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A woman in Malawi gestures to crops

Irene Matewi standing on a field with her arms spread out in Mangochi, Malawi. "All the water used to be here," she says, pointing to the fields that emerged after the decline of Lake Malawi. The water level of the lake has dropped significantly in recent years. (Photo: Eva-Maria Krafczyk/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The Power of Personalizing the Climate Crisis

Raj Patel’s new film follows one Malawian activist’s efforts to bring the immediacy of climate change to the U.S.

Breanna Draxler

 by YES! Magazine

"The truth takes long to spread, while the lies spread fast here.”

This is the assessment of Malawian farmer and activist Anita Chitaya after finishing a cross-country tour of the United States, attempting to bring home the reality of climate change to American farmers. Her experience is chronicled in an award-winning new film from co-directors Zak Piper and Raj Patel: The Ants & the Grasshopper.

Patel is probably best known for his social justice activism and writings, including Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021) co-authored with Rupa Marya, and Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (Melville House, 2008). This is his first film, but he was quick to acknowledge the power dynamics inherent in filmmaking. He says he and his team did their best to decolonize the process, which is why they decided to forgo having a big Hollywood name narrate the film in favor of having Chitaya do the voiceover in her native Tumbuka language.

Patel first visited Chitaya’s village in the early 2000s, where the organization Soil, Food, and Healthy Communities was educating the community on climate issues. She learned that the severe drought she and her community were experiencing in Malawi (where they received an average of three days of rain per year) stemmed from the burning of fossil fuels in countries like the United States.

“When Anita had first learned about climate change, her initial and instinctive response was, ‘Do you need me to come to America?’ because she couldn’t believe that we are being so cavalier about the planet, and are in such denial about the change that’s required,” Patel says.

And so that’s just what Patel and Chitaya did. Over a decade, a team filmed Chitaya’s work in Malawi and also supported her on a trip across the U.S. to converse with leaders, farmers, activists, and others about the ways in which actions in the U.S. are affecting farmers across the globe.

“Anita had a theory of change,” Patel explains. “If you go to someone’s doorstep with your problem, they cannot ignore you. And that works well in the political ecology of the village in which she lives. You go to someone’s house, and you talk things through, and you come to some sort of amicable resolution.” This is demonstrated in the film as Chitaya gracefully facilitates conversations with members of her community to dismantle patriarchy one household at a time. She is curious, she cares, she listens, and she does not back down. And change follows.

That same theory of change proved less successful in the U.S. as the filmmakers struggled to get people in positions of power to even have a conversation with Chitaya. “If the government won’t hear you, if the corporations don’t hear you, if the philanthropists do not return your calls or do not think that you deserve the dignity of response, then you can’t get that theory of change off the ground,” Patel says.

Still, over the course of the film, Chitaya travels across the U.S., talking to folks about their experiences with growing food and supporting community ties. In the Midwest, she encountered farmers who had enough land and rain that they could continue to pretend that climate change was far off, fake, or even a political agenda. In other areas of the country, especially in communities of color, she encountered groups of people aware of the realities and inequities of climate change and working daily to try to overcome it. They embraced the intersectional nature of the issue and tried to tackle it as such.

“Although the language of intersectionality is something that may feel fairly novel to us in the U.S., it is the lived experience of communities on the front lines of climate change and fighting hunger,” Patel explains.

In shaping his approach to the film, Patel took his lead from the international peasant movement, La Via Campesina, which has for decades been saying that food sovereignty is about an end to all forms of violence against women. The film does not shy away from acknowledging the ways in which the issue of climate change is about more than just growing food.

“To craft a world that can support everybody is always intersectional,” Patel says. “It always involves class, it always involves race, it always involves gender.”

So that’s what he and the rest of the team tried to show in the film—that many different struggles are peripheral to climate that can and should be addressed simultaneously.

“This journey was one of understanding that there are many Americas, not just one,” Patel says. And despite the setbacks, Chitaya continues on her quest to overcome climate change with inspiring resolve. It speaks to her amazing ability to connect with people.

“Anything that Anita touches is magic,” Patel says. “She’s a force of nature. I mean she’s a teacher, she is a mother, she is an agent of God, she is a farmer, she is an educator, she is a kicker of asses, and a taker of names.”

Still, changing hearts and minds is hard work.

“Merely to be shown a picture of something is sometimes not sufficient,” Patel says. Throwing information and facts at people rarely changes their minds. And showing American farmers just how difficult it is to grow a crop in Malawi isn’t enough. “You need the kinds of stories of change and of characters that you can believe in, who have gone through this sort of big transformation in order to show you that such a thing is possible—it is necessary and possible,” Patel says.  

And that’s just what The Ants & the Grasshopper aims to do.

Patel, a decadeslong subscriber and contributing editor to YES! Magazine, knows who he wants to reach with the film. “The kind of people that YES! readers give YES! to in the hopes that it’ll change their mind—those are the people we’re after,” he says.

He suggests sitting down to watch the film with a friend and a cup of coffee to start what might be a difficult conversation.

“It’s that talk that accompanies the film that changes people and changes their work.”

This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Breanna Draxler

Breanna Draxler is the climate editor at YES! She covers all things environmental.

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