On my first day volunteering with WhyHunger partner AFEDES (Women’s Association for the Development of Sacatepéquez, Guatemala), I visited a community in San Antonio Aguas Calientes with self-proclaimed “agro-eco-feminist” Mercedes Monzón. Held at the home of one of AFEDES’s members, the meeting’s objective was to learn about the low-impact pesticide lime sulfur and to make a big batch for the group of 10 women to share. In one morning, these goals were met and more. We drank mosh (a sweet oat-based drink) followed by a savory atol (a warm corn-based drink) topped with beans and ground pumpkin seed. As we sipped and worked, group members also shared their frustrations and successes, whether it was a sickness affecting their hens or a bountiful harvest of medicinal plants from their herb garden. AFEDES meetings create these safe spaces for women to come together, to get away from their worries at home and to focus on improving their livelihoods.
Although many members of AFEDES have barely finished primary or secondary school, they keep attendance, minutes, financial records, and plan for their futures. Women in rural communities form organized groups and elect their own presidents, treasurers, and promoters, who become leaders, supporting their compañeras in anything from taking legal action against domestic violence to learning new weaving techniques. These groups later report to the general assembly at AFEDES, which also has its own leadership structure. This dynamic builds networks of solidarity among women within and across communities. I found this especially powerful in a world where women are taught to compete against each other rather than work together.
Olga Zet, vice president of AFEDES, shows support for the Weaver’s Movement.
After wrapping up in San Antonio, we headed to Santiago Sacatepéquez, home of AFEDES headquarters, where we found the office staff in a workshop on bio-energy. I certainly did not expect to receive a chiropractic adjustment on my first day as a volunteer, but I happily obliged after a two-day bus journey through the mountains of Chiapas and Guatemala. After our adjustments, a naturopath led us through a series of energy-balancing processes to center our minds and bodies. Even though I had quite literally just met everyone in the room, I felt a certain unity and connection as we flowed through the different energy centers of our bodies.
Milvian Aspuac, director of AFEDES, later explained to me that workshops like this are part of the holistic approach the organization takes towards building autonomy among indigenous women and their communities. This vision of autonomy includes physical, political, and economic facets of life. For example, reclaiming women’s health, both physically and spiritually, is one of the important pillars of physical autonomy. AFEDES is also guided by the principle of Utz’ K’aslemal, their response as Kaqchikel women to “buen vivir” policies in countries like Bolivia and Ecuador. The ultimate mission is to defend life itself.
Milvian pointed to a large wasps’ nest outside her office window. “We don’t kill these wasps because they are life,” she explained. When there is a march to defend water, AFEDES will be there because water is life. When communities organize against a mining project, AFEDES will be there because land is life. This political clarity is a result of over 20 years of organizing, during which AFEDES has seen many changes in its vision and mission. Through a restructuring process in 2012, the women focused on their core values by asking themselves, “What do we really want?” The answer wasn’t more money or more things, but simply to live well, vivir bien, Utz’ K’aslemal.
With this perspective, elements that might seem disconnected at first soon become inseparable. My first week with AFEDES, I attended a harvest festival and ceremony in the mountains of Chimaltenango and the next day I joined the National Weavers’ Movement in the capitol presenting legal reforms to protect indigenous textile designs (their proposal was accepted in February and is now awaiting approval from the Commission of Indigenous Peoples). Through these experiences, I saw first-hand how women and their communities are organizing and building resilience from the ground up. It’s all part of defending the web of life.
Weaving class at AFEDES headquarters in Santiago Sacatepéquez.
I arrived at AFEDES with an interest in gender and food sovereignty, which began with learning to grow my own vegetables in my mom’s garden and led me to study Human Ecology with a focus in sustainable food systems at College of the Atlantic in Maine. I was especially drawn to AFEDES’s focus on gender and racism in addressing problems in the food system, as a revolution without intersectionality is no revolution at all. What I gained over the six weeks I spent immersed in this community was more than I could have hoped for: I left with a much more complete vision of the kind of world I want to live in and the steps I can take to make that a reality.
