From Russia with love: 3rd meeting of FoodDiversity

Sometimes I ask myself   

“What are the “real” and most meaningful benefits of the projects which we do together within the framework of Baltic states and neighbouring countries?”And

“Are the benefits aligned to those goals and results which are sketched and planned  for in our project descriptions and applications or are they something else?”

Reflections and text by Emilia Rekestad

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These questions are very present in me, here, on the way back in an overnight train towards Moscow from Arkhangelsk region and the district of Ustyanskiy. The reason for our travel has been our 3rd international meeting within the project FoodDiversity, hosted by our Russian partner REEN (Russian Ecovillage and Eco-initiative Network). The meeting was beautifully hosted and planned, with two other gatherings organized “back to back” with our get together-ing. One of them were a regional (Arkhangelsk based) yearly conference within the theme of Sustainable forestry, which this time took inspiration from our FoodDiversity project and invited themes which are more related to the “edge” found between formal forestry and agriculture – such as agroforestry, permaculture, perennial food systems and biodiversity gardens.

This conference, which was given on March 3-4th, also focused on the need of creating protective instruments for local forested areas, with the establishment of a national park as one important example. The process of engaging the local community in that process was also given focus and space, as local engagement is essential for sustainable stewardship of forested lands.

The meeting gathered persons from diverse organisations, sectors and places, and included many young persons and children as participants. The interaction between ages in collaborative ways of education impressed me, and made me think about Sweden and our general division between children and adults in our meeting culture.

The youth belonged to a high extent to an educational program which REEN has been hosting during the last years, called the Forest school. Through a thorough presentation on their activities so far, we were given insight in the schools multiple ways of how they creatively work with practical, “hands-on” tools for collaborative learning. The educational approach is foremost related to the awareness building around the interdependence between forest, communities and people and the exploration of sustainable ways of living between people and forest-ecosystems. The engagement and focus that the youth and children showed towards the Forest school and its activities was evident. There was definitely a sense of love and connection there to what tended to be meaningful for them. The school is hosting camps during each season, where youth gathers with teachers and some parents in remote areas in the Russian countryside.

Their main place is Bereznik village, which also was the place where all of us in our FoodDiversity project group and the Forest School went after the Forestry conference. It was where we had our official FoodDiversity project planning meeting.

Berezniyk is located 25 kilometers from the small town Kizema, situated in a valley by the bank of a river. Previous to the revolution, villagers have been closely connected with the forest for centuries through timber production, house building and boat-handicraft as some main sources of livelihood.  The activities continued during the Soviet times with an increased and upscaled production, in terms of animal and farming practices as well. Houses were built in a traditional way as far as until 1995. At that point the village stopped to grow. Lots of youth and others have chosen to leave as jobs and opportunities for a good life have seemed bigger close to/in urban areas. The village, which once hosted many hundreds of people, animals and forms of livelihoods, is today a quiet place with very few inhabitants. Many of the beautiful made log-houses, made of premium corewood – stand empty.

Antonina Kulyasova is the initiator of the Forest School, and also the main Russian coordinator in FoodDiversity. She has been our main host during our days in Russia. A couple of years ago, she decided to move from the region of St Petersburg to Arkhangelsk and Bereznik, to work for the survival of the village and to support ways towards sustainable life within its region. Her long experience of working with projects, her role as a researcher and her wide network of contacts, give her an important role as initiator for projects such as the Forest school in this region and beyond.

We had our FoodDiversity planning meeting in parallel with the activities by the youth who participated in the Forest School spring gathering. We shared meals, interactive workshops, walks, dance, play and “Bhanja” (Russian sauna). And so much more. As the FD project partnership, we also shared educational tools and hosted several workshops on the theme of biodiversity, food and resilience during the days. But we also managed to put work into further projectplanning, thanks to the “hostmanship” of the place which provided us with space, food, rest, fire, warmth and lots of inspiration. And thanks to a very dedicated and skillful project group.

Present in Russia from our formal project partner group were Monika (Poland), Liina (Estonia), Marcus, Kicki and me (Sweden), Maria (Belarus) and Antonina (Russia). We were sad to not have Marcella and Oscar with us from Sweden, who got unfortunate hindrances closely before our depart from Sweden.

Our task was to further refine and concretize our ideas for a longer international collaboration between our five countries under the themes of biodiversity as integrated with food production. Skilled process facilitation from all in our group gave us more clarity on what we wish to do together and how we can formulate it in a new project proposal. These plans will not be further elaborated here, as they are yet not offical, but I can say that the stay in Russia and in Bereznik has further inspired us in the choice of planned activities and areas of focus. 

Some other people from Russia took part in our meeting as well. Valeryay Bukina from the Permaculture association of Russia, several representants from the Russian NGO AETAS and Irina Sardarova from IFOAM Russia. It was clear that the Russian participation in a future project will be done through a common consortium.

There is so much more to tell from this colourful and joyful journey. But i stop there and revisit the initial questions:

“what are the real and most meaningful benefits of the projects which we do together within the framework of Baltic states and neighbouring countries”. Are the benefits aligned to those goals and results which are sketched and planned  for in our project descriptions and applications or are they something else?

I would say yes, they are aligned, but the benefits are so much more than can be described in words “packed” into project descriptions and reports. Because how do you plan for loving relationships, friendship and and a common feeling of awe as you submit a project proposal to a big funding program?

I believe that we will continue to leave those words out, but I hope that we always will be able to include those core qualities, essential for resilience, social sustainability and interculturality, in partnerships to come. As they are qualities that stand in the centre of a healthy and wholesome life.