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'Farming God's Way': Cultivation and religious practice in contemporary South Africa

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - FarGo ('Farming God's Way': Cultivation and religious practice in contemporary South Africa)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2022-07-31

As exemplified by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), humanity’s use of land, water and natural resources has become a growing global concern (SDG no. 15). Combined with a changing climate, these concerns highlight humanity’s impact on our ecosystems, leading to debates over humans’ current dominion over nature. These debates have linked abuse of the environment to religious doctrines, and in particular to Christian traditions, that have given humans an elevated role vis-a-vis nature.
FarGo addresses the largely under-researched relation between Christianity, farming and the environment in Africa. Considering that Africa is the scene of a rapid growth of religious institutions and is facing enormous environmental challenges in relation to food security it is highly relevant to supplement the existing literature by investigating the relationship between religion and farming in an African context. FarGo addressed this lacuna by focusing on contemporary Christian pro-environmental trends in South Africa and explore the relationship between theological ideas and religious practice in the context of ecologically and socially sustainable farming. Through a qualitative case-study of the Charismatic Christian cluster of organizations called ‘Farming God’s Way’ (FGW) in South Africa, FarGo assesses Charismatic Christians’ readings of the bible and religious resources role in producing sustainable management principles and alternative agricultural technology. By analyzing the interconnectedness of farming and religious practice, FarGo has addressed the importance of, and relations between, religious attitudes and environmental concerns in contemporary South Africa. The analysis stresses cultivation’s long historical role in producing distinct ways of being Christians and its revival in contemporary articulations of moral Christian in relation to notions of environmental as well as social crisis.
FarGo has approached faith-based farming activities beyond its functional dimension (i.e. producing food and improving standards of living) by seeing farming as acts that creates meaning, and also influences positions, in relation to social, gendered and environmental dimensions of the world. By addressing this, FarGo has provided an important contribution to ongoing academic debates on religious materializations of space and time and the material dynamics of religious configurations of land.
The MSCA fellowship has contained an ambitious training program for developing professional maturity. The interdisciplinary research environments in Denmark and South Africa has enabled the MSCA fellow to share results, as well as receive and provide critical feedback to improve the research project. Besides developing qualitative ethnographic methods during a time influenced by the global Covid-19 pandemic, FarGo has generated cooperation with international academic peers through co-organizing events and co-writing academic texts. The MSCA fellowship has also entailed concrete pedagogical training as well as research project management skills, leadership training and dissemination to develop professional maturity.
FarGo has analyzed farming as emerging form of religious practices produced in the every-day acts of working and caring for plots of land. FarGo’s results include the important role played by religious resources (texts, practices and moral teachings) for cultivating human-nature relations, the articulation of Christian ways of being in connection to deep biological knowledge, and Charismatic Christian movements emerging focus on (rural) land as a means of transforming the society. By an ethnographic account of emerging green activism among born again Christians, FarGo, speaks to research that stresses the role of emotional experiences present in acts of cultivating soil, plants and seeds and the importance for understanding how journeys towards greater environmental awareness and care for the natural world today takes place. Yet, FarGo also reveals faith-based farming as entangled in transnational Christian discourses of evangelisation, sustainability and development, which in the context of Southern Africa recaptures Christian missionary discourses of the past. FarGo shows how the promotion of particular modes of cultivating the land as inseparable from discourses of how to become a moral Christian.
Important for the impact of the results and for the MCSA fellow career, results have been/will be published by high-quality scientific publishers, one already published book chapter (co-authored with Karen Lauterbach), and with four research articles being under review by high-ranked scientific journals. To reach a wider audience, results have also been disseminated through popular articles, blog-posts and public events, directed towards academics and civil society actors. In conversation with leading academic scholars working in the intersection between religion, materiality and ecology,
FarGo delivers an interdisciplinary analysis of contemporary religious movements and the environment, and knowledge about religious agents’ motivation behind sustainable environmental action. As research surrounding religious actors’ role in mitigating and adapting to climate change, FarGo has produced knowledge for understanding contemporary development of religious practice in relation to climate change discourses. Here dwells potential for seeing how sustainable development policies could be translated into religious frameworks while being attentive to wider social ramifications green activism potentially produce in societies constituted by pluralism and contested knowledge. In relation to the social and political developments in South Africa, this stresses religious discourses as historically embedded, and for good and bad, religions' role in legitimizing use of land as utterly moral. FarGo showcases individuals journeys for greater environmental awareness as well as the reemerging civilization discourses that goes beyond the current state-of-art.
Results were published in both scientific and public media outlets, and disseminated to a wider scientific and professional audience via FarGo workshops and seminars, interpersonal communication and conference participation. There has been interest in the topic of faith-based farming from civil society actors working in the intersection between religion and development, among South African practitioners looking for holistic approaches of development, as well as among faith-practitioners in the Nordic region exploring the possibility to develop gardening programs as a part of faith practice and teaching activities. Links between emerging green articulations of Christianity in the Nordic region and African configurations will be conversations that will followed up. The impact of the research will also be used as a springboard for exploring green religious activism in Africa beyond Christian frameworks, in future conference panels and research applications. As African populations face changing water patterns, competition over resources and challenges related to food production in the present-future, how growing Charismatic religious movements in Africa responds to impeding climate changes require further research.
FGW model garden, Gqeberha 2020, photo Hans Olsson
FGW Compost, Gqeberha 2020, photo Hans Olsson