Maria Varela (born 1940) is an economist, photographer, visionary, and organizer extraordinaire. Now based in Albuquerque, she first worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a cutting-edge civil rights organization. In 1968 she moved to northern New Mexico, a poor rural region. She has cofounded, advised, and inspired transformative projects that link economic, cultural, and environmental justice and sustainability. Best known is Ganados Del Valle, a cooperative of sheepherders, weavers, and craftspeople that has revitalized the economy of the Chama valley.
Maria Varela is the oldest of five daughters. Her mother is Irish American, and her father–a chemical engineer–emigrated to the USA from Mexico. After graduating from college she worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a cutting-edge civil rights organization. In 1968 she moved to northern New Mexico to work with families in rural communities who had lived there for generations under collective land grants from Spain and then Mexico, before this region became part of the USA. Over time, families had subdivided the land and many farms were no longer economically viable. For 150 years, ranchers, environmentalists, and state officials had taken over upland areas traditionally used for summer grazing. Out-migration, especially of young people, was very high. Inspired by the civil rights activism in southern states, New Mexico land grant activists turned to civil disobedience in the late 1960s to protest the appropriation of land by incomers. Maria cofounded, advised, and inspired Ganados Del Valle (livestock of the valley), a cooperative of sheepherders, weavers, and craftspeople that links economic, cultural, and environmental justice and sustainability. This organization, based in Los Ojos, New Mexico, has revitalized the economy of the Chama valley, based on the breeding of Churro sheep, a near extinct breed well suited to the area. As Ganados members have increased their flocks they have come into conflict with ranchers, environmentalists, and state officials who now own or manage the uplands for cattle grazing or wildlife preservation. Maria has been a key figure in trying to change public policy and the thinking of these groups in support of local sheepherders. A dedicated organizer and committed collaborator, Maria believes in grassroots change through the empowerment of ordinary people.
Rural Resources Group