strategically amplify their capacities to deliver the vital entwined benefits of seed security and social security in distressed environments. Their community-centered, partnership-based approaches aligned with humanitarian objectives merit particular attention from development partners.


The problems of hunger, deprivation, and conflict require holistic solutions that interlink material, social, ecological, and relational dimensions of progress. Community institutions like seedbanks offer fertile ground for growing such solutions from the bottom-up, grain by grain. The seeds of peace take root in the soils of cooperation, mutual security, and joint sharing of life's essentials. Rightly nurtured, they can bear the fruits of lasting stability.


References / bibliography



Almekinders, C. J., Louwaars, N. P., & de Bruijn, G. H. (1994). Local seed systems and their importance for an improved seed supply in developing countries. Euphytica, 78(3), 207-216.


Biradar, C. M., Aladakatti, Y. R., & Rao, K. S. (2021). Community seed banks: conservation and livelihood security of smallholder farmers. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 45(6), 712-731.


FAO. (2015). Responding to the challenge of protracted crises: rethinking food security responses in protracted crises. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/3/a-i4952e.pdf


McGuire, S. J., & Sperling, L. (2016). Seed systems smallholder farmers use. Food Security, 8(1), 179-195.


Sweeney, D. C., Steigerwald, D. G., Davenport, F., & Stone, D. (2018). Leveraging agriculture for nutrition impact through the Feed the Future initiative. Advances in food and nutrition research, 83, 1-46.


Vernooy, R., Sthapit, B., Galluzzi, G., & Shrestha, P. (2014). The multiple functions and services of community seedbanks. Resources, 3(4), 636-656.


Vernooy, R., Bessette, G., Otieno, G., et al. (Eds.). (2019). Resilient seed systems: Handbook. Second edition. Bioversity International, Rome, Italy.


Vernooy, R., Gupta, A., Subedi, A., Ali Awed, D., Hassan Abdi, A., Saleban Jama, M., Eldie, Y., Jubarah, S., & Swaka Kamilo, S. (2023). Community seedbanks in protracted crisis situations: Potential and challenges (Policy Brief No. 85). Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen, Netherlands; Bioversity International, Rome, Italy.

15 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page