By Lara Lookabaugh | May 05, 2017

I met Lucy through Mari, an organizer of Mujeres y Maíz Criollo. Lucy lives in Amatenango, a community of Tseltal farmers outside of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. When I arrived in Amatenango, Lucy wasn’t home and I was told to wait at her grandmother’s house. Her grandfather was walking back and forth with his cane from an out-of-sight patio to where I sat with Lucy’s grandmother and aunt. Her aunt was sifting sand for the clay pots that women in Amatenango traditionally make. After a short while, Lucy arrived with her cousins and aunts for the interview. We sat on the formerly out-of-sight patio and talked for more than an hour. Lucy served as a translator from Tseltal to Spanish. When I asked the group if they had noted any change in climate in their lifetimes, Lucy translated the question into Tseltal and everyone started talking excitedly, raising their voices over one another. It was the first question I’d asked that had elicited such a strong response. They had all seen increased droughts, along with excessive rain and more illnesses because of the weather variability. I asked the group if they thought these changes were an important issue, and one of Lucy’s cousins began crying while she explained in Tseltal that it is a major worry for them.

When I asked the group if they had noted any change in climate in their lifetimes, Lucy translated the question into Tseltal and everyone started talking excitedly, raising their voices over one another.

A member of Mujeres y Maiz Criollo in her fields in Amatenango, Chiapas
A member of Mujeres y Maiz Criollo in her fields in Amatenango, Chiapas

It felt strange to be sitting there, so removed from the experiences of these women yet so much a part of them. The impetus behind the creation of Mujeres y Maíz Criollo was the need for a support system when the North American Free Trade Agreement liberalized the import of agricultural products into Mexico. The women in Amatenango use heritage maize varieties for their personal tortilla making. Although imported maize is now cheaper and more reliable because of the unpredictable weather patterns they have observed, these Tseltal women still prefer traditional maize varieties ‒ describing the specific color and the feel of the dough in their hands.

As I continued my fieldwork in the state of Chiapas, it became increasingly clear that neoliberal, capitalist development

models and adaptation strategies could never work for the women I interviewed. Why were policy proposals suggesting climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies that did not consider food sovereignty, cultural appropriateness, and the needs and concerns of farmers and their families?

In 2015, I finished an MA in Latin American studies at the University of Florida with a concentration in development studies. My master’s thesis (described in part above), Talking About the Weather in Chiapas, Mexico: Rural Women’s Approaches to Climate Change in National and Global Context (linked below), explored how women’s place-based approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation in Chiapas interact with processes and ideas operating nationally and globally. I achieved this by working with three organized groups of rural women (two of which were indigenous) in the state and critically reading and analyzing two published policy proposals for climate change mitigation and adaptation. I spent a total of 8 weeks in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, making contacts, observing and participating in local events, and interviewing women who were a part of these organizations.

I found that the women in all three of the organizations I studied, La Red de Productores y Consumadores Responsables Comida Sana y Cercana, Mujeres y Maíz Criollo, and K’inal Antsetik, not only observed changes in climate but were also working with their organizations to actively adapt to and mitigate these changes. Their strategies were influenced by personal experience, gender identity, the household or community gender division of labor, indigenous or campesino identity, and organizational affiliation. I argue that many of the practices and perceptions I observed in the field could be considered Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) approaches; however, they were successful because of their local creation, specificity to the people involved, and their context.

A vendor at the tianguis (open-air market) of La Red de Productores y Consumidores Responsables Comida Sana y Cercana in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

I conclude my thesis by arguing for a food sovereignty approach to climate change adaptation and mitigation. Food sovereignty advocates for a systemic change founded on the aspirations, rights, and needs of people. Although CSA requires site-specific assessments to develop appropriate programs, the strategies undertaken by the organizations and their members in my study were locally developed and rooted in shared experience and cultural practice. Furthermore, food sovereignty incorporates the transformation of gender, class, generational, and racial relations into its philosophy (Nyéléni Declaration 2007). Techniques from Movimiento Campesino a Campesino (MCAC), as described by Eric Holt-Giménez (2006), could also be used as climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Because many participants in this study reported that farmers preferred to learn from other farmers or specifically from other indigenous farmers, sharing approaches to climate change adaptation and mitigation farmer to farmer would increase the likelihood that beneficial changes will be adopted.

My fieldwork was funded through a sub-grant from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and my thesis, published in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) online repository, can be accessed here: https://cgspace.cgiar.org/rest/bitstreams/73113/retrieve.

Lara Lookabaugh was a master’s student in the Latin American Studies Program at the University of Florida in the United States, and she coordinated with the CIAT Gender Research Group to carry out her thesis research in 2015. She will be starting a PhD program in Geography at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in August 2017.

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