Shifting Funding to Agroecology for People, Climate and Nature

A new report produced by ActionAid with the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative and Cultivate! on “Shifting Funding to Agroecology for People, Climate and Nature“.

Click here to read the new report:
Shifting Funding to Agroecology for People, Climate and Nature

The majority of public and philanthropic funding supports ecologically and socially damaging forms of agriculture and food systems. How can financing be transformed so that it fosters transitions towards more just and sustainable food systems and enables agroecology to meet its full potential? This is the question that underpins a stream of research led by Coventry University, the University of Vermont and AgroecologyNow!.

The Need to Transform Food Systems

We urgently need to transform food systems. The depth of the ecological and social threats we are facing are staggering. A growing pile of high-profile UN and scientific reports have shown how the industrial food system is failing to nourish people around the world and at the same time is directly linked to growing inequality, injustice, ill-health, climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse.

Business as usual is no longer an option and we need to transform how we produce, move around and consumer food. Agroecology reflects a paradigmatic shift that can guide our pursuit of more  just and sustainable food systems, and reflects a bold transformation that is becoming increasingly attractive, viable and urgent.

Our action research on agroecology transformations is a part of a growing body of work in social movements, civil society, academia and amongst food producers to figure out how we get from here to there: how do we transition from our current state of crisis and degeneration to just and sustainable food systems. The question of how to finance or resource these transitions is a vital, yet grossly underdeveloped area of work.


Video 1 – UVM’s Colin Anderson and Nina Moeller (from CAWR at Coventry University) presented results of their studies analyzing finance for agroecology at an official COP26 side event in Glasgow November 2022. “How effective is climate finance in catalzing an urgently needed paradigm shift in food systems?” with a resounding: “a lot remains to be done!” A representative of the Green Climate Fund listened. We can only hope the conversation will continue. Click this link to watch the recording.

Our recent brief highlights how, in an enabling policy context, agroecology has proven to achieve robust gains in poverty reduction, food and nutrition security, women and youth empowerment and biodiversity and climate resilience.

Agroecology applies ecological and social concepts and principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems. It includes practices aimed at mimicking or harnessing complex ecological processes, moving beyond the farm to include food production, distribution, consumption, and waste management.

Historically, although science plays an important role in developing agroecology, the knowledge that underpins agroecology has emerged from the practices of indigenous peoples and smallholders across the world. Agroecology is a scientifically and experientially justified practice of agriculture that (1) is sensitive to the ecosystems in which it takes place and (2) fosters the democratic participation of food producers, putting human rights and agency at the center.

Video 2 – In a recently published animation, we articulate the main arguments that have arisen through our research on financing and agroecology. “Institutions keep pouring money into harmful industrial agriculture. We urgently need investments in agroecology. We need to defund industrial agriculture and funnel that money into agroecology. Furthermore the delivery of funding needs to be better so that it can support agroecological pioneers and work for systemic change. It’s time to make money move for agroecology and together foster social justice and sustainability in food systems.” Also in Spanish and French subtitles.

Transforming Finance for Agroecology


Our research makes it clear that financing from institutions and donors for agricultural and rural development is woefully inadequate and work against just transitions in food systems.  This is an issue of both quantity and quality:

1. Quantity: There is not enough money going to agroecology.

Even within the already small amount of financing for agricultural development as a whole, almost all of this funding is allocated to encouraging farmers to adopt detrimental forms of high-energy, high-input industrial agriculture. A growing body of research has shown how agroecology is significantly marginalised in the financial architecture of development at all levels. There is a clear need to shift more funds towards agroecology.

The need to shift the quantity of money away from industrial agriculture was articulated brilliantly by one of our research participants,

“But another dimension of funding agro ecology is also linked to the amount of funding and the amount of support both in terms of policy as well as in terms of investments, that goes to the opposite of agroecology. And in some respect, one could claim that stopping this counter investments and the continued policy inclination for the opposite of what the agroecology wants to the kind of transformational agroecology wants to promote is equally important than generating let’s say, direct funding for agroecology. You could say that many agro ecological solutions actually squeezed by an over funded and an over emphasized other type of agriculture and other type of food system.”

