Ecoversities Part One: Climate crisis responses that respect the wholeness of life

By Michelle Pressend, PhD 

“What I feel is that most of the people that make decisions… They are totally disconnected from natural processes. They have never been farming. They have never been close to working with soil. They have never been close to hydrological cycles in their experiences … When you interact with the natural world, every day, you understand, differently to when you think about the natural world. And what I feel is that the main limitation to most of these approaches [to responding to climate change], they are based on thinking, only on thinking…” 


 Miguel Torske from Yakunina, a school-community for permaculture and sustainability in the Choco Bioregion in Ecuador

As I listened to Miguel, one of the earth beings whom I spoke with, I was thrust back in time to the way in which I had worked with environmental justice work and sustainable development in my activist past, primarily with NGOs for over twenty years. I was advocating for a better and more just world, particularly with marginalised people affected by waste and pollution from mines. I had also done work for the national government when the World Summit of Sustainable Development was hosted in South Africa with the hope that such international commitments would stimulate policies for greater social and ecological sustainability. I studied Botany and did a Masters in Conservation Biology so that I could better understand ecological systems, contribute to the awareness of nature’s ways and the need for ecological restoration. For many years I worked in environmental policy, lobbying and advocating for governments and industries to adopt ‘cleaner and greener’ processes, reduce pollution and offer fair compensation for those communities affected by the pollution. However, I realised that I was disconnected from intrinsic nature-human relations. Even though I worked towards achieving environmental justice, I was trapped in the ontology of separation, ‘cause and effect’ and the techno-scientific reductionist logic of the sustainable development discourse.

Governments, the corporate business community, labour unions, many academics, NGOs and even social movements have boxed the proposed ‘solutions’ to address the climate crisis into climate mitigation and adaptation. The climate mitigation discourse is mostly based on techno-scientific ‘solutions’ and market-centred approaches. Adaptation is largely about so-called ‘developing’ countries building resilience to adapt to the harshness of climate change. The planetary managerial approaches are underpinned by reductionist techno-scientific fixes to reduce carbon emissions and employ concepts such as ‘net zero carbon’, decarbonisation, carbon-offsets in the international policy regime. This appears to reduce climate change to the problem of greenhouse gas pollution. Mainstream responses in the international climate change policy framework are largely premised on western ontologies and epistemologies of reductionism and rationality. The thinking suggests carbon being a natural element was the problem, rather than its overuse and abuse in a world system fuelled by imperialism, modernity’s productivism and capitalist extractive accumulation. These ‘solutions’ postulated under the rubric of the efficiency logic are fixated on replacing polluting fossil fuel technologies with ‘green’ technologies. Those involved in this way of thinking and being, believe that all will be well for the planet, while the engine of growth continues. Vandana Shiva refers to this dominant scientific-technological fix as a “mechanistic paradigm of a dead, inert earth and the separation of humans from nature”. *

* Transition Resource Circle Post Capitalist Philanthropy Webinar 2 hosted by Alnoor Ladha and Lynn Murphy,: Ontologies of Separation. Vandana Shiva & Rupa Marya,

This article explores the generative, restorative, and heart-centred conversations I had with three Ecoversities members about their deeply relational practice of responding to the climate crisis differently. I spoke to Miguel Torske from Yakunina in the Choco Bioregion in Ecuador about their restorative agroforestry and forest culture approaches. Natalia Eenstman from Black Mountains College in Wales spoke about their interdisciplinary and embodied learning that integrates art as an essential part of human formation as a practice towards sustainability. And Marcela Fernandez from Cumbres Blancas (White Glaciers) in Colombia spoke about their care work for the disappearing tropical glaciers and reflected on what the melting glaciers might be telling us about grief and renewal. Through listening to and absorbing their stories, I was reminded that restoration, unlearning, and recovery from western modernity’s relentless monocultures are tangible and breathing possibilities. Their stories offer insights that take us on a journey of learning and unlearning from the more-than-human worlds and generously invite us into worldviews that may help radically shift the monoculture mindsets. 

