Exclusion in the Environmental Movement, a Kiss The Ground Film Critique

For #WorldSoilDay, let us look at a movement revolving around soil health and issues on diversity and inclusion it faces.

(via IMP Awards)

Kiss The Ground has been described as groundbreaking, but I find that it only manages to scratch the surface. I don’t have indigenous roots as a Filipino-American woman and my family does not have experience working or owning farms. Regardless of my background, I was left feeling very jaded on behalf of indigenous peoples and farmers of color internationally after watching this film on Netflix. My grievance is about the missed opportunity to showcase Traditional Ecological Knowledge and diversity in agriculture to a wide audience.

Kiss The Ground is a 2020 full-length documentary. Their website describes it as a film “that sheds light on an new, old approach to farming called “regenerative agriculture” that has the potential to balance our climate, replenish our vast water supplies, and feed the world”. I went into watching the film blind; I didn’t know about the directors or producers (besides assuming, correctly, that they were white) and I haven’t even watched a lot of movies of the narrator either. Nonetheless, I thought that the film might teach me more about regenerative agriculture. By the end of the film, I was left feeling fed-up at the hollow hope it offered.

Before I share why I felt like this, I offer one good takeaway: the scientific explanations in the first half of the film. While with a sometimes monotonous tone, Woody Harrelson does a thorough job describing these ideas in an easily digestible manner for audiences unfamiliar with environmental science concepts. There’s clever use of infographs that are dynamic and most helpful for the visual learner.

Yet aside from these environmental science segments, I almost stopped watching halfway through. Why?

Throughout the first half of the film, one can’t help but notice they almost exclusively interview farmers who are white and male. They shared feminine perspectives of scientific background, but didn’t show a female farmer who works on the soil themselves until the latter half of the film. There were several opportunities to introduce to Netflix’s inter/national audience a wider range of diversity of ethnic groups as agriculture owners, but in this regard Kiss the Ground fell short. They spoke only to white farm owners, and only interviewed BIPOC in non-farm owner roles smushed into the last 20-minutes of the film. This bit of inclusion can come off as performative—especially considering that no indigenous people or organizations were featured at all in the film.

That is not to say that the women and POC featured are by no means less important; science experts like Dr. Kristine Nichols and John D. Liu and composting entrepeneurs like Pashon Murray and Michael Martinez are vital for conducting research and providing accessibility for regenerative agricultural practices. However when Kiss The Ground only relegates a small portion of screen-time to their voices and consistently selects white, male faces as the pioneer and primary voice of agricultural owners, it upholds the stereotype that agriculture is dominated by white, male landowners and will likely remain that way. By not challenging agriculture’s skewed demographics, it subliminally reinforces its current inequitable structure. I can’t wholeheartedly say that Kiss The Ground isn’t inspiring, it provided a wealth of scientific knowledge… But in terms of environmental justice and social issues, the film is quite glaringly lackluster.

When it finally came time for the female farmer Doniga Markegard of Markegard Family Grass-Fed Farm at the 50-min. mark, I wasn’t as thrilled as I ought to have been. Instead, I was preoccupied and appalled that the only look back into indigenous history thus far—and one of the only referrals to indigenous knowledge in the film—referred only to the mass-hunting of over 60 million buffalo “in an attempt to starve the Native Americans”. One of the white, male farmers go on about the importance of buffalo, and they quickly show a North American map juxtaposed with greyed areas for the plains bison migration territory. I couldn’t help but think another map I’ve seen would have paired perfectly with this—one that shows the shrinking of indigenous American lands over time.

This presented like a snippet of trivia despite the centuries of history behind them, and it could not even be delivered by an indigenous person. Metaphorically rubbing salt in the wound is the accompaniment of overused historical photos: white cowboys shooting down a buffalo or alongside towering piles of animal remains. Others have eloquently described the issues and unconscious bias behind showcasing indigenous stories purely through black-and-white photographs, in past-tense, or altogether excluding their voices or stories at all: indigenous communities are not lost, forgotten people, but whitewashed media so often portrays them as such. Such microaggressions were clearly executed at this point in the film, as Kiss The Ground does not elaborate how colonization (and with it, industrial agriculture) came to take over indigenous lands or that these lands were carefully managed by indigenous peoples for thousands of years… managed with methods that today’s regenerative agriculture is inspired by.

