Fields of snow peas encompass Guatemala’s mountainous landscape. Lush and green, these non-native crops are the manifestation of hours of labor by indigenous farmers, who grow the produce for export.

According to Nicholas Copeland, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Sociology, farmers could sustain themselves, their communities, and urban populations in an ecologically sound way that works in harmony with their worldviews. Yet large landholders and multinational corporations maintain control of vast areas of land and waterways, impoverishing rural farmers and undermining their potential.

“In recent years, a small percentage of farmers have sought a path forward growing non-traditional export crops, like snow peas and broccoli,” Copeland explained. “But these are incredibly chemically intensive to produce, and purchasing specifications require no blemishes on the vegetable or fruit.” These requirements have led many farmers to take on debt to purchase costly pesticides and fertilizers, expenses that ultimately forced many to sell their property.

With a Core Fulbright Scholar Program grant he received earlier this year, Copeland is expanding a multiyear research project to study sustainable food programs in Guatemala.

“As an anthropologist,” Copeland said, “I look at the different activities and programs being done in an effort to deal with the issues the farmers face — what works for them, what doesn’t work, and how to scale up the successful practices. I’m hoping this research will both highlight models of success and encourage additional funding of them.”

Copeland’s Fulbright host institution is the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. He also works as a consultant for FUNDEBASE, a nongovernmental organization that promotes sustainable agriculture to grassroots groups with a focus on human rights and the building of popular political power. FUNDEBASE works to promote more than food security in rural communities; it also seeks sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty.

“Food security is making sure you have enough food or calories to survive,” Copeland said. “Food sovereignty involves the ability of people to produce food and to control what they produce, how they produce it, and how they sell it. This implies access to the resources required to do so, which is a political question.”

Although Copeland studies the impact of cash crops, he also looks at alternative farming practices, such as agroecology: ecological agriculture focused on domestic consumption.

“My research involves visiting farmers and their family gardens,” Copeland said. “These gardens aren’t on large parcels of land, but people are able to grow coffee, fruits, and vegetables that are a staple in their diet, such as chilies and greens. Crop diversification is a huge part of these agroecological gardens — and a central component of food sovereignty.”

Native maize, a staple of the traditional Guatemalan diet, is typically grown in small gardens for domestic consumption.

After his initial investigations in Guatemala, Copeland is expanding his research to include the movement for the “defense of territory” — the efforts by indigenous communities to maintain control of their territories in the face of extractive forms of economic development.

In one example Copeland cited, healthy rivers once provided a food resource, irrigation, and drinking water. But the onset of hydroelectric dams and the expansion of monocrops such as sugarcane have redirected water flow, causing many riverbeds to dry up and limiting access for rural farmers and fishing communities. In addition, chemical runoff from commercial farming of African palm and sugarcane pollutes water sources. Climate change is also affecting rural livelihoods.

Copeland’s research has already sparked a collaboration with Leigh-Anne Krometis, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Cristina Marcillo, a doctoral student working with her. They will study arsenic levels in the water around the Escobal Silver Mine, which is situated at the top of a water system that affects five municipalities and tens of thousands of people.

“After working with the communities in Guatemala, Nick reached out to me to see whether there were low-cost, low-tech options for water-quality monitoring that these communities could use to document any changes as a result of mining, agriculture, and other impacts on the environment,” Krometis said.

“I was fortunate enough to have a graduate student who is fluent in Spanish and was willing to travel to train local community leaders in water-quality monitoring and analysis. This is an especially interesting project for Cristina, as her mother’s family is from Guatemala, and she has family who live in-country.”

Copeland became interested in Guatemala while at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received a doctorate in sociocultural anthropology. He has also won an H.F. Guggenheim Foundation dissertation fellowship and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland’s Latin American Studies Center. In addition, he is a coauthor, with Christine Labuski, also a Virginia Tech assistant professor of sociology, of “The World of Wal-Mart: Discounting the American Dream.”

Copeland, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2013, teaches courses on indigenous politics and sociological theory. His forthcoming book, based on previous research in Guatemala, speaks to the structural barriers to democracy and reform. With his Fulbright support, he is writing another book on the politics of Guatemalan agriculture and rural development.

“Dr. Copeland is an outstanding instructor, researcher, and colleague,” said John Ryan, chair of the Department of Sociology. “His work, which is being supported by this prestigious Fulbright award, is a terrific example of our department’s commitment to shedding light on issues of social justice in a global context.”

Written by Leslie King