Grow!. Directed by Christine Anthony and Owen Masterson. Atlanta, GA: Anthony-Masterson Photography and Films, 2011. 51 minutes.
Keepers of the Future: La Coordinadora of El Salvador. Directed by Avi Lewis. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2018. 24 minutes.
Connected by Coffee. Directed by Aaron Dennis. Warren, NJ: Passion River Films, 2014. 69 minutes.
This set of films engages the social, environmental, and economic elements around growing food in the United States and Central America. From small organic farms in Georgia to coffee cooperatives in El Salvador, the viewer is exposed to the experiences of people working to return to the land, build their economic autonomy, and feed their communities. Thus, Grow!, Keepers of the Future, and Connected by Coffee are useful tools for those teaching at the intersection of gender and women’s studies, environmental issues, and the study of food production.
Grow! follows the experiences of a group of organic farmers in the U.S. state of Georgia. Some are couples working on their parents’ land and building their own business while others farm for wages on land they don’t own. Most people featured in the film are formally educated, former urban dwellers who were moved to reconnect with the land for similar reasons: loving the process of growing food, the beauty of living with other nonhumans, being of service, exchanging the fast pace of the city for working with natural processes. A theme that emerges is the belief that farming is a type of activism for being in sync with the environment around you and enjoying a different work pace. While highlighting ideological and/or lifestyle reasons for shifting to agriculture, the film also shines a light on the challenges that small organic farmers come up against. Heat patterns, flooding, and marketing are some of the key issues farmers identified, as well as the lack of resources to start up and invest in the materials needed. With words of encouragement to other folks interested in farming, they identify one of the main ways that farmers can stay afloat: community supported agriculture programs in which customers subscribe to receive boxes of produce on a regular basis, which supports the farm even during seasons when yields are smaller than others.
The film does a great job of outlining the ideological and practical reflections of farmers who are disadvantaged by our current industrialized agricultural system. In one segment, we hear from the women about the gendered dynamics of farming and how they experience a consistent undervaluing by customers and other farmers alike. This is an important analysis in the field of sustainable agriculture that will cultivate constructive discussion in class in congruence with texts on the importance of supporting and giving visibility to women in agriculture.1
Based in the Baja Lempa coastal area in El Salvador, Keepers of the Future embeds the deep history of the civil war in the country and the devastating impact it had on this region, which was destroyed during the war. The key interlocutors are former refugees displaced by this war and who built the Baja Lempa Coordinadora organization during their time in exile. After returning to their home region once the civil war ended, they started farming and soon saw the impact of climate change through forest fires, droughts, and flooding. While organizing disaster response, they began to dream about an alternative livelihood and structure where community members could build deep roots in their homelands. Reflecting on the experience of a community meeting, a resident explains what it means to be in a coastal area during the shifts climate change is inducing and how climate vulnerability is social, economic, and environmental. It is particularly exciting to see how community members are self-organizing to respond to these changes by recognizing their different needs and abilities.
The Baja Lempa Coordinadora is attempting to survive climate change through cooperative farming and more ecologically sound practices like sustainable agriculture and fishing. Community member and organization representative Estela Hernández indicates they are diversifying crops, which counters a status quo that dictates that only cotton and plantation crops are viable and that has resulted in less food security and therefore increased vulnerability. The vision of a self-rule by the population for greater resiliency and better livelihoods intersects with the Zapatista autonomous movement’s vision in Mayan territories of Southern México. This film, therefore, can be put into conversation with texts on this movement, particularly its ecological practice and ethos.2 Learners can engage in critical discussions about the role of autonomous social structures and the need to create and sustain them with a vision of deep democracy that supports healthier social relationships within communities.
The dialogue around sustainable agriculture in the international sphere is frequently embedded in a conversation around fair trade. Connected by Coffee is an extraordinarily well-positioned exploration into coffee production in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Engaging with small farmers and members of coffee cooperatives like the Campesino Committee of the Highlands in Guatemala, the filmmakers follow fair trade coffee roasters and activists Matt Earley and Chris Treter in their collaborations with growers and processors in these countries. This film is exceptional in its deep analysis of how the cooperative approach can combat the forces of the global economy. Moreover, the filmmakers do not only engage with a social and environmental justice approach to coffee production. They also highlight the role of cultural survival for indigenous communities in the context of colonialism, showing how it persists as a form of colonial extraction in the present.
Connected by Coffee clearly defines and exemplifies the fair trade movement in a way that enables educators to teach different issues including the economic, environmental, and social consequences of free trade agreements.3 Through the different experiences of coffee cooperatives, fair trade is posited as a way to create viable livelihoods for smaller-scale coffee production that benefits communities and that is less detrimental to their region’s ecology than plantation production. Finally, the film’s focus on the impact of climate change on vector ecology and the destruction of coffee crops in the region could be shaped into discussions around the current waves of climate refugees that are heading toward or have reached the U.S.-México border.4
For educators interested in exploring the complexity of the food systems, these films are critical. Classrooms in multiple fields will benefit from the valuable experiences portrayed and from learning how alternatives to industrial globalized agriculture can lead to new possibilities for the future.
1 See Carolyn E. Sachs, Mary E. Barbercheck, Kathryn Braiser, Nancy Ellen Kiernan, and Anna Rachel Terman, The Rise of Women Farmers and Sustainable Agriculture (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2016) and Temra Costa, Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat (Lanyon, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010).
2 See James D. Nations, "The Ecology of the Zapatista Revolt," Cultural Survival Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1994): 31-33 and Pramod Parajuli, "Beyond Capitalized Nature: Ecological Ethnicity as an Arena of Conflict in the Regime of Globalization," Ecumene 5, no. 2 (1998): 186-217.
3 See Roldan Muradian and Joan Martinez-Alier, "Trade and the Environment: From a ‘Southern’ Perspective," Ecological Economics 36, no. 2 (2001): 281-97 and Connie García and Amelia Simpson, Globalization at the Crossroads: Ten Years of NAFTA in the San Diego/Tijuana Border Region (San Diego: Environmental Health Coalition, 2004).
4 As this issue of the migrant caravans from Central America is quite recent, I would suggest some popular media pieces to discuss this intersection; see, for example, Kirk Semple, “Central American Farmers Head to the U.S., Fleeing Climate Change,” New York Times, April 13, 2019, and Todd Miller, “Why the Migrant Caravan Story Is a Climate Change Story,” Yes! November 27, 2018.