News

NEWS: ALC collaboration leads to a NIFA Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates grant

A team from UVM Extension and the Department of Plant and Soil Science, including ALC members Scott Lewins, Vic Izzo, and Karen Nordstrom, was recently awarded a Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduates grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Research Education and Workforce Development Program.

This exciting collaboration  will fund the development of an innovative undergraduate fellowship program in 2022 rooted in a transdisciplinary extension experience that will catalyze not only the dissemination of cutting-edge research ideas and technologies, but also demonstrate a healthy collaborative community for a thriving researcher and farmer partnership at a time when collaboration will be key to addressing increasingly complicated agricultural challenges.

Congratulations to all involved!

Looking for Moths Under the New Moon / Buscando mariposas bajo la luna nueva en El Yunque

By / Por: Luis Alexis Rodríguez-Cruz

This essay was written by Luis about his experiences assisting Aura M. Alonso-Rodríguez – both ALC members – with her research en El Yunque. This essay was originally published in Spanish in 80 grados and then translated by the author and published on www.luisalexis.com. Here’s more about Aura’s research

This essay was originally published in Spanish at 80 grados. It was translated by the author and published on www.luisalexis.com.

I was thinking of two things while walking: that my legs could not hold me anymore and that I wanted to see a coquí, Puerto Rico’s endemic frog. We had been within the green labyrinth of El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s tropical rainforest, for almost four hours. Although I wanted to look up and appreciate the plethora of stars, I kept my gaze down so that the flashlight on my head would light the way. Falling down on one of those paths, full of rocks and roots, while carrying a backpack full of scientific equipment, is not a pretty picture. There were times when I slipped, but still had not fallen. I was in the back of the line, walking slowly to see if I could spot a coquí, but without missing the pace of the team. “Look, Luis,” Aura said after a while. And there it was, quiet on a log, ready for the photo. After that, she asked us to turn off our flashlights.

Aura Alonso-Rodríguez is an ecologist. She studies human and climatic impacts on tropical ecosystems through insects. Two other people and I accompanied her on her once or two times-a-year pilgrimage to El Yunque, under the new moon. We were assisting her in her research, focused on understanding the impacts of Hurricane Maria on moth (nocturnal butterflies) communities. It is under the new moon that this type of sampling can be done effectively: the darkness reduces competition between the light from the trap and from the moon, thus attracting more moths.

The voices of the rainforest multiplied and amplified once we shut off the lights. To be immersed in the darkness of our rainforest and to listen to its sounds is not an opportunity that I am often given. In that moment, I finally looked up to the skies and appreciated the stars without fear of falling. As a drizzle began, we turned on the lights, and continued our walk back to the where we started.

We arrived around 6:30 P.M. to the El Verde field station, the research center of the University of Puerto Rico located in El Yunque. The objective was to go to the three spots that Aura selected, where we would place three traps with ultraviolet bulbs that would attract the moths. We carried three 25-pound batteries into the rainforest; each of us with a backpack full of equipment and several bottles of water and snack bars. It was almost 11 P.M. by the time we got back to the parking lot. The rain helped disguise the sweat and tiredness of our bodies.

That new-moon-weekend in July 2020 brought back memories of when I did research in the field, but it also reminded me of how complicated and complex it is, as many things are out of our control. Especially, when there is an ongoing pandemic. We returned to the house while listening to the symphony of our stomachs. And although we were tempted to open a few beers and socialize, we opted to go to sleep after eating, as we had to return to the forest around 5:00 A.M. When I saw Aura’s disappointment and frustration when finding the traps turned off the next morning, I knew we should have had at least one beer before going to sleep.

The coquí posing on a tree, and the trap turned on. Inside of the bucket there is a little flask with chloroform, and a forest of newspaper.

I arrived in Rio Grande, one of the municipalities where El Yunque is located, Friday afternoon. Aura and I met at a local supermarket to buy food for the weekend. The last time we saw each other was two months earlier, in Vermont, where we are studying. We stared at each other for a few seconds, and then hugged. Obviously, breaking pandemic protocols made us feel bad — even though we had been in isolation for a long time, preparing for that sampling weekend at El Yunque. It felt good to escape from the south of Puerto Rico, where I live. The drought, plus the Saharan dust, had the area all covered in brown and misty landscapes. These episodes of severe drought are becoming more frequent and intense in the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, like most islands in the region, is expected to see increasing temperatures due to climate change. Seeing so much green, while following Aura towards the house near the rainforest where we would be staying, was almost magical. “It is very dry here too, even if it doesn’t look like it” –she told me, as we got the equipment out of her car.

Aura has been collecting moths in El Yunque since the beginning of 2017. Little is known about them. In particular, their role in nocturnal pollination, which is important for the ecosystem, and for agricultural production. Aura told me that, “[all] butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera, and more than 90% of them are nocturnal. The last study about them in Puerto Rico was done in 1998 (1); 1,045 species of butterflies were estimated, of which 26% are native to the archipelago.” The objective of her project was to know the degree of difference, if any, in moth communities (assemblages) in two forest areas in El Yunque: one dominated by Sierra Palm (Prestoea montana), and the other by Tabonuco trees (Dacroydes excelsa). There are 4 types of forests and various microclimates that make El Yunque a special place. To that we add its cultural and traditional significance, particularly the one that our Taino ancestors gave it. Unfortunately, human impacts, such as light pollution, solid waste mismanagement, and poorly planned constructions, together with natural impacts that are intensifying due to climate change (also human-driven), such as droughts and stronger storms, have increased the vulnerability of our national forest, producer of water, air and beauty. People like Aura seek to understand how, specifically, these impacts harm their biodiversity, in order to outline effective ways for conservation.

I underlined “was” in the paragraph above because Aura’s study now revolves around understanding how those assemblages changed with the impact of María, a 2017 category 4 hurricane that caused damage or death to 23-31 million trees in Puerto Rico [2]. “[Our study] is one way of better understanding the response and recovery of the forest to this impact.” Preliminary data from the study suggests that the assemblages were completely changed by the impact of the hurricane, regardless of forest type [3]. Nonetheless, after the hurricane, the number of individuals (abundance) and the number of species (richness) was higher in the area dominated by Tabonuco trees. “These trees are strong, they create underground connections between them, unlike Sierra Palms that do not provide good shelter due.” Therefore, given that the impacts will continue to occur, if we want to safeguard the biodiversity of the forest, it is important to conserve those areas dominated by Tabonuco, most of which are remnants of mature forest. Meaning that these areas have not been affected by human disturbances. Aura is confident that future samplings will shed more light on that preliminary conclusion.

The figure on the left shows the assemblages in Sierra Palm and Tabonuco before and after María. Each point represents the species composition at a different sampling site. By agglomerating the points in the different ovals, the statistics show that the assemblages changed due to the impact of the hurricane in both types of forest. The figure on the right, divided in two, shows richness and abundance. In both, the boxes on the left side show that the richness and abundance of both areas was similar before the hurricane. But those on the right side show that assemblages in the Tabonuco forest had more richness and abundance after the hurricane.

As we walked under the subtle light of dawn to where we had left the traps, Aura pointed out areas and described how they were like before the hurricane. Frankly, everything looked the same to me. It was remarkable how embedded she was in the landscape and the connection she had with the forest. I told the team that if they were following me, we would have already gotten lost and would never find where we left the traps. “I grew up in the forest,” Aura said. And just as she had seen El Yunque transform, she also saw how the mountains of Carraízo, where she was raised, transformed throughout her childhood. Witnessing the change of the landscape catalyzed questions that she would later answer through her scientific work. “What do you feel?”, I asked her when we got to the first spot and saw the light off. Although there was a hint of anger and frustration, Aura took a deep breath and began to tell us the possible causes. She had checked the voltage of the batteries and tested them before the weekend. But as she said, it was not in her control that they got damaged. Sometimes one wastes so much energy in pondering over something one does not control. And now, whenever something similar to the “battery situation” happens to me, I think about how Aura responded to it.

