April 6, 2020

Meet our Fellows: Thomas Forster

Manon KoningsteinEcoAgriculture Partners

Thomas has been working for many years with a variety of communities who care about farming, food and the environment. In his policy work, he acts like a bridge – connecting urban and rural people and places; linking different farming, landscape and territorial communities to each other; linking policies together; and connecting practices on the ground to policy design and implementation.

Q1. Could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?

I was born and raised in east and south Asia. After high school, I moved to the Pacific Northwest of the United States. I have been working with farms, non-profit organizations and networks in the US and internationally since then. I have a BA in Philosophical Anthropology and a Masters in Landscape Architecture. Over the years, living in rural and urban areas, I have focused on linking practice to policy in national and international policy campaigns. I consider my main work to be connecting that which is occurring on the ground (oftentimes invisible to policymakers) to what is happening in distant policy spaces. Shaping policy decisions in response to local knowledge held by landscape stewards and innovations carried out by community leaders is extremely urgent right now – we need to connect the bottom to the top and the top to the bottom.

Q2. Could you tell us a bit about your work on ‘city region food systems’, what it is and what are you trying to achieve with this work?

For nearly 40 years I have been focusing on the interaction between urban and rural communities, trying to address inequality and improve their linkages, from rural towns and small islands to cities large and small. In recent years I have been working to strengthen city region food systems with networks of cities, development partners and United Nations agencies, for example with UN-Habitat, FAO, and the Milan Food Policy Pact.

One example is the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the outcome of the Habitat III conference. A year after the launch of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, the NUA bridged the sustainable development goal to end hunger (SDG 2) with the goal for sustainable cities (SDG11). This bridge is made in numerous paragraphs of the NUA and needed to be made because there is no mention of the sub-national in SDG 2 and the SDG 11.a target to integrate urban, peri-urban and rural planning for sustainable development does not mention food and agriculture.

Brazil is a notable example of a national enabling policy that unites rural and urban food systems. There are many interesting initiatives happening in local and subnational levels but there is not much going on at the national level in support of city region food systems. This is not because there is no existing normative policy for territorial food systems, city-region food systems or Integrated Landscape Management (ILM). There are good policies in place, but they aren’t being operationalized. However, there is a growing realization that the public food procurement in the context of the circular economy and the planning for sustainable and resilient communities is a powerful lever to protect and preserve both agriculture and rural communities.

Q3. How did you get involved with EcoAgriculture Partners?

I got involved with EcoAgriculture Partners in 2014 through my work with urban-rural linkages, territorial development, city-region food systems and ILM. Furthermore, I was closely involved in the People, Food and Nature initiative, and I am currently working with Sara Scherr and Louise Buck on a stocktaking exercise for Territorial Perspectives for Development (TP4D). EcoAgriculture Partners is a science-policy NGO and rooted in the natural resource management discourse which privileges landscape stewards in planning and policy. My work coincides with EcoAgriculture Partners because we care about the social and cultural issues within the context of agriculture and ILM. In ILM the primary human actors are stewards who maintain the health of landscapes or territories.

In 2013 EcoAgriculture published a review of different terms and notions used to identify ground level agency in environmental and development discourse. ILM is one of many similar terms, such as territorial, city region, and other terms. In a number of cases, I have facilitated consensus development between groups identifying with these different terms. I have seen that co-evolution starts with a dialogue and the discovery that we are dealing with similar issues. The diversity of terminology and language can be a challenge with similar initiatives that use related yet different terminology. However, dialogue can lift the common principles that unite different communities of practice.  

Q4. What motivates you to do this work?

I teach policy literacy to adult learners and I have young children of my own. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can create a positive and hopeful narrative for today’s younger generations. Giving answers to questions such as: How are we going to adapt to the future’s uncertainties? I believe we need positive memes or cultural framing of ideas that unite and give substance to motivate young people’s choices, I like to call it ‘anchors of hope’. The new generations can be smart and impactful if they make better choices for challenging times ahead. 

This blog is part of our ´Meet our fellows´ series. Read the first blog of our series here.

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