2. Quality: Funding that is allocated towards sustainable agriculture and agroecology is often delivered in unhelpful and even damaging ways

The mechanisms, delivery and ‘modalities’ of funding are often highly problematic because they: are driven by donor rather than peoples needs; fail to affirm the agency of people; are inflexible; have inappropriate monitoring/evaluation systems; do not address inequity; and are based on short term approaches.

We have been working with Donors (e.g. the European Union, FAO, Green Climate Fund, Agroecology Fund), advocacy groups (Action Aid, CIDSE) and other researchers to explore the question of: When donors do decide to target sustainable agroecological food systems, how can we transform the modes and approaches of financing so that it actually enables agroecology?

Based on this research, a recent policy brief with Action Aid International provides a series of considerations and recommendations to increase the quantity and quality of funding for agroecology:

  • Substantially shift funding allocations to agroecology.
  • Funding for agroecology should be underpinned by a principle of co-governance where donors are accountable to the most affected. Donors should consider long-term multi-phased support for building agroecology in territories.
  • For financial support to be effective in supporting agroecology, a large portion of it needs to be comprised of small to mid-scale grants through food producer organizations and civil society organizations who are close to the ground.
  • Currently, agroecology is often marginally, or not at all, included in agricultural funding programs. Donors should closely evaluate their funding programs and shift towards agroecology explicitly as a target of funding.
  • Agroecology transitions are complex social and participatory processes that require adaptability in how plans are developed and implemented. In this context, it is vital that funders allow for flexibility in spending, activities and in monitoring and evaluation.
  • We recommend that donors engage in an in-depth and ongoing dialogue with food producer organizations to examine and increase the quantity and effectiveness of funds that are allocated towards agroecology, and to improve the quality of delivery.

This work continues, as we collaborate with our partners to advance the Transformation of public and philanthropic finance so that agroecology can achieve its unmet potential as a vital approach to confronting our global challenges.

Contact: colin.anderson@uvm.edu for more information.


Growing empathy: Community building and food justice inspired by women

Growing empathy: Community building and food justice inspired by women

Amaya Carrasco-Torrontegui, PhD student in the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, was awarded the Extraordinary Community Builder Recognition Award in Farm and Food Justice. In this blog post, she shares her inspiring acceptance speech.

On November 5th I had the honor to receive the “Extraordinary Community Builder Recognition Award in Farm and Food Justice” of the Women, Food, Agriculture Network. The Organization aims to engage women in building an ecological and just food and agricultural system through individual and community power in the United States. An organization built by women and that cares about women opportunities.

This award made me reflect that as humanity we are facing many challenges, like climate change and the current pandemic, but one of the biggest challenges, that not many people mention, is hyper individualization. To face apathy for the other and individualism, we need exactly what the Women, Food and Agricultural Network does: promote community and cooperative relations. Millions of women smallholders, typically invisible, are the ones who put food on the plate of millions more, particularly children and elderly –like, stated in a quote that has touched my heart:

“If you teach a man to farm, his family will eat. If you teach a woman to farm, the community will eat” (Unknow).

This resonates with me because during my years working in agriculture, I have witnessed how this reflection is a reality. During my time living in St. Louis, Missouri, I saw the power of women and food to build community. For four years I supported UCity and Bloom, an NGO focused on hands-on education in public school gardens. Through my involvement I observed the power of food as a key instrument to change food habits, especially in African American and Latinx children. This initiative was created by a group of women that decided to build community through the development of urban gardens in their neighborhood.

