Ana Lucia Castano - Systems Dialogues

by Saskia Rysenbry

September 28, 2023

Systems Dialogues, our conversations with systems practitioners

This conversation is part of our Stepping into Systems series, an introduction to fundamental systems change topics and concepts. Here we’re joined by Ana Lucia Castano, a Colombian anthropologist and agroecologist. She is the co-founder of Arare Co., an organization that fosters regenerative development of primary production systems in Colombia and Mexico.

This dialogue takes us from Ana Lucia’s Latin American lineage into system change, to how kinetic sculptures might represent systems.

Let's begin


Hi, Ana Lucia. We would love to hear about your perspective. What is a system and when you think about what is a system, what metaphors do you normally refer to?

Ana Lucia

Okay. A system is a set of elements connected by relationships that create a functional whole. Maybe we could start there.

A metaphor I really love to use is the human body because we know our bodies. We know that we are made of parts and we know that we are more than just the parts. If you had some corpse that has no relationships or no elements connecting with each other, then there is something that is no longer like a human being. It becomes a corpse and it's something else. The living human body as a system is a great example of the importance of relationships between the elements within the system because you can't have a system unless there are relationships between the parts, and you cannot only just put the pieces together and just expect it to work. It's like this Frankenstein story with this mad scientist trying to connect different parts of different living things into one organism. That works for that wonderful story, the Frankenstein story, but in reality, it doesn't work like that. 

"Also, the human body explains something that I really love about systems, which is nestedness, so you can have bigger systems containing smaller systems. So our body is a functional whole. It's a totality. However, it is made of smaller systems that work in order for us to be who we are."

One of them is, for example, our digestive system. It's made of parts. They are related through different flows of information and matter. There's blood flowing. There are nutrients flowing. There are different bacteria that are flowing, other microorganisms, etc. And that in and of itself is a whole system. And how do we know this? Because sometimes, if a part of it fails, we can start to see how it affects the rest of the digestive system. So connections, relationships and nestedness are things that I consider to be a part of what defines a system. 

All my metaphors come from the living universe of our planet because those are the most wonderful examples that I can think of. A car also works if you're more of a mechanistic person. If you had the car and you just put all the parts together or you just took them apart, you no longer have a car. You have car parts. And you could have everything set together in place but if there are relationships that are missing, your car won't start. If there are flows that are being cut but you don't have energy or you don't have fuel or you have no connections between the parts, you just assemble them together like they were lego, they're not a car. They're just parts just put there. 

That's also a good way of understanding the system. It is a set of elements, but it's mostly to me, how those elements are related and connected. 


Great. Thank you. Very illustrative. This could be the same answer, but I'm intrigued to see what you say. If you were to bring an object or a prompt to the conversation to help describe what a system is, what would it be? 

Ana Lucia 

There are these kinetic art pieces or these tiny sculptures that move if you just push them a little bit, and if you just take the connecting parts out then they don't work. I really like the ones that Theo Jansen makes. He creates these bug-like creatures that walk with the wind.


Kinetic sculpture, poetry in motion. They look awesome actually, very organic, very meaningful type of inspiration and aesthetic. 

Ana Lucia 

Yes. This one is beautiful. It moves and it waves like that on the beach and it's very complex. But also, I've seen smaller prototypes that are very simple and they work in the same sense. You have just a collection of sticks and some thread, and if you create the correct relationship between them, you have a moving kinetic art piece, which is the system. And depending on how you connect them, you can create all different sorts of forms and possibilities that work in different ways that perform different functions. So you can have the same element, the same props, the sticks and the threads or maybe, I don't know, bolts or whatever. It's the same element, but the way you change the configuration of relationships between those elements changes the way the system is expressed in the end. 

I like that prop because it helps you to explore this idea further, which is central for me about the system being more than the sum of its parts, but also the importance of having a relational focus on the system and not just the particular elements that we can see or measure or think about. 


Love it. So next one, how do you understand how systems change? 

Ana Lucia
It depends on what system we're talking about and it depends on what we are defining as change. Living systems change, just because. 

One aspect of our knowledge that explains how living systems change is evolutionary theory, for example. It says that systems change because of changes in the environment that select for different variants, different forms of life that have more reproductive success. And that's just a totally emergent, random phenomena that we have no control over and has no particular purpose or direction. It just happens. 

