Food Sovereignty, Gender And Transitions In Traditional Culinary Knowledge In The Chinantla, Oaxaca, Mexico

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ABSTRACT Over the last four decades, agrarian communities in Mexico have encountered various factors causing a transition from food self-reliance to dependence on industrial food supply chains. This shift has challenged these communities’ food sovereignty, that is, their right to determine their own food systems and those systems’ management on their own terms, free from external corporate intervention. Women’s rights and contributions to knowledge production are central to food sovereignty discourses, because food procurement, preparation, feeding, and teaching children about cooking traditions are largely the domain of agrarian women’s knowledge. To better understand the interrelated factors affecting these transitions, I will investigate how gendered experiences have changed over time in regards to: (1) traditional culinary knowledge (TCK), (2) seed conservation, (3) perceptions of agrobiodiversity, and (4) the underlying socio-political reasons for these changes. I chose to conduct a case study in the Chinantla region of Oaxaca, Mexico because it is a center of agrobiodiversity, and the territory is managed locally as “indigenous and community conserved areas”, both approaches that are supportive of the concept of food sovereignty. I conducted participant observation and 40 semi-structured household interviews with Chinanteco women and men. The interviews investigated adult family members’ opinions, experiences, and perspectives on changes and factors that have affected agrobiodiversity, seed conservation and TCK. Women and men who participated in this study indicated they have been saving and growing native seed in situ for family consumption and preparing traditional cuisine for generations, but that the last forty years have brought many changes. Research participants provided context-rich examples of cuisine that used native, heritage, wild, and non-native purchased foods, which I analyzed to demonstrate how transitions manifest in the reproduction and heritability of TCK. With this data set, I comparatively analyze community-managed initiatives aimed at improved public health outcomes, seed conservation and the preservation of agrobiodiversity. I then discuss more broadly the implications of transitions in TCK as potential barriers to and possibilities for achieving food sovereignty. My findings reveal benefits for corporate food production at the expense of women’s knowledge and work. Women’s management of agrobiodiversity and TCK are disrupted by the influx of industrial foods. Further negative effects on agrobiodiversity and TCK were attributed to climate change, conservation zoning, highway construction, and nutrition program interventions. I argue that TCK is an important indicator of several other tenets of food sovereignty, namely agrobiodiversity, women’s equitable inclusion, locally controlled food systems management, and preservation of culturally-appropriate foods, but this has not received enough examination within current discourses. My case study provides examples of how food sovereignty and TCK diminish when women’s equitable inclusion in social and political concerns is not prioritized. Agrobiodiversity declines with the introduction of industrial foods through market-based sales and nutrition interventions. On a broader level, this research has important implications for nutrition development programs that target populations in “indigenous and community conserved areas”. My findings point to the significance of integrating native foods and traditional cuisine into environmental and nutrition development programs and their related curriculums, when working with indigenous communities. Finally, I suggest preventative measures to conserve heritage seed varieties that carry cultural and nutritional significance for indigenous farmers’ food production and TCK, thus moving them toward food sovereignty.

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agrobiodiversity; biocultural knowlege; indigenous food sovereignty; Mexico; traditional cuisine; Cultural resources management; Sociology; environmental justice; Gender


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Union Local


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Bezner Kerr, Rachel N.

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Williams, Linda B.
Kassam, Karim-Aly S.

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Development Sociology

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M.S., Development Sociology

Degree Level

Master of Science

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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