In Langscape Magazine Articles

Building Leadership Through Reconnection: The Latin American Academy for Food Systems Resilience

Yolanda López Maldonado

The lakes of the Andean mountains are places for reconnecting with Mother Nature. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

The Indigenous Peoples of Peru have developed unique traditional knowledge around their food systems. This long tradition is related to the concept of Sumaq Causay, a central philosophy in the Andean Indigenous cosmovision: a holistic vision that takes into account diverse elements of the human condition, recognizing that a range of factors influence our quality of life. Sumaq Causay can be understood as living well, harmonious existence, or beautiful and healthy life. This concept involves the relationship between humans and nature (Pachamama, Mother Earth). To satisfy their needs, people should work together with Mother Earth, based on the idea of ayni (reciprocity). People from Peru often develop a deep emotional bond with their natural resources, their animals, their communities, and their mountains or Apus (which, in the Andean cosmovision, are considered as authorities and scientific partners).

In the Andean region of Peru, the interconnectedness of humans and nature is deeply embedded in Indigenous farming traditions. You can hear it from far away: crack-crack! It’s the sound of rocks and soil that are removed when planting potatoes. It takes several hours on difficult roads from Cusco to reach the Parque de la Papa (Potato Park) in the highest mountains of Peru, at about 4500 m of altitude. The Parque de la Papa is an area comprised of six Andean communities that possess the highest diversity of potatoes in the world. Life is hard in the mountains, where temperatures drop below zero during the austral winter, and where people have to walk along a maze of mountain trails to go from one community to another. When we arrived there, in September of 2019, the air was cold and there was still some snow on the peaks of the Apus.

In 2018, a group of us, colleagues from different Latin American countries who were concerned about the destruction and loss of our biocultural diversity, had started to organize the Latin American Academy for Food Systems Resilience (Academia Latinoamericana de Liderazgo de los Sistemas Alimentarios, or ALLSA). We brought together young Latin Americans and frontline defenders of our natural resources to embrace this dimension of the extinction of knowledge systems, ways of life, and ancestral traditions. Our goal: to mount a biocultural extinction rebellion by fostering transformative social and environmental learning and facilitating innovation in agricultural, food, and nutritional systems through pluricultural dialogue. We all consider ourselves as changemakers: community leaders and innovators playing a role in taking action for the resilience of our food systems. We believe that Latin America has the people and the resources to contribute to the preservation of the world’s biocultural diversity.

The first Latin American Academy was held in the Dominican Republic in 2015. Now, in 2019, the ALLSA meeting was to be held at the Parque de la Papa. The aim of our ten-day meeting was to build leadership through processes of reconnection. By partnering with the local communities of the Parque de la Papa, we sought to exchange information with them and learn from them to build resilient food systems in our communities as well. The Parque de la Papa is, above all, a biocultural territory dedicated to the conservation of the heritage of the communities that live there. During the academy, we met some of the potato farmers. As we were sitting around the room, holding cups of tea made from coca leaves, they told us, with pride, about the Ayllu system, a network of extended families that is the traditional form of community in the Andes: “We have Sallka Ayllu, Runa Ayllu, Auki Ayllu . . . And those represent the Sumaq Causay, the right living.”

Coca lies at the heart of Peruvian traditions. It is used in countless recipes but also in ceremonies. Because of the amount of energy coca leaves provide, people chew them to relieve hunger and fatigue and to enhance physical performance. They explain that the leaves are used as herbal medicine for problems such as asthma. While I follow intently, one of our hosts explains, “You have to listen to what the plants and animals and the universe are saying.” After drinking my tea, I understand what they mean: Mother Nature, the people, the animals, the plants, all the components of our universe, the physical/material/spiritual, are connected in an endless cycle, and we need to take care of it all.