We proceeded to remove the trap — we noticed that several moths were caught, but not the number that she expected. Yes, seeing their corpses raised uncomfortable questions in me. But their life cycle is very short and sampling once or twice a year does not harm the population―I said to myself. When collecting all the equipment, Aura took out a densiometer and together with the other colleague measured the canopy to see how much light enters the area. By comparing the canopy cover data that Aura took before and after Hurricane Maria, she can determine how much the forest has recovered since the hurricane. Then we walked up the mountain to find the second trap off. The same happened with the third. And what do you do when an experiment goes wrong in El Yunque? Well, you go for a dip in a swimming hole.

Above, Aura is setting the trap. Below, holding the densiometer, and separating the collected specimens.

While floating in the river, Aura went over different options on how to deal with the setback. She would soon have to return to Vermont, and coinciding with the new moon in Puerto Rico is not an easy thing. So, she had to re-sample to not miss the opportunity. The next day, when I had to go back to the hot south, we returned with charged batteries and set up a camera to see how long the light bulbs lasted. Before I left, I went with her to the laboratory to help sort the samples we collected the previous night. We were classifying all the moths by morphospecies, that is, by how they resemble each other. “That’s why I like insects, you have to learn how to see the details” -she said, while she explained to me how difficult it was to determine the real species, particularly that of the smallest ones.

I wanted to stay longer to help with the resampling, but responsibilities in the south required attention. As I was driving home along the old highway, it was clear how the green was turning brown. During that week, I could not get what happened in El Yunque out of my mind, plus my flat feet kept reminding me of how much we walked. Neither could I shake off that moment of silence and stillness when we turned off the lights. At the end of the week, Aura told me that they managed to acquire new batteries and that she decided to repeat the sampling the following month. Putting the camera served to check how long the bulbs were on and thus be able to adjust their results.

There are three new moons this summer of 2021, so maybe I’ll be an assistant to my ecologist friend again. Meanwhile, I hope to educate myself more about Tabonucos, about where they are in Puerto Rico, and on what we can do as a society to protect them. As the song of Francisco Roque Muñoz says, “Un jacho de tabonuco, tengo yo para alumbrarme” (A piece of Tabonuco, I have to light up the way).

  1. Torres, J. A. y S. Medina-Gaud, 1998. Los insectos de Puerto Rico. Acta Científica 12: 3-41
  2. Feng et al. (2018) Rapid remote sensing assessment of impacts from Hurricane Maria on forests of Puerto Rico. PeerJ Preprints 6:e26597v1 https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.26597v1
  3. Aura Alonso-Rodríguez. University of Vermont – Rubenstein School. (2019, October 29). Vegetation types influences the response of moth communities to hurricane disturbance in a tropical rainforest. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6H9f0bIK0Ac
Buscando mariposas bajo la luna nueva en El Yunque – This essay was published originally in 80 grados (Puerto Rico) in March 12, 2021.

Iba caminando y pensando dos cosas: en que ya no aguantaba las piernas y en que quería ver un coquí. Llevábamos casi cuatro horas bosque adentro en El Yunque. Aunque quería mirar hacia arriba y apreciar el revolú de estrellas, tenía la mirada hacia abajo para que la linterna en mi cabeza iluminara el camino. Caerse en una vereda de esas, llenas de piedras y raíces, mientras se carga un bulto lleno de instrumentos científicos, no debe ser bonito. Hubo ocasiones en que resbalé, pero aún no me caía. Yo iba atrás en la fila, caminando lento para ver si lograba ver un coquí, pero sin perder el paso del equipo. “Mira, Luis”—dijo Aura al ratito. Y allí estaba, tranquilito en un tronco, listo para la foto. Luego de eso, ella nos pidió que apagáramos las linternas.

Aura Alonso Rodríguez es ecóloga. Estudia los impactos humanos y climáticos en ecosistemas tropicales a través de los insectos. Otras dos personas y yo la acompañamos en su peregrinación a El Yunque bajo la luna nueva para asistirle en su investigación, enfocada en entender los impactos del huracán María en las comunidades de mariposas nocturnas. Es bajo la luna nueva cuando este tipo de muestreo se puede hacer de manera efectiva: esa fase oscura ayuda a que la luz de la trampa no compita con la de la luna y así pueda atraer a las mariposas.

Los sonidos se intensificaron tan pronto apagamos las luces. No hablamos. Escuchar al bosque tropical más importante de Puerto Rico no es algo que se me da mucho. En ese momento pude mirar hacia arriba y apreciar el revolú de estrellas. Al comenzar una llovizna, prendimos las luces y continuamos.

Llegamos alrededor de las 630 P.M. a la estación El Verde, centro investigativo de la IUPI ubicado en El Yunque, para ir a los tres spots que seleccionó Aura, donde colocaríamos las tres trampas con bombillas ultravioletas que atraerían a las mariposas. Cargamos tres baterías de 25 libras cada una; cada quien con una mochila llena de equipo y varias botellas de agua y barritas para merendar. Ya eran casi las 11 de la noche cuando regresamos al estacionamiento. La lluvia ayudó a disimular el sudor.

Ese fin de semana de luna nueva en julio 2020 me trajo recuerdos de cuando hacía investigaciones en el campo, pero también me hizo recordar lo complicado y complejo que es, pues muchas cosas no están bajo nuestro control. Especialmente, cuando hay una pandemia en curso. Nos fuimos escuchando la sinfonía de nuestros estómagos. Y aunque nos tentaba abrir cervezas y socializar, optamos por ir a dormir después de comer, pues teníamos que volver al bosque alrededor de las 5:00 A.M. Al ver las bombillas de las trampas apagadas cuando volvimos al bosque y la cara de decepción y frustración de Aura, supe que debimos habernos bebido por lo menos una cerveza antes de dormir.

El coquí posando y la trampa recién prendida. Adentro hay un envase con cloroformo y un bosque de papel periódico.

Yo llegué a Río Grande viernes por la tarde. Me encontré con Aura en un supermercado del área. La última vez que nos vimos fue dos meses antes, en Vermont, donde cursamos estudios. Nos quedamos mirándonos unos segundos y nos abrazamos. Obviamente, nos hizo sentir mal romper los protocolos pandémicos—aunque llevábamos mucho tiempo en aislamiento, preparándonos para ese weekend de muestreo en El Yunque. Me hizo bien escapar del sur. La sequía, más el polvo del Sahara, tenían la zona toda arropada de marrones y paisajes brumosos. Ver tanto verde, mientras seguía a Aura hacia la casa dónde nos quedaríamos, fue casi mágico. “No te creas, esto está bien seco aquí también” –me dijo, mientras bajábamos el equipo de su carro.

Aura lleva desde principios del 2017 recolectando muestras de mariposas nocturnas, de las cuales no se sabe mucho. Particularmente, su rol en la polinización nocturna, lo cual es importante, no solo para el ecosistema, sino incluso para la producción agrícola. “Las mariposas (todas) son del orden Lepidoptera y más del 90% de ellas son nocturnas. El último estudio en Puerto Rico fue en el 1998 [1]; se estimaron 1,045 especies de mariposas. El 26% son nativas del archipiélago.” ―me contaba Aura. El objetivo de su proyecto actual era conocer el grado de diferencia, si alguna, en las comunidades de mariposas nocturnas (ensamblajes) en dos áreas del bosque: una dominada por palma de sierra (Prestoea montana) y otra por tabonuco (Dacroydes excelsa).

