Chapter 6: Cowardly Land Becomes Brave Again

Photo: Honduran hillside farm family in their outdoor kitchen.

My first real job as an anthropologist began with Cajun blackened fish and Louisiana mud pie at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. My wife Debra and I were the guests of the Rockefeller Foundation and their program to bring PhD graduates in the social sciences into the highly technical world of plant breeding and agronomy. The Foundation, working with the Mexican government, was the early architect of the Green Revolution, a period between 1950 and the late 1960s when new crop varieties dramatically increased wheat and rice production worldwide. The successes eventually prompted the establishment of crop-based agricultural research centres in various parts of the world: maize and wheat in Mexico, rice in the Philippines, potatoes in Peru and dryland crops like sorghum and millet in India and Syria. At its height in the early 1990s, the global network included 18 centres, each with a mandate for a specific crop, a major ecosystem or a strategic issue. In addition to the cereal crop centres, some specialized in forestry, agro-forestry, livestock, fisheries, food policy and agricultural extension. Initially, funding for the activities of the centres came from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation, later broadened to include international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Bank and national governments, including Canada.

The productivity gains that launched the Green Revolution were based on a novel research paradigm from the Midwest of the United States, for which Norman Borlaug in 1970 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to global food supply. The paradigm involved a wholesale rejection of traditional agriculture’s reliance on animal traction, human labour, and crop biodiversity. These inputs were replaced with artificial fertilizers, chemical pesticides, machinery and crop varieties selected to perform well in a highly modified field environment. Instead of working with nature, as farmers had for millennia, the Green Revolution technologies invited farmers to remake their fields into a radically different landscape where a single variety of a single plant could thrive. This produced a dramatic bump in harvested grain, and was appealing to scientists, governments and farmers alike. If Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz had been involved, she might have said of the outcome, “We're not in Kansas anymore.”

By the mid 1970s, problems began to emerge with trying to remake diverse developing country landscapes into versions of Kansas and Iowa. The cost of the package of technologies, and who was able to make use of it, was one problem but environmental harm from chemicals and impacts on the overall biological diversity of farming systems had also become apparent. Founders of the Green Revolution such as the Rockefeller Foundation responded by broadening the base of science involved to include agricultural economists, sociologists and people trained in the emerging field of ecology to work alongside the plant breeders and soil scientists.

One of these initiatives was a program of post-doctoral fellowships to identify talented, young and adventurous graduates in the social sciences and bring them into settings where new agricultural technology was being introduced. A year or so after I became a “Rocky post-Doc” working at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, I found myself sitting on an airplane beside a US Army Engineer trying to explain what I was doing there. After a few attempts, his face brightened and he said, “Ah, you are a human factors engineer.” This seemed apt enough, although I eventually described my work at CIMMYT as that of a translator between technical scientists and farmers, each with a deep understanding of their own world but confused by the complexity of the other. The experience changed my world too, creating in me broad respect for the values of science and an unfailing commitment to farmer discovery as the basis for just and ecologically sound change in agriculture. I became both a strong critic of the industrial agriculture paradigm underlying the Green Revolution and a proponent of a participatory and action-oriented approach to the development of new agricultural technology. This chapter explores that story through the frame of a single plant, Mucuna pruriens var. utilis (Wall. Ex Wight) L.H. Bailey (a.k.a. The Fertilizer Bean).

Becoming a Rocky Doc

My interview at the Rockefeller Headquarters in New York was overseen by Joyce Moock, the Associate Vice President at the Rockefeller Foundation. It was probably unremarkable given the intense vetting candidates went through in the lead up to meeting with the three-person selection committee. What was surprising, however, is that my wife Debra Huron also participated in the interview and received almost as much attention as I did. She was impressive, dressed in a bright red suit and sitting calmly at my side. Wisely, Joyce knew that for most North Americans the success of an assignment to a developing country where most of the research centres were located depended a lot on the happiness of the people involved, including any spouses. At the time, American and Canadian economists made up the majority of the post-doctoral fellowships, with a few sociologists, anthropologists and geographers in the mix as well. She later turned the program away from its focus on North American graduates to scholars emerging from African universities and centres based in Africa.

A month or so after receiving a post-doctoral fellowship from the Foundation I received two offers of an assignment, one from the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) based in Cali, Colombia and another from the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) based in the Netherlands. I immediately declined the invitation from ISNAR, which would have involved living in Amsterdam and working in Latin America on problems related to agricultural extension. The job would have frequently placed my body in the mid-Atlantic, a dissonance that would not have been good for my health or my marriage. At the time of the interview, Debra was pregnant with our future son, Ryan. I did, however, travel to Cali to discuss an offer from CIAT to join their tropical pastures program. They had developed a highly adaptable and fast growing tropical forage grass and wanted to use it to improve pastures throughout the Amazon basin. It could, in theory, allow for more intensive grazing on nutrient-poor soils and thereby reduce pressures to clear new land. They needed a social scientist to work with ranchers to study how it might work in their farming systems, and assess impacts on deforestation. My PhD research on cattle, corn and conflict in Veracruz seemed like a good fit.

