Contributing Author: Jared Kaufman
The “Four Corners” states of the American Southwest — Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico — are places rich in natural and cultural biodiversity. From deserts to mountains to lakes and rivers, the region is home to more than 400 species of birds and the greatest diversity of mammal species in the United States.
Tribal communities have also called this region home for more than 10,000 years. More than a dozen indigenous tribes, including the Hopi, Tohono O’odham, Apache, and Navajo cultures, have lived on this land for generations and possess a deep understanding of the diverse natural landscape.
But today, rapid urbanization and habitat degradation are threatening the Southwest’s biodiversity. Honoring and learning from traditional and indigenous agricultural and land management practices is as important as ever.
On Wednesday, January 22, Food Tank is hosting a summit, “The Wisdom of Indigenous Foodways,” in partnership with the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and the Sustainable Community Food Systems Program at the University of Hawai’i, West O’ahu. Native American chefs, activists, farmers, and journalists will come together to discuss resilience and innovation in indigenous foodways, biodiversity and land rights, and power structures in the food system.
And on Friday, January 24, Food Tank is curating a day of programming at ChefDance, which honors food and cinema at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. The agenda, themed around “Food Transformation,” will begin with fireside chats with Matt Swenson (Chameleon Coffee), Eric Edge (Postmates), Jeff Gordinier (Food & Drinks Editor, Esquire), Scott Heimendinger (Modernist Cuisine) and David Moscow (Host, From Scratch), moderated by Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg and New York Times food writer Amelia Nierenberg. The day will continue with a brunch with Chef Alice Waters of the Edible Schoolyard Project and a private screening with actress Olivia Wilde.
To continue to honor the inspiring work taking place in the American Southwest, Food Tank is highlighting 18 organizations working to preserve, restore, and share stories of the region’s natural diversity:
The Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ajo, Arizona, is a community-based sustainable food, environment, and social justice organization. The Center was founded to support a grassroots, community-based effort of growing a more sustainable and just food system in Ajo and the surrounding region. The Ajo Center’s initiatives have included farmers markets; farmer training; seed distribution; a food-based entrepreneurship incubator; educational programs for kids and adults; the Ajo Gardeners Network; and the Adopt-A-Sonoran-Desert-Crop program, which encouraged citizen participation in crop conservation.
A new mobile app, called Bites | Eat With Your Tribe, is working to connect chefs, eaters, and urban farmers to make good food accessible to more people. The app, based in Phoenix, Arizona, allows users to connect with chefs to plan and execute communal dining experiences. Cooks can help people understand how to incorporate crops, ingredients, and cooking styles into their kitchen that they might not have otherwise found. The app encourages cooks to source ingredients from local urban farms, facilitating more diverse, sustainable, successful local food systems.
The Center for Biological Diversity has a concise mission: “Saving Life on Earth.” Based in Tucson, Arizona, and with field offices in nine other states and DC, the Center recognizes that the survival of all living beings — including humans — is linked to the natural diversity of plants and animals on Earth. The Center operates the Climate Law Institute, the local policy-oriented Urban Wildlands Program, and many other divisions aimed at negotiating with government and educating the public.
Chef Ann Cooper started the Chef Ann Foundation with the vision to empower schools to provide children with access to nutritious food daily. The organization, founded in Boulder, Colorado, supports schools by leading grant programs and providing schools with the tools they may need to improve their food programs in an effort to alleviate kids’ hunger and improve nutrition.
The First Nations Development Institute, based in Longmont, Colorado, with a field office in Albuquerque, works in the U.S. to help native communities through grant writing, advocacy, and research publications. The Institute has awarded US$32 million through 1,547 grants to native projects. For agriculture, the Institute awards grants specifically aimed at promoting healthy food to native children while helping to build strong sustainable food systems among the indigenous population.
The Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, is home to a wide variety of birds, ducks, and other wildlife. FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, was founded in 1994 to protect the diverse ecosystem, restore the watershed, and support research and education to boost public awareness. FRIENDS also hosts the Great Salt Lake Issues Forum every two years to bring together policymakers, researchers, planners, and more to discuss the lake’s biodiversity.