En El Yunque hay 4 tipos de bosques y varios microclimas que hacen de él un lugar especial. A eso le añadimos su significado cultural y tradicional, particularmente la que le dio nuestros ancestros Taínos. Lamentablemente, los impactos humanos por contaminación lumínica, desechos sólidos y construcciones mal planificadas, en conjunto con impactos naturales que van intensificándose por el cambio climático (también causa humana), como las sequías y tormentas, han hecho que la vulnerabilidad de nuestro bosque nacional, productor de agua, aire y belleza, vaya en aumento. Personas como Aura, buscan entender cómo, específicamente, esos impactos perjudican su biodiversidad para entonces delinear maneras efectivas para la conservación.

Arriba subrayé “era” porque el estudio de Aura giró en torno a comprender cómo esos ensamblajes cambiaron con el impacto de María, huracán que causó daños o muerte de 23-31 millones de árboles en Puerto Rico [2]. “Es una manera de entender mejor la respuesta y recuperación del bosque”. Datos preliminares [3] de su estudio muestran que los ensamblajes cambiaron por completo por el impacto del huracán indistintamente del área. Sin embargo, después del huracán, el número de individuos (abundancia) y la cantidad de especies (riqueza) fue mayor en la zona dominada por tabonuco. “Esos árboles son fuertes, crean conexiones entre ellos bajo la tierra, a diferencia de las palmas de sierra que pierden las pencas y quizás no proveen buen refugio”. Por lo tanto, dado a que los impactos seguirán ocurriendo, si queremos salvaguardar la biodiversidad del bosque, es importante conservar esas zonas dominadas por tabonuco. Aura confía en que los próximos muestreos arrojarán mayor claridad a esa conclusión preliminar.

La figura de la izquierda muestra los ensamblajes en palma de sierra y tabonuco antes y después de María. Cada punto representa la composición de especies en un sitio de muestreo diferente. Al aglomerarse los puntos en los distintos óvalos, la estadística muestra que los ensamblajes cambiaron por el impacto del huracán en ambos tipos de bosque. La figura de la derecha, dividida en dos, muestra riqueza (“richness”) y abundancia (“abundance”). En ambas, las cajitas del lado izquierdo muestran que la riqueza y abundancia de ambas áreas era similar antes del huracán. Pero las del lado derecho muestran que en el bosque de tabonuco se encontró mayor riqueza y abundancia de mariposas nocturnas después del huracán.

Aura señalaba áreas y describía cómo eran antes del huracán, mientras caminábamos hacia donde habíamos dejado las trampas. Francamente, para mí todo se veía igual. Era notable cuán inmersa estaba ella en el paisaje y su conexión con el bosque. Y más cuando no había amanecido del todo. Yo le comentaba que, si me estuvieran siguiendo a mí, ya nos hubiéramos perdido y nunca encontraríamos dónde dejamos las trampas. “Yo me crie en el bosque” ―me decía Aura. Y así cómo había visto a El Yunque transformarse, también vio cómo la montaña de Carraízo, dónde se crio, fue transformándose a través de su infancia. De ahí comenzaron preguntas que luego contestaría a través de su trabajo científico. ¿Qué sientes? –le pregunté cuando llegamos al primer spot y vimos la luz apagada. Aunque hubo una pizca de enojo y frustración, Aura respiró profundo y comenzó a contarnos las posibles causas. Ella había verificado el voltaje de las baterías y las había probado. Pero como ella dijo, el que se dañasen no estaba en su control. A veces uno se vuelve loco ponderando sobre algo que no controla. Y ahora, cada vez que pasa algo similar al papelón de las baterías, pienso en cómo Aura respondió a la situación. Procedimos a quitar la trampa—notamos que se atraparon varias mariposas, pero no la cantidad que se esperaba. Sí, me dio cosita verlas muertas. Pero su ciclo de vida es bien corto y muestrear una o dos veces al año no perjudica a la población. Al recoger todo el equipo, Aura sacó un densiómetro y junto a la otra compañera se midió la cobertura de dosel, para conocer cuánta luz entra a la zona. Comparando los datos de cobertura de dosel que Aura tomó antes y después del huracán María, ella puede determinar cuánto se ha recuperado el bosque desde María. Luego, nos fuimos jalda arriba para encontrar el segundo spot apagado. Pasó lo mismo con el tercero. ¿Y qué se hace cuándo un experimento sale mal? Pues, nos fuimos a nadar un rato a una charca del área.

Arriba Aura está montando la trampa. Abajo, se muestra el densiómetro y a Aura separando los especímenes recolectados.

Mientras flotaba en el río, Aura compartía distintas opciones para lidiar con la situación. Pronto tendría que volver a Vermont, y coincidir en Puerto Rico con la luna nueva no es cosa fácil. Por lo que había que volver a muestrear para no perder la oportunidad. Al otro día, cuando yo tenía que volver al sur caluroso, regresamos con las baterías cargadas y colocamos una cámara para saber cuánto tiempo duraba la bombilla prendida. Antes de irme, fui con ella al laboratorio para ayudarla a clasificar las muestras. Ese día también aprendí que decirles “polillas” no es lo mejor. Alevilla o mariposa nocturna. A cada ratito Aura me decía que estaba poniendo distintas mariposas juntas. Las estábamos clasificando por morfoespecie, o sea, por cómo se parecen entre sí. “Por eso me gustan los insectos, hay que saber ver los detalles” -decía, mientras me explicaba lo difícil que era determinar la especie real, particularmente de las más pequeñitas.

Yo tenía ganas de quedarme más días para retomar muestras, pero las responsabilidades en el sur requerían atención. Mientras guiaba por Fajardo, camino a Juana Díaz por la carretera vieja, se notaba bien claro cómo el verde se tornaba marrón. Durante esa semana, no me podía quitar de la mente lo ocurrido en El Yunque, más mis pies planos no paraban de recordarme todo lo que caminamos. Tampoco me podía desprender de ese momento de silencio y quietud cuando apagamos las luces. Al final de la semana, Aura me contó que lograron adquirir nuevas baterías y que decidió repetir el muestreo el mes siguiente. Poner la cámara sirvió para conocer cuánto tiempo estuvieron las bombillas prendidas y poder así ajustar sus resultados.

Hay tres lunas nuevas este verano 2021, quizás volveré a ser asistente de mi amiga ecóloga. Mientras tanto, conviene educarnos sobre los tabonucos, sobre dónde están y cómo conservarlos. Como dice la canción, “Un jacho de tabonuco, yo tengo para alumbrarme”.

Para conocer más sobre Aura y su trabajo, oprime aquí.

  1. Torres, J. A. y S. Medina-Gaud, 1998. Los insectos de Puerto Rico. Acta Científica 12: 3-41
  2. Feng et al. (2018) Rapid remote sensing assessment of impacts from Hurricane Maria on forests of Puerto Rico. PeerJ Preprints 6:e26597v1 https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.26597v1
  3. Aura Alonso-Rodríguez. University of Vermont – Rubenstein School. (2019, October 29). Vegetation types influences the response of moth communities to hurricane disturbance in a tropical rainforest. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6H9f0bIK0Ac

NEWS: PAR projects led by ALC members receive funding

Left photo credit: Janica Anderzén, Right photo credit: Scott Lewins
Left photo credit: Janica Anderzén, Right photo credit: Scott Lewins

ALC members Scott Lewins, Vic Izzo, Janica Anderzén, and Alejandra Gúzman Luna have received funding to advance their Participatory Action Research (PAR) projects both locally and internationally. We’re so grateful for the support and excited to see these projects through!

The Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association and the New England Vegetable and Berry Growers Association have recently made donations to the Vermont Entomology and Participatory Action Research Team (VEPART), led by Scott Lewins and Vic Izzo, in support of their research and outreach efforts within the region. This great partnership between VEPART and two key grower groups is part of VEPART’s ongoing Participatory Action Research on appropriate IPM tactics for northeastern organic growers, and ultimately a more sustainable approach to pest management.