Photo: Cattle on the lower slopes of the Honduran hillsides of the northern coast.

My arrival at CIAT was perplexing. I was met at the airport by two young CIAT researchers, a Brit and an American, with a warning that the project was not exactly as it seemed. “You won’t get the full story from the pastures program,” they said. At some risk to their careers for snitching, they wanted to be sure that I was informed of early evidence they had collected showing strongly negative environmental and social impacts from the technology. I understood where they were coming from, but I remember being more concerned about the apparent dispute within the organization about the wisdom of the technology than anything else. A comment from Joachim Voss, one of the three Rockefeller Foundation selection committee members, made during my New York interview in relation to my dissertation work, came back to me. “Are you willing to take the bull by the horns?” he asked. I said “yes” confidently, not knowing what he might actually have been talking about. I emerged from the secret encounter at the Cali airport to meet with the pastures team at the CIAT campus still processing the message.

I don’t recall the details of the formal interview but I could feel the tension not only around the pasture proposal but also life in Cali. By 1989, the “Cali Cartel” had successfully broken away from Pablo Escobar and the Medellín group to establish a second Colombian pole of drug-related crime. While CIAT staff assured me that their campus was safe and that there had been few incidents affecting staff and families (only one kidnapping, if I recall), the prospect of leaving my pregnant wife in Cali while I travelled to the Brazilian Amazon was unsettling. I left Cali a few days later still open to the idea of “taking the bull by the horns,” but uncertain about the wisdom of living in Colombia at the height of a drug turf war. Having crossed ISNAR off my list, CIAT was the only remaining offer from one of the centres. I needed to take my life in my own hands if I was to make something of the incredible good fortune I had been given.

My return flight from Colombia to Ottawa had a planned stopover in Mexico City so that I could travel to Jalapa to visit with Luisa Pare and discuss next steps for the Sierra de Santa Marta Project. She was very upset with me for dropping out of the lead coordination role in the project to accept the post-doctoral fellowship. She felt obliged to pick up the task, a decision that redirected her own research from agrarian struggles in various parts of the country to a focus on the political ecology and livelihood struggles of indigenous communities in southern Veracruz. At the very least, I had to help with this transition so I planned time with her and the first few people hired for the project. Why not pop into the Mexican centre I had heard about even though they had not expressed an interest in me?

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) is the direct outcome of Norman Borlaug’s work towards the Green Revolution. Located within a few kilometres of Chapingo, Mexico’s premier agricultural university, the CIMMYT campus sits on the outskirts of Mexico City and is surrounded by carefully managed fields where wheat and maize variety trials had been going on for several decades. I made my way to the centre, arguably the most storied of all the international centres, and asked to see the head of the Economics Program. My good fortune was that the Director, Derek Byerlee, was there, along with Rob Tripp, an anthropologist who had arrived at CIMMYT as a Rocky Doc almost a decade earlier. According to Derek, I introduced myself to them and boldly asked, “Why haven’t you hired me?” Derek told me recently that this question certainly got his attention. He also said that the likely explanation for having passed on me and others in the cohort of candidates was that they only took on a new Rocky Doc every second year so as not to abuse their advantage as one of the founding agricultural research centres. In addition, hosting a fellow had some baseline costs to CIMMYT, even with the salary and travel covered by the Foundation. There had to be an interesting project lined up to make it worthwhile.

The impromptu interview must have gone well enough, however, as within a few days Rob contacted me and said that they had a project in mind and would be willing to put in a request to the Foundation if I wanted to consider it. I said yes, even though all I knew at the time is that it had something to do with a curious plant used in Honduras to support hillside maize production. This became the most consequential decision of my professional life, drawing me deeply into a fascinating world of farmer science and establishing my reputation for rigorous and engaged research practice that paved a way to later employment and a successful career. I was relieved to be able to return home from Colombia and Mexico with a job offer my wife might find appealing.

Teodoro Reyes and the Fertilizer Bean

Teodoro Reyes, from La Danta on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, was a small-scale farmer when I met him, very poor by most standards but creative and effective at making the most of what he and his family had available to them. He told me in October of 1990 when I interviewed him on a steep slope overlooking a series of broken hillsides that, “With the fertilizer bean, cowardly land become brave.” He was referring to a farming practice that had spread to numerous remote hillside farming communities in a stretch between Tela and Jutiapa in the Honduran province of Atlántida. It is a simple crop rotation, locally called an abonera , started by clearing a field and planting it every metre or so with Mucuna spp. using a dibble stick. From April to December the plant, commonly called velvetbean in English, develops into a thick tangle of soft, broad leaves, vines and seeds easy to cut down with a machete. Maize is then planted directly into the layer of decomposing leaves and vines.

Photo: An abonera (field of mucuna) on an Honduran hillside.

