With summers getting hotter, storms getting stronger, and winters becoming more severe, there is no hiding from the fact that the climate crisis is on our doorstep. As the environmental consequences of human-driven climate change become evident, so too will the social effects in the form of urgent migration, droughts, and challenges in providing basics like water, food and housing.
AFSC’s work in New Mexico has been facing these issues from a community-oriented perspective since the 1970s, helping build sustainability and resiliency. In this Facebook Live from October 6, 2021, Program Co-Directors Sayrah Namaste and Patrick Jaramillo talk about how AFSC is working with communities to address one of the most pressing issues of our times. Below are excerpts from their remarks.
Overview of AFSC New Mexico work
Sayrah: At AFSC, we envision self-determined communities in New Mexico that have the capacity to feed and care for our children, our elders and our neighbors – human, animal and plant neighbors. We support the empowerment of the people of New Mexico by accompanying the historic, land-based and marginalized communities in their work to protect access to land and water, to grow food and especially increase access to healthy food by vulnerable populations, to stimulate the local economy and develop grassroots leadership
So much of what we do at AFSC New Mexico isn’t new. These traditional practices and sustainable methods reflect ancestral knowledge. We want to accompany and support the return to those practices and the passing on of that knowledge.
A big part of that involves water. We’re in a desert, and so water is our most important resource. There are a lot of battles over water as developers would love to use it for golf courses, development or sprawl.
Acequias – a precious water management system
Patrick: The backbone of the farming communities here is acequias. That’s a Spanish word from the Arabic “as-sāqiya,” and it means irrigation ditch or channel. Acequias are not unique to New Mexico; they’re actually all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica.
Like so many things in Spanish, the word “acequia” means two different things. It’s the physical infrastructure, the irrigation channel, but it’s also the community. That’s what’s so important about this as a water management system, and what makes it so precious in New Mexico. The mindset, the outlook, the worldview that governs the acequia system is communal and resilient.
Everybody gets an allotted time to irrigate. That allows for, in good years, the time to irrigate all your fields. In bad years or dryer years, everybody shares the shortage. No one user is getting more than any other. It’s a really equitable system, and it affirms that we’re all in this together.
The unique challenge that the acequias are facing now – that New Mexicans and people in the Southwest are facing – is that climate change is not limited to just our stream systems. It’s not limited to one acequia system but is impacting the whole region.
Supporting alternatives to industrial agriculture
Sayrah: The dominant food system is a driver of climate change through its reliance on industrial agriculture, mono-cropping, chemicals and the exploitation of farmworkers.
We all need to eat, but we’re no longer an agrarian society in which everyone is growing their own food. We need to support a food system that is sustainable and doesn’t drive climate change.
Some of our work includes new technologies. With Patrick’s leadership, our program has built 35 passive solar cold frames. This technology looks like a greenhouse to a lot of people, but it’s passive solar. Farmers can grow crops in the winter so they have income and food all year long.
The food system can be very cutthroat and competitive. We don’t want people to have graduated from the AFSC Farmer Training Program, where they spent a year with hands-on learning, building up each other’s farms, learning (or re-learning) how to use sustainable methods, and then graduate and compete against each other in a race to the bottom.
We help incubate cooperatives so farmers can work together rather than compete against each other. This also helps them get larger markets than their small farm could get on its own. By working together, they have enough quantity to supply school systems, Head Start programs, foodbanks, large restaurants and hotels.
Cooperation and collective power are the history of New Mexico. We are supporting that and accompanying that process in today’s very competitive, dominating agribusiness model.
Rooted in tradition, moving into the future
Patrick: With the traditional irrigation systems, you have a growing season and an irrigation season. Climate change is affecting that as warmer springs mean the run-off is coming earlier, before you’re able to plant; that means the water is not as useable.
Some of the things we’ve been doing is adapting modern materials and techniques to the traditional ways. As Sayrah mentioned with cold frames or any kind of season extension, that’s on the economic side and helps farmers provide income and provide healthy food to the community outside the normal growing season.
There are other things we’ve done such as utilizing drip irrigation, which is great but not a panacea. We still actually recommend flood irrigation for recharging aquifers and for the health of the larger riparian area.
The tradition of sharing water along the acequia system is called repartimiento. Usually an irrigator gets water once a week, which is typical in a good year. In bad years, it’s every two or three weeks.
What we’ve done in a couple cases is get storage tanks for farmers, and we get water from the acequia on the day that it runs and fill up the storage tanks. Then we use solar pumps to irrigate the crops as they need it. As the repartimiento comes up, they can refill their tanks.
That’s just a way of adapting, and that’s the name of the game right now. We’re rooted in these practices that have been proven over centuries to be resilient, but we also need to be wise about how we utilize that resource. Using modern technology, solar and passive solar, modern building and land-shaping techniques—all help to mitigate the impacts of changing weather patterns.
Realizing a new vision amid climate change
Sayrah: We know that climate change is a huge issue, it affects all of our communities. I see we have folks on this Facebook Live today from Colorado, New York, and Palestine – climate change is affecting all of us. It’s a huge issue that can be really depressing.
Patrick: We advocate that land-based people should be at the forefront helping make decisions, and not an afterthought. So many times, leaders look for approval or try to force decisions instead of having us at the table.
Sayrah: Our food system is subsidized, and that’s why it’s cheaper to get food that’s been grown across the world, sent on a ship, taken on a semi, and brought to our stores – that’s cheaper than what I could walk down the street and buy from a local farmer.
We’re subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup, feed for cattle, things that drive health problems like obesity and diabetes. If we shifted those subsidies away from industrial agriculture towards the small family farms, towards the organic and local, we would see a tremendous shift, away from industrial ag and towards those who are not driving climate change.
We need to shift to small, regional foodsheds, and we need to change our trade agreements. Those are things that AFSC is always working on. What are the systemic changes at the US federal level and the international level that need to happen in order to address climate change?
Learn more on AFSC New Mexico web and Facebook pages
Patrick: Thank you, everyone.