This generous grower support has helped launch the Agroecology Extension Summer Research Fellowship, an experiential learning experience focused on the development of adaptable research, leadership, and outreach skills. The goals of this exciting new initiative include training the next generation of extension researchers, and contributing to new and ongoing Extension projects dedicated to UVM’s Land Grant mission.

From the Gund Institute for the Environment’s website: Gund Graduate Fellow Janica Anderzén (CALS) will study the ecological, economic, and social importance of bees for coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. Native and managed bees help shade-coffee farmers ecologically by pollinating coffee and food crops. Farmers who manage honeybees are less financially dependent on coffee, increasing their resilience. Her results will inform farmer and community education programs and dialogues with local governments regarding harmful pesticides. Project collaborators include: Gund Postdoctoral Fellow Alejandra Gúzman Luna (CALS); Rémy VandameMichelle RosalesDaniela Gallardo OlimónYliana Delfín Fuentes, and Omar Argüello Nájera of El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR); and Rigoberto Hernández JonapáJose Antonio López PérezWilliams Salomon Roblero, and Inés Lucia Pérez Gómez of Campesinos Ecológicos de Sierra Madre de Chiapas (CESMACH).

Read more about Janica, Ale, and the ALC’s work with coffee farmers and diversification of coffee farms here.

NEWS: ALC contributes chapter to Urban Agroecology book

ALC co-director Martha Caswell and other members of the ALC contributed a chapter to a new book titled Urban Agroecology, Interdisciplinary Research and Future Directions. The chapter discusses an ongoing participatory action research (PAR) project with urban and peri-urban agroecology project partners in Burlington, Vermont. For years, the ALC has been building a relationship and working with  the Vermont Community Garden Network, the Intervale Center, New Farms for New Americans, and the Catamount Farm. Components of this PAR process have resulted in participatory mapping and inventorying of agroecological practices with the Intervale Center, student design projects facilitated through PSS courses taught by Stephanie Hurley and Annie White, and upcoming collaborations for a summer research fellowship with VEPART to tackle pest management challenges.

Map based data collection with the Intervale Center. Photo: María A. Juncos-Gautier
Map based data collection with the Intervale Center. Photo: María A. Juncos-Gautier

The research in this chapter brings together agroecological principles, landscape design, and cultural ecosystem services in a transdisciplinary, PAR approach to assessing urban agroecology in Burlington. While Vermont is a predominantly rural state, this chapter explores the growing field of urban agroecology through urban and peri-urban farms and gardens in and around Burlington. Urban agroecology utilizes the frameworks and approaches of agroecology and applies them to urban contexts. As demonstrated in existing research, urban agrifood systems fill a multifunctional role in urban areas and can contribute to addressing issues such as food insecurity, public health crises, and poverty. As such, there is great potential for the application of agroecology in urban agrifood systems, and in further exploring and amplifying the benefits.

While the ALC’s work with these partners is ongoing, the value and importance of vibrant local food systems has been highlighted in the current COVID-19 pandemic and resulting food crisis. Through our PAR process, we look forward to continuing to facilitate conversations and connections within Burlington that center around agroecology and its potential within the urban and peri-urban context.  As articulated in the chapter, “Ideally, by reinforcing its presence and relevance, agroecology can become a unifying catalyst for broad food system transformation in Burlington” (p 316).

Chapter Citation:

Caswell, M., et al. (2021) Agroecological transformations in urban contexts: transdisciplinary research frameworks and participatory approaches in Burlington, Vermont. Pp. 299-320. In M. Egerer and H. Cohen (eds) Urban Agroecology: Interdisciplinary research and future directions. Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press/Taylor and Francis.

Download available here.

NEWS: ALC Co-Director Ernesto Méndez selected for VP of Research fellowship

The ALC is excited to share the news that ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez has been selected as the inaugural Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) Fellow at UVM.  This competitive fellowship provides institutional support for the institutionalization of  the ALC as a University of Vermont institute. Tentatively named the International Agroecology and Food Systems Institute, this initiative will integrate research, education, and outreach to better understand and support food systems that are ecologically sound and socially just. This new unit will have three primary areas of focus, 1) Agroecological performance, 2) Agroecology, food sovereignty and justice, and 3) Innovative pedagogy for agroecology. 

This fellowship comes at a critical time as multiple crises nationally and globally have worsened and revealed issues in our food and agricultural systems. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown our high level of vulnerability to industrialized agricultural and food systems. Supply chains got broken, healthy and nutritious food became inaccessible, and those who are on the front lines of food production were forced to take on enormous risk. Alternatively, ecologically sound and socially just agrifood systems, which rely on local food production at small and medium-scale production, have emerged as a more stable and sustainable alternative that can withstand multiple crises globally. The transformation of the ALC, which started as a research group, will create an opportunity to address many of these issues through agroecological frameworks, deepening the capacity and learning of agroecology and food systems scholars, and students and community partners at UVM and beyond.

BLOG: Exploring the newly launched Vermont Agrarian Commons at Bread and Butter Farm

By: Nell Carpenter and Martha Caswell, with input from Megan Browning, Vermont Agrarian Commons

In the spring of 2020, Bread and Butter Farm, a farm partner of the ALC, became the founding farm of the Vermont Agrarian Commons, one of a collection of ten Agrarian Commons nationwide. The Agrarian Commons is a model for land access that challenges notions of land ownership established in the U.S. by European colonizers, and seeks to redefine land access for farmers, with particular attention toward the next generation of farmers. By reconsidering relationships to land, this movement provides new options in reaction to the U.S. Agricultural Crisis, and its many ecological, sociocultural, and economic impacts. Though there is a global movement toward agricultural commons as a viable, and desirable model – there are context-specific details that are particular to each locale. 

Below, we will dig deeper into the Bread and Butter example to better understand how this works, but to start let’s set the stage for its relevance. The Agrarian Commons is a model inspired by centuries of thought, practice, and community. This model recognizes that the current model of land ownership over the land currently known as the U.S. was a foothold in colonizing the land, dictated by capitalist and white supremacist frameworks of leadership and governance. The Agrarian Commons model envisions a return to a relationship with the land that more closely resembles the reciprocal, stewardship of land that has been practiced through intergenerational management by BIPOC and peasant communities around the world.  Read more about who and what has inspired the Agrarian Commons here, and hear current stakeholder perspectives here

As we know, land is a limited and expensive resource, which can mean that farmers who are able to access land are perpetually working to lessen their debt, but aren’t ever able to escape that burden. This can result in farmers spending the majority of their careers engaging in unsustainable agricultural practices to chip away at mortgage debt that only gets passed to the next farmers of that land. Many tools and structures such as conservation easements exist to help lessen these costs, however, land access for those who want it remains a primary challenge, especially for BIPOC community members who have been excluded by long histories of racist and exclusionary policies. 

Graphic from: https://agrariantrust.org/

The commons is a strategy for increasing access to land and freeing up financial resources for regenerative agricultural practices by making land available at a lower price and providing a structure for land to be held in community, rather than individually owned. This lower price is possible because the land is acquired  by a nonprofit legal entity (501c2) – in this case the Vermont Agrarian Commons – through fundraising or land donation. The Commons then provides a 99 year ground lease of the  land to a farm business – in this case Bread and Butter Farm. The Agrarian Commons are governed locally by a board composed on ⅓ leaseholding farmers, ⅓ community stakeholders, and ⅓ Agrarian Trust staff, and exist in partnership with Agrarian Trust (501c3). The Agrarian Commons model and lease structure is governed by bylaws, such that each farm business operating in the commons adheres to a level of social and ecological sustainability in their operations with a focus on agriculture in community. The land in the commons is, thus, decommodified, out of the real-estate market, and considered a member of the commons alongside the business(es) it hosts.  While Bread and Butter is the founding farm for the Vermont Agrarian Commons, there will be opportunities for the Commons to grow with additional land and farms over time. Other Agrarian Commons exist around the country, in various states from California to Virginia. Explore them all here.