This GIF is from the Youtube video, Native American Land Losses (via Imgur)

The only other homage to indigenous values is in that Doniga Markegard learned about permaculture practices through Lakota elders in her childhood, but her mentor’s name or the wilderness immersion school she attended goes unnamed. While you can vaguely connect her monologues to indigenous values, it remains discreet, implied, and in the background. The forefront is in science stripped of deep, cultural values that I presume was instilled with Markegard as well. She’s written books about these experiences, but it seems that editors opted not to include any more context beyond permaculture’s physical execution.

One can look into Doniga’s publications which share her experiences with learning indigenous beliefs and practices, Dawn Again or Wolf Girl—but in reality, no matter how much it’s recommended you can’t expect every viewer who watches Kiss The Ground to reach for a book. And even if Markegard had more screen-time to explain what she was taught, the film would fall short still. Acknowledging tribal land or leaders verbally is the absolute bare minimum—it isn’t enough to refer to our indigenous teachers by name and leave it at that. True solidarity would be including indigenous leaders and communities into these spaces to showcase their knowledge and practices themselves. This is just one of the reasons why the regenerative agriculture movement repeatedly comes off as as tone-deaf.

It’s possible that the filmmakers genuinely did not think that their film would come off this way. They also may have asked themselves: if our main objective is to target industrial agriculture, to teach about soil and environmental science and putting it into practice… why should we include indigenous peoples’ history or their movements regarding land rights?

Seeing that roughly 95% of farmland is white-owned and a large majority is agriculture, so it is only obvious this film will want to cater to a white audience first and foremost. But there is a still a need to acknowledge and include BIPOC–Black and Indigenous People of Color–voices. It is important to address the underlying issues and events that lead to this small percentage of BIPOC in agriculture. Without facing these topics head-on, one implies that they aren’t that concerned about changing those inequitable statistics.

By glossing over indigenous histories and struggles, and by not challenging how society is built in a way that the majority of U.S. soil has been privatized and owned by white people, Kiss The Ground showcases how America’s mistreatment and erasure of black and indigenous peoples persists. When a film talks about white settler colonialism’s consequences on wildlife population but not on the interconnectedness to indigenous land sovereignty; when a film has funds to send an interviewer to Zimbabwe for a story, yet neglects to reach out to BIPOC farmers in their home country… it reveals that white people advocating for regenerative agriculture remain either unaware or uncaring of systemic social justices issues that brought on climate change in the first place.

Indigenous communities globally have long been alienated and separated from environmental movements that effect them the most, and there are so many activists and groups that bring light to this issue. Right before Thankstaking—Thanksgiving’s alternative name in acknowledgement of colonial genocide—over 10 indigenous organizations came together to send a message to regenerative agriculture and permaculture leaders. It was posted on @CulturalSurvival and other environmental advocates’ social media, saying:

Regen Ag and Permaculture claim to be holistic in approach. When regenerating a landscape, ‘everything’ is considered: soil health, water cycles, local ‘wildlife’, income & profit. ‘Everything’, however, tends to EXCLUDE history: Why were Indigenous homelands steal-able and why were our peoples & lands rape-able? Why were our cultures erased? Why does our knowledge need to be validated by ‘Science’? Why are we still excluded from your ‘healing’ of our land?

White people practicing regenerative agriculture and producing media about it have power to make the movement as inclusive or exclusive as they see fit. They have privilege to reach a wide audience and influence how the public views agriculture and it’s working structure as a whole. Whether they meant to or not, Kiss the Ground perpetrates indigenous erasure as mainstream American textbooks have always done by not dedicating even just 10 more minutes of screen-time interviewing an indigenous person or organization.

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) systems are the roots of regenerative agriculture, and these roots continue to nourish and feed the movement by gifting their knowledge to farmers both white and non-white alike. Building the regenerative movement without involving indigenous communities is like neglecting the soil: you’ll still receive a crop, but your harvest will not be as bountiful and the taste will not be as sweet.

