Why African Farmers Journeyed to the U.S. with an Urgent Climate Change Message | Civil Eats

Why African Farmers Journeyed to the U.S. with an Urgent Climate Change Message

In the new documentary ‘The Ants & the Grasshopper,’ a pair of activists seek out frank conversations with Americans about climate disparity.

From right, Malik Yakini teaches Peter Mazunda, Anita Chitaya, Esther Lupafya and Raj Patel (and a bystander) about irrigation on D-Town Farm, Detroit, Michigan.

From right, Malik Yakini teaches Peter Mazunda, Anita Chitaya, Esther Lupafya and Raj Patel (and a bystander) about irrigation at D-Town Farm, Detroit, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of “The Ants & the Grasshopper”)

In Bwabwa, Malawi, farmer Anita Chitaya grows corn, beans, pigeon peas, and pumpkins. She uses agroecological practices, combining multiple, diverse crops in one field, planting legumes to improve soil fertility, and using plants to control weeds naturally. But she also has to trek long distances to a dry riverbed to dig below the surface for drinking water.

Malawi’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions were just .08 per person in 2019, but the country has already been hit hard by the world’s changing climate, with increasing droughts, heavy flooding when rains do come, and rising temperatures that threaten crops. Hunger and malnutrition are common. By comparison, Americans produced 16 tons of carbon per capita in 2019, but many have not experienced the impact of the climate crisis so directly.

The new film, The Ants & the Grasshopper, captures Chitaya’s efforts to address that unequal reality.

Poster for the climate justice film

“If I could, I would go to America to bear witness, to tell them how things are here,” Chitaya says in the opening sequence of the film. What follows is a chronicle of the journey Chitaya and fellow farmer Esther Lupafya—who are both part of a Malawi organization called Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities—take across the U.S. to do just that.

“Here’s a group that has ended patriarchy and ended child malnutrition and is confronting climate change. They’re doing all the big stuff,” says author and academic Raj Patel, who produced and co-directed the film with Zak Piper. “In many ways [activists in Malawi are] making advances far beyond what we’re seeing in the food movement here, and it seemed right to show that story as something to aspire to and something we could learn from.”

During their trip around the U.S, Chitaya and Lupafya encounter climate skepticism on farms in Wisconsin and Iowa and trade techniques and songs with farmers in Detroit and Maryland. Chitaya’s observations about the comforts and contradictions of American life and systems illuminate profound realities. “The truth takes long to spread,” she says, “while lies spread fast here.”

The filmmakers are still in discussions with distributors, but the movie premiered on May 27 at the Mountain Film Documentary Festival in Telluride, Colorado—where it won the Moving Mountains Award for social impact. The Ants and the Grasshopper will also be screened starting this week at the U.K.’s Sheffield DocFest, which will include Zoom discussion panels with Chitaya and Lupafya.

Civil Eats spoke with Patel, who is also a Civil Eats advisory board member, about the process of capturing the women’s story on screen and the role he hopes the film will play in food and climate conversations.

How did you find Anita and Esther, and why did you decide to tell their story in this way?

The film really began about a decade ago, when I was quite frustrated at the way that food documentaries were always representing communities of people of color as victims. If folks in the Global South were mentioned at all, it was either high-profile activists or, again, the Global South was presented as a site of victimhood. Around that same time, the big food documentary was Food, Inc. The takeaway message was that if you buy organic yogurt at Walmart, everything’s going to be fine. That total lack of ambition and vast underestimation of both the scale of the problem and the scale of transformation required to meet it frustrated me.

I wanted to find stories that were very character-driven and showed that folks in the Global South are innovators with some of the best ideas, ideas that are big and transformative, rather than tinkering around the edge with crop rotations or something. And I wanted to do that in a way that people would want to watch.

The [initial] director was Steve James, who did Hoop Dreams. It was Steve who came to Malawi and was behind the camera when we first met Anita. He said, “You know, Anita is the character who is going to be driving this forward.” And over the successive decade, we followed Anita, and gradually what happened was that Anita transformed from being a character in the film to being essentially the co-creator. She was the one who suggested we come to America. It was the right thing to do, to find a way where she could figure out what she wanted to say in terms of narration. We figured out a way of [having her screen the film], and we had long discussions about it and [about how to] compress her thoughts into a few sentences. We were in Malawi just as the pandemic broke in order to do that.

In the end, Steve needed to do other projects . . . but his vision at the beginning and Anita’s co-creation led us along this path. I’ve been working with the Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities group for a while. I first visited them in 2004, I think, because one of the co-founders and I went to grad school together.

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Anita’s marriage is a factor in the film. I was curious about why you decided to examine gender roles so prominently in a movie about climate change.

It was always a central part of the film to tell that story. The work at Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities began with an attempt to fix child malnutrition through intercropping and improved agricultural practices. But the women who were experimenting with that intercropping continued to experiment not just with different kinds of crops, but also started to ask questions about malnutrition in terms of, say, breastfeeding. And then they started saying, “Everyone’s down with breastfeeding now. Why do we still have persistent child malnutrition?” Well, it’s because of domestic violence and patriarchy. So the group started experimenting with how to fix that and end patriarchy.

The idea is that you start as a scientist with the tools of science—peer review, exchange, observation, and data collection—and all of that builds into the ideas of how do you take on patriarchy and climate change? They’re pieces of a holistic and expanding idea of the practice of science in combating climate change.

