Sowing the Future: Meet Carolina Alzate Gouzy

Carolina Alzate Gouzy and Her Commitment to Agroecology and Community Building

Carolina working with the Arhuaco indigenous community in Colombia.

Carolina joined RAFI in 2022 and wears several hats, focusing efforts on helping farmers access NRCS conservation funding, supporting the Farmers of Color Network team, and working with farmers in the U.S. Caribbean. Born in Chicago to Colombian parents, she lived there until she was four, after which her family moved back to Colombia. In a full-circle move, Carolina returned to Chicago in 2021 and currently lives there. “I am happy here. Living in Chicago has been a partner-based experience that I have enjoyed a lot, and while I miss my family in Colombia — my parents, sisters, niece and nephew — I am enjoying a very special part of my other family: my wife, aunts, uncles, cousins, and amazing new friends.”

She reflects back on what life was like as a youngster in Medellin, Colombia. “Colombia is an amazing and vibrant country,” Carolina says. “I was blessed growing up with my parents and my older sister who have dedicated their life to service, so I grew up integrating community work with our own family’s dynamics,” she continues. Her parents work in social and academic fields and they fully embrace that outlook into their own lives. “We Colombians are resilient people, and that is a result of positive as well as very negative aspects of our history. We have faced division and lived through what has never been recognized as a civil war, but in fact, has left us with much worse results than if it were an officially named war,” she adds. Medellin in the 1990s was considered the world´s most dangerous city. For her, that meant that somehow you normalize that as part of one’s landscape. “But I was privileged,” she says, “growing up in a middle-class family that could afford private schooling, so violence meant war on the TV and knowing that we lived with an imminent risk of bomb cars exploding anywhere in our city.” Today, Medellín is no longer known as the most violent city but as one of the most innovative because of the socially based urban planning that allows some of the most underserved neighborhoods access to public transportation and quality public spaces. “That is the Medellín I grew up, full of dichotomies, full of life,” she shares.

As a child, Carolina enjoyed animals and nature. She had the opportunity to frequently visit her father´s family who lived in rural areas and while there, camping out. “Dirt was paradise!” she recalls. As a child, Carolina liked to stay busy but was a bit shy, so her mom, “incentivized my multitasking nature as she registered me in every after-class activity: chess, volleyball, athletics, basketball, arts, literature, ballet, swimming classes, capoeira … I must confess that all those that had to do with sports were quickly abandoned!” she says with a chuckle. For a time she was a kind of a loner and got into watching Mexican soap operas. But then she met some friends — friends to this day — who helped her face her shyness and got her to play outside with them at around age 11. They played “escondidijos” or hiding places, “chucha cogida” which translates as “caught opossum” and chased each other all around. She admits that “tin tin corre corre” was one of their favorite games which means “ring ring and run run,” where you ring people’s home bells and “run as fast as the best athlete ever!”

It was also during the trips to visit her father’s family that she first became aware of agriculture. Her grandfather, whom she never knew, was a farmer. She enjoyed the fruit from the trees that he had planted years ago, describing her experiences as “magical.” “So as a kid,” she says, “I could enjoy the marvels a farmer may leave as a heritage for their family and the world. But I think what connected me the most to agriculture were the farmers or ‘campesinos:’ their generous spirit, their smiles, their hands, and their always open house for anyone passing through.”

Another early instance of an agricultural leaning was Carolina’s experience with “silleteros,” flower farmers who once a year, for the city’s official celebrations, build a “silleta,” a wood structure similar to a chair that they decorate with the most amazing diversity of flowers and carry on their backs throughout the city. “We used to share a lot with the silleteros through different activities and gatherings and I learned a lot and was in awe of their simple, wonderful spirit,” she recalls. 

Her budding interest in farming was taken to a new level when she heard a lecture on agroecology in Medellín. Clara Nicholls’s talk was the first time Carolina had heard the term “agroecology,” and while she found all of the scientific and technical aspects very interesting when Professor Nicholls talked about the “important stuff,” Carolina found it “life-changing.”  “That day she taught me that knowledge can provide hope and power to change the path we are following toward devastation. I could finally make more sense of what I studied and connect that to what I felt and had been learning from local farmers,” she adds. “Agroecology as a science nourished by diverse types of knowledge, as sustainable techniques to feed the people and care for the planet, and as a social movement to advocate for social justice, is for sure my passion. The next day I was registered for the PhD program on Agroecology at Universidad de Antioquia.”  

After graduating with her PhD (In sustainable development), one of Carolina’s proudest accomplishments was co-founding Colombia´s CSA Network, a group of people inspired by the possibility of regenerating relations between each other and Mother Earth by creating communities that sustain agriculture. “This is voluntary work that fills my heart with gratitude. To be able to witness life changes in families of rural folks who can finally rely on the people in the city they feed — and life changes in city families who now have a more conscious way to relate to their farmers and food.”

In 2010 she landed in Brazil, first to work on a master’s degree and then in 2014 to start her Ph.D. Her theses were both based in peasant studies with Latin American farmers. For the latter one, she immersed herself in Haiti and the Dominican Republic for six months so that she could understand the food system the farmers are part of and how they are the foundation of food security in their communities. 

Back in Brazil, she was a staff member of Instituto Invento, an NGO (non-governmental organization), where she continues as a board member to this day. They use a methodology called Creative Capacity Building, developed by the D-Lab at MIT, which focuses on community solutions development. The work helps rural communities reflect on the challenges they faced in their day-to-day labor, brainstorm solutions, experiment, develop the solutions, test them, get feedback, and start all over the design cycle. “These workshops were one of the most fulfilling experiences, in which the power of community was explicitly shown and materialized in adapted and adequate innovations that improve their life quality,” Carolina shares. 

In Brazil, she also worked as the social empowering manager at IABS (Brazilian Institute for Development and Sustainability), a large organization that led various sustainability projects. Carolina worked on Rural Sustentavel, a project with the mission of establishing and amplifying the sustainable technique of Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forestry Systems (ICLF) in the country. 

Carolina is pleased that her position at RAFI allows her to be near farmers and learn alongside them. She’s excited to talk to Puerto Rican and USVI farmers with whom she identifies culturally and also is enjoying getting to know mainland farmers. She sees herself as “a farmer’s friend. That may be simple, and that is ok, I am not the farmer, but I certainly have the will to be there for them in any way I can, being a bridge, an advocate, a learner, and by all means, a friend. And even climate heroes need friends!” she shares.

Carolina says, “You know if everyone knew their farmer’s name, I think we would be already making a big change because that would imply knowing where our food comes from, how it is grown, that it is grown locally, and that we feel part of the community. Farming is the profession of the future … the present … and the past. Only through transforming our food system and agriculture will we be able to maintain life on earth.”

If Carolina weren’t working in her chosen profession as a farmer advocate, she’d be dancing. “I would certainly be dancing all Latin American rhythms. Dance may be thought of as just a fun activity, and it is, but I think of it as much more, as a real opportunity to connect your body and soul through vibration and rhythm. Sometimes I think that during the last five minutes of my life, I would really appreciate a final amazing salsa dance in Tibiri, the best cubbyhole I know in my city, Medellín.”

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