Beyond breaking the cycle of unsustainable land ownership and inequitable access and tenure to land, the Agrarian Commons can be a step towards food sovereignty, particularly for BIPOC and immigrant communities. In Central Maine, the Little Jubba Central Maine Agrarian Commons was just established in association with the Somali Bantu Community Association (SBCA). This land will expand their existing Liberation Farms land for SBCA farmers, an important foothold of food access and cultural vibrancy for the Somali Bantu Community. The Little Jubba Agrarian Commons and others will be able to ensure that the land remains in their possession for at least the next 99 years. In tracing the current and historic stealing of land, genocide, and racist land policy, this is a significant step in creating opportunities for BIPOC farmers and communities to reclaim land. And, in the event that an Agrarian Commons entity dissolves, the “bylaws ensure that all assets will transfer to Indigenous communities and communities of color as one small way to move against the perpetuation of white-led nonprofit ownership of land” (https://agrariantrust.org/). 

In late October, the ALC welcomed Megan Browning from the Agrarian Trust/VT Agrarian Commons for a discussion about the commons with our Community of Practice. In just a little over an hour, we learned about the overarching vision and then dug into the legal details. After lots of questions and discussion, it’s clear that this movement is on its way towards very concrete impact in the United States. 

Graphic from: https://agrariantrust.org/

Megan is working with Corie Pierce and Brandon Bless of Bread and Butter Farm (BBF), as well as additional board members, to establish the Vermont Agrarian Commons through the acquisition of land. BBF is a collaborative working landscape that actively honors its land, animals, community members, soil, plants and history. The original parcel of land farmed by  BBF was around 140 acres of extremely depleted land. In 2018, BBF entered into a three year lease for eventual ownership of 375 acres of land that would have otherwise sold to developers. The negotiation involved significant contributions by the Vermont Land Trust, town of South Burlington, town of Shelburne, and Dirt Capital Partners, as well as the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Currently, BBF  manages over 600 acres of land through ownership and lease, which is the land to become the Agrarian Commons with the support of the partners named above,  local community members and, Agrarian Trust. 

Corie wrote a piece about this experience that you can read here, but here’s a preview to help you understand what this means to Corie and others at BBF.

“We absolutely love this model because it does so many things!!

  1. Most importantly, it helps to guarantee a high standard of managing land forever by excellent farmers. 
  2. It means that this land WILL be farmed forever! It can never be a gentleman farm that is just mowed each year and owned by an individual who chooses to work elsewhere and not farm but have the luxury of their own 500 acres for themselves.
  3. Bread & Butter Farm is relieved of our mortgages and allows us to make investments in the farm business for the future for the people who work here and for the needed infrastructure.
  4. We commit this land to a commons model where there will be 17 miles of beautiful trails that weave through the 500 acres for the community to enjoy (think Shelburne Farm walking trails in the southeast quadrant of South Burlington!), and…
  5. This will become a model for future farms in Vermont and for the country, which is EXACTLY what we need!!  More viable models so that more amazing land steward/farmers are incentivized to farm and are ABLE to farm so that we can provide nourishing food for our community and simultaneously building soil and health of the land. And many more amazing reasons.”

Read more about the Vermont Agrarian Commons here, and follow along by following @agrariantrust and @breadandbutterfarm on social media, as well as joining the Agrarian Trust newsletter list here.

NEWS: ALC team contributes to important paper discussing ‘The evolving landscape of agroecological research’

NEWS: ALC team contributes to important paper discussing ‘The evolving landscape of agroecological research’

A paper recently accepted in the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems charts the evolving landscape of agroecological research using innovative bibliometric and network analysis. Led by Dr. Rachel Mason, a PSS alum who now works at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, the article analyzed the evolution of themes in agroecology research between 1982 and 2018. The author team, which included ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez, ALC research associates Gabriela Bucini and Scott Merrill, and ALC doctoral candidates Alissa White and Janica Anderzén, examined the evolution of agroecological research using research papers from the Web of Science. This manuscript is an important contribution about the evolution and growth of the field of agroecology as shown by trends in scientific publications. Moreover, the content of the scientific papers signals that agroecological science has been increasingly engaging with social movements and taking a wider food systems perspective.

The figures below summarize and characterize agroecology in academic research over time, demonstrating an increase in work focusing on food sovereignty, food justice and social movements (you can click on each figure to enlarge). The paper uses citation-based networks to identify discrete areas of research within agroecology, and shows that many of those areas build on knowledge from social science disciplines. We share the abstract and link to the article after the figures.

Abstract:

It has been widely argued that agroecological science, which originally developed as the application of ecological principles to agricultural systems, should engage with the social and political issues that affect production agriculture, and incorporate knowledge from a variety of sources.  In this paper we use techniques from network science and bibliometrics to evaluate the degree to which this transformation has taken place. By creating networks based on over 3,000 agroecology papers and the roughly 160,000 references they cite, we distinguish the sub-fields (“research fronts”) that made up agroecology in three time intervals: 1982 – 2004, 2005 – 2013, and 2014 – 2018. We also identify the main disciplines from which the research fronts in 2014 – 2018 drew their supporting knowledge. We suggest that, very broadly, themes in agroecological research include: Ecosystem services; (agro)biodiversity; approaches to agricultural intensification; tropical agroecosystems (particularly coffee); pest and weed management; organic agriculture; cropping systems; system transitions, modeling and design; climate change adaptation; food sovereignty; education; and the nature and purpose of agroecology itself. Some research fronts mainly cite papers in natural science fields such as ecology, environmental science, agriculture, and entomology. However, others draw upon work in social science areas including development studies, environmental studies, and anthropology. The analysis presented in this paper demonstrates that agroecology has indeed evolved to possess many of the characteristics of an “ecology of [the entire] food system”. We anticipate that this work will also be of use to those wishing to gain an overview of the field or identify key papers, knowledge gaps and potential collaborations.

Citation: Mason R., White A., Bucini G., Anderzén J., V.E. Méndez., Merrill S.C. (2021) The evolving landscape of agroecological research. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems 45: in press.

Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21683565.2020.1845275

NEWS: Highlighting ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez on multiple panels

NEWS: Highlighting ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez on multiple panels

ALC Co-director Ernesto Méndez has participated on three virtual events in the past month, one based out of the University of Vermont as well as two hosted by other institutions. See below for ways to access recorded versions. We are grateful for the opportunity to join in on important conversations, about food systems, agroecology and climate change, which are being held during such a critical time.

The evolution of agroecology as a practice, a research discipline, and a social movement – The UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Quarterly Lecture Series

On October 7, Ernesto Méndez joined five experts in agroecology in giving ‘lightning talks’ on their interpretation of the evolution of agroecology as a practice, research discipline, and social movement. Recording coming here soon.

An evening with Jonathan Safran FoerWe are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast – UVM Continuing and Distance Education, George D. Aiken Lecture Series 

On October 8, Ernesto Méndez interviewed author Jonathan Safran Foer about his book, We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, and work surrounding climate change. The event was heavily attended.

Dismantling and Rebuilding the Food System after COVID-19: The 5Ds – The University of British Columbia Centre for Sustainable Food Systems

On September 18, Méndez joined four other experts in the field to discuss redistributive policy tools towards the “5D of Redistribution”: Decolonization, Decarbonization, Diversification, Democratization, and Decommodification. Watch the recording here.

