Berkeley Undergraduates Host Food Sovereignty Leaders from Nicaragua

From left to right: Dionys Melgara, Marlen Sanchez, Lucinda Laurence, Dani Solis, and Mackenzie Feldman.
From left to right: Dionys Melgara, Marlen Sanchez, Lucinda Laurence, Dani Solis, and Mackenzie Feldman.

March 29, 2018

By Mackenzie Feldman, Lucinda Laurence, and Dani Solis

This semester, the student representatives of the Food Systems Minor Advisory Committee, Dani Solis and Mackenzie Feldman, partnered with the student representative of the Berkeley Food Institute Undergraduate Advisory Council, Lucinda Laurence, to create the colloquium series “Critical Discussions in Food Systems.” The colloquium aims to promote a cross-disciplinary conversations around food justice and food sovereignty.

For our first colloquium event on February 1, 2018, we hosted the Nicaragua-based organization Friends of the ATC (Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo). UC Berkeley was their first stop on a “Small Farmers Cool the Planet” speaking tour. Several other nonprofit organizations collaborated with Berkeley students to create the conversation centered on the importance of equity within sustainable agricultural practices.

ATC’s Marlen Sanchez and Dionys Melgara spoke on the importance of social movements and organizations pushing for food sovereignty, or the right of people to define their own food systems as ones that grow healthy and culturally appropriate food for local consumption. In response to overarching neoliberal policies that are responsible for the exploitation and displacement of land and people, both Marlen and Dionys center their work around empowering communities of peasants, indigenous peoples, and people of color around the world.

Marlen Sánchez has been the National Coordinator of Agroecology for the ATC since 2013. She has also been a member of the ATC since 2005, attending the ATC’s workshops with her mother from a young age. Marlen was one of the first graduates of the Paulo Freire Latin American Institute of Agroecology (IALA Paolo Freire), located in Venezuela, which is the first university to train youth of social movements in the technical and political components of agroecology. She now directs IALA Mesoamerica in Nicaragua.

Dionys Melgara has been a part of the ATC since 2006 when he joined a tobacco workers union in his hometown of Estelí, Nicaragua. He went on to study agroecology in Venezuela, returning to Nicaragua in 2014. Today Dionys is a coordinator of the ATC’s youth movement, part of the network of youth communicators, and is also a member of La Via Campesina’s national Political-Pedagogical Committee for its schools of formación.

The speakers offered solutions to cool the planet in the face of climate change and capitalism, all grounded in agroecology, which brings together ancestral knowledge, land rights, native seeds, and horizontal learning exchanges. Sánchez and Melgara shared advice on how to approach creating change in a context where change seems unlikely. The two also stressed the importance of developing class-consciousness and self-awareness around the struggles in one’s own region and the roles and capabilities we all have to support these efforts.

Mackenzie, Lucinda, and Dani reflected on how the event impacted their particular areas of study and understanding of food systems. 

Attendees at the Critical Discussions in Food Systems colloquium in February 2018.
Attendees at the Critical Discussions in Food Systems colloquium in February 2018.

“After learning so much about food systems in the classroom, it is so energizing to hear Marlen and Dionys speak about real world success stories of food sovereignty and agroecology. It makes the readings we do in the classroom come to life, and the Friends of the ATC’s work of empowering communities motivates me to learn as much as I can about food sovereignty so that one day I can go back home to Hawaii and empower my community to take back their food system.” – Mackenzie Feldman, Society and Environment major, Food Systems minor, UC Global Food Initiative Student Ambassador

“In my education as an architecture student, I learn about how spaces can be created for social impact. When Sanchez and Melgara connected agroecology and social change to developing a greater consciousness about a person’s context and societal role, I became more aware of why it is important to design spaces in vernacular architectural styles. While architecture is evolving to the point where we can now 3D print houses, this talk reminded me why architecture should also prioritize celebrating communities in order to help them further realize their cultural strengths and remain proud of their roots—which, in the larger food context, is a crucial step in helping empower communities to take ownership over their food systems.” – Lucinda Laurence, Architecture major, Berkeley Food Institute Undergraduate Advisory Council Chair

I’ve heard so many definitions of sustainability. Whether that be within business, development, agroecological practices—you name it—there is so much talk about saving the environment, but so little conversation on what happens to people. ‘Equity’ as a component of sustainability has become the trendy buzzword for Western audiences—but few are willing to recognize that understanding equity is not only a  process of recognizing history, but also a practice of unlearning. By ‘unlearning,’ I mean taking whatever professional knowledge we think we may have about a topic and putting it aside to better understand someone else’s experiences. Marlen and Dionys’ fight against the ramifications of globalization has helped shaped my impression of how we are to solve these issues—and how those solutions reside within those communities most affected. At such a large research institution we so often think we know what’s best. But to keep promoting this inflated notion of paternalism over communities is at best a repetition of history.” – Daniela Solis, Urban Studies major, Food Systems Minor

See highlights from the event in the video here.

If you have questions or want to learn more about Friends of the ATC, please contact Erika of Friends of the ATC at

Join us for the next “Critical Discussions in Food Systems” event on April 2, a screening of Dolores, a documentary about California farmworker activist Dolores Huerta.