The brilliance of the technology soon revealed itself to me and others I worked with, culminating in several books and stimulating two decades of research by dozens of agronomists and social scientists with this and other cover crops, spanning the tropical regions of Mexico, Central America and West Africa. The next chapter expands on that impact and how the experience shaped my understanding of participatory action research. Here, I focus on the Honduran experience, summed up in a final book I wrote on the subject with Bernard Triomphe and Gustavo Sain, published in English and Spanish by the International Development Research Centre in cooperation with CIMMYT and CATIE, a prominent agricultural university in Costa Rica.

While mucuna had been virtually invisible to the universities and research organizations of the region, even by 1990 when I first met Teodoro the practice was known and celebrated by a few non-governmental organizations in Honduras, including World Neighbours, an Oklahoma based organization that still operates in some of the poorest countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa. The Honduras director of World Neighbours, Roland Bunch, is the author of an immensely popular book on developing country agricultural development called “Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement.” He and Milton Flores, an Honduran running a small NGO agricultural project, had been quietly observing cover crop use in a number of settings, including on the Caribbean coast. Their observations were probably the main source of the rumour that something interesting was happening on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, picked up by CIMMYT staff Gustavo Sain and Rob Tripp when they ran training programs for agronomists in central Honduras. Rob asked me to go and see, which I did almost immediately after arriving in Mexico in September, 1990, and setting up an apartment for myself and my wife in Jalapa, Veracruz.

Upon our arrival in Mexico, Debra and I spent only two weeks at El Batan, the CIMMYT campus, enough for an initial orientation and introduction to staff in the three centre programs: maize, wheat and economics. I had negotiated an arrangement that allowed Debra and I to live in Jalapa for the duration of my wife’s pregnancy and until we could return to headquarters with our baby. Luisa Pare, who was living in Jalapa and managing the Sierra de Santa Marta Project by then, had kindly arranged for us to rent a tiny apartment on the outskirts of the state capital, overlooking a small forest. It met our needs, which were to have a secure, clean and accessible place for a home birth far from the polluted air of Mexico City. We knew that if we had stayed in El Batan our child’s first breath would include unhealthy amounts of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and both course and ultra fine particulates. This was a concern, and fortunately for us, the CIMMYT administration generously loaned us a vehicle and agreed to pay the rent. I travelled back and forth between Jalapa and El Batan, and flew to Honduras for my first encounter with Mucuna pruriens and the farmers growing it. Debra says now that she was crazy to agree to being left alone, although it helped that Luisa had also introduced us to a mid-wife with a heart of gold and trained in the United States. Debra realized later that Mexico had a pretty good track record when it came to making healthy babies, and very capable doctors. It was also a time of relative prosperity and security in Mexico, before the centre of gravity for drug cartels shifted from Colombia to Mexico.

Photo: Interviewing an Honduran farmer while his wife and family look on.

I was gone for almost three weeks in October and early November, 1990, meeting Honduran researchers at the Regional University Centre of the Atlantic Coast (CURLA) located in La Ceiba. The third largest city in Honduras, La Ceiba had a reputation among Hondurans as distinct from the others. Whereas Tegucigalpa (the capital) was where they say “people decide” and San Pedro Sula (the economic centre) where “people earn money”, La Ceiba was where “people dance.” It was a small and rustic city with a significant Garifuna population, tucked between the beaches of the Caribbean Sea and the mountain Pico Bonito abruptly rising to more than 2400 metres. Unlike other parts of the Nombre de Dios coastal range, Pico Bonito was covered in an old growth humid tropical rainforest, protecting raging rivers descending to the sea. It had recently been designated a national park and was the main study area for the small regional university and a long-running Canadian-funded forest conservation project. The islands of Roatan, famous for snorkelling, were offshore, adding to the tropical paradise vibe of La Ceiba.

The university faculty rarely received visits from international scientists, who were drawn to the bigger national schools like Zamorano located near Tegucigalpa. Jorge Salgado, a young professor in charge of the agronomy program at CURLA, was open to working with me, a Canadian anthropologist who spoke Spanish fluently and came from CIMMYT, the best known and most prestigious agricultural research organization in the region. We hit it off, and within days were implementing an exploratory survey to find out who, where, and why farmers were planting their hillside maize crops in a layer of dead leaves and vines. At night, we danced.

Interviews we conducted with farmers like Teodoro Reyes quickly generated a long list of advantages from the abonera cropping system, and a short list of disadvantages. The aggressive vining plant easily smothers all other vegetation in the field, leaving the space virtually weed-free. There is no need to burn the field to control weeds and debris, as in the traditional slash and burn systems of Central America. Maize can be easily planted directly into the mulch layer remaining once the slashed plants have dried down. By then, the velvetbean has set its own seed. The pods burst open when dry, ejecting seeds over the field fairly evenly, and eventually sprouting on their own to start another cycle of growth and take over the field once the maize crop is harvested. Weeds are suppressed throughout the cycle. All in all, labour costs are very low compared to the alternative slash, burn and weeding operations of a traditional woody fallow field. The caution, farmers pointed out, is that the abundant velvetbean growth provides excellent habitat for rats, and consequently for poisonous snakes, so care is needed with the hooked stick and machete used to move through and cut down the soft vines.