BLOG: In the vibrancy of the 16th annual meeting of the Andes Community of Practice / En la vivacidad de la 16ª reunión anual de la Comunidad de Práctica de los Andes

BLOG: In the Vibrancy of the 16th Annual Meeting of the Andes Community of Practice / En la Vivacidad de la 16ª Reunión Anual de la Comunidad de Práctica de los Andes

By/Por: Gabriela Bucini, Ernesto Méndez, Nils McCune and Amaya Carrasco (Agroecology Support Team/Equipo de Apoyo en Agroecología)

When we imagine the Andes, we see majestic peaks and a vibrant texture of landscapes and cultures. Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru are the three countries where the projects of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP), funded by the McKnight Foundation, work together as a community of practice (CoP). The CoP is formed by local NGOs, research centers and other associations, which directly work with smallholder farmers. Central to the activities of the Andes CoP is to support producers who wish to orient their farms towards agroecology, conserving soil health, enhancing agricultural biodiversity and integrating different knowledge systems, including indigenous knowledge and western scientific methods. 

Participants of the CdP 15, July 2019, Ecuador.

Every year, in an invigorating atmosphere of friendship and collaboration, the Andes CoP gathers in one of the three countries to exchange insights and discuss new and lifelong questions that kindle the research of the CoP across farms and communities. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 16th conference of Andes CoP took place online. Yasmin Jalil and Sergio Larrea aptly organized the online system, supported by the CoP organising committee and the regional team composed by Claire Nicklin, Roberto Ugas and Carlos Barahona. Yasmin and Sergio facilitated the conference, and the animated and keen group, was able to instill life to two weeks of high-quality content. This included seminars, thematic groups, open spaces for discussion and planning, presentations of advances in GIS mapping, as well as a new session dedicated to agroecology fellows. 

Agroecology is at the core of the CCRP program’s commitment to support an ecologically sound and socially just transition of the Andean food system. The CCRP’s interest is particularly directed to collaborative agroecological research and knowledge-sharing, aimed at strengthening the capacities of farmer groups, research institutions and development organizations. The Agroecology Support Team (AES) includes Ernesto Méndez, Gabriela Bucini and Nils McCune, of the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), at the University of Vermont (UVM). AES seeks to deepen the agroecological knowledge of the program participants and assists in research and co-learning that supports a transition towards agroecological systems. 

Ernesto, Nils and Gabriela participated at the Andes CoP16 and facilitated a dialogue around agroecological transitions. The two sessions entitled “Reflexión sobre Agroecología en Los Andes” (Reflection on the agroecology in the Andes) provided fertile ground to collectively reflect on the current state and visions for the future of agroecology in the region. The AES team proposed questions for nine working groups aimed at bringing collective awareness around the values and principles that guide their work with Andean producers, and which are vital to create strength and cohesion in the agroecological journeys of the local communities.  

Agroecological Visions for the Andean regions

What does it mean to be in an agroecological transition? Where are we starting and where do we wish to go? What principles guide us in the journey?  The work of answering these questions and envisioning actions to start or to continue the agroecological transition were grounded in the CoP wisdom and experience. To catalyze the dialogue, Ernesto gave a presentation on agroecological principles and showed concrete examples of principles-based transitions in two farming systems of Vermont, U.S.A, where the ALC is located.  His presentation encouraged the participants to note that agroecological principles have the depth to support real change and the width to reach different contexts and cultures in the world. These principles can hold meanings that overlap with indigenous principles, such as those of the Andean cosmovision, and can therefore be held together.

The visions for the regions of the Bolivia central plateau, the central zone of Peru and the central zone of Ecuador were shared in a plenary session. The themes spanned across the three dimensions of agroecology – science, practice and movement – with strong emphasis on the social, cultural, political and economic dimensions. Technical skills are important but need to be built within a participatory and sincere exchange of knowledge between indigenous farmers and technicians. The CoP visions wish to enhance the inclusion and legitimization of indigenous knowledge in the farming practices and in the schools, in order to strengthen the presence of local farmer organizations in the governance, to continue to work on women’s empowerment, equity and food sovereignty. Markets for agroecological and autonomous products and conscious consumers supported by short market chains are important for the future of farming in the regions. The visions call for responsible policies that account for the interests of local farmers, instead of supporting capitalistic and extractive farming and mining practices.

Agroecological components, such as agricultural biodiversity, seed conservation, ecological pest management, water conservation/management, soil health, risk management for climate change, and healthy nutrition are all part of the visions for agroecology in the Andes. The challenges of COVID-19 add a need for the health of the people with whom we interact. “Agroecology is a concept in construction at the scale of the individual, the family, the community and the territory”, said one participant. Another participant noted that “agroecology is a trajectory that is made on the base of principles but also on the base of the analysis of opportunities and threats in the current conjuncture.” When we look at the principles that will orient the journeys of the CoP, we find them in the integration of different knowledge systems and in particular the Andean cosmovision, which recognizes the connection of natural and human systems. The CoP emphasizes participatory and horizontal learning approaches based on trust, solidarity, respect, humility, cooperation, equity and inclusion at all levels. The collective action and complementarity of efforts that leverage the capacities and values of people can lead to a transformation not only of single individuals but also of families, farms, communities and ultimately, of food systems. Sovereignty is essential, the CoP recognizes, in the three dimensions: in the resources, the food and the individual choices. 

Opening ‘mistica’, with a focus on Andean cosmovision, for the CoP 15, in Ecuador, in 2019.

What is missing for agroecology to be strong in these territories?  Technical skills are necessary to improve research quality, but they need to also be supported by an agroecological approach that influences political economies, and more explicitly, national, regional and local policy.  The principles of participation, co-learning and humility transform research by creating relationships of trust that empower all participants to work for change. A key challenge identified was the connection with consumers, both in rural and urban contexts. For a new agriculture based on indigenous and agroecological principles to thrive, it is necessary to educate and direct consumers towards healthy diets and a preference for traditional/local food ingredients. Influenced by consumers, markets can then also more directly support agroecological food systems. Another challenge is keeping local knowledge alive by integrating scientific and technical knowledge with indigenous knowledge, viewing them both on an equal basis. This process can start in schools where the new generations can be encouraged to apply local knowledge. Technology poses a more general challenge, according to some people in the CoP, which poses questions on who brings the technologies and how to make sure that it is appropriate for the local environment and culture.

Music and socializing in the CoP 16

Noches de cultura and a closing of a beautiful story

On Friday night, it was time to take out the musical instruments and warm up the voice. All are welcome to share their talents …both modest efforts, as well as the more experienced! The CoP Andes has wonderful musicians! The charango and the guitarra accompanied voices and brought many smiles through computer screens. Music and song bring people together in a special way and makes us feel close.

 We close with a personal story illustrating the relationships that support the co-creation of agroecological knowledge, shared by Juan Torres from the project “Semillas y Escuelas” (“Seeds and Schools”).  He often visits producers of his project and works with them in the fields.  He shares his knowledge and learns from them. During a visit, he asked a producer what he wished. The producer said: “You always come to the field and get to know our environment and how we work. I’d like to come to where you work once and see how you learn and you work”. This led to an arrangement for the producer to go visit the campus of the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina in Lima, Peru. The producer enjoyed visiting the big library and the building where Juan works. A simple visit opened a new vision of science and generated more equity in the relationship. This story reminds us that an individual’s professional positionality and experience can become a place of learning and discovery for others, if we are open to listen and share. Equal interest in the technician/academic and the producer to share their knowledge can open new horizons and strengthen relationships for expanded learning.

………………………………………………………………………

En la Vivacidad de la 16ª Reunión Anual de la Comunidad de Práctica de los Andes

Cuando imaginamos los Andes, vemos majestuosas montañas y una textura vibrante de paisajes y culturas. Bolivia, Ecuador y Perú son los tres países en los cuales los proyectos del Programa Colaborativeo para la Investigación en Cultivos (CCRP, por sus siglas en Inglés), financiado por la Fundación McKnight, trabajan juntos como una Comunidad de Práctica (CdP). La CdP está formada por ONG locales, centros de investigación y otras asociaciones, que trabajan directamente con los pequeños agricultores. Un aspecto central de las actividades de la CdP de los Andes, es el apoyo a los productores que desean orientar sus granjas hacia la agroecología, conservando la salud del suelo, mejorando la biodiversidad agrícola y la integración de los diferentes sistemas de conocimiento, incluyendo conocimientos indígenas y los métodos científicos occidentales. 

