Challenging the status quo: Disruptive Seeds for transformative change in Guatemala

By Lucas Rutting

The current food system is highly unsustainable, contributing to biodiversity loss, pollution and climate change. That means we need to profoundly rethink and transform it.

But how does such a transformation unfold? Not without a fight! There are many actors who benefit from the current, unsustainable system – and they’ll defend it with the power they possess. That means moving towards a more sustainable world inherently involves power struggles. As part of my PhD research, I developed an approach focusing on bottom-up initiatives that actively challenge the unsustainable status quo: the Disruptive Seeds approach. “Seeds” refer to initiatives that are currently small in scale, but have the potential to grow in impact and eventually flourish as part of a new, sustainable system.

With a small team, I am currently applying the Disruptive Seeds approach in Guatemala, as part of a global development initiative called ClimBeR. Guatemala is among the poorest countries in Central America, a region that is extremely vulnerable to climate change. The country’s income distribution is highly unequal, with 12% of the population living under the international poverty line. Much of the agricultural land is owned by powerful landlords, while the predominantly indigenous rural population struggles to make ends meet. In June this year, a glimmer of hope emerged: Against all odds, Bernardo Arévalo’s center-left Semilla Movement won the general elections, after decades of neoliberal, right-wing governments. Among Arévalo’s key priorities are to break up monopolies to make food and energy affordable for all Guatemalans, and fight for the rights of indigenous people.

We recently organized a workshop in the town of Panajachel, on the stunning Lake Atitlán shoreline. We invited a group of inspiring people representing Disruptive Seeds initiatives to collectively think about just and sustainable futures for Guatemala, with a specific focus on the local food system. They based these visions on their respective Disruptive Seeds initiatives.

One group focused on the defense of territory against land grabbing by international companies. They described a pathway in which a period of social chaos and conflicts would eventually lead to agrarian reform, new laws, and a fundamental restructuring of the state toward a truly representative democracy. Guatemala would transform into a new, just, and social economy based on respect for natural resources, which would be regarded as sacred: a return to when people and nature lived in harmony, or Buen Vivir. In other words, Guatemala would have a truly circular economy inspired by the practices of the country’s Mayan forefathers—the country’s food system wouldn’t exhaust and deteriorate the ecosystems in which it is embedded. Rather, it would be an integral part of these ecosystems, and would be carbon-neutral or even act as a net carbon sink.

Another group focused on Disruptive Seeds relating to community governance. They were inspired by their ancestors who saw the world and life as cycles that expand and evolve: the Mayans call this Ixim Ulew. In their vision, organic and self-sustainable agriculture would be the norm, as opposed to the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals. Through legal and organizational interventions, an agrarian court and agrarian community councils would be established for territorial planning, safeguarding the right to land, and contributing to a sustainable and just food system by empowering smallholder farmers. On the road to this green dream, the country would face challenges and struggles. Through documenting and denouncing injustices, and promoting inclusion and participation in decision-making at all levels, eventually a change in power dynamics would occur. In this vision, in 2050 decisions would be made by the collective and representation would be guaranteed at all levels. This would significantly diminish the power of the currently dominant, big companies whose activities are extractive, unjust and among the main contributors to climate change.
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It’s clear that these Disruptive Seeds initiatives hold the potential to transform the Guatemalan food system from the bottom up. Now is the time to actively empower these initiatives and help build coalitions for change. Through collaboration and scaling, the Guatemalan Disruptive Seeds can challenge the status quo with the aim of moving the country towards a just and sustainable future.

Of course, it is important to take into account that the future is fundamentally uncertain. All kinds of challenges—and opportunities too—may emerge. What about backlash from the currently powerful actors who oppose transformative change? Will agricultural practices based on organic and indigenous principles provide enough food? We aim to address these and other important questions through a process of explorative scenario planning in December this year. During that process, the pathways will be stress tested to see what needs to be changed to make them feasible.
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In the coming year, the key components of these strengthened transformative pathways based on Disruptive Seeds will be translated into action plans and policies with key actors, such as NGOs, indigenous farmers organizations, private sector platforms and government bodies. We hope these will form stepping stones towards a transformation of Guatemala’s food system.

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