As I watched from afar the social movements making waves back home in the U.S., from a pipeline resistance in my home state of New Jersey, to dairy workers organizing for better protections and wages in Vermont, I began to see them all connected in the bigger fight to defend life itself. On many occasions I asked myself, “What would my Utz’ K’aslemal look like without the confines and pressures of capitalism, patriarchy, and racism? What does autonomy mean to me?” I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think I am beginning to ask the right questions.
“We eat what we plant. What we eat comes from our own labor. It’s healthy,” explained Don Carlos, a Zapotec campesino living in the village of Santa Gertrudis deep in the Sierra Juarez mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. “Before we ate processed food and we didn’t know what was in it. We are also really blessed to have clean, fresh water.”
Sitting just 40 feet from the fresh flowing mountain water eliciting Don Carlos’ gratitude and eating a nutritious bowl of organic farm-raised Tilapia soup and fresh tortillas, the full impact of the transition back to indigenous food ways he was describing was palpable.
Neon Cruz, another campesino who was born in Santa Gertrudis and began farming at age 12, explained how it used to take him 8 hours a day to cultivate food on two plots of land deep within the lush mountains. First, he would trek 2-3 hours up the mountainside to the nearest market to buy expensive chemical inputs. Then he’d struggle to carry 50 kilos of these agrochemicals on his back as he hiked for two hours on most days from plot to plot to grow his crops, now doused in agrochemicals.
But all of that was before he, Don Carlos and the 30 families living in Santa Gertrudis learned about The Union of the Organizations of Sierra Juarez, or UNOSJO.
On a bright winter morning, the two men joined most of the rest of the villagers in taking a rare break from their daily schedules of planting seeds, cultivating the land, tending to their cows, pigs and fish, cooking, cleaning, and caring for their families to welcome the WhyHunger staff, a group of supporters who are employees of Hard Rock International, and our hosts from UNSOJO to their remote village.
One by one the villagers shared their stories and experiences of working with UNOSJO, an Indigenous-led organization that addresses the critical needs of the local Zapotec families through programs ranging from sustainable food production and women’s rights, to protecting their indigenous territory and providing legal assistance.
Well-known in Mexico and internationally for their pioneering work to expose the contamination of local corn varieties by GMO crops, UNSOJO has been organizing and leading the resistance for years. They’ve taken legal action to block the GMO crop invasion, started local seed banks and encourage farmers to grow traditional varieties of maize. Now they are organizing community-led actions and pushing for legal protections against mega projects, like the hydropower dams, mineral extraction and mining operations being carried out illegally on their territory, which threaten their access to clean water, good soil and their very way of life.
“We are not activists; we are defenders of human rights,” explained Aldo Gonzalez, an Agronomist and leader in UNSOJO’s Indigenous Rights Sector.
To protect indigenous rights, UNOSJO documents abuses to children, women, entire communities and the natural resources they depend on, and offers workshops on the legal, economic, social and cultural rights, like the rights to food and health. They facilitate learning exchanges, farmer-led trainings and provide technical support to build capacity. They work to spread information about actions, threats and opportunities via social media, posters, word of mouth, community radio and a bi-annual magazine they publish. They’ve teamed up with several other local organizations to establish the Collective of Oaxaca and Defense of the Territory as a way to strengthen their collective resistance to the growing threats to their sovereignty.
UNOSJO’s approach is driven by the indigenous collective view of life, where each individual member of the community has “Tequio” or the capacity and responsibility to contribute to the community. Through collective leadership and community organizing they maintain access to the water, land and the resources they need to ensure that everyone can live a dignified life with enough nutritious food to eat. Oswaldo, the coordinator of UNOSJO’s Campesino-a-Campesino program, explained their shared goal of “el buen vivir” or “living well” that defines the indigenous cosmovision of “living well, not better.”
“It’s not a vision of charity; it’s about indigenous autonomy, the indigenous cosmovision,”explained Luz Leila Peres a la Vez, incoming UNSOJO Treasurer. “UNOSJO teaches people new practices to be self-sustaining and less dependent on agrichemicals and commercial seeds, and helps them produce healthy food.”
