Composing green #1: Agroforestry and worldviews

Website podcast Green

This first episode of the miniseries entitled Composing green presents agroforestry as part and parcel of cultural action and EU international cultural relations. Agroforestry is a set of cultural traditions, practices and know-how that mix trees and agriculture. It has been practiced for thousands of years but has been almost forgotten by industrialised societies. Yet, agroforestry has a very significant role to play in climate action, Green Deal-related objectives, biodiversity loss, etc.

The miniseries sheds light on the various facets of the climate-culture nexus. Listening to people from diverse fields that all work on cultural solutions to make behavioural change happen, the podcast contributes to awareness raising about climate action and best practice. 


Methodology, sources of inspiration, and transcript

This podcast episode is designed as a personal research journey. The collection of audio materials includes:

  • Conversation with Zayan Khan:

Zayan Khan is an artist, consultant, food transformer, ceramicist, writer and researcher working in land reform, agrarian transformation and food justice. She is seeking to understand the socio-political contexts of present day crises and working towards unhinging our dependency on neoliberalism, with indigenous food reclamation as praxis. Zayan is completing a PhD on “From seed-as-object to seed-as-relation” at the University of Cape Town’s interdisciplinary research cluster. Link to story

  • Extracts from speeches by Method Gundidza, director of EarthLore Foundation:

Decolonising our relationship with plants – Goethe-Institut Johannesburg
Discovering belonging through Earth Jurisprudence & ritual with Method Gundidza – Flourishing Diversity
Forum international pour le Bien Vivre – CCFD-TerreSolidaire

  • Snippet from a podcast with Kaitie Adams, leader of Savanna Institute’s Illinois Demonstration Farm programme:

Building relationships to scale agroforestry with Kaitie Adams – Regenerative Agroforestry

  • Excerpt from a video of Shubendu Sharma, CEO of

Shubhendu Sharma on how to create a self-sustaining forest in a matter of years on barren land – PGurus

  • Clipping from a film by Olivier Bories, lecturer in spatial planning, with voice-over by Elise Cuny:

A l’OMBRE DES CHAMPS, un film de recherche d’Olivier Bories et Jean-Pascal Fontorbes

  • Sounds from the Akagera National Park, eastern Rwanda, recorded by Elise Cuny

Podcast moderator: Damien Helly

> Read more

Sources of inspiration and references:

  • Work by Zayan Khan: Zayan works through seed, land and food from a multidisciplinary perspective, forwarding sociopolitical, ecological and spiritualpolitical perspective.
  • EarthLore Foundation: The organisation accompanies communities in their journey of reviving their indigenous knowledge systems and practices, including the revival of traditional seed diversity and farming systems and customary laws to protect their ancestral lands and their community ecological governance systems.
  • How to grow a forest in your backyard: A TED Talk by Shubhendu Sharma on growing ultra-dense, biodiverse mini-forests of native species in urban areas by engineering soil, microbes and biomass to kickstart natural growth processes.
  • L’agroforesterie, une question de paysage ? Des paysages agroforestiers mis à l’écran: Drawing on a geography of emotions, this research film explores the link between the landscape particularity of agroforestry action and the profile of those who commit to planting trees in their plots.
  • Deforestation in EU policies: An article on the MEP vote on EU deforestation regulation paving way for swift enactment.
  • Lobbying in Brussels for Agroforestry: Overview of the work done by European Agroforestry Federation (EURAF), including policy briefs, factsheets, dialogues, etc.
  • EU forest partnerships and MoU signed at COP27: Between 2014 and 2020, EU development cooperation funding invested more than €650 million to support forest-related programmes in partner countries. We are successfully supporting the flagship initiatives ECOFAC, and the fight against climate change through UN-REDD+ and EUROCLIMA+.
  • EU-hosted facilities that support forest policies and work with partner countries: VPA Africa-Latin America Facility for the implementation of the EU FLEGT Action Plan with a focus on Voluntary Partnership Agreements in Africa and Latin America; REDD Facility to improve land-use governance as part of their efforts to slow, halt and reverse deforestation; Forest for the Future Facility focused on Forest Partnerships to contribute to healthy forest ecosystems in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America; Tenure Facility offering grants and technical assistance directly to indigenous peoples and local communities in their efforts to secure tenure, with a particular focus on mitigating climate change, reducing conflict and promoting gender equality.
  • Vandana Shiva on food, forest and lands rights: There is no food without forest; there is no forest without collective indigenous rights – according to Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned activist, author, and anti-globalisation campaigner from India. 

