Challenging the status quo : How bottom-up Disruptive Seeds can transform Guatemala's food systems
In light of the current climate crisis, we need to profoundly rethink the way we feed the world. Today’s predominant methods of food production have proved to be devastating for our planet; the highly intensified farming systems around the world—and the resulting land degradation, biodiversity, and ecosystem loss—are key contributors to climate change. These combined climate and biodiversity crises, in turn, negatively affect the capacity of our food systems to produce adequate and nutritious food.
This is no different for Guatemala, where agriculture is currently dominated by extensive monocrops such as sugar cane and palm oil and nearly 60% of the population lives in poverty. A fragile democracy, Guatemala recently had great cause for jubilation due to the recent victory of progressive candidate Bernardo Arévalo in the second round of the presidential elections, representing a historic outcome that challenges the traditional elites that have dominated the country’s political sphere.
While his win has brought the country a new sliver of hope, the newly elected president also faces many challenges ahead, most of all corruption at varying levels of government. This coupled with climate change only further exacerbates the lives and livelihoods of the already vulnerable and marginalized.
In addition to large-scale top-down reforms, which are essential for system change, we also need to harness the transformative potential of existing small-scale initiatives that challenge the status quo and work to transform our world, from the bottom up.
CGIAR researchers developed the Disruptive Seeds approach as part of the CGIAR Initiative on Climate Resilience (ClimBeR), in response to this urgent need for food systems transformation. It focuses on bottom-up initiatives that provide alternatives to the way our current food system is organized, or what we refer to as today’s regime. We call such bottom-up initiatives seeds—currently small-scale and marginal, but with the potential to grow in terms of impact and flourish as part of something new, entirely. They can be disruptive: challenging and aiming to replace (part of) the unsustainable status quo; today’s power structures. Seeds can also be social initiatives, new technologies, economic tools, social-ecological projects, or movements that potentially contribute to a future that is just, prosperous, and sustainable.
As part of ClimBeR, the Disruptive Seeds approach is currently being applied in the context of Guatemala’s food system. Recently, a group of inspiring people involved in a variety of seed initiatives related to food and agriculture convened at a workshop in the town of Panajachel, at the stunning shoreline of Lake Atitlan, to collectively think about just and sustainable futures for Guatemala. Although there were some overlapping ideas, the seed initiatives represented at the workshop could be categorized as focusing on community governance, recovery and defense of territory, social economy, and agroecology. Four groups were formed—each focused on one of these themes—where each group imagined what they see as a desirable future based on their respective seed initiatives: visions of a prosperous, just, and sustainable Guatemala. They developed scenarios or pathways toward their visions, following the methodology of the Disruptive Seeds approach. More importantly, they analyzed which elements of the current system have become untenable, and how seed initiatives can gain momentum and challenge the current status quo and become part of a new, and more sustainable system.
Interestingly, three out of four groups rejected the universal linear conception of time. Instead, they developed a spiral timeline toward their vision, based on their ancestral Mayan knowledge. In these spiral timelines, the origin, the past (the was), the present (the is), and the future (the would-be) are all equally important and connected.
The group that focused on the recovery and defense of territory described a scenario in which a turbulent period of social chaos and conflicts eventually led to land tenure reform, new laws, and a fundamental restructuring of the state to form a truly representative democracy. This way, Guatemala transforms into a new, just, and social economy based on respect for natural resources, where land, water, and nature are regarded as sacred: a return to those times when people and nature lived in harmony – under the cosmovision of Buen Vivir.
The agroecology group described a future where Guatemala has transformed from a state of collapse and authoritarianism into a prosperous and equitable country. The economic gap that privileged a powerful oligarchy and left a vulnerable population and scarcity of basic resources in its wake begins to change in 2025. Agroecology-focused educational programs (which eventually evolved into the University of Agroecology) implemented at the municipal and community levels, allowed the exchange of knowledge and good practices across different sectors and territories of Guatemala. Communities also organized themselves into regional technical roundtables, establishing an effective connection with civil society and adopting a community approach to decision-making. With a focus on permaculture and ancestral knowledge, the country becomes an example of sustainable and equitable development, demonstrating that agroecology and respect for nature can be the basis for building a prosperous future for all.
The third group focused on the overarching theme of community governance, was inspired by their ancestors who saw the world and life as cycles that expand and evolve: the Mayan vision of Guatemala called Ixim Ulew, or The Land of Corn. In Ixim Ulew’s green dream, an agroecological revolution has been achieved. Organic and self-sustainable agriculture is the norm, as opposed to the past of the green revolution and the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. The reclamation of community land is another crucial aspect. Through legal and organizational interventions, an agrarian court and agrarian community councils are established for territorial planning. The green dream of Ixim Ulew also implies the construction of a Plurinational State. To achieve this, decentralization and local autonomy are promoted, abandoning the previous state-led present through new forms of political leadership and the active participation of communities in decision-making.
The recognition and protection of ancestral knowledge is central in Ixim Ulew, creating a pluriverse that integrates ancestral knowledge with science and technology, overcoming the oppression of a Western educational model, and promoting synergy between different types of knowledge. On the road to this green dream, the country faces challenges and struggles. Documenting and denouncing injustices, strengthening community organizations, and promoting inclusion and participation in decision-making at all levels, leads to a change in power dynamics. In the world that they envision in 2050, decisions are made collectively by community-based assemblies.
The final group which focused on the social economy theme envisioned a scenario in which popular revolution, green social movements, and a boom in community markets focused on ecological and organic products which coincides with worsening environmental conditions, an increase in disease, and famine. Through confrontational awareness campaigns and holistic education with ancestral perspectives, the situation begins to change. Decentralized media disseminate information and instigate an awareness that the masses have power; as they have access to water, food, and community. Through this transformation to a circular economy based on local produce and food sovereignty, newly established socio-economic structures and cultural identification, Guatemala becomes a prosperous, self-sufficient, equitable, and sustainable country.
In the coming year these scenarios, or transformative pathways, will be translated into action plans and policies with key actors such as NGOs, small-scale farmer and indigenous organizations, private sector platforms, and government bodies. Together, these plans and policies can contribute to the sustainable transformation described in the different scenarios discussed above.
Recognizing the strengths of each of these initiatives, this convergence at Lake Atitlan also resulted in the birth of a Disruptive Seeds community; a space to learn from each other’s expertise and grow in areas that will help scale and strengthen what they are already doing. Some of these needs could be supported by CGIAR Initiatives already working in Guatemala, such as ClimBeR, and others such as the Agroclimatic roundtables, where farmers come together to learn about climate data that can help them deal with phenomena such as El Niño, which currently causes significant crop losses in the region. As a result of this community, and inspired by the pathways they created, initial steps will be taken this year to form actor coalitions of transformative change to define the strategies and actions needed, with whom, and at what given time, to ensure that the visions of prosperous and just futures become a reality for Guatemala, in the not too distant future.
Authors: Lucas Rutting, Marieke Veeger, Randolph von Breymann, Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT
Feature Illustration: One of the pathways toward a just and sustainable future for Guatemala created by representatives of disruptive seeds. Illustrated by Carlos López García. Download the high resolution illustration here.
Photo credit: Alejandro Quinn