Many people might assume that farmers who use organic practices would be concerned about climate change, but many visited by Anita and Esther were skeptical. Were you surprised or did you know their views going into the conversations?

We had an inkling, for example, with the Jackson family [an Iowa organic farm family featured in the film], but we didn’t know that Ed Jackson worked in a coal-fired power station. That surprised everyone. We had a really vigorous discussion about that afterwards, but it didn’t make it into the film. One of the reasons that he works there is because he needs health care for his son, Eli. A heart condition is not a cheap thing to manage in the United States, and farming doesn’t [come with] great health care. The only place you can go is the coal-fired power stations. That’s where the jobs are.

From left, Jordan Jamison, Liz Badger, Jim Goodman, Rebecca Goodman, Peter Mazunda and Esther Lupafya discuss climate change on the Goodman family dairy in Wonewoc, Wisconsin.

All of it is much more complicated and richer than people being ignorant or not believing in something just because they choose not to. There were some difficult spaces, conversations, and reasons why people came to the conclusions they did. Organic farming is not one unified church, and it never has been.

Why didn’t you take Anita and Esther to talk to fossil fuel executives?

Initially we were trying very broadly to have lots of different conversations. But here was the pitch: “Hey, we’ve got some farmers from Malawi, and it’s gonna be fantastic. We’ll have some cameras rolling, and Raj Patel, who has some very left-leaning views and is unlikely to be sympathetic to anything you’re saying, will be there. Would you be interested?” It turns out they weren’t, and not just the fossil fuel industry. Not even people in the food industry would talk to me, but that’s not surprising. I spent ages trying to get into the door to interview the head of Pepsi, for example, but that didn’t happen. We couldn’t even get a decent conversation with the Gates Foundation, which is so influential in agricultural policy. They wouldn’t talk to us either.

The only person from the U.S. government who would make time for us was Senator [Jeff] Merkley from Oregon. That was fantastic and made possible through our friends at the Presbyterian Hunger program. If we had perhaps been harder hitting or better resourced, we might have been able to get some of these interviews, or if we lied about things, we might have been able to get through the door. But that’s not how we rolled.

What do you want the takeaway from this film to be?

Organize, organize, organize. Individual change is insufficient. We have that moment fairly early on in the film where Jordan [a young organic dairy farmer] says [to Anita and Esther], “How can we help you?” And Anita turns around and says, “Be activists for climate change.” That is an entirely reasonable thing for her to ask for. For us to say, “Tell me exactly what you want us to do. Give me a concrete campaign,” that’s not their job. Why should it be? They’re ending patriarchy. They’re fighting climate change. They’re ending malnutrition. And they’ve got to give us a campaign?

Visiting a protest in front of the White House in a still from the climate justice film

They’re busy, but they lay down a mandate. I think part of the work for us in the Global North is recognizing the boundaries of race and class that we managed to put our arms around in the film, recognizing that there are differential but still collective responsibilities in the United States and in the Global North around the impact. The way we live in this country causes great harm elsewhere. Luckily there are movements that we can join: the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace. These organizations are doing some really interesting stuff, but so are some of the bigger visions around a Green New Deal or a People’s Green New Deal, the Red Deal, and the Red Black and Green New Deal, which I’m excited about. There are these big systemic movements around transformation and reparations that I think we absolutely need to be part of.

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Do you feel hopeful about people getting more involved in those movements and tackling the climate crisis? Anita seemed to be skilled at changing hearts and minds, but when you hear from the people they talked to in the end, it’s a mixed bag in terms of whether they were swayed or not.

I have pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will. It’s not like the fossil fuel companies are rolling onto their backs and letting us tickle their tummies now and everything’s going to be fine. There’s every reason to think that the United States’ capitalist, industrial complex is going to drive the planet into the ground. At the same time, there’s every reason to think that there are hundreds of thousands or millions of people like Anita. I know that because even within the Soils, Food, and Healthy Communities initiative, she was one of many, many activists. In every community there are people who are ready to stand up, not take shit, and imagine things could be different. And then there are people like Winston [Anita’s neighbor who is featured in the film for his change in thinking around gender roles], who is a chauvinist pig at the beginning but gets it by the end. One of the penultimate scenes at the end of the film was Winston’s transformation. The last word obviously goes to his partner, Jennifer.

It’s important to recognize that big changes can happen. We see patriarchy in this country every day. To see that kind of a transformation is hard to believe until you see it happen every day for years, until all of a sudden it becomes normal to behave in non-patriarchal ways. That gives you a sense of what’s possible when everyone agrees that that’s what needs to happen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All photos courtesy of Ants & the Grasshopper. Watch the trailer below:

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. THEROOTMATTERS
    Only one (1) senator willing to hear warnings from African farmers about climate concerns that they personally experience, it certainly was not because of time constraints. Year after year tax payers cover the incomes of congress while the majority collect pay for doing very little accept campaign for more of our hard earned money.

    This disgusts me. And do not get me started on the food industry and people who claim fame from pretense, inorder to influence agricultural policy in the wrong direction. I do not have to name names already cited above by Lisa Held, senior policy reporter. Held held my attention exactly where it needs to be and remain.

    Citizens must demand better from all who feign concerned involvement yet instead rape the earth, as a result of doing nothing, or doing mischief...

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