Participantes de la CdP 15, Julio 2019, en Ecuador

Cada año, en una atmósfera vigorizante de amistad y colaboración, la CdP de los Andes se reúne en uno de los tres países para intercambiar ideas y discutir nuevas ideas y cuestiones que persisten, y las cuales catalizan la investigación de la CdP en las granjas y comunidades. Este año, debido a la pandemia de COVID-19, la 16ª conferencia de la CdP de los Andes ocurrió en línea. Yasmin Jalil y Sergio Larrea, organizaron acertadamente el sistema en línea, con el apoyo del comité organizador de la CdP y el equipo regional compuesto por Claire Nicklin, Roberto Ugas y Carlos Barahona. Yasmin y Sergio facilitaron la conferencia, y el animado y entusiasta grupo, pudo dar vida a dos semanas de seminarios de alta calidad, grupos temáticos, espacios abiertos para el debate y la planificación, presentaciones de los avances en la cartografía con SIG, así como una nueva sesión dedicada a los becarios de agroecología. 

La agroecología es la base del compromiso del programa de la CCRP de apoyar una transición en el sistema alimentario andino, de manera ecológica y socialmente justa. El interés de la CCPR está dirigido en particular a la investigación agroecológica en colaboración y al intercambio de conocimientos, con el fin de fortalecer la capacidad de los grupos de agricultores,y a las instituciones de investigación y organizaciones de desarrollo. El Equipo de Apoyo en Agroecología (AES, por sus siglas en Inglés), integrado por Ernesto Méndez, Gabriela Bucini y Nils McCune, del Colaborativo y Medios de Vida (ALC, por sus siglas en Inglés), de la Universidad de Vermont (UVM), busca profundizar los conocimientos agroecológicos de los participantes en el programa y prestar asistencia en la investigación y el aprendizaje conjunto que apoye a la transición hacia sistemas agroecológicos. 

Ernesto, Nils y Gabriela participaron en la CdP16 de los Andes y facilitaron un diálogo en torno a las transiciones y transformaciones agroecológicas. Las dos sesiones tituladas “Reflexión sobre Agroecología en Los Andes” proporcionaron un terreno fértil para reflexionar colectivamente sobre el estado actual y las visiones para el futuro de la agroecología en la región. El equipo AES propuso preguntas para nueve grupos de trabajo con el fin de crear una conciencia colectiva en torno a los valores y principios que guían su trabajo con los productores andinos, y que son vitales para crear fuerza y cohesión en los recorridos agroecológicos de las comunidades locales.  

Visiones agroecológicas para las regiones andinas

¿Qué significa estar en una transición agroecológica? ¿Dónde estamos empezando y a dónde queremos ir? ¿Qué principios nos guían en el viaje?  La labor de responder a estas preguntas y prever medidas para iniciar o continuar la transición agroecológica se basó en la sabiduría y la experiencia de la CdP. Para catalizar el diálogo, Ernesto hizo una presentación sobre los principios agroecológicos y mostró ejemplos concretos de transiciones basadas en principios en dos sistemas agrícolas de Vermont, Estados Unidos, donde se ubica el ALC.  Su exposición alentó a los participantes a observar que los principios agroecológicos tienen la profundidad necesaria para apoyar un cambio real y la amplitud necesaria para llegar a diferentes contextos y culturas del mundo. Estos principios pueden tener significados que se alinean con los principios indígenas, como los de la cosmovisión andina, y por lo tanto pueden mantenerse unidos.

Las visiones para las regiones del altiplano central de Bolivia, la zona central del Perú y la zona central del Ecuador se compartieron en una sesión plenaria. Los temas abarcaron las tres dimensiones de la agroecología -ciencia, práctica y movimiento- con un fuerte énfasis en las dimensiones sociales, culturales, políticas y económicas. Los conocimientos técnicos son importantes, pero es necesario crearlos en el marco de un intercambio participativo y sincero de conocimientos entre los agricultores y técnicos indígenas. Las visiones de la CdP desean mejorar la inclusión y la legitimación de los conocimientos indígenas en las prácticas agrícolas y en las escuelas, fortalecer la presencia de las organizaciones locales de agricultores en la gobernanza y seguir trabajando en el empoderamiento de la mujer, la equidad y la soberanía alimentaria. Los mercados de productos agroecológicos y autónomos y los consumidores conscientes apoyados por cadenas de mercado cortas son importantes para el futuro de la agricultura en las regiones. Las visiones exigen políticas responsables que tengan en cuenta los intereses de los agricultores locales, en lugar de apoyar las prácticas agrícolas y mineras capitalistas y extractivas.

Nube de palabras con los principios más buscados realizados en los Andes

Los componentes agroecológicos, tales como la biodiversidad agrícola, la conservación de semillas, el manejo ecológico de plagas, la conservación/gestión del agua, la salud del suelo, la gestión de los riesgos del cambio climático y la nutrición saludable forman parte de las visiones de la agroecología en los Andes. Los desafíos de COVID-19 añaden una necesidad de cara a la salud de las personas con las que interactuamos. “La agroecología es un concepto en construcción a escala del individuo, la familia, la comunidad y el territorio”, dijo un participante. Otro participante señaló que “la agroecología es una trayectoria que se realiza sobre la base de principios, pero también sobre la base del análisis de oportunidades y amenazas en la coyuntura actual”. Cuando miramos los principios que orientarán los recorridos de la CdP, los encontramos en la integración de diferentes sistemas de conocimiento y en particular la cosmovisión andina, la cual reconoce la conexión de los sistemas naturales y humanos. La CdP hace hincapié en los enfoques de aprendizaje participativos y horizontales basados en la confianza, la solidaridad, el respeto, la humildad, la cooperación, la equidad y la inclusión en todos los niveles. La acción colectiva y la complementariedad de los esfuerzos que aprovechan las capacidades y los valores de las personas pueden conducir a una transformación, no sólo de las personas individuales, sino también de las familias, las granjas, las comunidades y, en última instancia, de los sistemas alimentarios. La soberanía es esencial, según la CdP, en tres dimensiones: en los recursos, en los alimentos y en las opciones individuales.

‘Mística’ de apertura con un enfoque en la cosmovisión andina, para la CoP 15, en Ecuador, en 2019.

¿Qué falta para que la agroecología sea fuerte en estos territorios?  Los conocimientos técnicos son necesarios para mejorar la calidad de la investigación, pero también deben estar respaldados por un enfoque agroecológico que influya en las economías políticas y, más explícitamente, en la política nacional, regional y local. Los principios de participación, co-aprendizaje y humildad transforman la investigación al crear relaciones de confianza que facultan a todos los participantes para trabajar en pro del cambio. Un desafío clave identificado fue la conexión con los consumidores, tanto en contextos rurales como urbanos. Para que prospere una nueva agricultura basada en principios indígenas y agroecológicos, es necesario educar y orientar a los consumidores hacia dietas saludables y una preferencia por los ingredientes alimentarios tradicionales/locales. Influenciados por los consumidores, los mercados también pueden apoyar más directamente los sistemas alimentarios agroecológicos. Otro desafío es mantener vivos los conocimientos locales mediante la integración de los conocimientos científicos y técnicos con los conocimientos autóctonos, considerando a ambos en pie de igualdad. Este proceso puede comenzar en las escuelas, donde se puede alentar a las nuevas generaciones a aplicar los conocimientos locales. La tecnología plantea un desafío más general, según algunas personas de la CdP, que plantea cuestiones sobre quién aporta las tecnologías y cómo asegurarse de que son apropiadas para el medio ambiente y las culturas locales.