Illustration: Animals found in the mucuna mulch, that become a pest in a maize field.

The thick mat of decomposing plants provides another advantage specific to the environment of northern Honduras. Like the Miskito Coast that extends into Honduras from Nicaragua, Atlántida and the neighbouring province of Colón are wet almost all the time. Rainfall exceeds 3,000 mm a year, with daily downpours of 100-200 mm. The distribution of rainfall, the key factor in any rain-fed agricultural system, is bimodal, with peaks in March and then again from October to December. This pattern is driven not only by exposure to storms from the Caribbean Sea but also by the sudden rise from sea level of the Nombre de Dios mountain range. Running parallel to the coastline for over 200 kilometres, the mountains interrupt moisture laden prevailing winds, producing some rain virtually every week of the year. For farmers, this creates two distinct seasons, and the possibility of growing winter maize when other parts of Honduras are completely dry or dependent on irrigation. The annual rotation of Mucuna pruriens and winter maize in turn produces a winter harvest when maize prices are at their annual peak, a big advantage for maize farmers. Sacrificing a summer harvest of maize in order to accommodate the seasonal fallow is a disadvantage only for farmers with very limited access to land.

Illustration: Two years of Mucuna - Maize rotations, showing the monthly rainfall pattern.

Illustration: Contrast between main in mulch and maize on bear ground.

In the 1990s, land in northern Honduras was not a constraint if you were prepared to cultivate the hillsides. A colleague at CIMMYT, Hector Barreto, said the best way to visualize the topography of Honduras is to crumple a piece of paper into a ball and then lightly stretch it out. The jumble of peaks, valleys and slopes of the paper could easily stand as a topographic map of the country. It could also be a guide to the distribution of wealth in agricultural land as well. The valleys are owned by a relatively small number of wealthy ranching families and plantation owners, leaving the hillsides to everyone else. This upside down world places pastures in the valleys where crops should be grown and crops on the hillsides where pastures would do better at holding soil in place. The result in most parts of the country was and remains an ecological and socio-economic disaster, choking the rivers with precious soil and pushing the poor higher and higher up the hill until no forested peaks remain. Even in 1990, much of Honduras was entirely deforested, vulnerable to severe land degradation, landslides and drought. The northern coast was an exception. Hillside land was still available, but vulnerable to soil erosion. The abonera rotation presents the advantage of keeping the soil covered year round, conserving water in the soil profile and protecting it from direct exposure to high velocity rainfall. There are limits, however. On slopes greater than 45 degrees, the soft and weedless soil underneath an abonera field can slump suddenly, causing localized landslides. This risk reflects the extreme circumstances of poor households forced to cultivate land that should be under forest cover in the first place.

Photo: A steep hillside beside a stream, cleared to grow maize, Atlantic coast of Honduras.

A third advantage, reflected in the name “Fertilizer Bean” for which it is best known in Honduras, is perhaps the most striking. As a legume, Mucuna spp. have the capacity for nitrogen fixation, a chemical process by which molecular nitrogen in the air is converted into ammonia and “fixed” in the soil. The roots develop nodules that feed the leaves and vines of the plant with significant quantities of nitrogen (more than 100 kg/ha) and other nutrients made available to support any succeeding crop. Maize is a nitrogen hog compared to most grains, and makes effective use of the abonera, doubling yields by the second year. The yield bump comes literally from the air, at no direct cost to the farmer. Furthermore, the legume-grain rotation allows for the continuous cultivation of the same field, year after year, without the need to extend fallow periods or add external fertilizer. This was unheard of in any slash and mulch or improved fallow system anywhere in the world.

Photo: Nitrogen nodules on a mucuna root, set against a green mucuna leaf.

When asked to rank these advantages, a question we posed in the first and subsequent studies, farmers placed the “fertilizer” effect on top, followed closely by “ease of land preparations” and “moisture conservation.” Deeper assessments, made possible by a large survey in 1992, showed a statistically significant connection between reasons for using the cropping system and household level land and labour resources. A methodological innovation I introduced into the survey process also helped bring out the fine detail of reasoning by mainly non-literate farmers. Coloured drawings of the advantages and disadvantages of the system, prepared by a CIMMYT graphic artist and mounted on laminated cards, facilitated the discussion between farmers and the survey crew. Each time advantages were discussed, the pairs of interviewers doing the survey laid the cards in front of the respondents and asked, “Of these advantages, which is the most important?” They then removed the selected card and asked, “Of those that remain, which is the most important?” This produced a simple hierarchy of priorities, a method of questioning I integrated into participatory tools that became the focus for my research contributions decades later.

What the hierarchy showed in Honduras was that all adopters of the abonera system valued a combination of benefits, with the land-poor prioritizing land productivity criteria and the labor-poor prioritizing labour productivity criteria. All in all, it became clear to the research team involved that the system appeared to be an ideal cropping practice for hillside farming, suitable for a wide range of farmer circumstances.