But human systems or socio-ecological systems also change because there is agency in human beings to choose what we want for ourselves. It's not an absolute force. We can't choose everything. We are still being influenced by our environment, but we change also because we choose to change. 

But also, personal systems can change, creating different environments for ourselves, which again bringsback the importance of the environment. And the environment, I don't want to assume that we allunderstand what I mean by this.

"Environment is everything. It's not only nature and the forest or the park you might have a few blocks from your house or whatever. It is also the buildings if you live in the city and the people you relate with every day and the mosquitoes flying around you, the amount of sunlight you're getting. Environment is everything, including other people and other species."

I believe that collective systems also change, thanks to the way we create culture, which is based fundamentally on our capacity to learn and to learn in a very particular form of learning, social learning, the capacity to learn anywhere, anytime from anyone and being able to imitate almost perfectly or to choose what we want to learn or to be masters of our own development if we ever get to that.

"Human systems change is fundamentally a learning process, and it changes because we learn something on a deep level. If you want to talk about societal change, we learn something new about ourselves, about the world that changes our paradigm or changes our behavior, but there is always learning involved. So it's like the epitome of human evolution and of human transformation has been always related to something that we learned."


Got it. What is your lineage or lineages into this practice? What do you see as the divergent and different histories and lineages of systemic practices? 

Ana Lucia

I have several. Being an agroecologist, I think my most recent one would be regenerative thinking from the regenerative Carol Sanford School. They are very transparent as to where they come from, which involves indigenous knowledge but also permaculture, biomimicry and some pioneers of organic and regenerative agriculture

Another one: Latin American thinkers and activists that have thought about us in relationship to the earth or territories or land. There's a Colombian thinker called Augusto Angel-Maya, who had a very interesting exploration of the relationships between humans and the environment. 

One person that I really, really, really admire, is a Colombian philosopher called Manuel [inaudible 00:19:49], who really helped me understand relationships between identity, history, politics, especially in a Latin American context, understanding what was the role, for example, of African slaves shaping American freedom. 

There’s Humberto Maturana in Chile and the whole movement of decolonial thought in Latin America, for us to think about that in relationship to the global north, the global south, to our economic systems, our meaning systems, our land management systems. All of this approach to really understanding how we are the outcome of a series of relationships and how we can start thinking about ourselves through thinking about how we relate to different things, to knowledge, to land, to traditions and ancestral cultures.

And I think the furthest one in my story would be the Amazon people from Colombia and the indigenous peoples with whom I worked, who very early on influenced me to understand other types of relational views of life and who saw things that I didn't necessarily see back then and had the patience to explain it to me, the way they think about themselves, the way they think about their learning process, the way they think about their future. 

I came in contact with a very beautiful story that comes from the myth ofcreation of the Guambiano people in Cauca, for example, who associated the land, the territory, with time.

"For the Guambiano people, everything is about walking the land, walking through the landscape. And when you walk, you're looking forward to yourself, and what you're seeing is the past that your ancestors have already built for you. So the future is not in front of you. It's actually at your back."

It's everything you're not seeing as you walk. It's everything that's coming behind you. It's walking behind you and taking you and you can't see it. What you're seeing is actually your path, which contrasts a lot with our western narrative about how the future is something that is in front of us all the time in this linear view of time. 


Thank you for that. Beautiful. From my perspective, it's harder for western cultures and Anglo-Saxon heritage to pull apart that linear way of seeing the world for everybody.

I wonder, what are the best examples of stories or systemic transformation that you have?

Ana Lucia

I have found a lot of inspiration here in Mexico. There is this cooperative called Tosepan Titataniske, an indigenous cooperative in Puebla that I believe has transformed the systems of that region, both human andnonhuman. It has shaped their economy. It has shaped the way women are involved and participate inpolitical and economic activity, thus creating new possibilities and new explorations of how womeninteract in their society, which were very traditional in terms of womanhoodand their participation in society.

"Tosepan Titataniske have also created their own coin, so they have their own economy going on, supporting themselves and their families and their livelihood while also tending to their land, growing tourism, coffee. They have their own bank, which is also part of the cooperative, thus changing the way that they function internally but also the way they relate externally with different stakeholders in that territory, with the wider Mexican country and even international people who come and visit, like me, and who can be inspired by their story."

