Recollections of a Food Landscape

By Carmen Benitez, Yendi Santos and Luis Castillo

How can our city be a prosperous place, where prosperous people reside, and where the well-being of all and the integrity of the planet are respected as well?

Currently we face a collapse in the ability of the planet to sustain itself.    A system of unsustainable production is the cause which brings with it a loss in biodiversity, climate change and ecosystemic and humanitarian catastrophe.

The Directorate of the Western San Carlos University’s Center for Investigations  (DICUNOC) has proposed a study:  “A Look at Quetzaltenango’s Food Landscape”,  in light of the fact that cities produce more than 70% of the green house gas emissions and 60% of the world’s energy;  and that there are no local strategies which allow for water resource systems, food production systems and energy systems which would provide for the demands of cities. The study is designed, by including a range of participants, to attempt to show a broad picture of the city of Quetzaltenango and its social dynamics, including economic, productive, and ecological aspects.   The goal would be for its people to imagine a prosperous city which takes responsibility for water and food resources, by creating a healthy landscape which is accessible to the entire community.

This proposal is based on differing theories and ideas, for example, the economics of DONA  (literally “donut”) or “surroundings” allowing for local strategic planning that promotes living conditions within a just society but doesn’t exceed the limits of the planet’s biosphere.

In harmony with this balanced and systemic vision of eco-agricultural processes, Quetzaltenango was identified as the area to be studied, mainly because of its social diversity and the distinctive characteristics of its urban and surrounding semi-urban areas.

According to the BID (Inter-American Bank for Development) and the Sustainable Action Plan for Xelaju (indigenous name of Quetzaltenango) eighty-six percent of the municipality’s land is for agricultural and forest purposes.  Yet studies show that the footprint made by urban growth during the last few years means the loss of 60 years of agricultural and forest usage.

While this is happening food insecurity increases, i.e., approximately 82% of children under age 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition in rural areas.  And there is an epidemiological trend towards chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, etc.

Insights from this study indicate that with more urbanization there is a major move from traditional diets to “home-cooked meals”, but with more ingredients sourced from highly processed foods of low nutritive value, often purchased in supermarkets and corner stores in poor neighborhoods.  Customers can access basic foodstuffs quickly in these businesses, but they are often cold-cuts, instant dairy products, and carbonated drinks.  Unfortunately, the least likely to be purchased are the unprocessed foods like beans or raw fruits.

This transformation suggests a rhythm in life where priority is placed on easy and fast-food prep in order to save time, hence, more consumption in restaurants or internationally owned fast food chains.  And 37% of the urban population uses microwaves in their culinary practices while only 18% continue using the usual dough for tortilla preparation, i.e., preparing meals “from scratch”.

The Food Landscape project is a cultural intervention.  It facilitates a critical look at the abuse of territory, and it defines new criteria for habitation of lands.  The Landscape vision minimizes the gaps in food access which exist between rural-urban and marginalized communities.

Before climate change, epidemiological, and economic crises, strong recommendations were made to explore the possibility of a pilot plan that would function as a laboratory to test out new concepts, conveyances and community dialogue.  

Prototypes to be promoted are food carts serving healthy options, experimental kitchens, organic urban gardens which would include socializing, communication, demonstrations, validation and recognition and experiences such as becoming familiar with ancestral agricultural methods.  Additionally, culinary techniques for appropriate consumption and local food-sharing which links with cultural identity–a place where food shapes our way of living and restores urban ecosystems.

Carmen, Yendi and Luis are research fellows at the General Office for Systemic Investigations at Central University of the West.