Source: Amaya Carrasco Torrontegui. 2019. School gardens run by UCity and Bloom

I also had the opportunity to reconnect with the cycles of life and nature through my participation in an apprenticeship program in an organic farm school rooted in Ferguson, EarthDance; the organization was created by a woman with the mission of teaching about farming and how to produce healthy food for the community. I also was part of Urban Harvest STL, an NGO that produces food in roof tops and donates all the produce to people in need. The leader of the organization was another woman that also was my professor at Harris-Stowe University, a historical university, and who is my coach nowadays. As you may have noticed, there is a pattern, all these organizations were created by women.

Source: Urban Harvest STL. 2018. Amaya Carrasco in the Food Roof Farm.

In the Global South, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (2020), 60-80% of the food that is consumed is grown by women farmers. This is something that I have personally seen while interviewing a group of urban farmers of the AGRUPAR project. In the city of Quito, my hometown, there are around 1,400 gardens and 80% of them are led by women with indigenous heritage (Carrasco-Torrontegui & Cárdenas, 2021). However, their work producing food is often seeing as a set of domestic activities, an invisible sphere, not productive because is not associated to an income. In the global scale, inequalities are striking, even though many women are farmers, men are the ones who own resources such as land, water, work tools. The women of AGRUPAR drive an economy of “diversity-oriented practices in the face of homogeneity, cooperation in the face of competition, collective access rather than private property and preference to barter instead of commodification” (Carrasco-Torrontegui & Cárdenas, 2021: 90). The same set of practices and values are particularly present in rural indigenous communities experiencing feminization of agriculture. I also have the privilege of being a part of the Caliata Initiative, a notable sustainable food system where women are the backbone.

Source: Amaya Carrasco-Torrentegui, 2009. Women working in the minga (Andean communitarian work) in Caliata.

Despite challenges and inequalities, there is hope, particularly in empowering women –as Ruth Bader said: “fight for things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”. For that reason, I want to congratulate the work of Women, Food, and Agriculture Network and say that I feel grateful to be a member of it. This recognition of my work could not be possible without the support of all the organizations and people that have help me and inspired during all these years. Definitely:

Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.

References:

Carrasco-Torrontegui, A. & Cardenas, S. (2021). Chapter 3: Urban agriculture lead by women: Just and resilient cities. Urban political ecology to face climate change. In Faculty of Latin-American Social Science (Ed.)

FAO (Organizacion de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la Alimentacion). 2020. “La mujer y la seguridad alimentaria”. Accessed from: https://bit.ly/3nhVFGU

Agroecological transition processes in West Africa CoP: visions inspired by core values and agroecological principles

By: Gabriela Bucini

Reflections on a two-part workshop given on April 6 and 15, 2021 by the Agroecology Support Team of the McKnight Foundation Collaborative Crop Research Program.

The West Africa (WAf) CoP is a dynamic group and an example of a community with a perspective on the future, which extends across local and global horizons. Agroecological transitions are actively taking shape in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, stemming from experience and knowledge in agricultural practices, nutrition and market activities. Research methods also have been changing over the years to engage project actors and farmers in collaborative participatory learning and to support innovations that build on local resources. Furthermore, the CoP has catalyzed actions directed at creating gender equality and social justice.

When the WAf CoP gathers, everyone’s work becomes a shared experience and an opportunity for co-learning.

In April 2021, the Agroecology Support Team (AES) proposed a workshop on the theme of agroecological transitions (AET) through a lens of agroecological principles and personal values.

The goal was to strengthen projects’ confidence in their own knowledge and to ease familiarity with the AET as a process.  The participants engaged with two main activities: 1) contextualizing agroecological principles to make them actionable within local realities; and 2) envisioning an agroecological transition for a desired change grounded in contextualized principles, personal values and local resources. Agroecological principles can inspire and orient us, but they become alive only when the actors enrich them with their words and realities. Assimilating practical references and examples, the definition of local farmers can ground action more easily.

