Pressing Issues in Sustainable Development of Farming Throughout Latin America

By Stephanie Jiménez
One of the most common mistakes made when talking about sustainability is to confuse sustainability with sustainable development. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) bases its definition of sustainable development on a 1987 Bruntland Commission Report: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The development aspect of this definition refers to the intersections of economics, society, culture, and the environment. What gets mistaken is that sustainability, rather than sustainable development, defines the overarching long-term goal of balancing our current needs with those of the future. Sustainable development describes the processes that help us achieve those goals. Clarifying the distinction between the two meanings is valuable because should we continue to rely on sustainability as a tangible goal for governments and businesses to follow, we leave little room for specificity in how sustainability is to develop. For example, sustainable agriculture can be understood as ensuring the world is able to produce and distribute food to every person without compromising our abilities to produce and distribute food to everyone in the future. Sustainable development in agriculture can look like switching to agricultural systems that conserve water and biodiversity, redistributing land, reducing the use of fossil fuels, ensuring people who are marginalized are part of decision-making processes, etc. Sustainable development requires more than a declaration of sustainability for one aspect of a problem. Goals should become extremely specific so leaders may determine exactly how sustainability is to be established for various specific contexts. 

It is impossible to discuss the full scope of issues relating to sustainability throughout Latin America. Many issues in sustainability have yet to exist as leaders from all levels of society begin to pioneering sustainable projects within their respective countries. This article aims to overview a handful of modern recurring issues stemming from studies and/or action-based plans throughout Latin America. This is not an attempt to state that these issues are inevitable throughout the region, but instead highlight complexities in problem-solving certain issues in sustainability. 


Latin America has one of the largest murder/death rates for environmental and human rights activists (Bose, 2017). This has been a trend for Latin America especially for countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Honduras, and Mexico (Harlow, n.d.). Of the 331 human rights defenders reported murdered across the world in 2020, three-quarters were in Latin America. 69% were environmental and Indigenous land rights defenders (Hodal, 2021). Aside from the front-line defenders, journalists’ safety is also frequently at risk throughout Latin America. Mexico, for example, recorded 10 journalists murdered in 2019 counting the largest number killed in the entire world (Global Americans, 2020).

Land Rights

One of the arguments for ‘land back’ argues for returning land back to the Indigenous peoples who had lost their ways of life. Governments perpetuate these lost connections to the land due to colonization and the argument stands that countries, therefore, owe Indigenous people their ways of life back. Restricting land use that is integral to the survival of groups of people is a definition of genocide by the United Nations (UN, n.d.). The UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples set the standards for land rights for Indigenous peoples to be able to own, use, develop, control land, territories, resources with recognition from the state of customs, traditions, and Indigenous land-use systems (Bose, 2007). While these standards are meant to allow Indigenous people to determine their own definitions of sustainability and sustainable development, there remains the pressing issue of land distribution. One-third of the land in Latin America and the Caribbean is used for mining, oil, agriculture, and forest resources (FAO, 2017).

Women and Farming

Environmental and land rights decision-making politics lack equitable contributions from women. The Central American Network of Rural, Indigenous, and Farming Women conducted a study in 2016 that concluded a large gender gap in access to land tenure and management of communal forests (Bose, 2017). Property rights for women rely on the systems in place to control land, marital status, inheritance, religion, customs, culture, division of labor, and administration. The integration of women into land management and farming throughout Latin America depends on the intersections of the factors listed above. One solution does not fit all, therefore, a solution such as requiring that women equally manage all aspects of land use and farming may in fact ignore the intricacies of women’s empowerment (Mosedale, 2005). For example, a study of quinoa and Kanawa women’s farmland near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia studied how Quechua women traditionally own quinoa varieties and collectively sow the land (Bose, 2017). Women were in charge of bartering quinoa at the market. These roles have been struggling due to the ‘quinoa boom’ headed by the big-business production of quinoa overthrowing Quechua women as the main sources for the grain. The case of women’s involvement in communal farming practices like these throughout Latin America is more reliant on re-establishing traditional roles for women than placing Western ideas of women empowerment into this context. Sustainable development is not exclusive to environmental and policy transitions, but also includes uplifting women’s involvement in planning for their own, and the rest of our futures. 

Agricultural Adaptations to Climate Change

One of the biggest concerns as expressed by farmers in Latin America is whether to adapt new ways of growing crops or change the kinds of crops grown. This question is crucial and differs drastically when considering the region, financial stability, education, and distribution systems at hand. On the one hand, we know that producing enough food while also conserving water, and protecting against biodiversity loss and pollution is to stop mono-cropping. On the other hand, different climates and their levels of climate change may not remain successful with these structural changes. The crops themselves may need to be switched by either breeding new resistant species or only growing with those that are currently more resistant. 

Ultimately, the future of sustainable development in farming throughout Latin America relies on full transparency from all. No solution will be perfect, however, as long as we remain self-reflective and self-corrective, we may hope to take future generations out of peril. 

Stephanie Jiménez is Mexican American and was raised in Pittsburgh. They are currently pursuing a BS in environmental science and a BA in music via the global and popular music track. They are also working towards certificates in geographical information systems, Latin American studies, and sustainability. Stephanie draws on their cultural background and disciplines to forge studies on the intersections between the environment and music. Through their teaching experience at the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center (Florida Recycled), Pitt’s Center for Creativity, and the Allegheny Land Trust, Stephanie has begun exploring how science and music are tools for advocacy work. In May 2020, Stephanie was awarded a grant from the Anita J. Curka Scholarship for Music to research topics of environmentalism in indigenous and Latin American music in their senior thesis through the lenses of ethnoecology and ecomusicology. After graduation, Stephanie hopes to pursue a higher degree in agroforestry and/or ethnomusicology.


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