The concept of “farmer circumstances” is one of many research innovations developed and championed by CIMMYT throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. It refers to the constraints new technology encounters in a given situation that would need to be addressed or modified to create conditions for technology adoption. While sensitive to the diverse biophysical, economic and social realities of farmers around the world, the starting point is the same as in Borlaug’s day: we have a technology that works in experimental settings, so let’s see where in the real world it might fit and how we can modify the physical and social environment to make it fit better. Don Winkellman, an economist and the first non-technical scientist to lead CIMMYT, pioneered the perspective and its corollary, the “recommendation domain.” This referred to the unique combination of the features of an agricultural technology and the specific circumstances of farmers. For example, a new maize variety developed at CIMMYT or by a national agricultural research centre might yield well with less water than normal, so long as the rainfall pattern matches the maize life cycle (flowering is particularly critical), the soil is rich in nitrogen and weeds are kept carefully controlled. The variety could be “recommended” for farmer fields and households with these features already in place, or where policies such as fertilizer subsidies or access to herbicides could be introduced. One of the beauties of the idea was that it provided a pathway to scale out new crop varieties systematically or incrementally, depending on the willingness of national governments and other agencies to invest in agricultural inputs and agricultural extension.

While not immediately apparent to me or others in the CIMMYT Economics Program at the time, the Honduran experience with the abonera technology was fundamentally different from anything else the organization had worked with. Not only did it not rely on purchased external inputs, it had apparently been developed without the direct benefit of researcher science and adopted without the aid of professional extension. Our initial and later surveys found that some 83% of the farmers surveyed in communities across northern Honduras were currently or had recently used the mucuna - Maize crop rotation. This level of adoption for any agricultural technology is exceptional. It had spread through the region like wildfire, from a few early adopters between 1970 and 1980 to the vast majority of regional farmers by 1992. It was a revolution in hillside farming practice, one I ironically called “the Green Manure Revolution” in several articles I published in popular international agriculture magazines. The mucuna story, backed up by a growing body of evidence, quickly became an attention grabber in international NGO circles focused on low-external input agriculture and farmer innovation. Don Winkellman, the head of CIMMYT, decided to make the slide show I had created on the subject a preferred presentation for guests and dignitaries visiting El Batan to learn about CIMMYT’s work. The story was interesting and showed that CIMMYT was more than a plant breeding centre and capable of engaging in research on emerging trends in what later became known as “conservation agriculture” and “regenerative agriculture.” While at times I felt like the dog and pony show for an organization heavily invested in the old paradigm, I was hooked on this plant that made poor or degraded land productive once again. The lesson from the story became an enduring theme of my professional life — farmer discovery is the mother of invention.

Farmer Discovery

The study of mucuna, a plant virtually unknown in agriculture to all but remote farmers, a handful of agronomists and a few development NGOs in Central America, offered me a unique opportunity to undertake a kind of anthropology well suited to my character. I became obsessed with the plant, learning that the genus includes about 100 species of annual and perennial legumes, a dozen or so cultivated species and numerous crosses and hybrids. Some of the wild types, called “cow itch,” have abundant, long stinging hairs on the pod and can cause intensely itchy dermatitis in humans. In Nigeria, the itchy type is known as the “Devils Bean.” In southern Veracruz where I completed my PhD research without once coming across the plant, the wild type is known as “Pica Pica Brava” (Fighting - sting - sting) while the cultivated type is called “Pica Pica Mansa” (Tame - sting - sting).

Image: Drawing of the mucuna plant created for my first formal publication on the topic: Tierra Cobarde Se Vuelve Valiente:

The cultivated species, Mucuna pruriens var. utilis , probably originated in southern China and northeastern India where reports from the 18th and 19th century indicate that it was eaten as a vegetable. It was also used as an aphrodisiac and Ayurvedic Indian medicine to treat nervous disorders and arthritis. I was able to confirm Asian food uses first hand when decades later I came across mucuna in a backyard garden in Nagaland, a remote corner of northeast India. The Nagas, famously a fractious tribal people with a tradition of headhunting, came under British rule in the 19th century and have been fighting a quiet independence struggle with India ever since the British left. In another chapter I share details from their story, and my own encounter on a jungle road with a squad of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. The Naga woman growing mucuna in her yard happily explained to me at the time that the seed was boiled, crushed and eaten like any other vegetable. Similarly, a year after I joined CIMMYT I came across a backyard garden with mucuna near Kumasi in Ghana, West Africa. The elderly woman tending the garden showed me her harvest and explained that she boils the seed twice and discards the water each time before grinding the seed into paste and adding it to soups as a thickener. In Guatemala and Mexico I also came across mucuna grown to make a coffee substitute, a use reflected in another local name for the plant: Nescafe.

Photos: Farmer near Kumasi, Ghana, with velvetbean used to thicken soup.

