Water Hub Blog

Rising Voices: New nonprofit Minnow combats the inextricable link between land, water, and justice

A quote graphic that reads: “We believe the underpinnings of inequality and injustice in our societies are largely based on severed and appropriated land relationships, so we focus on securing land tenure for farmers of color as the fundamental way of righting those wrongs. - Javier Román-Nieves, Director of Strategic Storytelling Minnow. Including a picture of Javier

This issue of the Maven’s Notebook Rising Voices column, we check in with Director of Strategic Storytelling at Minnow, Javier Román-Nieves, about discriminatory land and water laws in California and advocating for small farmers in California.

Tell me about yourself and your role at Minnow

My name is Javier Román-Nieves, my preferred pronouns are he/him/his, and I am currently based in the unceded land of the Ohlone Peoples, or what we’ve come to know today as Oakland, California. I was born and raised in the unincorporated US territory of Puerto Rico, and immigrated to the mainland four years ago to attend the Yale School of the Environment, continuing my career in environmental nonprofits over here. As the director of strategic storytelling at Minnow, a nascent nonprofit dedicated to securing land tenure for California’s farmers of color while advancing Indigenous sovereignty. Here I do long-form written and visual storytelling, as related to our organizational goals and objectives. I was also in charge of co-creating our business image and voice, and currently oversee our website content while supporting grassroots fundraising efforts and fulfilling client needs.

What’s your relationship to water? To soil?

My relationship to both is framed, first, by the fact that I am an islander, and second, by my dual education as an environmental designer and as a natural resource manager. Growing up on an island exposes you more directly to the different parts of the water and rock cycles from an early age, as ongoing processes. It also makes you used to rationing, droughts, and overall precarity of resources, especially if your island is politically subjugated to another country. My education, in turn, filters those relationships through the lenses of both design thinking and of a Western, scientific mindset. Adding a strong humanities component to both views, I ended up relating to water and soils not as isolated resources to be managed, but rather as precious components of our landscapes and of the intricate relationships found in them, all located in an almost ephemeral layer of time, once you relate them to their respective creation cycles.

Are there water issues at the top-of-mind in your community right now?

We keep hearing a lot of concerns and anxieties around the ongoing roll out of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2014, and its effects on the small-scale farmers we serve. Our colleague at the UC Cooperative Extension, Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, has spoken about this and recently co-authored a report on SGMA and underrepresented farmers. Besides matters of defining what is a small farmer in California, the report echoes concerns about inclusion in the development of Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs), examining some of these from the perspective of the Farmer Equity Act of 2017 and its mandates. The authors also consider impacts around drought, pumping fees, water allocations, water markets, and land fallowing. Their recommendations focus on improving interagency coordination and consultation with underrepresented farmers, improving public outreach with them, providing technical assistance to navigate GSP processes, and ensuring equitable access and participation in the creation of required Project Management Actions. Given the many legal and systemic hurdles that have historically hindered equity in this sector, the needs addressed by their recommendations should not surprise us. In any case, they underscore the importance of adequately funding, resourcing, and staffing the state and local agencies called to fulfill this work. Evidently we still have a long way to go to achieve equity in farming. 

How does Minnow support environmental justice?

As we share in our website’s About page, we believe there is no climate justice without social justice, no social justice without food justice, and no food justice without land justice. We believe the underpinnings of inequality and injustice in our societies are largely based on severed and appropriated land relationships, so we focus on securing land tenure for farmers of color as the fundamental way of righting those wrongs. For the same reason, advancing Indigenous sovereignty is also key, as most of the current land relationships–particularly in terms of state-sanctioned dispossession of Indigenous peoples–are based on their forced displacement and on the appropriation of their lands by settler-colonial states for extractive purposes. In California, of course, this dates back to the Spanish Empire and their mission, rancho, and hacienda systems, which was supplanted by the Mexican Empire of the time, and more recently by the United States of America. So we are dealing with a complex overlayering of exclusionary and discriminatory laws over time, whose outcomes we are trying to undo one client at a time. Systemic change will only come through collective action, so we hope others will join-in and support the land justice work we do with our partners, and that our movement can grow across the state and beyond. 