To illustrate this point, campesino Neon Cruz led our group up into the mountains to view his plots of land and see the benefits of UNSOJO’s partnership up close. Now, with the agroecological practices he has learned, Neon no longer has to buy and lug the heavy agrochemicals around his fields. He only carries a 3-liter spray bottle to disseminate organic inputs – like the supermagro that UNSOJO farmers taught him how to make—which he creates himself, without additional costs, to grow his food.
“There are fewer insects and fungus that attack my crops, now,” explained Neon. “The flavor of the food is better. The grains cook better; they’re less coarse…. I see the results!”
UNOSJO also supported Neon to build a water tank, get a cow and even participate in a shared learning exchange with Brazilian farmers from Popular Peasant Movement (MCP). Now, Neon is teaching others how to use agroecology practices through campesino-a-campesino trainings. This farmer-to-farmer methodology, which relies on shared learning and shared experience, helps to efficiently scale out agroecology across the territory.
As Oswaldo, the coordinator of UNOSJO’s Campesino-a-Campesino program explained, “An agronomist can’t go to a farmer and say ‘you should do this.’ He has no real reference. The farmers have such little resources, they can’t take risks or try new things. But when a farmer has succeeded [for himself], he can teach another farmer.”
Campesina Victoria Cruz, whose corn, beans and squash are layered up the hillside directly above Neon’s plot, explained that, as a single mother, she often relies on offering and receiving help from other farmers in the village. Her Milpa, a plot of land dedicated to the indigenous practice of inter-planting of beans, corn and squash, provides food for her children and space for her to experiment with the agroecological practices she is learning from UNOSJO. She just started growing potatoes, indigenous corn and coffee and, for the first time, is now exceeding production and able to sell in the nearby market in Talea de Castro.
As we finished touring these robust plots dotted across the mountainside and meeting with farmers and their families, the impact of UNSOJO’s support in strengthening the community at Santa Gertrudis was clear.
“We’ve accomplished a lot together as a group,” Don Carlos said with a sense of pride and hope. He told us that the villagers are getting better and better at organizing themselves. They started with organic compost for corn, beans and other plants. Next they began intensive fish farming with tilapia. Then they got the cows. “All of this happened because of UNOSJO’s support.”
Even with the strong social fabric of their community and the partnership of UNSOJO, the villagers are up against real threats. They are working to build international solidarity to amplify the threats from climate change affecting their growing season, multinational companies invading their territory, and spill off from mega projects contaminating their land, water and soil.
“You can help us by sharing stories and letting people know how hard it is to defend the land and territory,” said Oswald.
WhyHunger will continue supporting indigenous communities as they strive to ensure their families can live well.” To learn more about UNSOJO and support their efforts visit http://unosjo.org/
Harvesting Justice is a project of Other Worlds, created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance and telling the stories of people changing their food systems from the ground up. Reprinted with permission. Miriam Miranda is a leader of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH), which works with the 46 communities of the Afro-indigenous Garífuna of Honduras, to defend their territories, natural resources, identity and rights. Miriam’s narrative here is drawn from an interview with Beverly Bell in Washington, D.C., compiled by Tory Field and Beverly Bell.
We live on the Atlantic coast of Honduras. We are a mix of African descendants and indigenous peoples who came about more than 200 years ago in the island of San Vicente. Without our land, we cease to be a people. Our lands and identities are critical to our lives, our waters, our forests, our culture, our global commons, our territories. For us, the struggle for our territories and our commons and our natural resources is of primary importance to preserve ourselves as a people.
The Garífuna people, for their way of being, were declared part of the Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2004. We don’t know what that means exactly, but we suppose it implies that the state must take action to protect and preserve the Garífuna people’s identity.
What we Garífuna face is largely the same things faced by people all over Latin America, and in fact, the world. Also, the problems of the South are not a problem just for us, but of all of us and the whole planet.
If you map out the conflicts that are threatening our country, you’ll see they reflect exactly where transnational capital is trying to take more resources from indigenous peoples. Maybe you believe that president Mel Zelaya was ousted in a coup d’état [in 2009] because he was a leftist. No. It was because [those with wealth] wanted to take land and resources, which they are now doing. Look at the search for so-called alternatives to oil--through mining, the mega-dams, the biofuels, the production of African palm oil. All these resources are being taken from indigenous areas. There is more pressure on us every day for our territories, our resources, and our global commons.
