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The Quest for The Peasant Food Living Memory

Cocina de Leña. Eje cafetero. (C) Diana María Valencia Duarte

“Diana Valencia and the Quest for The Peasant Food Living Memory”. If I ever made a movie about my adventure/field-trip to Colombia, this would be the title. My Doctoral thesis, however, bears the more professional title “The Food Question”. It is an Environmental History of agrifood peasantry socio-ecosystems, and my five month journey through three different regions in Colombia - Los Montes de Maria, the Coffee Axis, and the Santurbán moorlands - forms the primary research expedition. I never thought that undertaking Environmental History research would feel so much like becoming Indiana Jones.

I experienced many unexpected discoveries and unplanned rabbit-holes in such a short time, which has both challenged and significantly transformed my thesis vision. I did not execute my fieldwork as planned - rather, I lived it. From “the good landlord” in the coffee region, through the mysterious loss of avocado plantations in Montes de Maria, to resilient onions in the Berlín Páramo, my preconceptions were smashed.

Across the country, peasants shared their lives and their natural paradises with me. The conditions they live in would be too tough for many; my life being so far removed from theirs, it pushed my physical and emotional resistance to the limit just to live as they do while undertaking this research. I experienced both moments of scarcity, and of overwhelmingly delicious flavours. I gained a heightened sense of the precarity of life, from both physical injury and serious infections. At times on the journey, my ancestors’ lives and consequently my own interconnected with my research subject, inducing a new level of involvement I was unprepared for. I collected testimonies of badly mistreated women who became respected leaders, and of displaced victims, dispossessed not only of land but of all hope. Many times I almost cried with joy or sadness, or just stood there breathless and speechless; all of these experiences gave me perspective, taking me out of my comfortable researcher role and making me something more: a witness, or even agent, in the story of Colombian peasant landscapes.

Each region had a different tone and imprint, and I felt that expectations of me as scholar switched with each different scenario. As I changed from one regional peasant life-style to another, I perceived common grounds as well as subtle differences between their personal visions, such as the meaning of being a peasant, the ways they relate to food, community and territory, their goals in life and farming, and their place on the spectrum between wellbeing/good-living and economic retribution or growth.

Guama. Frutos de Montes de María. Mercado campesino. (c) Diana María Valencia Duarte

As a historian I struggled to observe the big picture from outside the framework. However, through my field trip I learnt the value of full immersion into that framework to write History, giving voice to those with none. Seeing the panorama from within is a huge privilege, as a historian. This allowed me to sense the difference between facing life from our contemporary consumerist perspective, and from the search for Sumak Kawsay, el buen vivir, the Good-living as peasants mainly do.

Diana María Valencia Duarte was awarded a SLAS PG Travel Grant in 2019.

PhD History Candidate, University of Exeter

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