A participant said that the recognition of the knowledge in hand of a community, and the exchange of this knowledge, are necessary to let the transition process emerge. In Niger, poverty is a big problem that agroecology must face but there is also a socio-cultural tradition of community work that can be a key resource, said another participant. Some communities organize themselves to support vulnerable people. Valuing this culture, we want to support communities that meet, find their own solutions and take initiatives around integration of people, animals and nature – a work of peace.  In this way we can make synergies tangible and advance in the transition. Not forgetting that poverty calls for concreteness, a participant reminded us of producers’ weak purchasing power, which limits the effective application of agroecological technologies. He appealed to the necessity of activities that bring revenue and security. The agroecology transition requires lots of action and time. It needs to deliver outcomes.

The AES team proposed a schematic of an agroecological transition (AET) process (Figure 1) to facilitate an AET visioning activity. The process is broken up into three phases along a circle, suggesting the natural cyclic motion of transitions. It tracks the phases of building a common ground with our transition companions, focusing on a few specific intentions and then acting, always remembering to circle back and reflect on learned lessons, renew our values and principles and direct our attention to our next action step.

The compelling story of the farmers from The Shashe farms in the Runde catchment area of Zimbawe  provided a concrete example of a value- and AE principles-based vision of an agroecological transition. This transition, led by Elizabeth Mpofu, engages multiple actors and disrupts narratives of failure (or problems) by reshaping them into narratives of assets and participatory action. We can read this story through the lens of the AET process (Figure 2). Mrs E. Mavedzenge, local farmer, says “We don’t allow water to just run through our fields; we keep every drop of water. We harvest rainwater which flows from the road and, as it rains, into the contours that we have built.” We recognize phase 1 as the people from the Shashe farms and Elizabeth Mpofu come together with their knowledge and core values, and use agroecology to create change. We find phase 2 in the focus on soil aridity and phase 3 with the synergy of principles guiding action (Figure 2).

Figure 2: AES’ depiction of the agroecology transition (AET) described in the project “The Shashe farms in the Runde catchment area of Zimbawe”. Top figure: a challenging factor – livestock –can be turned into an asset and trigger a real AET. Bottom figure: Concrete steps of the AET process guided by principles. For example, the third photo is described by “What water means to the soil’s life is what blood means to a person’s life”, which connects to the FAO element of Efficiency (innovative agroecological practices produce more using less external resources).

Inspired by the Zimbabwean example, the workshop participants were invited to work in groups by country and create a vision for an AET that starts from a local problem and can be turned into an asset through a transformative process and collaborative response. The groups’ visions were ambitious enough to be exciting but also achievable with local resources and the CCRP program’s support. They were also far enough into the future to work towards keeping faith and commitment. The groups aligned their visions and values to agroecological principles and showed attentive sensitivity to the CCRP principles as well. Indeed, co-learning, gender equity, diversity, support of better livelihoods and sustainability were all integral part of the visions.

Figure 3: Examples of slides presented by the workshop groups. Target agroecological principles were diversity, recycling and circular economy. The names of the group members or the names of the group projects are next to each slide.

The workshop participants showed that agroecological transitions are possible. In the AET visioning, groups identified new synergies among projects and/or strengthened existing ones seeking to have a more holistic view of the work and benefit from expert complementarity. The actions proposed relied on local knowledge, resources and adaptive capacity (examples in Figure 3). Groups contextualized the FAO agroecological principles using words that reflected local experience and needs. For example, the principle of resilience was expressed as “ensuring good nutrition and diversified income generation in a context of climate variability”. This specificity resulted in more realistic and actionable visions.

The majority of the presentations emphasized the interconnection among science, practice and movement. The explicit inclusion of socio-economic or socio-political factors, in the visions, was a sign that agriculture is seen in its human dimension, too. For example, the principles of food sovereignty and diversification were related to the political aspects of control over seeds and choice of crop varieties.  Those two principles are also key entry points for supporting and promoting women’s equality in terms of economic independence, access to education and decision-making processes at both the family and broader scale levels.

The participants clearly highlighted the influential role of regional and national policies on the future of food systems, agroecological practices and education in their countries. They sought a voice to influence national decisions and were aware of the importance for these decisions to be formulated with the participation of those intended to adopt the agroecological practices.

