IDRS has joined forces with a non-profit organization in the south eastern part of the Navajo Nation, Tolani Lake Enterprises (TLE), and a coalition of over fifteen community based organizations that are committed to promote food sovereignty and small organic farming throughout their Nation. IDRS is bringing is experience in supporting reservation economic development, in providing small business training and development, and facilitating decision making and action planning to assist the Tribe restore its agricultural sector.
The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian Reservation in the country. It covers 27,413 square miles and faces the daunting task of supporting a large population of over 250,000 people. Currently, it relies on an economy that is built around a single sector: the extraction, export and sale of the Tribe’s raw materials e.g. coal, uranium, gas and water. This reliance makes the Tribe extremely vulnerable to the regular ups and downs of a volatile national market and to restrictive federal regulations. Unemployment in the Navajo community ranges between 65% to 80% and over 55% of the people fall below the poverty level.
Fifty years ago, the Navajo Nation had an agricultural sector made up of small family farms and ranches that produced organic food for the local market and for tribal members’ subsistence needs. Today, 70% to 75% of these farms and farm families are idle. In the absence of locally grown healthy foods, people have adopted diets of processed foods that are heavily laden with sugar and carbohydrates. The result is widespread obesity and an alarming epidemic of diabetes and related costly health problems among the Navajo people.
In recent years, there is a renewed interest in organic farming and there are a number of new small organic gardens and farming initiatives appearing in Navajo communities. However, this development will remain on a very small scale unless an institutional infrastructure is developed that can encourage, co-ordinate and provide grassroots farmers with the support services and resources they need to succeed and to ultimately make a significant contribution to the reservation economy.
IDRS is working with TLE and other Navajo leaders to create the needed institutional infrastructure. Together, we are implementing two basic strategies: (1) organizing aspiring organic farmers into mutual support groups, and training and supporting these “cohorts” together for a period of up to five years on “incubator” farms, and (2) developing an intermediary institution between tribal government and the grass-roots farmers that will develop, coordinate and operate programs, support services and activities. These include: a hands-on bi-lingual and bi-cultural training curriculum that combines traditional knowledge with modern scientific know-how; a technical assistance/mentorship program; a farm equipment and implement lending/leasing program; a revolving small business development loan program; and a marketing mechanism that operates farmers-markets and sells locally produced organic produce directly to some 240 Navajo public school lunch programs.
Our overall strategy is being modelled after a highly successful bi-lingual and bi-cultural program (ALBA), operating in the Salinas Valley in California since 2001. ALBA and a small network of associated organizations have been effectively transitioning Mexican American farmworkers there to organic farming. We are modifying and adapting the ALBA model to meet the requirements of the Navajo culture and physical environment.