A poverty-stricken boy from Algeria is shaped by his childhood experiences and pioneers a global movement of change. Pierre Rabhi’s life sounds like the perfect fairytale but, as with all fables, there’s much more to discover about this man once you read between the pages.
When Pierre Rabhi passed away in December 2021 at the wise age of 83, many luminaries flocked to honour him, from Carlo Petrini of the Slow Food movement, to his associate, the French writer and director, Cyril Dion.
On the radio network France Info, Dion described him as a pioneer who went back to the earth.
“[He] was one of the first people to sound the alarm with regards to the consequences of unbridled growth. Everything we're hearing today, Pierre was saying it more than 45 years ago."
There was also criticism among the tributes, something Pierre had faced - with grace - his entire life. However one truth cannot be denied: over 150,000 farmers across France and West Africa have a humble French-Algerian man to thank for their improved living conditions through self-sufficiency and better yields.
Finding joy in simplicity
Many describe Pierre Rabhi as one of the founding fathers of agroecology. From a young age, he was deeply connected to the natural environment.
Pierre’s life began in 1938 in Kénadsa, a small village oasis within Algeria’s great Sahara Desert. His early years were a time he always fondly recounted, spending time in his blacksmith father’s forge among artisan workshops. In these impoverished beginnings, frugality was the norm, but so, he would claim, was a ‘culture of hospitality and charity’.
Aged four, Pierre lost his mother. Worried about his son’s future, his father allowed a childless French Catholic couple that he had befriended - and who oversaw the local colonial mining operations - to raise his son. This was on the condition that they allowed the young boy to remain an ‘observant Muslim.’
A multicultural upbringing ensued for Pierre, spending his time between France and Algeria. In France, he started a job as a technician in a car factory, but was appalled by the exploitation. He fell in love with his colleague, Michelle, and the young couple desired to escape their urban life.
They met an ecologist called Pierre Richard, who had helped establish France’s Cévennes National Park. Richard encouraged them, and so the couple moved to the picturesque Ardèche, tucked away near natural treasures of forest, labyrinthine rivers, limestone gorges, and endemic flora and fauna. They got married and began a family, which in time would blossom to five children, and Pierre started a farming apprenticeship.
Listening to the land
With a desire to own his own farm, in order to secure a loan Pierre gained a certificate in rural farming from a national-funded volunteer centre. This was the 1950s and the French agricultural strategy was to focus on intensification and industrialisation. Farms were already increasing in size as the countryside population shrank. There was a dramatic rise in the usage of chemicals, and Europe began a system of overproduction.
“We see the planet as a deposit of resources that needs to be transformed into dollars, and depleted down to the last fish and last tree, instead of seeing it as an extraordinary oasis where we could create a life with more meaning and value." - Pierre Rabhi
However, Pierre’s ideologies were already shaped by his childhood experiences: he had seen his father succumb to closing his workshop and work in the local coal mines. He rejected the idea of low-input, high-output commercial farming, preferring to balance profitability with sustainability. Pierre and Michelle purchased an isolated farm of arid land. In the early years, it was a struggle.
According to a 2018 Connexions interview with Pierre, the couple had no mains water for seven years and were without electricity for 13 years. “We had no money, but I had a brave wife and I was good with my hands and could get other work to make ends meet and we pulled through. My children helped too. We were always encouraged when people came to visit and who were appreciative of the way we had chosen to live.”
The family embraced the wisdom of traditional techniques with modern agronomy to transform their acreage into a sustainable and high-yielding farm.
Pierre advocated for agroecology - applying the science of soil management and crop production into an integrated and holistic perspective, and he dedicated himself to studying and applying ecological practises into agricultural systems.
Experimentation is a fundamental part of agroecology, but the focus is on harnessing nature to do the work for us, from pollinating crops to controlling pests. Farmers and communities are in control, rather than big business.
Pierre believed that anyone can grow anything anywhere, even in hostile environments and climates, as you are “producing food in line with nature, instead of going against it”.
“I started farming by realising that when the earth lacks fertility or is devastated by drought, it is necessary to restore the balance between the various natural elements by planting many trees, learning to manage and conserve water, and using different techniques to repair the damage done to the environment.” - Pierre Rabhi (in an interview with Slow Food)
Over the years, as Pierre further trained in agroecology he was given an opportunity to travel to Burkina Faso where, in 1985, he established an agroecology centre, which was supported by the country’s idealistic president, Thomas Sankara, who was keen to eradicate poverty.
Improving self-sufficiency and farming practises for smallholders can propel development, as 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas.
Pierre used innovative training techniques, focusing on a hands-on, self-learning approach that welcomed oral traditions and indigenous knowledge.
Pierre returned to France and started founding associations that would help protect and restore the ever-increasingly fragile environmental and social ecosystems of small to medium sized farms in rural communities. He founded CIEPAD (Carrefour international d'échanges de pratiques appliquées au développement) and worked with partner organisations to train farmers in agroecology across Africa, Eastern Europe, and West Asia.
Due to the cost of establishing labour intensive training centres, Pierre founded organisations that would self-fund the work, including the Terre and Humanism association, which has engaged over 80,000 people globally in sustainable food and agriculture.
At Les Amanins, an agroecology study centre in the Drôme, activities are based around a simple yet thought-provoking question that Pierre posed: What earth will we leave to our children, and what children will we leave to earth?
Laura Grivet, who knew Pierre from when he visited Les Amanins a few times each year, shares his philosophy. “Pierre was a faithful and generous friend whose goal in life was to defend life. If we wish to see some change now and in the future, we must guide and care for the way today's children see and feel about the environment, to protect and respect biodiversity, and most of all teach them how to cooperate instead of only competing with it.”