EVENT & MORE: State of the Smallholder Coffee Farmer: Webinar, online platform and report

October 20, 2021 | 11:00 – 12:00 EDT | 10:00 – 11:00 CDT (register below)

With a wealth of available information, has anyone really connected the data dots in coffee? The State of Coffee Smallholder Platform, an open access data resource for coffee farmers and other actors along the coffee value chain, seeks to remove barriers from equitable information sharing to help all value chain actors better assess socio-economic and environmental gaps, outcomes and trends. The platform, along with an accompanying report, will paint a more holistic picture of smallholder coffee farmer livelihoods and communities, while doing so in a way that’s less cumbersome for those gathering and reporting information. Stemming from a partnership between the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative at the University of Vermont, Lutheran World Relief, Heifer International and Statistics for Sustainable Development, this initial pilot focuses on Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala, with the goal of expansion into a larger effort with broader industry support.

Panelists:

  • Rick Peyser, Senior Manager for Coffee and Cocoa, Lutheran World Relief
  • Carlos Barahona, Managing Director at Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stat4SD)
  • Janica Anderzén, PhD candidate in Agroecology, Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, University of Vermont
  • Ernesto Méndez, Professor of Agroecology and Co-Director, Agroecology & Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) at University of Vermont
  • Ciara McHugh, Statistician at Statistics for Sustainable Development (Stat4SD)
  • Cory Gilman, Strategic Initiatives Manager: Coffee and Commodities at Heifer International
Link to the open access, online platform and research report: https://coffeesmallholder.org/

BLOG: An Urban Farmer’s Perspective on Agroecology

By: Gabrielle Hayes
Gabrielle Hayes interned with the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative and the Gund Institute for Environment at UVM this summer as part of her degree from Columbia University. Before attending graduate school, she worked in urban agriculture and outdoor education in New York City for 6 years, farming in every borough but Staten Island. She is a founding member of the NYC chapter of the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

In March 2020, soon before New York City businesses and schools were shuttered for a long siren-filled spring, I went to my local Trader Joe’s in downtown Brooklyn. The freezers and many of the dried goods shelves were empty. An employee had filled a large section of the produce area, labeled as potatoes and yams, with artichokes. In the mad dash to fill refrigerators and pantries inspired by an unfamiliar pathogen spreading throughout the city, artichokes were apparently the one vegetable New Yorkers were unfamiliar enough with to ignore.

At the time, I was managing and teaching an urban agriculture program for high school students. With the ground still frozen, this meant traveling through the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn to teach students the basics of plant and soil science and to show them seed catalogues with pictures of the purple carrots, red lettuce, and yellow cucumbers that we could grow in whichever community garden they’d be working in. “Tell me what you want to eat! We can grow anything! Except those artichokes. Our growing season is getting longer because of climate change but it’s still too short to start those now.”

I also taught them the difference between local and industrial food systems. Many students were first-generation Americans with family in Ecuador or Trinidad or Mali. They told me stories of the local market or the fruit trees and chickens outside their family’s home in the place they called “my country”. The students whose connections outside of the U.S. had been severed had a harder time visualizing a local food system. But they understood what I meant when I explained that the burdens and benefits of the industrial system are not evenly distributed. Many had been to the Upper East Side of Manhattan on school trips or had witnessed opulence on their television screens. Yet they lived with the pollution-filled air that results from the Bronx being the entry point for most of New York City’s food or they shopped at supermarkets that restock the produce section so infrequently your chances of finding carrots or an unwrinkled pepper are slim to none.

I taught them that growing your own food means gaining power. It frees you from reliance on the international supply chains that restrict the varieties sold in supermarkets to ones that travel well and that are subject to break down, as they did during the early days of the pandemic. I dreamed that some may become interested in farming as a profession and hoped more realistically that they may learn to love their local community garden or to experiment with growing tomatoes on their fire escape.