What water resources or policy changes do people need most in the community you serve?

We think that advancing water democracy and equitable access to water resources are intimately connected to policy changes that are needed the most by people in the community we serve. These are also mandated by the Calitornia’s Farmer Equity Act of 2017 and California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA)’s implementation of it. The same applies to the context of the SGMA roll-out previously discussed, as it does to Indigenous water rights in California and to voting rights within water districts, or at least to how these are enacted. Water districts control how much water is available and how decisions on allocation and use are made. In rural and some urban communities, districts are often governed on the basis of one vote per dollar of value of land owned, so a small number of landowners can control huge areas within a water basin. Because BIPOC farmers usually rent land or own small tracts of land, if they don’t have access to participate in the system that controls their access to water, they don’t have control over one of the resources that is critical to their farm’s existence. So, for us and for the community we serve, it’s a democracy issue as much as it is a racial justice issue. This brings us back to the importance of land access and land justice as paramount to solving these compounding problems.

What stories do you think are missing in water media coverage?

I wouldn’t say these are necessarily missing, but we would definitely like to see more coverage of the foodways of BIPOC farmers as an alternative to the dominant narratives of industrial agriculture, including agroecological practices examined from a critical perspective. Reframing land access, food, and water as human rights instead of market commodities is also a key issue, along with debunking the so-called market-based solutions to climate change, or at least offering more nuanced, less idealized takes on these. Our friends at A Growing Culture are doing a great job at that and provide resources to journalists on a per-topic basis. Lastly, I think more coverage of Land Back stories where Indigenous peoples are actually being served justice always helps in amplifying the movement and in normalizing land transfers as the right thing to do. It is always helpful and incredibly enriching to elevate the voices of those most affected by past wrongs. 

Follow up: What do you wish decision makers and reporters understood better about the community you serve?

That even within the United States of America, they are also serving and catering to people from entirely different nations, which implies different languages, histories, cultures, values, and worldviews that, more often than not, are completely at odds with their prevailing narratives. That we live in a sort of crumbling Tower of Babel doesn’t mean we don’t make an effort to connect with others, or that we don’t aspire to live peaceful, fulfilling lives with people who are different, even as the world around us seems to fall apart. The problem is being too lazy or disinterested to make those efforts and to pretend that that is not happening. We live with and operate platforms and technologies that can accommodate nuance and difference, yet we continue to think with monolithic generalizations, like American, or Mexican, or Puerto Rican, even. Latin American is the laziest bucket of all for me, up there with Native American, which doesn’t even address that many Indigenous folks are and see themselves as members of their own sovereign nations. We need to bring our thinking and talking up to date with our technologies and realities. Sure, it takes extra time and resources, but I would like us to move towards a more Star Trek kind of future and away from the Wild West, every-man-for-himself Mad Max mentality we’re trapped in. 

Anything else you want to share?

We appreciate the opportunity to share a bit of what we do and what we stand for. I would like to invite your readers to visit our website at weareminnow.org. You can subscribe to our mailing list there or, better yet, become monthly supporters of our work. We’re a small, all-hands-on-deck team connected to a bigger, wider network of partners helping each other shape a better world for all of us, and tackling these huge problems from different angles. Instead of big-fish-eat-small-fish, it’s a school of smaller fish eating the big one. So yes, we’re movement-oriented and every bit of sharing and amplifying different takes on the same big problems that taunt us all is a step in the right direction. 

What’s your happy place?

In the field, with our farmer or Indigenous clients, seeing them work, hearing their stories, or simply finding belonging in the land with them. It’s the kind of place we work to create more of at Minnow and what we try to share with everyone.

The Water Hub