“Today, thanks to his legacy and the magnificent work of our gardeners and farmers, in 20 years we’ve been able to reach 80% of food self-sufficiency [at Les Amanins]. We have a mixed farming and livestock rearing model, and feed approximately 80 people a day throughout the year. It is productive, waste-free, poison-free, and has one of the lowest environmental footprint - and shows huge benefits in terms of maintaining and enforcing biodiversity and soil life.”
Action not words
In 2002, Pierre launched an unsuccessful campaign to become France’s presidential candidate solely, he said at the time, to provoke an urgent conversation around ecological and human health, and promoting the idea of degrowth to a wider platform.
However, for Pierre, talking only went so far and so he worked across society. He collaborated with Orthodox Christian nuns at the Solan monastery in the Gard to establish their first organic garden, prompting others to follow. He believed in an education system where children could cooperate rather than compete, and so established several schools that used Montessori methods. He also believed that women would be the primary changemakers.
Pierre was on a mission to fix our alienated relationship with nature, particularly in cities, and so he established several grassroots citizen movements that engaged tens of thousands of individuals in concrete action.
One such movement was Oasis en Tous Lieux (The Oasis Cooperative), that mobilises people to create eco-villages centred around ecological construction, participatory governance, food autonomy, and pooling and sharing resources.
In 2006, alongside Cyril Dion, Pierre established the internet-based Colibris (Hummingbird) movement, which was inspired by an old Amerindian legend.
“One day, a long time ago and in a faraway place, there was a huge forest fire. All the animals were terrified, running around in circles, screaming, crying and helplessly watching the impending disaster. But there in the middle of the flames, and above the cowering animals, was a tiny hummingbird busy flying from a small pond to the fire, each time fetching a few drops with its beak to throw on the flames. And then again. And then again. After a while, an old grouchy armadillo, annoyed by his ridiculous useless actions, cried out: “Tiny bird! Don’t be a fool. It is not with those miniscule drops of water that you are going to put out the fire and save us all! To which the hummingbird replied, “Yes, I know, but I’m doing my part”. - Pierre Rabhi
The fable ends wistfully, in that the hummingbird dies from exhaustion due to the lack of political mobilisation supporting him. That’s why the Colibri movement uses small-scale community actions, such as buying locally, and educational farms. Pierre once said that “A vegetable garden is a political act of resistance.”
Colibri, incidentally, also established the respected French social and ecological magazine, Kaizen, although it’s now independent of the movement.
The Power of Restraint
In 2010, Pierre penned one of his most important works, Vers la sobriété heureuse (The Power of Restraint), which highlighted a need for the fifth of the world who use four fifths of the world’s resources to adopt a more modest lifestyle. He believed that overconsumption and a throwaway culture creates a joyless society, as we focus on what we don’t have and always strive for more.
“Thanks to his philosophy of sobriété heureuse (happy sobriety), we emphasise authenticity and the joy that goes with it when all that is unnecessary is put aside: high-tech screens, mass-market products, non-essential needs,” explains Laura.
“When you're left with so much more space in which you're able to communicate, to enjoy simple things, to reconnect with our surroundings, it's a kind of harmony with others and with the environment. It is hard to keep it alive every single second of every single day but what matters most is knowing that it is possible to do so, even a bit! That's what is behind Pierre's philosophy - not a harsh monastic or archaic way of life, but a soft, joyful and spiritual way!”
“Pierre was a very simple and humble person, always dressed the same, in a neutral, unmaterialistic manner. He was very calm and peaceful and showed a lot of wisdom in his eyes, even if sometimes there was nostalgia or sadness. He also was very passionate, when he started talking about his favourite subjects - Mother Earth, nature, environmental protection, agroecology, a more feminine society - it was very hard to stop him! He had an infinite respect for all beings and life in general, and showed pity for its denigrators.”
From cynics to love
Speaking of critics, Pierre wasn’t without a few. Some challenged his beliefs in the Rudolf Steiner-Waldorf models, including biodynamic agriculture and anthrosophic medicine, which are rooted in esotericism. He had controversial and oftentimes conservative views about society too, from subjects like same-sex marriage to equality between men and women,
however those who knew him state he never had tunnel vision about his methods or views.
During his life Pierre often said it was Socrates who inspired him the most. In fact, he lived by the Greek philosopher’s famous statement: I know that I know nothing.
“Pierre was humble by nature, he was not a guru nor was he a saint... just a man with a proposition on how to adjust some of the aspects of the crisis we're living through,” says Laura.
“A crisis in which we, as human beings, are at risk as much as our entire ecosystem. There is no magical or perfect ‘key-in-hand’ solution because we're not facing one single simple problem.”
“But Pierre showed courage and determination, he had the audacity to experiment, observe the results, adjust the methodology, and capitalise on it in order to pass it on. Agroecology does give very satisfying results in production as well as protecting the soils, water supplies, and biodiversity, without having a heavy impact on the ecosystem. What is completely outrageous and hard to understand is that some people think that something as simple as that does not work or is fanatical! There is nothing more natural than eating organic food and treating soils with respect.”
“Pierre worked tirelessly for the advent of a more humanist and respectful approach to the world”, concludes Laura.
“His legacy is a great source of inspiration and our will to pursue our actions in favour of a world in which love and respect are at the heart of our concerns is as strong as ever. It is an honour to count him among our founders. We wish to thank him wholeheartedly for all that he has given us over all these years.”
“In the end, the power of love is all”
Pierre Rabhi 1938-2021