There are other examples in Colombia that I've seen in which very conflicted situations and territories were transformed after peace agreements with different paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. So in Colombia, in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, there is a beautiful project that involved paramilitaries who had given up their weapons, demobilized out of their paramilitary structure, and started working with the community in tourism and conservation practices. 

This one doesn't happen at the scale of the other one I was talking about in Puebla, but I believe it is systemic change because they changed their livelihoods, they changed cocaine production labs into just camps for people to visit, like heritage sites. People have migrated from violent criminal activity into re-signifying the places they inhabited. A cocaine lab is now a camp. You dismantle what you can, bring in something new, but the structure itself, it's the same. Which again, emphasizes my point about relationships being more than just the sum of their parts.

There's also an example in Colombia about our ex-FARC members who became bird watchers and have been invited to participate in tourism services for bird watching. These people have the most wonderful knowledge of the jungle and its birds - they know all the names, what they eat. They have changed their livelihoods, but are also contributing to protect and create more abundance in these territories that are in desperate need of care. 


Thank you. Lovely. My last question is, how is your practice systemic? 

Ana Lucia

I'm currently working with my partners, seeking transformation in three nested systems. The bigger one, it's what we call territorial management systems, which are all the actors and forces that are involved in shaping how our landscapes are being transformed and being managed by humans. 

But we're mostly interested in the primary sector, the people who are involved directly in the living world. People who are producing wood, fibers, food, which all depend on ecosystem's wellbeing and ecosystem's nutrimental flows to be flowing. You need water and you need soil and you need biodiversity and you need certain species. You need pollinators. You need mammals to spread the seeds. Different things that we use as resources that depend on a healthy, thriving ecosystem. 

For companies, especially extractive companies to begin to understand that their business model ultimately depends on the wellbeing of their community and of the place, which brings me to the final maybe smaller nested system, which would be the businesses that are in charge of this work, in charge of producing our food, of producing the, for example, cotton fibers that end up in our clothes, producing the wood that ends up in all sorts of things and places. 

The businesses and the business people who are in the front line of the interface between community, place and larger economic systems and the way they think about what their work is and the way they think about where they should be investing and what are the sorts of things that they should be caring about. So we're seeking to create an opening for different industries to emerge, for different forms of taking care of both local economies but also local ecosystems and social ecosystems in particular. 

"I have a friend who put it beautifully - we are trying to initiate conversations that can bring us to a different understanding of what territorial management might mean for the primary sector, how to invest in the landscape, in what the people are bringing and the value that they're creating."

One of the ways we make our practice more systemic is by actually thinking about our strategies in terms of these three nested systems. So it's never just about the business or about the particular place. It's also about, okay, what are the wider effects that the system has or that the business has? Who are their suppliers? Who do they supply to? What is the value system that is connected to this business and that is making it possible to be what it is? That involves consumers in other places, but also suppliers, but also the places where they extract value from. 

So one of the ways in which we try to make our practice more systemic is by engaging in this strategic view of nestedness and understanding different effects on different nested systems and trying to download information from the wider systems into the smaller ones so that we can try to map roots that can enable us to play with the things that are already in place. 

We also try to engage with people as a whole, to understand what sorts of learning and developmental processes have to be set inplace and in motion in order for people to start asking themselves different questions, to start listeningfrom a different point of view, to start paying attention to different things. And most importantly, to enablethemselves to be somebody else and shift their culture entirely and change the way they talk to themselves and to other people.

"Systems change are fundamentally driven by people. So we try to play with both dimensions like the big structures, the big systems, the dynamics that are in place and to keep the wheel running, but the agency that grows out of people's will and people's dreams and people's capacity to learn."

And we weave that in all sorts of fun, sometimes unsuccessful ways. I wouldn't say that we manage to create the conversations we would like every time, but we are constantly weaving this into products and services that might enable this fundamental shift in the way we deal with the nutrimental flows that sustain life and that give life not only locally but now in our modern world globally, which is this primary sector thing.

"If we have no food, if we have no water, if we have nothing to wear, everything else is pointless, if we don't have this material basis for our existence. Cars are awesome. Technology, internet, phones, all of that is great, but if you don't have any food or water, you can't enjoy all that. So we want to create abundance around that or around what sustains us and what sustains life in the places that give us life. And that's the dream."