Miguel begins by recalling the devastation of tropical forest in Yakunina’s Choco region that connects Panama and Ecuador which was infiltrated by western civilisations’ monocropping and deforestation. He explained that some friends came to this region about fifteen years ago and instead of growing the national cacao that follows the monoculture agronomy, they began the process of restoring the forest ecosystem culture and food forest (See Photo 1). Their methods of cultivation reflect that of nature. They create pioneers, then annuals which include bananas, paw paws, and cacao, followed by wood trees. The polyculture design creates different heights of the trees that allows for carbon sequestration. Miguel emphasised, “it is very different to palm oil and monoculture”.

Photo 1. Photo taken by Miguel Torske

Unlike Western modernity’s monoculture agriculture that is devastating to plants, microbes, animals, small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples and soil life, this restorative and regenerative agroforestry practice draws on indigenous ancestral practices. When he was 13 years old, Miguel went to live in the Venezuelan Amazon basin and learn from the indigenous people there. When he returned to Ecuador and graduated from high school, he thought of studying agronomy. A friend of his mother had asked what he wanted to do with his life, “because agronomy is not there for producing food, it is for producing commodities”, she said. Studying conventional agronomy was about monoculture farming and cultivating monocrops like flowers for exportation. He thought “all this sounds totally destructive”. She inspired him to critically reflect on pursuing agronomy. This then led him on a journey of learning about polyculture “I was always interested in learning about polyculture food cultivation, but the path didn’t exist in universities,” said Miguel. He soon got involved with a seed saving network in Ecuador that invested in crafting a different rhythm through the saving of ancient seed varieties.  Having moved far from his earlier curiosities about agronomy, he had found his community. As a young person he said, “You have questions or desires for life different from all this society. But if you don’t find a group of people, like minded to you, it’s going to be really hard to open a new path”. The seed savers network had established a school of natural agriculture called Ecoversity Andes Tropical. Reflecting the Ecoversities’ philosophy, it offered an alternative to formal accredited education and while students received a diploma it was not considered formally accredited as per the Ecuadorian education system. Miguel pointed out that many people who join the seed savers network are not interested in the title of accredited education. Rather, “they are interested in a different way of living”. Similar to his quest for a different rhythm, he believes that the success of Ecoversity Andes Tropical is attributable to others who are also seeking a different way of life. Because there were many people already doing agroforestry in the area, when they arrived in the Choco Bioregion, they were not alone.

Through the cultivation of fruit trees, opportunities to support livelihoods are created.  The seeds of the work of Ecoversity Andes Tropical seeks to grow and expand in way “that people learn by examples, not much by theory, especially people who live in the countryside” says Miguel. He also pointed out that in the Amazon basin, the indigenous cultures understand interconnectedness with nature “because it has been an ancestral practice. For them, it is not new. They are used to the practice of agroforestry … they know polycultures and planting with a natural succession”. He affirmed the need to create a culture around forest culture which would entail “collecting collective knowledge or seeds or nurseries” and creating systems that “could be more replicable”.

Miguel reminds us: 

The world has had this kind of culture, you know, in Southeast Asia, or some parts of Africa, South America, some indigenous people. They know how to grow in the natural structure of the forest. But this knowledge has been lost, and now it’s more like gaining this knowledge and regaining these practices. So, people can try to imitate these systems. They actually work very well, and it is a solution for many problems.

The Ecoversity Andes Tropical also works in educational processes and have set up a forest network school that is linked to the public school. Miguel noted the “Low quality education, especially about ecosystems. Learning about natural things and natural processes. These things don’t happen in school now.” So, this is the first new network of this form “to create spaces for kids in public schools where they can go to natural spaces”. Listening to Miguel’s story offered different insights into practices of restoration, regeneration and permaculture that have been valourised by nature conversation and where monetary value has been assigned to ecosystems. His story reminds us of the importance of human-nature relationships that maintain the social production of life to support both human and non-human worlds through community local bioregional conservation practices through which we can understand relational and reciprocal engagement with nature that is life-affirming. What is needed is relearning knowledges that were lost and erased in the monoculture mindset. 