Música y socialización en la CdP 16

Noches de cultura y una hermosa historia final

El viernes por la noche, era el momento de sacar los instrumentos musicales y calentar la voz. Todos son bienvenidos y bienvenidas a compartir sus talentos… ¡Los principiantes y los más experimentados! ¡La CoP Andes tiene músicos maravillosos! El charango y la guitarra acompañaron a las voces y trajeron muchas sonrisas a través de las pantallas de las computadoras. La música y el canto unen a la gente de una manera especial y nos hace sentir cercanos.

 Cerramos con una historia personal que ilustra las relaciones que apoyan la co-creación del conocimiento agroecológico, compartida por Juan Torres del proyecto “Semillas y Escuelas”.  Él visita a menudo a los productores y trabaja con ellos en los campos.  Comparte sus conocimientos y aprende de ellos. Durante una visita, preguntó a un productor qué deseaba. El productor dijo: “Siempre vienes al campo y conoces nuestro entorno y cómo trabajamos. Me gustaría venir a donde trabajas una vez y ver cómo aprendes y trabajas”. Así que arreglaron que el productor fuera a visitar el campus de la Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina en Lima, Perú. El productor disfrutó visitando la gran biblioteca y el edificio donde trabaja Juan. Una simple visita abrió una nueva visión de la ciencia y generó más equidad en la relación. Esta historia nos recuerda que la posición profesional y la experiencia de un individuo puede convertirse en un lugar de aprendizaje y descubrimiento para otros, si estamos abiertos a escuchar y compartir. El mismo interés en que el técnico/académico y el productor compartan sus conocimientos puede abrir nuevos horizontes y fortalecer las relaciones para un aprendizaje más amplio.

BLOG: Designing functional PAR processes: the perspective from NFNA

Designing functional PAR processes: the perspective from NFNA

By Martha Caswell, ALC Co-Director

One of the most important components of participatory action research (PAR) is the Action. Where it falls in the cycle varies: sometimes the action can emerge as a result after careful analysis of the data; or it can be a catalyst earlier in the process, centering the value proposition that both the researchers and community members should be receiving real benefit from the effort. 

On a sunny Thursday morning in June, at the New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) farm near the Ethan Allen Homestead, Action rolled in. There it was, hitched to the back of a red pickup. To most eyes, it looked like a simple structure. A shed maybe? Or, as one farmer remarked walking by, “a break room?” But, as with most things, there is more to this structure than meets the eye.

Carpenter Linsey Brunner (left) and NFNA Program Specialist Alisha Laramee (right), discuss the best placement for the shade structure (Photo credit: Martha Caswell)

For the past three years, Alisha Laramee, program specialist for NFNA, has been participating in the Urban and Peri-Urban Agroecology initiative with UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC). We are currently in the second year of a USDA Hatch grant to explore the expression of agroecological principles in urban and peri-urban spaces in Burlington. Our partners include NFNA, the Vermont Community Garden Network, UVM’s Catamount Farm, and the Intervale Center. Alisha has been cautiously interested in this project but is also judicious with her time and energy. She gives all she has to the farm and farmers. When we have been able to fit into that equation, it’s been great. But Alisha has been a strong advocate for her priorities, and there isn’t a lot of room for theoretical conversations about whether or not what’s happening on the farm counts as agroecology. 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, New Farms for New Americans (NFNA) is an agriculture program for refugees and immigrants based in Burlington, VT. NFNA supports farmers and gardeners to grow culturally significant crops, increase access to food, land, and agricultural resources, and learn about growing food in Vermont. They facilitate ongoing work with over 275 refugee clients from various countries in Africa and Asia. NFNA has sites in multiple locations, including the Ethan Allen Homestead (2.5 miles from downtown Burlington) and the Intervale (among others), representing mostly peri-urban contexts.

The Ethan Allen site is a secluded, peaceful spot along the Winooski River, with full sun and the rich alluvial soils that come from being in the flood plain. The drawbacks of this site include a high risk for floods and the fact that it is difficult to access without your own transportation. Early on, Alisha mentioned the problems they faced with flooding, pointing out the eroding riverbank, asking if buffer strips or hedgerows might be effective adaptations to consider. As conversations continued, we worked to align what Alisha was identifying as needs with the dimensions of agroecology as defined through the CIDSE principles, and discussed two priorities: the first was improving pollinator presence (an environmental consideration), and the second was the need for a shade/supply area to encourage gathering and sharing tools/knowledge (socio-cultural consideration). 

Partnering with co-PI Stephanie Hurley and ten of her students from the Ecological Landscape Design course in the Plant and Soil Science Department worked with Alisha and developed designs for the NFNA farm site and its surroundings. Student designs included options for creating riparian buffers, floodplain wetlands and earthworks to increase flood resilience; pollinator gardens provide nectar and pollen to a biodiverse array of pollinator species and potentially increase crop production; and ideas for structures to provide much-needed shade for the farmers, and to be multifunctional for equipment storage, group gatherings and a safe place for children to play. 

Alisha reviewed the design options considering which would meet the criteria that the community had shared; they wanted shade, but since many of the participants carry trauma from their time in refugee camps visibility (being able to see what was going on inside of the structure at all times, from all sides) was also critical. The potential cost of a shade structure with these many benefits was a significant concern. The Winooski Park District required that the structure be mobile, for seasonal use and in the event of floods. Graduate Student Josh Taylor, has been working closely with Alisha as part of his dissertation research, and he and Alisha applied for and were awarded a City Market Seedling Grant to support the construction of the shade structure. That’s when the wheels really started rolling. Originally the project was going to be a community build with the farmers, but COVID-19 removed that possibility. In an effort to see the shade structure through to completion, Alisha contracted RG Builders LLC, a small, local business to complete the build. Carpenter Linsey Brunner (pictured above) donated all of the hours she dedicated to this project, and after recently completing the UVM Master Gardeners program, is eager to consider other ways she can contribute to NFNA’s mission. 

Farmers picking up donations from Red Wagon Plants (Photo credit: Martha Caswell)

Sounds good, you might say to yourself, but how does this connect to research? There are several answers to this. The first is that we have found that the most important research question isn’t always the first to emerge. I was visiting Alisha on the day when the shade structure was delivered, but instead of talking about the shed, we talked about the devastation farmers were facing from pest and disease pressures in their plots. We realized that VEPART could potentially work with NFNA to identify ecological and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies that would help them be more resilient to the threats they are facing. We also hopeful that the shade structure will be a site for future workshops and focus groups, which will give us the opportunity to assess participant opinions about how the structure impacts their time at the farm. Because of all of this, we see this Action as a catalyst, that has been participatory, and has provided us good cause for reflection and reassessment of our research directions.

We also value in the co-production of knowledge that has happened among all of us throughout this process. NFNA has just been awarded a highly competitive USDA Urban Agriculture Grant and in the coming year, they will partner with VCGN to develop a leadership and mentorship program. We see lots of potential for continued cross-pollination among people and ideas as this PAR process continues to unfold. It’s not unusual for PAR projects to diverge slightly from their original paths. As noted in a recently published paper “…participatory research projects, which aim at transformative impacts in complex settings beyond knowledge products and learning, need to sustain high intensities of actor interactions in knowledge coproduction throughout all research phases to achieve their sustainability impact goals.”1

That’s our end goal. Prioritizing research, and learning alongside our partners, but never at the expense of the community. Alisha says working with the ALC and thinking about agroecology helps her to ‘see with new eyes’, and she also continues to say – “call it what you want, I just want to do right by the farmers.” 

1 Tribaldos, T., C. Oberlack, and F. Schneider. 2020. Impact through participatory research approaches: an archetype analysis. Ecology and Society 25(3):15.https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-11517-250315