Raw velvetbean seeds contain about 27% protein and are rich in minerals. They also contain the chemical compound levodopa, which produces nausea and vomiting in high concentrations. An incident of acute psychosis in Mozambique in the 1980s was attributed to mucuna consumption during a drought when water was not discarded as part of the food preparation process. This same chemical compound, levodopa, is extracted commercially from raw velvetbean seed and combined with another compound, carbidopa, to make a safe and effective drug for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. The Parkinson’s Foundation considers development of the drug in the 1960s one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of medicine. While a self-interested assessment, the claim has some merit. Levodopa is closely associated with the study and use of dopamine, a compound essential to the normal functioning of the central nervous system. Exploring the variability of levodopa content in different varieties of mucuna seed became a line of laboratory research I could support from my position at IDRC some years later. It helped launched a distinct thread of research on food uses of mucuna and other cover crops supported by the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico, mentioned in the next chapter.

Reconstructing the story of how velvetbean got from India to the Honduran hillside turned me into a plant detective, combining archival research with trips to a remote jungle river in Guatemala and indigenous fields in southern Veracruz. Even my father pitched in. When I learned that velvetbean was at one time a prominent crop in the southern United States, he sought out professors at universities in Florida where he was spending his winters in retirement, and copied articles for me from the archives of small research stations across the state. According to the files, velvetbean arrived in Florida during the 1870s from islands in the Caribbean, where it was probably grown as a vegetable by South Asian indentured workers. Today’s Indo-Caribbeans in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, Martinique and other countries of the Caribbean basin are descendants of the colonial system of servitude expanded by the British, French and Dutch after “abolition” of slavery in the mid 1800s. They may have carried mucuna with them when they were pressed into service.

By 1897 some 300 Florida orange producers were growing velvetbean as a “cover crop” to control weeds and improve soil fertility. Farmers in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi then picked it up as a forage crop. Livestock, including pigs and cows, grazed directly in fields of velvetbean and the pods were taken to mills and crushed or ground with the hull to provide feed for cattle, horses and mules, largely replacing cottonseed meal as the protein component in animal feed. It was also very popular in the cotton belt as a “green manure,” and according to many it had no equal as a soil improver. One American researcher, publishing in 1902, said that, “velvet beans are a cheaper source of nitrogen than is any nitrogenous material which may be bought as commercial fertilizer.” Another noted in 1919 that “the story of the velvet bean might be called an agricultural romance” and the “saviour of southern agriculture.” From about 1915 to the early 1940s it covered thousands of hectares in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina and was grown in parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Florida.

To my surprise, by 1965 velvetbean had disappeared altogether from the agricultural statistics of the United States. No one was growing it. My hypothesis for this apparent mystery, hinted at in the archives of Florida research stations, was confirmed by statistics I acquired tracking the dramatic drop in the price of commercial fertilizers immediately following the Second World War. As petro-chemical sources of nitrogen became cheaper, supplying the nutrient by fallowing land with velvetbean presented farmers with an opportunity cost. Soybeans, introduced to southern farmers following the Great Depression, proved to be a more versatile solution, with value as a cash crop and some of the same agronomic benefits of velvetbean. Livestock production also changed focus at this time, shifting from grazing open fields in the American south to feedlots in the American mid-west and new pastures in the Latin American tropics. This sealed the fate of velvetbean in America, a story I published in Economic Botany, a prestigious journal for the New York Botanical Garden “devoted to Past, Present, and Future Use of Plants by People.”

Retracing the mucuna journey across the globe took on a distinctly Hollywood turn a year or so after I arrived at CIMMYT when I decided to follow up on reports from Honduras that two Guatemalan brothers had carried the fertilizer bean with them in the early 1970s, launching use in Honduras. I went first to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s port on the Caribbean coast, and then took a ferry to Livingston at the mouth of the Rio Dulce, today a biological reserve. Livingston is one of the largest of the Garifuna villages dotting the coast from Belize through Guatemala and Honduras to Nicaragua. The Garifuna are generally recognized as a mixed African and indigenous people descended from “Black Caribs” of the islands of St. Vincent. They have a distinct indigenous language, food tradition based on yucca (a root crop), and a musical form called punta different from the rest of Central America. This cultural profile, and the thick tropical forest surrounding the community, made Livingston the perfect backdrop for the 1935 film “The New Adventures of Tarzan,” with Herman Brix in the starring role. While not as famous a Tarzan as Johnny Weismueller, Brix was also a star athlete, winning a silver medal in shot put at the Olympic Games held in Amsterdam in 1928. Scenes of him going into the jungle were filmed at the mouth of the Rio Dulce next to Livingston, a route I took in a motorized canoe searching for signs of mucuna. I found them intercropped with maize in the fields of several indigenous farmers along the river.