“I didn’t know that Colombia had 6 tropical glaciers, I didn’t know that there were 8 glaciers that had disappeared”, said Marcela. Her story of the glaciers started with not knowing that they existed She read a newspaper article that interviewed a glaciologist and the most famous mountaineer in Colombia about the tropical glaciers. Marcela was not a scientist, nor a mountaineer, nor had she been to a glacier before. She said, “That’s how the project started out of ignorance”. She realised that a multidisciplinary project needed to be created and that was her strength. She dropped out of university where she was studying journalism to learn and to create projects that involved different ways of thinking and learning. It made sense to her that if they wanted to make books, documentaries, expeditions, social media, they would need activists, educators, photographers, scientists to find out what was happening to glaciers. They started with the name, and people became interested in being a part of it and visited a glacier for the first time. This Ecoversity project is about awakening the consciousness through the lessons from the disappearing glaciers (See Photo 2). Marcela stressed that there are many scientific papers, as well as music and art that engage with the disappearing glaciers, but the glaciers are excluded from the conversation. She raised important questions:

How can we learn and not let them disappear, without them transmitting the lessons that we should be learning not only because there are other ecosystems that are going to be affected but because they represent the connection between the three ecosystems that are part of the high mountains. The páramos, bosque de alto Andino y the glaciar and they are all interconnected. So, the fact that we’re also losing the whiteness of the glaciers says a lot.

Marcela feels that the glaciers chose them. It has been 5 years since the team dedicated their knowledge, talent, and time to the project, largely on a volunteer-basis They had many scientific expeditions and two years ago they realised that they needed to focus on the lower ecosystems.  She pointed out that you cannot restore the glaciers, but they asked the question “How can we create snow because the glaciers were not being fed”. Asking this question stimulated more creativity and innovation. They realised that if the páramos, which is an ecosystem that only exists in Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia, is restored by planting a special tree, a plant that only exists in these countries, then it can restore that ecosystem. She explained “Then this massive restoration of that ecosystem could create more fog which could eventually create more snow, or at least create a microclimate that is more humid and colder than what it is right now”. Growing the trees called Frailejon is a very slow process, it is a plant that grows over 3,000 meters above sea level, explained Marcela. She stressed that nobody in the country really knew how to propagate the seed, so they have been experimenting the past 2 years to cultivate this tree which has about 90 species. Restoring these ecosystems is also critical to maintain the water ecologies connected to the glaciers.

Photo 2. “Nevados” are the glaciers as they are known in Colombia. Photo from the

Studying the glaciers together with the lessons learned from the scientists, the Cumbres Blancas Ecoversity have undertaken expeditions where they have put in stakes to measure how much the glacier has been melting. This is done by taking groups of people on expeditions to the glaciers and they participate in a kind of citizen science. The approach of the Cumbres Blancas to these expeditions is more than just monitoring and measuring these melting glaciers. It is also a spiritual undertaking because they consider this territory as part of sacred land. Going to glaciers also for her is nourishment. Together with studying and connecting to the glaciers on their expeditions, they started to do ceremonies, rituals, and saying farewell. They feel that the tropical glaciers are “the martyrs of climate change as they are the first ones to disappear because of their fragility.” When people are in the disappearing glaciers, “ it brings a consciousness and an awakening for people that come there for the first time”, asserted Marcella. She explained, “It’s not only the melting of the snow in the tropics. Being on the equator, having snow in the tropics is a miracle. So, when you understand that that is something that is precious and that it is going to be gone, you feel called to action”.

Marcela affirmed, “Nature can teach you so much. So sometimes, even by the power of observation and contemplation, you are just there …  How can we go back differently to our cities? What are our habits? Would we die so the glaciers live longer? What can we actually do for the glaciers?” These words by Marcela encourage a turn on modernity’s extractive logic with nature towards the idea of giving back. It offers a deep contemplation about what we might need to give up “so that the glaciers live longer.”