The experience of farming in food apartheid[i] neighborhoods shaped my understanding of the American food system. I received a daily reminder that this system, while lauded for its productivity, has succeeded neither in

 eliminating hunger nor providing universal access to the nutritious food needed to maintain bodily health. In my classes at Columbia University, where I am currently studying in pursuit of a Master’s in Public Administration – Development Practice, we talk of “structural transformation”. This is the idea that for a country to escape widespread poverty, there must be an increase in agricultural productivity such that labor is freed up to work in other industries. This spurs urbanization and, ultimately and desirably, reduces the number of farmers, and the value to the economy of their agricultural labor, effectively to zero. Disregarding that the equivalence of economic growth to progress is a Western invention, the assumption that farmers inevitably disappear in the process of raising living standards is a fallacy. To provide one example: Ireland, whose GDP per capita is higher than that of the United States, recently enacted a sustainable food policy intended to increase the value of its agricultural sector by providing support to, not encouraging the elimination of, family farms[ii]. The share of employment in agriculture there is 4.8%, compared with 1.4% in the United States [iii].

The ethos of structural adjustment, this idea that rural areas should be emptied, underpins much of the funding, research and efforts that have been devoted to agricultural development over the past several decades, despite the evidence provided by the United States that a likely outcome is inequitable and unsustainable food systems. The Green Revolution in Asia, while rightfully praised for reducing hunger and perhaps saving the lives of millions through increased agricultural productivity, also led to the suicides of an estimated 15 million farmers over the past 60 years [iv]. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which has received roughly $1 billion in funding over the last 15 years, has failed to improve food security in the relevant countries, and failed to increase yields by even one third of their original goal [v]. It is clear that the assumption that we need only to create high yielding seeds or provide fertilizer to increase agricultural productivity and therefore improve lives, is not accurate.

This is why I find hope in agroecology. Its adaptable principles that lead, over time, to increased yields and improved ecosystem health, align with what I was taught at The Farm School, where I completed a year-long residential and experiential learning program. Central Massachusetts receives enough rain that we had no need for irrigation save in emergency situations. The specific practices that we used will not apply in arid environments. But the agroecological principles used to design those practices (such as nutrient cycling, promoting biodiversity, and integrating animal and vegetable growing systems) translate to diverse settings.

The agroecology movement, exemplified by the work of La Via Campesina, aims to advance food sovereignty by addressing political and economic factors that limit its existence. Defined in the 2007 Nyéléni Declaration as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agricultural systems”, a world in which food sovereignty is realized looks nothing like the United States.

Garden education programs like the ones I’ve managed exist in urban areas as an antidote to the crises of physical, mental and environmental health wrought by structural transformation pushed to its maximum degree. The industrial food system of the United States is not broken. It was designed to exploit land, resources and bodies in pursuit of productivity and profit and it has succeeded spectacularly. It is not a system that requires only tweaks to become “climate-smart”. It is not a system that can be replicated in every climate, landscape and form of government. It is not a system that should be replicated at all. Agroecology provides a path to designing food systems that are culturally and environmentally appropriate, sustainable for people and the planet. In this time of increased focus on food systems and their interaction with our rapidly changing climate, may those with the power to shape the future learn from the past.

__________________

Footnotes

[i] I use the term “food apartheid”, coined by farmer and food justice activist Karen Washington, instead of the more commonly used “food swamp” or “food desert” to connote the man-made nature of this phenomenon.  Swamps and deserts are vital ecosystems.

[ii] Though positive in comparison to what is happening in the United States, this is not an agroecological policy and it  has been criticized for not doing enough to address water pollution or to protect biodiversity.

[iii] https://foodsystemsdashboard.org/countrydashboard

[iv] Ayanthi Karunarathne, David Gunnell, Flemming Konradsen & Michael Eddleston (2020) How many premature deaths from pesticide suicide have occurred since the agricultural Green Revolution?, Clinical Toxicology, 58:4, 227-232, DOI: 10.1080/15563650.2019.1662433

[v] Wise, Timothy A. . “Failing Africa’s Farmers: New Report Shows Africa’s Green Revolution Is ‘Failing on Its Own Terms.’” Global Development and Environment Institute – Tufts University, July 2020. Working Paper No.20-01. https://sites.tufts.edu/gdae/files/2020/07/20-01_Wise_FailureToYield.pdf

NEWS: Highlights of the AX Summer Research Fellowship

This summer, 8 undergraduate students from across the University of Vermont participated in the first year of the Agroecology Extension Summer Research Fellowship, a collaboration between UVM Extension, the Plant and Soil Science Department, and the ALC. 