While in Guatemala, I also interviewed elderly residents in the valley of Polochic on the shores of Lago Izabal and former banana plantation workers in Morales and Puerto Barrios. They told me that mules grazed fields of velvetbean planted by the United Fruit Company, at least until the animals were replaced by tractors to transport bananas to the railhead. A reference my father had found of an anthropological study published in 1969 by the University of Florida provided the final piece of the puzzle. In it, the anthropologist describes “quenk mula” (the mule bean) used by the Ketchi Indians of Guatemala in exactly the same way as on the Honduran hillsides. When I read the name they used for the plant, the penny dropped and an imaginary movie script fell into place:

Scene one: A backyard garden in Nagaland, India. A Naga woman, dressed in bright red and white traditional garb, slips a pod of beans into her bag before being pressed into service with her family as indentured workers bound for British Trinidad and Tobago.

Scene two: An American botanist from Florida, visiting Trinidad, enquires about a profuse vining plant in the backyard garden of an Indo-Caribbean family. He presses a sample of the leaves and vines, and collects several kilos of seed for experiments back home.

Scene three: A Georgia farmer visits a brother in Florida and is amazed by the abundant foliage covering the ground in the orange grove. His brother tells him a funny story about two of his pigs escaping and gorging themselves on the leaves, vines and bean pods. The Georgia farmer takes seed home and plants a large field for his cattle.

Scene four: An engineer with the American company International Railways of Central America, and native of Alabama, watches as mules transport bananas of the United Fruit Company to the railway car. Once back home, he sends seed to the company mule handlers.

Scene five: A Ketchi migrant worker on a banana plantation in the Polochic Valley notices that a field of “mule bean” he is charged with cutting back is largely weed-free and easy to slash. He also notices that the soil underneath is moist, even at the height of the winter season. He collects seed and plants it on an abandoned hillside among recently harvested maize plants.

Scene six: Teodoro Reyes shows a neighbour his harvest of winter corn, excited by the price he can get for it. He offers seed and says, “With the fertilizer bean, cowardly land becomes brave again.”

Researcher Discovery

The fictional film script, while not exactly a barn burner, illustrates something important about the nature of scientific discovery. First, it shows the social nature of innovation and knowledge generation, whether it be by means of scientific methods or mindful observation and the application of logic and creativity in a problem-solving mode. The various uses of mucuna, including at least five distinct agricultural technologies (food crop, cover crop, forage crop, intercrop, rotation crop), are the result of experimentation by numerous farmers and scientists spanning several centuries and at least six countries. The lesson, that innovation is a social and collective act, has been demonstrated time and time again by formal histories of discovery, even though the image of the lone scientist-inventor persists.

Second, the journey of Mucuna from India to Mesoamerica shows that creativity and invention don’t operate in a vacuum, with something appearing out of nothing as it were. The linkages across time and space prompted me to call my article in Economic Botany “Velvetbean: A “New” Plant with a History,” and draft as my first line the cliché “Everything old is new again.” Fortunately for my own self-respect as a writer, the editor of the journal rejected that line but allowed me to keep the title. What the idea says to me now, without me knowing it precisely at the time, is that, paradoxically, each new use of mucuna emerged from the present use. Steven Johnson, who studies the natural history of innovation, calls this creative space “the adjacent possible,” that is, the realm of possibilities available at any given moment. Johnson describes the moment as “a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” I find this thought encouraging, even reassuring in this age of grave threats to human existence. What is required of us to survive and thrive is not some mysterious sign from heaven or rare scientific genius but rather the most common of human capabilities: the collective call to be attentive and mindful all of our senses and faculties interacting in the present moment. The magic of what can be is in the possibilities of what is.

These two lessons - the collective who and the concrete how of discovery - can be found in the telling of the mucuna story as well, by me and others. In the 1990s, the Honduran experience with mucuna acquired an almost mythical status among non-governmental organizations and research groups at some universities and centres in North America, Central America, Europe and West Africa. One scientist at CIMMYT, Johnathan Woolley, told me mucuna would make me famous. For a time, I was at the centre of the attention. Derek Byerlee, the head of the CIMMYT Economics Program in the 1990s, recently told me that he was impressed then with my ability to get to the bottom of things, a kind of curiosity needed to be a good researcher. This was one of the reasons he and Rob Tripp kept me on at CIMMYT for another three years after my two year Rocky Doc fellowship was over. This additional time allowed me to go deeper and to connect with established researchers such as Mark Versteeg in Benin and Robert Carsky in Nigeria. Both had been doing experiments with cover crops, including mucuna, on experiment stations of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the West African centre part of the CIMMYT family.

Other opportunities came after I began publishing short articles in English in international NGO forums like the ILEIA newsletter (latter the Farming Matters Magazine) about the potential of the Green Manure Revolution. Cornell University invited me to speak to their new program on cover crops research and sent several students to do their Master of Science studies on the system in Honduras, supervised by the eminent scientists Norman Uphoff and David Thurston. I was invited as well to speak at Wye College in Kent, England, at the time the premier School of Agriculture within the University of London. These opportunities, and related publications, contributed to the internationalization of the Central American experience with cover crops and helped inform new research agendas. The early 1990s also marked the beginning of a shift at CIMMYT from a narrow focus on seed-fertilizer technology to emerging technologies for conservation agriculture, including cover crops and zero tillage practices. The work I was doing fit very nicely with this agenda, including the participatory approach to developing new technologies that was just beginning to eclipse CIMMYT’s on-farm research methods of the 1980s.

