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Ecological Learning Collaboratory

Group in field with farmer and sheep
Collaboratory participants from Canada, India, Japan, Malawi, Tanzania, and the United States meet with farmer Steve Gabriel at Wellspring Forest Farm outside Ithaca. Photo by Jonathan Miller. 

ELC in Cornell Chronicle

"Collaboratory shares ideas on food, healing, justice" includes photos from the kickoff meeting in Ithaca as well as quotes from several participants.

Food and healing justice are transnational issues that demand collective assessment and action. The Ecological Learning Collaboratory (ELC) is committed to better understanding the learning, dissemination, and innovation of ecological strategies in the development of just and sustainable food and healing systems rooted in place.

ELC is an experimental interdisciplinary collaboration among three Cornell faculty and their long-term colleagues and partners in Tanzania, Malawi, and India. The collaboration draws on established relations between Cornell and organizations in South Asia and Africa that are actively addressing the health of their communities.

ELC sponsors collaboration and exchanges around how to create ecological and just learning spaces that foster social innovation and equity around healthy food, medicines, and the right to place. The exchanges provide new resources for group problem-solving, recognizing the local knowledge held by each partner.

Phase I of these exchanges brought all collaborators to Cornell University from May 28-June 3, 2018, for the first in the series of Food and Healing Justice workshops.

ELC starts from the fact that both ecologies and knowledges have been remade through colonialism, nationalism, industrialization, and international development. Our work takes the making of space and place – and the labors of humans and plants in these processes – as a critical site of exploration. We do not seek to develop another discrete model of development, but rather to establish the kinds of relationships that open up place-making as the site of inquiry critical to food and healing justice. The following questions guide our exchanges:

  1. What are some broader socioecological cycles of nourishment – in terms of soil, seeds, plants and people – that forefront social justice as a remediation of violence and environmental degradation at many levels?
  2. How can we support more democratic, just, and ecologically sound food systems through value addition (processing, storage, packaging, labeling)?
  3. How might different forms of property rights affect seeds and smallholder farmer claims, trademarks, geographical indicators, and the innovation of new forms of collective ownership?
  4. What models of engagement foster generative relationships between indigenous or traditional knowledge and new forms of ecological thinking?

Rachel Bezner Kerr with Malawi collaborators
Rachel Bezner Kerr (right) with Lizzie Shumba and Esther Lupafya from Soils, Food and Healthy Communities. Photo by Carmen Bezner Kerr.

Because our intellectual concerns are shared with scholars at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, we are working to extend the institutional ties between Cornell and these two universities. In addition, we hope that the collective will continue to grow through a series of workshops with experienced practioners at innovative organizations in India, Malawi, and Tanzania.





Lead Cornell faculty


Participating Researchers

  • Tom Seeley, Horace White Professor in Biology
  • Aaron Iverson, postdoctoral fellow
  • Kate Dickin, Research Scientist and Director of the Program for International Nutrition
  • Dadirai Fundira, PhD Candidate, International Nutrition, School of Human Ecology
  • Alex Travis, Professor of Reproductive Biology, Associate Dean for International Programs and Public Health
  • Steve Gabriel, Wellspring Forest Farm
  • Karen Purcell, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
  • Silas Conroy, Crooked Carrot
  • Ralph Christy, Professor of Emerging Markets, Director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture, and Development
  • Nancy Chau, Professor, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management
  • Emily Detrick, Horticulturalist, Cornell Botanic Garden
  • Jane Mt Pleasant, Associate Professor, School of Integrative Plant Science



There are four different groups, all linked to the faculty collaborators, who are participating in these exchanges:

Woman and man in garden
Helen Nguya, founder of TRMEGA, advises a member who is establishing a community garden of therapeutic foods and herbal medicines. Photo by Stacey Langwick.

  • In Tanzania, these partners include members from a network of organizations concerned with fostering the extension of therapeutic foods and nourishing medicines and redefining how to think about nutrition and healing in Africa today. The organizations include the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, a leading teaching and research hospital (and medical school) in northern Tanzania, who collaborate with Cornell’s Global Health Program and the Tanzanian Institute for Medical Research, the Training, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation on Gender and AIDS (TRMEGA), the Women Development for Science and Technology (WOSTRA), and not for profit enterprises such as Dorkia Enterprises, and EdenMark Nutritive Supplies, among others.
  • In Malawi, the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities organization (SFHC) is a farmer-led non-profit organization that carries out participatory research on agroecological approaches to improve food security and nutrition. SFHC works with thousands of farmers integrating community-based education with ongoing research and training activities. SFHC has established a Farmer Research and Training Center and helped the formation of a Farmers Association, which is working to process and market food products made from legumes and other agroecologically-produced crops.
  • In India the Keystone Foundation in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, is a not-for-profit registered Trust working since 1993 in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve with indigenous communities. Keystone follows an eco-development approach that seeks to simultaneously address challenges of ecological conservation, sustainable livelihoods, community wellness, and enterprise development. The foundation has conceived, developed and spun-off three organizations: Last Forest Enterprises (LFE) works towards developing fair trade markets and outlets; The Aadhimalai Pazhangudiyinar Produce Company (APPCL) is a producer company with 1600 tribal members; and the Nilgiris Natural History Society (NNHS) whose mandate is to build awareness and support for participatory approaches to conservation with all communities in the region. Keystone is also a founding partner of an Asia Based eco-development NGO network and has set up the innovative Nilgiris Field Learning Center (NFLC), in partnership with an interdisciplinary group of Cornell faculty.
  • In Italy, the University of Gastronomic Sciences was formed in 2004 by Carlo Pettrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement. This unique university focuses on food culture, food ecologies and fostering local food markets. It is located near Slow Food, a non-governmental organization focused on fostering local food cultures, which hosts a biennial international event, Terra Madre that brings together farmers, food vendors, and like-minded organizations from around the world to share ideas, food and local food products that support local ecologies and cultures. Both the Tanzanian and Indian partners are members of Slow Food.