Natalia, who started out with a career in life sciences and conservation, increasingly grew frustrated with formal academia. She pursued a PhD on entirely integrating arts with science. Doing this PhD illuminated how art can help communities design and implement sustainable ways forward. The use of art was applied in a very broad sense, they did work with performance to engaged art. The importance of these approaches was to understand “what do the arts do in learning, especially in the context of sustainability, climate and future living”. The whole premise of Black Mountains College (BMC) is based on the need to completely reform formal education. BMC Wales was built on the original idea of BMC in the USA, which is an entirely interdisciplinary initiative that believes that art is an essential part of human formation. The education process is aimed at being holistic, so, architects work with choreographers, and scientists with painters. Through these approaches for BMC it is important to engage learners beyond the textbook by incorporating their entire body. In their first year at BMC, students have sessions in ecology, cultural political histories, climate science, and geology, while also following two creative practice modules. She emphasised that becoming creative is not an unfamiliar act. Rather, it is something that you can practice, which includes paying attention, creating space for things to evolve and these skills can become transferable. Everyone is taught a level of basic creative skill (Photo 3).

Photo 3. Photo from Black Mountains College’s website

Natalia continued: 

We all need to be more artful and creative whether you are an artist or scientist … Real art can be disruptive (it can disrupt all these ideas). You can make an art piece that completely voices non-human aspects. Art is uncontrollable and allows space for ambiguity and/or undermines the ideas of modernity. Putting that kind of thinking within an academic framework immediately starts to open up how we see knowledge and how we see these different entities … It undermines ideas within modernity, it can!

Furthermore, she expressed the conviction that while arts’ strength is to be disruptive of modernity’s ideas, it can become difficult to argue for “because it is not instrumental within that worldview”. In modernity’s worldview, “we can extract from the earth, that earth is inanimate, that we don’t need to listen to these other voices, that we control all this, that it is all predictable and unambiguous … So, we just need to design the best possible solar panel … You are not allowed to question the idea of solar panels in the first place. And ask, does the earth need solar panels? That would be a completely different conversation and different level.” 

Natalia’s story sheds light on western modernity’s ontology that is fundamentally underpinned by dualist thinking and being of separation. The creativity of art as part of learning and unlearning might tell you about your relationship to yourself, to others and the non-human worlds. Natalia reminds us to expand our relationship with learning outside. Working with the soil and farming merges theory and the practice of approaching nature as our teacher. In “BMC we are constantly building the bridge between the theory and the practice”, assures Natalia.

Returning to Marcela, the idea of sacrifice and grieving not only for what will be lost but what we will have to give up is largely overlooked in mainstream approaches to climate change. Marcela emphasised the need to understand actions that could help the glacier live longer and through the connection to the loss of the glaciers people may realise that it’s their day-to-day actions that are contributing to the loss. She explains,

When you understand the melting glaciers and that they really teach us that the world is irreversible, you just have to sit with that nostalgia and melancholy. The grief. Grief is how you know that the damage has been done … But there, there’s a lot to learn there. You know, we can even start feeling the feelings, the right feelings and we don’t know how to deal with so much information and pain. Feeling the loss and the grief is like a preparation for what is happening in reality and mentally and spiritually.

Listening to Marcela, the process of grief is a core part of the work that must be done. In their work of care for the glaciers, it might feel less rewarding because each time you visit the glacier you are seeing less snow. So, she says, “It’s always heartbreaking, you know. So, it’s also like a preparation to strengthen the reason why we do what we do. We are the generation that is going to witness the last breath of a glacier, and there is agony in that process, but there is also resilience.” Marcela also explained that the tropical glaciers are different from others “because there are indigenous communities around the glaciers”.  