We’re excited to share two opportunities to dig deeper into what the fellows were up to this summer around Vermont: a special feature on UVM Extension’s Across the Fence TV program and a CALS story, Agroecology in Action. Thanks to those who helped capture and share pieces of this program in its inaugural year. 

The fellowship is a part of USDA NIFA’s Research and Extension Experience for Undergraduates (REEU) program and will continue for the next 4 years. In future years, the workforce development grant will bring students both from UVM and institutions across the country to Vermont for an immersive summer research and extension experience in agroecology.

Sign up for online Course on Participatory Action Research (PAR) and transdisciplinary approaches to Agroecology

Interested in learning about how to apply participatory, trandsdiciplilary and action research in your work? Sign up for this online course taking place from September to December 2021.

Participatory, transdisciplinary and action research have become internationally recognized as pillars of knowledge production for agroecology and food sovereignty. These approaches are also complex and unorthodox in many contexts and requires a careful and intentional cultivation of a researcher’s commitments, skill and competencies. This course will help students to meet this challenge through a systematic engagement with theory, skills, methods and a critical reflexive self-examination of our role in the research processes.

INSTRUCTOR: Colin R. Anderson

AVAILABLE FOR CREDIT OR FOR NON-CREDIT (CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT). Visit here for more info. Email: colin.anderson@uvm.edu with questions.

CLASS MEETING TIMES AND LOCATION: Weekly zoom meetings on Tuesdays from 13:15 to 15:15 EST.

In this course, we will build a foundation for our learning by examining the ‘politics of knowledge’ or the ways that power and privilege shape science, academia, innovation and development. To this end, we will engage with critical theoretical traditions, such as feminism and decoloniality, to help students understand and challenge oppressive power relations in society as they are expressed in the knowledge systems that we are embedded within.

The course will explore different approaches to participatory and transdisciplinary research applied in different contexts.

If this sounds like challenging material, that’s because it is! But don’t stress too much, we’ll do our best to demystify and unpack these concepts together and to ground these ideas in relation to our own work, lives, and perspectives. We will also get practical and focus on the nuts and bolts of doing Participatory Action Research (PAR), which can be described as a process of research, education and action in which participants work together to understand and transform reality. It generally involves iterative cycles of inquiry by collectives of people seeking to address problems of common practical and political concern. We will shine a spotlight on several methods used within this tradition including, for example, participatory photography, popular education, theatre, indigenous approaches, deliberative methodologies, auto-ethnography and different forms of qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods inquiry.

The course will explore the value of ‘people’s knowledge’ and the notion of cognitive justice which demands, “It demands recognition of knowledges, not only as methods but as ways of life. This presupposes that knowledge is embedded in an ecology of  knowledges, where each knowledge has its place, its claim to a cosmology, its sense as a form of  life. In this sense knowledge is not something to be abstracted from a culture as a life form; it is connected to a livelihood, a life cycle, a lifestyle; it determines life chances.” (Visvanathan 2009)

We will look at PAR especially in the context of agroecology and examine how the integration of PAR and transdisciplinary approaches can serve to deepen our collective understanding of complex problems/issues. Students will learn how to apply a transdisciplinary PAR approach to topics in agrifood system studies and action. We will examine examples of agroecological PAR projects, to draw lessons learned and to find inspiration. Students will be asked to articulate and develop their own self-understanding of their praxis as a researcher.  In addition to asynchronous online learning, this course will include a synchronous 2-hour weekly online meeting via MS Teams that will involve a range of different interactive activities including discussions, workshops and guest speakers. Regular and active participation in these sessions is a core component of the course learning and assessment. Students will take on a rotating role in designing and facilitating a student-led component of the weekly meetings. 