Damien Helly (00:00): You are listening to the Composing trust podcast, by culture Solutions – a series on European cultural action with the world. Is Europe still attractive? How is it perceived by outside the EU? How do Europeans promote culture together in the world, with which partners? What have they learned, what is their experience? Our Composing Trust podcast series will address these issues. Welcome to you all! My name is Damien Helly, the co-author of this Composing trust series, by culture Solutions.

Planting trees is often described as one of the most valuable climate actions. Trees and their diversity are very useful to capture carbon. They create humidity against drought. Diverse forests burn less easily and trees prevent soil erosion. Agroforestry is about mixing trees and agriculture. It has been practised for thousands of years. In industrialised and urbanised societies, however, we have almost forgotten about it. Despite its many advantages for productivity, biodiversity and climate action. In this mini series on agroforestry, we try to clarify what is inside the climate and culture nexus. We will hear the voices of people who are passionate about trees, combined with all forms of agriculture, people who work every day on cultural Solutions to make behaviour change happen. Some are artists, others are lobbyists in Brussels, agroforestry practitioners and leaders. This episode is designed as a personal research journey through which I gathered audio material collected from interviews I ran with agroforestry specialists and from podcasts and videos available online. All references and credits are available on the web page of this episode. 

In this first part on agroforestry and culture, we will see why those who practise agroforestry are actually involved in cultural action, and why agroforestry is part and parcel of international cultural relations. In our second episode, we will explore the connections between arts and science in agroforestry and agroecology. Today we will start with the voice of Kaitie Adams from the US, who works with American farmers on agroforestry practices. She explains in her Regenerative Agroforestry podcast episode why world use on time have an impact on the ways farmers see agroforestry in industrialised countries. 

Kaitie Adams (03:27): People thinking of what should a farm look like or how should a farm function is a little bit at the heart of that because so many as you said, so many of those kind of hard points are cultural and they’re not economic or ecological because we have good data, right? Like we have the numbers to show that trees are sinking carbon. They’re, you know, purifying water. They increasingly can create more production and more profits per acre than, say, grain mono crops. But it doesn’t look right to folks. And the time scale is completely different. We’re so used to an annual cropping cycle, or even, you know, even a two or three-year cropping cycle or rotations. And when we bring trees into it, we’re suddenly making a long term investment. I mean, these are things that are going to be on the landscape for a long time and folks. Especially here in the United States, I think we have a pretty short memory and a pretty short history. So we think of things in one generation instead of in multiple generations and trees forced us to confront that. We’re not going to be able to control something or a farm, or a landscape, or a system for one lifetime. Trees kind of force us to look beyond one singular lifetime and look more to the future. 

Damien Helly (05:25): Kaitie’s comments were followed by the recording of cropping and tree notching sounds suspended in time from the documentary film, alongside shown under the Field Shade by Olivier Bories. I wanted to compare the American way of conceiving investments in trees with historically rooted traditions of agroforestry. And I found that the presentation by the founder of a forest in India, Shubendu Sharma, expressed very well the variety of cultural approaches to the value of trees in agriculture. 

Shubendu Sharma (06:01): This painting that you see on your left is around 300 years old and you can see the kind of diversity of the trees. You have a king, you have a St and a musician in the same picture. And they are having a meeting inside the forest, whereas today in 2020, if we look at the world around us, most of the time we are surrounded by electricity, neon lights, the concrete city around us, and this has not been our natural habitat for almost the entire human evolution. 

Damien Helly (06:34): This was an extract from one of Shubendu’s online presentations on his work to regenerate forest in hostile environments. The reference to this presentation is available on the web page of this episode. I asked Zayan Khan, an artist and agroecological based in South Africa. About how she saw the connection between agroecology, culture and the arts. And why is it central in her life? 

