Working with Communities to Ensure Food Sovereignty: Meet Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro

By Kendall Buehl, GHI Staffer… Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro, a nutritionist, dietician and Ph.D. student in Public Health at Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL) – Campus Bogotá, Interfaculty Program, is on her way to a thesis focused on community collaboration to achieve food sovereignty and improve healthcare. Chapeton also holds a Master of Amazonian Studies, which she earned from UNAL – Campus Amazonia. The Global Health Institute (GHI) was pleased to co-sponsor and welcome Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro to Madison for a short-term graduate program this summer to continue her studies and research. GHI collaborated with the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program (LACIS) to offer the sponsorship opportunity through LACIS’ membership in the Red Amazónica en Ciencias de la Vida y Salud (CEPAM). Chapeton came to Madison in June and her last day is this week.

GHI team from left to right: John Chan, Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro, Jorge Osorio, Katie Newcomb, Kendall Buehl, and Calyn Ostrowski (Photo by Elsa Cardenas Canales)

Chapeton’s main focus in her research is finding ways to guarantee equal access to sustainable, healthy and culturally appropriate food for communities in the Amazon region of Colombia and across the world. For her, the key to ensuring food sovereignty is having each community she cooperates with feel wholly included in the process of recovering their traditional food systems.

“We have to do the work with people, with communities,” Chapeton says. “If we work with them, we can make change happen.”

The UW–Madison Global Health Institute has had the pleasure of working with and supporting Marcia Chapeton as she explores UW–Madison and all it has to offer. In addition to her personal Ph.D. project, she comes to GHI as a member of the Red Amazónica en Ciencias de la Vida y Salud through the Centro de Excelencia en Ciencias de la Vida y la Salud en la Amazonia, a UNAL project encompassing three topics toward better health for all: water and health, food and health, and traditional knowledge and healthcare. Chapeton works in food and health, where she can help communities become independent from corporate food systems. 

Chapeton emphasizes how this project is more of a network, where scholars work together to research and implement innovative strategies. The project’s primary goal is to make a network for people working in healthcare and life-care in the Amazon region of Colombia. They work as a convener so that researchers can connect and make alliances. Another goal of the network is to support postgraduate students as they make new contacts, travel to other universities and build international knowledge. In order to do so, students work in the physical location in the Amazon region of Colombia in addition to traveling all over the world. Collaborating with the public and private sectors, universities and society, problems are solved by way of exchange and cooperation.

Red Amazónica en Ciencias de la Vida y Salud started in September of 2022, and is set to finish by the end of 2023. However, the project may continue if funding allows. To learn more about this project or to help financially support it, contact Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro at In addition to supporting students, the network hosted a Health Reform Seminar from June 1-2, 2023, that took place at UNAL – Campus Amazonia. The seminar was a way to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals together to share how upcoming Colombian health reforms would impact or benefit health systems. Specifically, leaders of Indigenous groups attended to learn how the health reform could enhance their growing health systems, also known as “Sistema Indígena de Salud Propio Intercultural” (SISPI). SISPI is the set of norms, policies, and principles surrounding Indigenous healthcare and life-care that are maintained through ancestral wisdom and the idea that people should live in harmony with the Earth. Also, non-Indigenous health officials from local Amazonian governments and health professionals from the area visited. The network is in the process of planning another seminar in September that would focus on Salud Colectiva Intercultural, or Intercultural Collective Health. 

“Collective Health is a dialogue between different knowledge,” Chapeton says. “It’s not just medical or scientific knowledge, but also cultural, historical, and social knowledge that all benefit healthcare and life-care.”

Chapeton envisions Collective Health as being different from One Health. She believes that One Health is missing a historical, cultural and economic perspective. Sometimes it focuses too much on just the causes and effects of health rather than taking the process and complexities into account. In other words, Chapeton explains that the healthcare and life-care decisions made in the past are always impacting the present and future. As a result, she incorporates perspectives from Indigenous peoples, farmers, and women as she continues to focus her efforts on ensuring food sovereignty. 

Chapeton’s overarching goal in both her personal and collaborative projects is to empower communities to sustainably cultivate the traditional foods native to their region. She hopes to answer the question, ‘how can we build a better, more sustainable food system that is not only healthier for people but for our planet?’

For instance, Chapeton’s Ph.D. program at UNAL takes her to the Northwest Colombian Amazon region, where she works with the Accionatorio por el Derecho a la Salud y el Buen Vivir. There, she collaborates with other researchers, Indigenous peoples and campesinos, or rural farm workers, to develop strategies to guarantee health, food and education rights for all. Even though the region is often teeming with armed conflict, Chapeton is still committed to equipping communities with necessary resources while exchanging knowledge with them. She notes that it is never a one-way interaction; Chapeton remains devoted to making communities feel heard and welcomes their assistance with open arms. 

She hopes to continue working with communities in the Northwest Amazon region as she progresses through her Doctoral studies, and she plans on working with the Accionatorio por el Derecho a la Salud y el Buen Vivir or other like-minded teams in the future. 

“I like working with this accionatorio because it focuses on action rather than just observation and research,” Chapeton says. By working with this group, she is able to not only progress her project, but enact life-changing reforms with communities. 

From June 6 to July 31, 2023, Chapeton has had the opportunity to discover the people and places that make UW–Madison special. From making connections with people across campus, to having her host family fill her schedule with fun events and activities throughout the city, to accessing informational bibliographies for her research, Chapeton has seen the best of UW. Still, there was one part of her trip she says she will never forget. 

“Something I want to highlight is the people,” Chapeton remarks. “Everyone I met here was very nice and welcoming, and they always made me feel comfortable.”

She made connections with professionals in the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program (LACIS), the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH), the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), and the School of Human Ecology (SoHE). Chapeton enjoyed learning about what individuals and their respective programs accomplish on campus and around the world, and she hopes to stay informed on ways in which her research overlaps with UW–Madison departments and programs. 

Chapeton was especially delighted to hear that during her time at UW, Cultural Linguistic Services (CLS) would provide an English tutor who would meet with her for two-hour sessions, twice a week. Also, she had the chance to participate in their monthly “First Wednesdays English Conversation Time”, where she was thrilled to meet even more people from different academic backgrounds. Chapeton is grateful for all of the resources that UW has offered, since it is a big adjustment for anyone to fly across the world and immerse themselves in a new place. She truly appreciates the connections she has made and hopes to keep in touch with the people she met along the way. 

Knowing the aquaponics experience in the Oneida Nation (Photo by Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro)

Another unforgettable experience for Chapeton was her trip to the Oneida Reservation, which broadened her perspective on the many traditional food systems in Wisconsin. Oneida Nation is a Native American tribe that is located in and around Green Bay, WI. Chapeton visited the Reservation with her contacts at UW–Madison, including the previously mentioned connections from LACIS, SMPH, CALS, and SoHE. She remarks that it was an eye opening experience, and she plans to keep in touch with the Oneida tribal member that accompanied her group during their visit.

A glimpse into the traditional food system of the Oneida Nation (Photo by Marcia Paola Chapeton Castro)

As Chapeton looks to her future, she is excited to head back to Colombia with more information, more connections, more friends and more passion to make a difference in global food models. It takes a village to reform the international food system into one that is healthier for both people and the planet. Contact Chapeton at to connect or collaborate.