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Dispatches from the Field: My first months in Costa Rica

In August 2013, my family and I left Vermont for a one year sabbatical at the Tropical Agriculture Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), near the city of Turrialba, Costa Rica. CATIE is one of the oldest graduate schools in Latin America, having started its programs in agriculture and natural resources in the 1940s. It was here that I did my masters in tropical agroforestry in 1995, and thereafter took a job as an agroforestry specialist with the CATIE/GTZ Agroforestry project. It’s great to be back!

At CATIE, graduate education exists hand in hand with agricultural, rural development, and conservation projects. In addition to regular classes and field trips, students interact with the staff of complex multi-country projects. A current example of this is the Mesoamerican Agroenvironmental Program (MAP), funded by the government of Norway, which for the last 5 years has been supporting a series of innovative agricultural and conservation interventions with smallholder farmers in Mexico and Central America. MAP and other similar projects provide scholarships and research funds for many of CATIE’s graduate students. CATIE also has a robust professional training program, with a diversity of short-term offerings every year.

One of my motivations for doing my sabbatical at CATIE is to develop collaborative teaching and research programs between CATIE and UVM. So far, I have found a lot of interest from both researchers and educators alike. And the time is right for developing these relationships: an increasing number of international research organizations are based at CATIE and CATIE recently became a member of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), whose mission is to conduct research that supports agricultural development and conservation in developing countries.

CATIE campusOn the research front, CATIE is set to work closely with a recently launched ‘sentinel landscapes’ program, which seeks to establish long-term research and monitoring in selected tropical landscapes. I have met with researchers from Bioversity International, The World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to discuss collaborative projects grounded in agroecology and participatory action research (PAR). One exciting possibility is to work on the ‘Coffee Smallholder Database’, which will bring together data from almost 2 decades of research, and allow us to explore longitudinal trends on the interactions among climate change, food security, and biodiversity conservation in coffee landscapes.

On the teaching and training end, I have found lots of interest from the CATIE Cooperative Study Abroad Program. This unit is designed to serve U.S. and American universities conducting courses at CATIE, such as UVM’s Faculty-Led Programs Abroad. CATIE has excellent infrastructure for courses, including classrooms, cafeteria, accommodations, and a 1,000 ha farm with botanical collections and sugarcane, coffee, and cacao experimental plots. The training unit has great interest in bringing UVM faculty to teach courses with a focus in agroecology, ecosystem services, and food systems. Of special interest is to collaborate with UVM’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and explore the development of a course on ‘Ecosystem Services in Tropical Agricultural Landscapes.’ So far, my sabbatical at CATIE has been an excellent choice to advance and expand the international research and educational frontiers in agroecology and food systems, both for my research group, as well as for UVM.

V. Ernesto Méndez is an agroecologist and associate professor in the UVM Dept. of Plant and Soil Science, where he directs the Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods Group. His current research focuses on coffee farmers in Central America and climate change implications for farmers in Vermont.

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