Zayan Khan (07:02): The reason why I’m doing the work that I’m doing is because I’m very much influenced by where I live, where I’m from, which goes back many, many generations in our ancestry, and I live in Cape Town in South Africa, which is a very, very small, long peninsula that reaches out at the very kind of South of the African continent and is surrounded by ocean and the peninsula kind of climaxes in a mountain range. And so it is hyper diverse. You know we have such high rates of endemism there where you know there are species that exist nowhere else in the world. I’m very much influenced by this and by the broader country and how you know, in its diversity of land of people, even of different you know, kinds of salts that we get in the land and it’s a huge draw for my creativity and for inspiration. And I have been, you know, almost obsessing trying to figure that out within the urban setting because we know a lot of agroecology focuses on the rural. And so I’ve taken it kind of upon myself to see what that is within the urban setting. And you know, there’s so much success in that. 

Damien Helly (08:19): More than just being inspired by the diversity of nature, Zayan also points at the recognition of our connection with species with which we share the same space. 

Zayan Khan (08:31): There’s a level of where our culture kind of melts and connects with so many others in my belief and my experience of so many other species’ cultures. So many other species’ cultures, you know, that’s one of the basis of the way that I live and what I teach my children, for example, we navigate going to the beach and swimming in the ocean with the fact that sharks are also swimming in the ocean and it’s part of our cultural acknowledgement here, you know, we are navigating. Different insects and the way that others are living with us in the same space. To make that a tradition that we practise, you have to kind of lean into the cultural aspects of your life. It requires a very deep listening, very acute and innate wisdom, understanding, to make it something that an audience can absorb, and through humility and through grace. I’m not trying to sell something or I’m not trying to force people to do it, in a way that is storytelling. That requires the artistic practise, but it must be kind of hinged on discovery and intuition, and imagination. And for me that becomes something more scientific that becomes the curiosity to seek as to why things are the way they are. 

Damien Helly (09:58): Once I had realised how interconnected all the cultural and artistic dimensions of forestry were, I tried to better understand what it really means to people in their daily lives, especially in communities for which trees had a strong symbolic significance. For this I had to listen to those who are on the lands to the working communities and the people. And here again I discovered that there were many creative ways to share time, knowledge and also have fun with farmers who grow trees. I had been advised to listen to Method Gundidza who, following the philosophy of Earth jurisprudence, came back to South Africa a few years ago to Zimbabwe to revive together with his community. The cultivation of Millet, reactivating societal connections, ritual practises and intangible cultural heritage. By doing that, he also enriched biodiversity through agroforestry. Method took part in several webinars and roundtables online, including one with Goethe Institute in Johannesburg. 

Method Gundidza (11:13): I approached the elders in my own family, elders in neighbouring communities. Speaking to them very generally, sitting under the shade of different types of trees, and even enjoying our traditional beer. But each time I spoke to the elders, I felt this sense through them of how they in some time in the past, were connected to their land, to the other beings on the land. But that elder after elder mourned and was in grief about that loss. And I thought there was work to be done. And in one of the sessions we were talking more generally, and one elder says to me: This is how we see the connections of beings. When we grow our crops, we know which one loves which one. For example, wheat loves Jacob beans. And I said okay, I had heard about agroecology by that time, and I thought is the meaning in the cropping? But I mean, he did not say enough, he said Jacob beans love wheat. Okay. He goes on to say: Where do you grow Jacob beans? It is a tree outside of the field. Somewhere in the forest. It would tell us when the Jacob beans arrive. Look at them in the mirror tree. When you see its leaves turning yellow, you know your Jacob beans are ready to be eaten. When I met the elders again and we sat, I said: But It’s not enough to hear what you tell me about, wWhat else? What else can we do to get things going? One elder said: When we have to talk about our connection to nature, our belongingness to nature. We have to talk about our issues. I said okay, so meaning what? He says: I’m talking here about the rituals, for example, to ask for rain. Which ones to place the first fruits? And I’m getting even more interested. These are some rich ones that have been done in the past 40 years and they haven’t been done again. So the elders explained some of these things to me. And in the group, in the community gatherings, in the community dialogues, these things begin to be imagined. So who used to do what? Where was that done? You know. And what did we need? We needed things like finger millet, which is a sacred crop, to our land and to all people. Now, over the years and we have been working on reviving seeds, the finger millet was there, it had come back, and the elder said: now it is the time for us to go up the mountains. The finger millet is here. The elderly women who grow the bean are here, the elderly men who go up the mountains with the elderly women are here. It is time that we should go up the mountains again and celebrate and speak to our ancestors. And each one in which all fast fruits, before anything is eaten, are harvested and gathered in one place. Elders, men and women who are spiritual leaders, take this and they take it to the sacred sites. They do an offer and come back and singing and dancing. Singing in vulgar language. Dancing in the most vulgar ways you can imagine, then they come back. Everybody joins in the singing and the dancing. So we gathered all the fruits, singing and dancing in a new relation, and in real happiness. We gathered all the fresh farm produce under the mukamba tree, the African mahogany tree, to us that tree is sacred because all rituals, all family discussions, all tribal discussions happen under that tree. In this ritual, we offer what we have harvested to the land, in other words, we offer this to our ancestors because the ancestors and the land are one. The ancestors live on the land, and the land is our great ancestor. As the elder said, these don’t become just plants when they come, and we gather them here. They become part of our community because they link us, the living, to those who have gone—those who are our soil, our ancestors. One cannot take this without humility. As we say, the planet Earth is a huge planet, if one doesn’t get the privilege of going into space to see it orbiting around the sun, you can never feel it as one single unit. But, when we spend time in nature, we have the privilege of experiencing our planet, the wholeness of it. We also experience how small we are in the vastness of the cosmic system, and this can only make us even more humble. Belonging to a huge world, in which we are but just sent.

