Strategizing for COVID and Beyond: Virtual Conversations, Ecological Restoration, and Community Empowerment

Planting a tree seedling on Jemez Tribal lands (August 2020)

By Julie Liebenguth, National Program Intern

At TWP, we are committed to supporting tribal communities through the pandemic and are working hard to foster collective engagement across virtual platforms so that knowledge sharing can remain a crucial part of community-led empowerment.

In partnership with the Western Forestry and Conservation Association, Intertribal Nursery Council, and the U.S. Forest Service, TWP hosted a five-part webinar series earlier this fall to engage a range of indigenous voices in conversations about native food systems, ecologies, and cultural practices. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, TWP also co-sponsored a virtual event with the Intertribal Agriculture Council about the role of community-based, regenerative practices in strengthening sustainable foodscapes. You can view all the episodes for free here. 

In the coming months, TWP will continue developing new strategies – both on-the-ground and online – to support ecological restoration and community-based resilience amid shifting local and global contexts. 

Cultivating Engagement through Virtual Platforms 

Tribal partners in South Dakota delivering emergency food/water supplies to families in Pine Ridge struggling from shortages due to COVID-19 (April, 2020)

In the time of COVID, food sovereignty has become a key focal point for tribal communities. Through our five-part webinar series, experts in indigenous food systems shared their knowledge and skills with participants tuning in from various locations across the country. The virtual content was particularly designed to support indigenous communities to combat food insecurity by building or strengthening access to traditionally harvested foods, medicines, and plants. 

Topics addressed during the five interactive conversations ranged from the diversity of indigenous recipes, native seed collection, tribal nurseries, traditional agroforestry practices, and indigenous plant restoration.  

As tribal food systems are impacted by monoculture and climate change, each speaker emphasized the need to preserve biodiversity to recover ancestral practices and strengthen community and ecological health. Nurseries can jumpstart the process of healing and succession in damaged ecosystems while bringing communities together under “traditional learning environments,” said Jeremy Pinto, Research Plant Physiologist and Tribal Nursery Specialist for the USDA Forest Service, who also covered the ins and outs of nursery planning, implementation, and management.

Since building food sovereignty involves the recovery of both ecological and cultural knowledge, sharing histories and traditions tied to food is integral for re-establishing strong, indigenous food systems. As Chef Sean Sherman, founder of The Sioux Chef company, said, understanding the cultural diversity of ecoregions is important for indigenous communities because “these plants are part of our families. . . making us happy, making us healthy, giving us nourishment, and giving us stories.” Chef Sherman supports new generations of indigenous culinary programs under his non-profit, NĀTIFS.

Control over local production is also at the core of food sovereignty, and community-led governance keeps families and youth involved in creating sustainable food systems. In a separate event highlighting sustainable foodscapes, Kelsey Ducheneaux, a fourth-generation tribal rancher, shared her business model with viewers for re-localizing food systems. To help more communities strengthen local foodways, Ducheneaux detailed her experience combining regenerative knowledge and community-based collaboration to provide quality, grass-fed beef directly to local consumers. 

Looking Ahead 

As we approach 2021, TWP strives to provide more virtual learning opportunities for tribal communities adapting to COVID. We are currently transitioning our solar suitcase workshop to an online format so tribal youth can still access hands-on, uplifting, and empowering lessons that support youth-led agency over energy futures. 

TWP is also coordinating with The Nature Conservancy New Mexico Chapter, East Jemez Landscapes Futures and local organizations to implement new restoration project(s) on the headwaters and canyon bottoms of the Rio Grande River in the East Jemez Mountains, where water quality and ecological health is critical for many culturally diverse communities. 

Finally, in upholding TWP’s long-standing commitment to restorative conservation, we are excited to develop new opportunities that incorporate seed collection as a pivotal component for future restoration projects!

View all the episodes for free here. 

Thriving Beyond Expectations

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A beneficiary of TWP’s clean cookstove program in Guatemala welcoming us before entering her home

by José Chalit, Marketing & Communications Manager

It’s the feeling of being welcomed into a stranger’s house with a fresh, warm cup coffee while we ask about their newly installed ‘Justa’ Stove or their new organic garden. I’ve heard people talk about this experience since I joined TWP last summer – folks that have been on a trip with us via TWP Tours, our Board of Directors, my co-workers – they’ve all shared stories with me about the unique experience of visiting the communities that TWP works alongside in the field. After returning from 2 weeks visiting our projects in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, these stories I have been hearing materialized into real experiences that changed my opinion about how our work has potential to create real change, and why it works.

When I first began visiting our projects last summer, I felt lucky to be part of developing communications around our innovative and meaningful community development projects, but it was too early for me to truly understand the bigger picture of what it is that we do. After I visited Guatemala in August to meet with members of the community of La Trinidad who had been displaced (again) by the eruption of Volcán De Fuego, I began to understand the impact of TWP’s work on a slightly deeper level.

It became clear that TWP prioritizes the voices and experiences of smallholder farmers first, and that our ability to continue working internationally with success hinges upon how we develop these relationships. Nevertheless, I still felt like I was missing a broader perspective of our road map.

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Volunteer with the Environmental & Natural Resource Ministry monitoring El Salvador’s second planned fire break in its modern history

Over our recent two-week trip, I continuously reflected on whether or not the communities our work with local non-profit partners truly impacts their lives as compared to surrounding areas not yet reached. Needless to say, all throughout the Americas rural indigenous people are suffering from the environmental impacts of erratic changes in climate patterns. For example, the folks in the community of La Bendición in Guatemala have had to adapt away from centuries-old farming practices passed down from their ancestors because of a prolongated dry season that is limiting their typical harvest season. The Environmental and Natural Resource Ministry of El Salvador is in the process of implementing some of the first ever controlled burns in the country’s national conservation areas to prevent wildfires due to similar reasons. In both scenarios, our local non-profit partners have worked alongside these communities to implement programs and projects that address the immediate needs of local people while also creating long-term paths for people to have healthier livelihood opportunities.

Nevertheless, I came to understand that if any of these projects are to be successful, it is for two primary reasons:

  • The knowledge and capacity held by those most deeply affected by the problems we are tackling positions them the best to champion the solutions to the challenges they face on a daily basis.
  • We know that the most significant global polluters and extractors aren’t doing nearly enough to combat the fallout of their operations, so the folks (rural indigenous, more often than not) most impacted by the effects of environmental degradation are the ones worth investing our time, energy, and resources.

Whether it is through protected area land management in the highlands El Salvador or the clean cookstove implementation program led by indigenous women in La Bendición, the choice TWP makes to invest in the ideas of the most marginalized became even more evident to me.

It’s that feeling of being so readily and enthusiastically welcomed into a community by strangers who might not even speak your same language. It’s the palpable aura of hope, empowerment and self-esteem that prevails in a community that believes in itself and its ability to overcome challenges brought on by unexpected climate catastrophes. It’s beyond the results of what any study, number, or statistic can tell us, but something that is only felt by a close encounter with a community that is confident in their potential to thrive beyond even their own expectations. This is what it feels like to visit a community where TWP is working alongside, and we can’t emphasize enough how lucky we are to be doing this work that would be impossible without your support.