But now we also need to combine our Indigenous traditions with the modern world so that Nature can be protected. How to do that? That’s why we traveled all the way to the Parque de la Papa to learn what Andean communities are doing and how this might help. By sharing experiences, food, and knowledge with Indigenous people from the Parque de la Papa, visiting their local markets, and so forth, ALLSA participants were able to interact and learn about the food systems from the region, while emphasizing experiential and horizontal learning based on Indigenous knowledge.

During ALLSA, we were oriented around four transdisciplinary axes, which helped us to achieve several goals: (a) (re)connect to traditional knowledge and integrate local perspectives by creating bridges between knowledge systems and knowledge holders; (b) include tools to study and assess food security and food sovereignty in a process of knowledge construction; (c) analyze problems related to storage, distribution, transport, marketing of food in sustainable food chains; and (d) foster creative approaches to problem-solving through participatory leadership. We learned how to empower communities to maintain and use their knowledge, concepts, methods, and intergenerational knowledge transfer capacity, and how to support research led by Indigenous Peoples. We also explored ideas for the development of Indigenous communities based on the sustainable use of their biocultural heritage.

ALLSA is thus a signpost of new thinking and new approaches that are emerging in Latin America, which challenge conventional science and policy-making. The organization is a good example that we, young Latin Americans (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous), are staging a rebellion against the loss of our biocultural diversity. It is a clear indication that different knowledge systems can go hand in hand and evolve harmoniously with the natural world, and that we don’t need to wait for approval, endorsement, or consent from any country or global forum in order to accomplish what we want: protect Mother Nature.

decolonization methods

At the Parque de la Papa, Association ANDES guided ALLSA 2019 participants toward transformative learning, employing decolonization methods and tools that prioritize Indigenous knowledge and traditional practices. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Latin American Academy

Body-Territory-Seeds activity: Participants shared experiences with seeds from their own countries. For example, they learned different ways of naming and shared personal episodes. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

The collective leadership axis helped participants reflect and listen to themselves, while surrounded by and reconnected to Mother Nature. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Parque de la Papa communities

Indigenous and local communities are experts on biodiversity conservation. During ALLSA, we learned a lot from members of the Parque de la Papa communities. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Indigenous Peruvian farmer

Daniel, an Indigenous Peruvian farmer who participated in ALLSA, explaining the essence of the Ayllu community system. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Parque de la Papa communities

Reconnecting to traditional practices and nature allowed participants to engage in experiential learning with Indigenous farmers and campesinos [farmers] from the Parque de la Papa communities. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Indigenous capacity building

ALLSA facilitated dialogue between different knowledge systems, respecting all paradigms and providing spaces for Indigenous capacity building. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Embracing values, worldviews, and visions of Indigenous communities is a way to enable transformative change and the resilience of our food systems. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Participants experiencing Andean culture

Participants experienced Andean culture, knowledge, and place, such as chewing coca leaves for ceremonial purposes. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Participants learned about the potato varieties that are found in the Parque de la Papa area. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

sustainable food systems

ALLSA was a transformative space to co-create and integrate knowledge and to promote sustainable food systems that nourish communities while promoting human wellbeing and ecosystem health. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Potato Park

At the Potato Park, participants shared food and prepared traditional dishes with local ingredients. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Horizontal and transformative learning approaches allowed us to share experiences and seek solutions to complex food systems problems while enjoying the delicious Andean food. Photo: Yolanda López Maldonado, 2019

Latin American countries fighting against biodiversity loss

ALLSA 2019 was a meeting point for changemakers from different Latin American countries fighting against biodiversity loss and for protecting Mother Nature. Photo: Alexis Suárez, 2019


Acknowledgments: ALLSA 2019 was conceived and run collectively. Thus, the opinions represented here are the result of two years of hard work among friends and colleagues from Latin America. This is only a small way to acknowledge them all.


Yolanda Lopez.

Yolanda López Maldonado is a systems thinker and Indigenous scholar in integrative science for sustainability. Her work emphasizes the embeddedness of human societies within the biosphere. She has worked for international academic and non-academic institutions and has extensive experience representing the interests of Indigenous Peoples in regional and international fora.