Damien Helly (18:44): In Europe, we also have strong traditions of worshipping trees. Not least in middle age fairy tales, for instance. Yet we have kind of forgotten them. But their trends to revive agroforestry and revive interest in landscape as intangible heritage. Method’s testimony at some point also made me think that what he describes here is not that alien to some of our music festivals in Europe. I looked up online if European agroforestry is interested in culture and the odds. For a few decades, some agroforestry engineers, like the French agronomist Christian Dupra, mixed their work with creative practices and more recently, Olivier Boyes, a geographer has developed cinematographic techniques to study agroforestry and the relations between farmers and landscapes. He produced films and used filmmaking as a research method on agroforestry, analysing the relationship, including from an aesthetical viewpoint between landscapes, trees, various forms of life, and the people who look after them. In this interview, extracted from Bories’ A l’OMBRE DES CHAMPS, mentioned in the web page of this episode, a farmer explains how agroforestry has magically transformed its plot into a beautiful landscape and the way he himself looks at it with joy and mindfulness.

Farmer (20:16): When I see these plots, mine and those of others with these trees with these vegetation, with these colours, greens with these flowers, with these pollinators, when I hear these sounds, it creates a movement and then the landscape changes. Your view of it changes to such a point when time no longer exists, after a while, the magic happens. An alchemy between these trees and this soil and the vegetation that will grow around them. So as it changes the landscape, it changes your view and your conception of uniformity. Soon it’s going to be even more beautiful. All flowers and foliage. It’s an image you never tire of seeing. 

Damien Helly (21:03): We will conclude this episode with the voice again of Method Gundidza, who connects the dots of what we have heard today. The role of trees and the benefits of the interactions with other forms of living.The cultural dimensions of agroforestry, both as world views and as cultural expressions. 

Method Gundidza (21:17): It is our firm belief that when that relationship between we as humans and the rest of other living elements on the living planet is established. It is that which forms the basis of what we can define as happiness. Perhaps we have to redefine what we mean by happiness and happiness can be a universal concept. It’s a concept that specific to a community. What defines happiness in this place cannot be the same in that place, and it is exactly how mother earth works. It is the diversity of people’s views and people’s ways of life, cultures.

Damien Helly (22:16): Our ways of life are impacted by climate change and biodiversity loss. We may disagree on what happiness consists of and what the correct behaviour is. But we’re all affected by climate induced transformations. There are also very diverse ways of practising agroforestry. But wherever it takes place, it reflects the cultural features of human communities in relation and coexistence with other livings. 

I hope you enjoyed this episode. In the next one, we’re diving more deeply into agroforestry as both an art and a science. With interviews of biologists, artists and agroforestry experts. They explain why agroforestry matters to EU policies and international partnerships on culture, forests and climate change.

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of our Composing trust podcast by culture Solutions! If you liked it, you can subscribe and follow us on your favourite podcast platforms, and contact us at 

The views expressed in this podcast are personal and are not the official position of culture Solutions as an organisation.
Musical creation credits: Stéphane Lam