They started to connect glaciers with real human grief. Marcela shared that her mother passed away some months ago. She now connects with grief differently. This connection “started because of my mom passing and the transcendence, and my connection with glaciers. When she passed, I was in a glacier”. She feels connecting with real human grief brings an opportunity to actually connect with the glaciers, with the grief, honouring our ancestors and life with special ceremonies that can be done close to or in the glacier. 

She underscores the fact that loss, grief and honouring life has not been discussed in the climate movements. In Marcela words, “There’s a lot of ignorance still, a lot even with the people that are into the climate movement, and conversations really do not know what’s going on regarding glaciers.” She pointed out that sometimes there is a lack of information. However, there are many that can dedicate their life to climate change “without having a nature call, without actually feeling… And I felt that with the glaciers, they really chose me, and I feel that people should have awakenings like a bird that can call you … And if we try to see the relationship of us working in climate change like that. Then again, you have a connection. It’s like personifying an entity, a spirit that speaks to you.”

Lastly, she pointed out that “while scientists are the translators and the interpreters of a lot of communication and information that most of us do not have, if scientists cannot hear whatever they study and interpret. And if they really don’t know how to communicate or to bring the information back to our senses then sometimes it’s just a report that won’t be used, or a paper that nobody will read.”

I was recently awarded my doctorate in philosophy in Anthropology. My thesis questioned how the ‘win-win’ rhetoric in climate mitigation approaches plays itself out in a wind farm on the reclaimed land of the black community in the Tsitsikamma in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. The ‘win-win’ rhetoric stems from the sustainable development discourse, through which people believe environmental degradation will be reduced through technology efficiency and that this will stimulate economic growth and improve the well-being of people. My thesis drew on the insights of the ‘silent voices’ that were the members of this community, particularly the elderly and the land on which the wind farm stands. I am merely at the initiation of my own unlearning journey and peeling off the layers of the monocultures I was taught. Reflecting on the narratives and stories from Miguel, Natalia, and Marcela for me reinforces the lessons that the non-human world is teaching us about the nature of the climate crisis beyond facts and numbers. They are reminding us of the need to break from the dominant anthropocentric ‘solutions’ proffered by modernist human exceptionality mindset geared for growth of the human enterprise and capital accumulation, well at least for certain humans. They are inviting us to feel the grief and the loss not only of the disappearing non-human worlds, but also the grief of what ‘we’ would need to give up for the renewal and restoration of the earth cycles. These stories invite learning from worldviews that understand life centric nature-human relationships in which relationships are built on reciprocity beyond the material but also the spiritual and convivial relations. I am reminded by Robin Kimmerer’s words describing a relational understanding of cultivation from her book Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants, when she says, “soil and plants will not meet their responsibility to feed and nourish us unless we meet ours”. * Miguel, Natalia and Marcela invite us to interact with the natural processes relationally to become more artful in ways that can disrupt modernity and to feel the grief of loss so that ‘we’ might become awakened to make sacrifices needed to respond in a way that respects the wholeness of life.

* Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Penguin Random House, UK.

Michelle Pressend

About the Author

Michelle Pressend, PhD is currently the TRAJECTS – Transnational Centre for Just Transitions in Energy, Climate and Sustainability  Academic Coordinator of the African Regional Hub based in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT). She lectured Environmental Sociology at UCT in the past five years. She designed and lectured a course in African Feminist Studies at UCT focused on the gender and the politics of development. She has worked as a researcher, policy analyst, and activist on environmental and socio-economic justice primarily within the non-governmental sector for over twenty years. She also served in the national government during the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Her PhD in Anthropology, argues that relational energy transitions, which considers  pluriversality, is needed  to address the climate crisis. Relational perspectives pay close attention to power relations, politics, materiality, and exclusions. Values that are respectful, regenerative, and reciprocal to nature and each other constitute the concept of relationality. Her research approach engages with soil and land history/memory and what can be learnt from the changes in land to address the social-ecological crises differently to the dominant techo-scientific ‘fixes’.

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