In the 21st century with all the accessibility and reach the internet provides, making connections to indigenous-led endeavors is as simple as an email or phone call. A search on Google and social media platforms provides so many resources and contact information for BIPOC-led agriculture and environmental activists. They provide nuanced criticism on regenerative agriculture on this very issue. I highly recommend watching and/or following the below resources to learn about BIPOC agriculture and sovereignty, environmental stewardship, and community action:

  • Managing Groundwater with the Paiute, Short Documentary: “the Paiute are shepherding conversations around access to water resources, raising key questions about how our snowpack, streams and aquifers are used and maintained” (free to watch 26-min. video on KCET)
  • Gather, Film: “exploring the destruction & appropriation of the Native America food system by chronicling those fighting for food sovereignty (full-length documentary, $4.99 rental or $12.99 purchase on Amazon, Vimeo, and iTunes)
  • Regeneration—from the Beginning, Short Article on Nonprofit Quarterly: succinctly explains the arguments I’ve talked about here from the professional prospective. The author, A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa), is “the director of programs, Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, at the First Nations Development Institute”
  • Planting Justice, 501(c)3 Non-Profit: An Oakland-based organization that “has built over 450 edible permaculture gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area, worked with five high-schools to develop food justice curricula and created 40 green jobs in the food justice movement for folks transitioning from prison”
  • Raised Roots, Farm & Consulting Agency: “Providing superior produce, gardens and farm education” through Oakland-based urban farming
  • A Growing Culture Non-Profit: Based in Mexico, they are “Global Movement for a Just Food System,” and “focused on eco agriculture technique and information exchange for education & advancement”
  • Seeding Sovereignty, Advocacy Organization: “an Indigenous-led collective, works to radicalize and disrupt colonized spaces through land, body, and food sovereignty work, community building, and cultural preservation”

In my experience in trying to bring buffalo back to the land, a lot of non-Indian people can understand the need to do that and the good it can do for the land. Whereas they can’t really understand the need to bring the culture back.

Fred DuBray of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation, South Dakota
quoted from the film, Gather

On Dec 4th, I attended a Film Discussion & Q&A hosted by a California-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Sustainable Solano.

(via belovefarm.com)

The Co-Founder and Executive Director of Kiss The Ground Foundation, Ryland Engelhart and also his father Matthew Engelhart (owner of an organic, regenerative agriculture farm Be Love Farm, and also founder of the popular Californian vegan restaurant chain, Café Gratitude) were present to answer any questions that attendees had.

Before I could even ask, they acknowledged how the film didn’t create a clear, explicit narrative with indigenous views and history. Their response was to create an Educational Version with an additional scene that revolves the Lakota peoples’ cultural beliefs and relationships to bison and the land. It includes two additional 45-minute videos, one for students that will be integrated into schools nationwide, and the other for farmers that focuses on profitibility and land resilience. It is made available on Kiss The Ground’s website, free for students and non-students alike to stream.

Unfortunately, the Educational Version will not replace the original film streaming on Netflix. But besides producing a new film version, Kiss The Ground seems to be getting more involved with indigenous-led agriculture. Ryland Engelhart shared that he’s in touch with Zach Ducheneaux, Executive Director to the Intertribal Agriculture Council. Founded in 1987, the IAC works “to pursue and promote the conservation, development and use of our agricultural resources for the betterment of [Indigenous American] people.” Engelhart has learned about IAC’s agriculture finance model that provides long-term loans to people to make agriculture more accessible to indigenous communities. Kiss The Ground is currently learning how they can support indigenous communities in this regard. While they don’t have a specific progam yet, Kiss The Ground is raising a $3.4 million impact fund in which 10% of that will be dedicated for grassroots organizations focused on BIPOC issues.

Another way that Kiss The Ground is attempting to make regenerative agriculture more accessible is through organizing around the 2024 Farm Bill. They acknowledged that campaigning around the bill may not result in massive change at the federal level, but by making these concepts more widely known it will hopefully interest both current farmers owners and younger generations to adopt these practices at the local and community level.

I went ahead and ordered the Educational Version but have not watched it yet—I’m cautiously optimistic that it has a stronger message revolving social justice seeing how Ryland addressed these issues early into the discussion and Kiss The Ground seems to be in contact with at least one indigenous organization. In my honest opinon as long its privileged leaders are continually, genuinely learning and engaging in ways of mutual aid and allyship for BIPOC environmental justice issues, there is hope for the regenerative agriculture movement still.

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