READINGS:

Required: 

  • Wakeford, T., and Sanchez Rodriguez, J. (2018). “Participatory Research: Towards a More Fruitful Knowledge”, in: Connected Communities Foundation Series.(Bristol: University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities Programme).
  • Weekly assigned articles, videos, podcasts, etc.

Recommended:

Tuhiwai Smith, L. (2021) Decolonizing Methodologies: research and indigenous peoples. 2nd edn. London: Zed Books

Méndez, V.E., C.M. Bacon, R. Cohen and S.R. Gliessman (Eds.) (2015)Agroecology: a transdisciplinary, participatory and action-oriented approach. Advances in Agroecology Series. CRC Press/Taylor and Francis.

Freire, P. (2017) Pedagogy of the Oppressed(Penguin Modern Classics). London: Penguin.

All required readings (e.g. journal articles, news excerpts, fact sheets, etc.) will be provided

LEARNING OBJECTIVES

By the end of this course students will have:

  • Developed an understanding of participatory action research (PAR) and transdisciplinary approaches, and how they are distinct from other research and action approaches;
  • Deepened their understanding of how knowledge is situated, gendered, racialized, colonial and thus has contributed to social injustice and oppression;
  • Considered how these structures and power dynamics influence research processes;
  • Explored how PAR and transdisciplinary approaches can be applied in agroecology, including through the examination of inspirational case studies;
  • Learned about designing research that is both rigorous and provides meaningful contributions to the community/stakeholder(s) and the researcher(s);
  • Thought about their own positionality to situate themselves in the learning objectives above;
  • Developed strategies for critical self- and collective reflection and evaluation in participatory research processes and practice;
The course will include an exploration of the nuts and bolts of participatory and transdisciplinary research.

Amaya Carrasco-Torrontegui chosen for Graduate Student Award for Outstanding Research and Scholarship

Current Food Systems PhD student and ALC member Amaya Carrasco-Torrontegui was chosen for the Graduate Student Award for Outstanding MS Research and Scholarship in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, where she completed her MS in Leadership for Sustainability.

Community wellbeing was at the center of Amaya’s capstone, which also included a strong component of self awareness, leadership, and heart. Amaya developed and led an eight-session seminar in Spanish on sustainable food production in collaboration with the Missouri University Extension that was attended by 240 participants from nine different countries. The course was titled Agricultura Urbana Sostenible. She also offered support to people growing their own food with sustainable agriculture techniques in the United States, Ecuador, and other countries in Latin America; a particularly significant need during the COVID-19 pandemic when many were experiencing food shortages.

“Carrasco Torrontegui knows what it’s like to be a migrant; she has grandparents from Basque country in Spain, parents from Chile, and she was born in Ecuador.

“For me, it was very difficult to come to the U.S. because I didn’t have friends and my visa didn’t allow me to work or study,” Carrasco Torrontegui said. “And that was very hard.”

While walking around her neighborhood in St. Louis, Carrasco Torrontegui passed by a plot of land where people were growing plants.

She found out it was part of U City In Bloom, a nonprofit with more than 200 community gardens in University City. A volunteer at that garden happened to be from Ecuador, too; she became Carrasco Torrontegui’s first friend in the U.S. and introduced her to the world of urban agriculture.

“I discovered that was a passion for me — growing food, connecting with people, being in nature, learning from plants and insects,” Carrasco Torrontegui said.” From an article in NewsTribune.

Felicidades Amaya on this award and completion of this incredibly valuable project! Read the abstract of Amaya’s research and full paper: BE YOU: A JOURNEY TO FIND COURAGE. Amaya is currently involved in the Collaborative Crop Research Project, so stay tuned to see what she does next.

From capstone paper: Urban agriculture class with the older adults of the 60 and Piquito Project

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