7. The GrowHaus
The GrowHaus is a nonprofit indoor urban farm operating out of a 20,000 square foot greenhouse in Denver, Colorado. GrowHaus is committed to promoting and teaching healthy sustainable foods and lifestyles through food production, public workshops, and service learning programs.
Despite being better known for their wine and spirits, Jack Rabbit Hill Farm is a diversified farm including 18 acres of grapes, but also pasture, sheep, cows, and herbs across its total 70 acres. Located in Hotchkiss, Colorado, the farm uses clean growing practices and biodynamic farming powered by fungi, soil critters, bacteria, carbon, natural light, and more.
La Semilla Food Center’s mission is to build a healthy, self-reliant, fair, and sustainable food system in the Paso del Norte region of southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas. The Center works with children, youth, and families to build awareness around food issues, provide informed analysis, and create alternatives for healthier environments and communities.
The NCGRP’s plant and animal gene bank, one of the world’s largest, is located on the campus of Colorado State University. The center is unique in that it hosts various types of genetic information, including plants, animals, aquatic organisms, insects, and microorganisms. In its plant division, the laboratory manages more than 10,000 plant species in both long-term storage and on fields, orchards, or nature reserves. The NCGRP strives to ensure that its seeds maintain their viability for decades to centuries for the long-term preservation of genetic resources.
Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit seed conservation organization based in Tucson, Arizona, works to preserve the arid-adapted crop diversity of the Sonora Desert region. The seed bank houses nearly 2,000 varieties of crops, many of them rare or endangered. The seeds, and how to grow them, represent the cultural heritage and farming knowledge of more than 50 local indigenous communities and recent migrant groups.
NMAA protects water and community acequias — gravity-propelled communal irrigation water systems brought to the Americas over 400 years ago. Through involvement in NMAA, communities are encouraged to advocate for cleaner water, grow food, and honor the cultural heritage of the area. NMAA’s Acequia Governance Project aims to improve community governance of acequias through education, technical assistance, and legal assistance, providing acequias with mapping and community-connecting technologies.
Seven creeks run through Utah’s Wasatch Range — the City, Red Butte, Emigration, Parley’s, Mill, Big Cottonwood, and Little Cottonwood — but they were all diverted underground as the Salt Lake Valley urbanized. The Seven Canyons Trust is working to daylight, or restore above ground, and rehabilitate all seven creeks. The Trust was created to implement a 100-year plan created by students in the University of Utah Department of City and Metropolitan Planning. They hope the waters can return to supporting the diverse plant and animal wildlife they did before urbanization.
Colorado-based SWIIM, developed with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides water use data that may help farmers or landowners manage their agricultural water use. The technology monitors water flows, water consumption levels, and precipitation and weather data to help users understand their water expenses. With data collected over 60 times an hour for growers, SWIIM may help users make decisions related to water overuse quickly.
The Traditional Native American Farmers Association’s goal is to “revitalize traditional agriculture for spiritual and human need” through education programs aimed at indigenous farmers in the U.S. The organization was founded at an intertribal meeting of 72 farming families from Arizona and New Mexico in 1992. Since its inception, the organization has created a declaration of seed sovereignty, hosted workshops and training sessions, and created a design course, all in the pursuit of strengthening indigenous agriculture in the Southwest.
The Utah Conservation Data Center (UCDC), operating under the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, is collecting and centralizing data on biodiversity in Utah. The UCDC aggregates information from state, federal, nonprofit, and university sources on all vertebrate species in the state, and many invertebrates and plant species. Their mission is also to make the data as accessible and user-friendly as possible.
Voices for Biodiversity, a global movement based in El Prado, New Mexico, works to amplify the voices of storytellers speaking out about the importance of biodiversity. The organization helps people prepare their personal stories, photos, and videos. Then, they publish stories on their website, and connect storytellers and readers with each other via social media to exchange ideas and resources.
The Wild Utah Project, based in Salt Lake City, aims to protect at-risk wildlife species and conserve land through research, field monitoring, and planning. In addition to information-gathering and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, the Wild Utah Project also works with land-management agencies and organizations at the state, federal, and nonprofit level to ensure that land and wildlife policies are conservation- and diversity-minded.