In Honduras, they’re taking land that we were using to grow beans and rice so they can grow African palm for bio-fuel. The intention is to stop the production of food that humans need so they can produce fuel that cars need. The more food scarcity that exists, the more expensive food will become. The mono-cultivation of some of these crops [for bio-fuel] requires thousands of millions of acres of land. Food sovereignty is being threatened everywhere.
Also we have a problem that is rarely spoken of: narco-trafficking. The Atlantic Coast of Honduras is the main trafficking route. A study showed that almost 90% of the drugs that are going to the North pass through Honduras. We’re exactly in the way of the trafficking and we’re so vulnerable. Honduras has one of the highest levels of crime and violence [per capita] of any country that is not actually at war. We have to fight not only for the permanence of our community, but also to not be kidnapped by traffickers.
Another of our main challenges is the tourism industry. We live almost on the sea, right on the beach. It’s a blessing but recently it’s also become a curse, because of course all those with power want to have a place on the beach. The Honduran government has started on some tourism mega-projects. The displacement of communities and the loss of cultures that come with the development of tourism [is increasing].
We have occupied and claimed ancestral lands that had been taken by others, such as Vallecito Limón. We are also using international human rights law in order to guard our territories. We have a claim against the government in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Washington regarding Triunfo de la Cruz [a beachside Garífuna community whose communally owned lands have been taken]. We hope to have a decision in November or December. This will create an important precedent for all indigenous peoples, not just for the Garífuna. It’ll define the responsibility of the state to protect territories and rights of indigenous peoples. This will only be the [fourth] case ever brought that will help establish policies and mechanisms to protect the territories and resources of indigenous peoples, and all of humanity, of course. [The other three are] Sarayacu in Ecuador, Saramaca in Suriname, and Awas Tingni in Nicaragua.
We are creating alliances with feminists in resistance, with other indigenous people, with campesinos, with groups like the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model. These alliances are very important, and we have to strengthen them more. Nothing can come from the top; all these alliances have to be built from the community level. We are the ones on the ground resisting and creating possibilities.
We have created our own media, a community radio station for the Garífuna. In response to mass media trying to block the protection of our indigenous territories, we have created alliances with the four other community radios, and have started--together with COPINH [Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras]--a Mesoamerica Network of Community Radio.
I want to talk about the role of women defending life, culture, and territories, opposing a model of death that grows stronger each day. We are at the front of the avalanche of attacks. Everywhere throughout Honduras, like in all of Latin America, Africa, Asia, women are at the forefront of the struggles for our rights, against racial discrimination, for the defense of our commons and our survival. We’re at the front not only with our bodies but also with our force, our ideas, our proposals. We don’t only birth children, but ideas and actions as well.
The marvelous women comrades in Triunfo de la Cruz, Garífuna women, many of them elders, have incredible strength. They participate in meetings, in actions, tearing down walls that are built on the beach. They’re sustaining the Garífuna youth so that they know who they are, without shame. They’re producing the yucca that is our staple food.
If the problem is global, we have to have a global response. It’s time for every human being in the global North to take up his or her responsibility in respect to the use of resources, responsibility relative to waste and to consumption. The standard of living that you all have in the US is unsustainable. You are the button-pushers. We [on the other end] have crises piled one after another. We are trying to resist and find every solution we can, but we ask ourselves: Hmm, are we the ones consuming all this energy? If those in the North are the consumers, why are we in Honduras paying? Why are we being displaced to generate energy for others? What are we supposed to do? Leave the planet to destruct, or make a change for future generations? They won’t have land or water or air. This is not pessimism, it’s reality. The time has come.
Please respond to the urgent alert from OFRANEH’s close colleagues in the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), where three leaders face trumped-up charges over a five-month road occupation which has blocked an illegal dam from being built on Lenca indigenous land.
Thanks to Lauren Elliott for editing assistance.
You can order Harvesting Justice and find action items, resources, and a popular education curriculum on the Harvesting Justice website. Harvesting Justice was created for the US Food Sovereignty Alliance, check out their work here.
Copyleft Other Worlds. You may reprint this article in whole or in part. Please credit any text or original research you use to Tory Field and Beverly Bell, Other Worlds.