Instigating the revitalization of undervalued traditional crops
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
After the end of Guatemala’s civil war, I co-founded the Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura (IMAP), or Mesoamerican Permaculture, in my hometown on the shores of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. Against a political background that was still deeply fractured, growing food served as a way to engage small farmers in the regeneration of their land while keeping Indigenous knowledge alive. I spent the next 20 years implementing my vision of a sustainable food system by working with small farmers across the world, but I focused most of my efforts on the promotion of agro-ecological practices and Indigenous knowledge in the Southern Basin of Guatemala.
Since its inception in 2000, IMAP has trained upwards of 10,000 smallholder farmers in the production of native crops and the conservation of resilient native seeds, significantly increasing men and women’s ability to adapt to climate variability, while improving local market power and enhancing food security.
In 2019, shortly before moving to Canada because of the unbearable socio-political situation, I co-founded the Ecology and Solidarity Council (ECOSOL) as a way to continue my work, channel resources to Guatemala, and bring food justice to the forefront of public attention in the Global North.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
The Southern Basin of Lake Atitlán is located in the highlands of Guatemala, home to mainly Indigenous Kakchiquel (85-90%). Embedded in a volcanic landscape, Lake Atitlán is often touted as one of the world’s most beautiful lakes. It was formed 84,000 years ago when built-up gases caused a volcanic eruption, and is now one of the largest freshwater bodies in Central America. The Southern Basin boasts lush vegetation and a wide range of endemic species. It is also home to some of Guatemala’s most vulnerable communities, with 76.4% of the population in the Southern Basin living in poverty and 27% living in extreme poverty.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
The majority of the land in the region is owned by large multinational corporations and dedicated to coffee cash crops, because of prime climactic and geographic conditions. However, reliance on cash crops is threatening food security by overshadowing traditional systems of diversified food production, and facilitating a system of acute class stratification where landowners absorb most of the wealth and farmers live on minimal income (average of 5 US$ a day). In prioritizing cash crops over food self-sufficiency, small farmers in the region face deep financial risk due to high input requirements, crop failure, and volatile market prices.
In 2050, climate change will have wreaked havoc on the landscape and its people. Safe drinking water will be scarce, and longer periods of drought will make it difficult for farmers to cultivate anything for the Global North. The health of the population will have severely declined, with increased levels of malnutrition. Unemployment levels, already remarkably low, will have plummeted even further. Lacking policies and infrastructure to support relevant technology, the region will be unable to implement tech solutions that could positively impact farming practices. Traditional knowledge related to cultivating, harvesting and consuming local foods will be lost.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
The Traditional Foods Movement is transforming the roots of the global food system by empowering men and women to instigate the revitalization of undervalued traditional crops, and then encourage others to do the same — creating a ripple effect that will change culinary behaviour patterns in the food system.
Today, over half of our world food supply comes from just four crops – corn, wheat, rice, and soybean. The global food system disproportionately benefits the largest multinational organizations, leaving in its wake devastated land and widespread malnutrition.
A shift has begun to gain traction in agriculture. Traditional crops such as quinoa, amaranth, and chia are emerging in kitchens, gardens, and conversations around the world. Their potential for impact is nothing short of inspirational – they have been proven to increase food security, adapt to climate change, provide sustainable livelihoods, and conserve biodiversity.
Traditional plants, also known as “forgotten crops”, served as staples in Indigenous diets for thousands of years. They can flourish in a wide variety of soil types, and can survive drastic shifts in weather patterns. In the face of climate change, they provide a densely nutritious alternative, and serve as a vital strategy for conserving Indigenous knowledge.
The Traditional Food Movement builds on my efforts in Guatemala, where I worked in collaboration with a wide range of community leaders and governmental and non-governmental agencies to increase the availability and consumption of amaranth as a strategy for promoting self-sufficiency and combating malnutrition.
The Guatemalan project was a runaway success with a surprising outcome. Long after funding had ended, small Indigenous-led organizations were selling value-added products in local markets. People were sowing and harvesting crops such as amaranth, chia and chaya themselves, and bringing them to their own tables. Traditional crops, it turns out, are more than just a nutrition powerhouse – they are also remarkably easy to grow.
The Traditional Foods Movement seeks to reintroduce traditional crops by empowering communities to increase local production of these crops and scale up value added products. To do so, it uses a farmer-to-farmer methodology whereby those who have successfully cultivated and processed traditional crops can teach others to do the same. It draws on existing alliances forged with governmental and non-governmental agencies in the region, including the Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health, and forges new ones with universities, non-profits and corporations to promote traditional crops as a catalyzing force for changing the regional food system that impacts all areas of life – one that conserves biodiversity, combats malnutrition, creates income-generating opportunities, preserves Indigenous knowledge, requires only basic technology, and can ultimately shape policy and social progress.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
The Traditional Foods Movement will generate the following outcomes :
Short-term: Increased awareness on malnutrition; greater knowledge of nutritional native plants; improved skills for growing, harvesting and processing nutritional native plants.
Medium-term: Better decision-making when it comes to nutrition; establishment of family, school, and community gardens; integration of value added products into the school system; access to value-added distribution opportunities.
Long-term: The Traditional Foods Movement will enhance the economic sustainability of (financial); local men, women, and children will enjoy greater nutrition (social); climate-resilient crops will be reintroduced into the local ecosystem (environmental).
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
With traditional crops reintroduced into the local diet, food security is significantly improved. Men and women understand the importance of crop diversification rather than cash crops and are cultivating traditional foods for household use. Biodiversity is flourishing, Indigenous knowledge related to agriculture is recognized for its critical role, people are processing and selling value added foods. Policies have changed, and now include value added foods made from traditional crops in schools. Health centers use them as a tool for fighting malnutrition. The Traditional Foods movement has become a universally repeatable and adaptable model for ensuring food security and the right to adequate food.