I believe that my Spanish language skills were critical to this success, along with the good fortune of being on the cusp of a changing agricultural research agenda. I often wrote up the initial results in Spanish, creating co-authored, publishable papers in short periods of time and circulating these widely in the region. This practice, modelled by Yvan Breton in my earlier training on Mexican fisheries, became a routine for me, and was appreciated by Latin American researchers and activists alike. Jeffrey Bentley, an American Anthropologist based at the time in Honduras, remarked that the Spanish language publication “Tierra Cobarde Se Vuelve Valiente,” the study from this period I am most proud of, was the best example he knew of a survey-based publication. This praise meant a lot to me because Jeffrey eschewed romantic notions of farmer knowledge and was at the same time highly critical of and clear-eyed about the limitations of most science-based research. When I returned from my first field visit to Honduras in the fall of 1990 with a completed survey in hand, Hector Barreto, a Colombian agronomist at CIMMYT, and his Nicaraguan colleague Jorge Bolaños, both remarked on the efficiency of the trip. Oddly, the survey report was republished a year or so later, word for word, by an Honduran university professor that had nothing to do with the research let along the right to be listed as the sole author. Plagiarism, of course, is the ultimate form of flattery.

My wife Debra was also happy with my approach to writing and publishing, but for a different reason. After having left her alone for three weeks shortly after arriving in our tiny apartment in Jalapa, I stayed home analyzing the data and writing the report while she and our midwife prepared to give birth to our son. To this day, I associate the launch of my professional life as an anthropologist with Ryan’s birth in Jalapa on December 26, 1990, one of the happiest days in my personal life. A favourite family joke (at least a favourite of mine) is to say that Ryan was born in Jalapa (the namesake for the Jalapeño hot pepper) but doesn’t sting. He is “Jalapeño, pero no pica.” For me, it means that he is good-natured, like the Pica Pica Mansa species of mucuna from southern Veracruz.

Photo: A Popoluca child with "tame" mucuna seed pods in Soteapan, Veracruz.

While the mucuna story was good for my career, a longer view on the process of knowledge generation underlines collective impact over individual achievement. I was not the first, and certainly not the most persistent enthusiast of mucuna and the broader potential of cover crops to transform agriculture. That credit goes to Roland Bunch, the World Neighbours Executive Director in the early 1990s, and Milton Flores, an Honduran who set up and ran the International Centre for Documentation and Information on Cover Crops in Tegucigalpa. Between the two of them, farmer use of cover crop rotations and intercropping practices was flagged and promoted in a wide range of settings throughout Central America. Milton, a young man with tight Afro-hair, gentle demeanour and warm smile, produced a remarkable video compilation of farmer testimony on mucuna called “What the Fertilizer Bean Has Taught Us.” Bernard Triomphe, a coauthor with me and Gustavo Sain of a summary book on the topic, recently described this video as an effective translation of practical experience into a story that farmers could relate to directly, without the need for technical backup. By contrast, his own research on the agroecology of the abonera system provided what university-based researchers needed to know about how the technology worked, in a language and form they could recognize: quantified measures of long-term changes in soil properties and crop productivity, painstakingly collected in the field over a period of two years for his PhD dissertation in agronomy. Bernard’s healthy skepticism about all technology, delivered sardonically with a gentle French accent, helped convey the message credibly. Gustavo Sain, an Argentinian economist responsible for CIMMYT Economics Program training and research in Central America, worked with me on the economics of the abonera system. We adapted the methods to capture the unique features of the farming system, giving weight to key observations about why a rotation crop made economic sense from the farmer and market points of view. The three of us worked well together, aided by Gustavo’s constant stream of sophisticated jokes about Argentines, the Pope and the American President.

The work by me, Bernard and Gustavo, published in Spanish and English in various books and journals, is the most cited scientific writing on the Honduran mucuna story. “Cover Crops in Hillside Agriculture: Farmer innovation with mucuna” helped stimulate and was a key reference for at least 15 years of research on cover crops by dozens of agronomists and social scientists, spanning the tropical regions of Mexico, Central America and West Africa. While research on other cover crops was also very important, what made the mucuna story meaningful is that it established a critical and credible link between the farmer world highlighted by Milton, Roland and others and the scientist world documented in a growing body of credible research evidence. Collective impact was achieved through the science of the concrete.

Photo: Milton Flores testing the bulk of the mucuna mulch.

More than anything, the mucuna story smashes the mindsets that continue to promote exclusionary, hierarchical and patriarchal practices of scientific discovery. The invention of a robust hillside agricultural technology by the Ketchi of Guatemala, and its independent, farmer-to-farmer dissemination across a farming population of thousands in Honduras, is remarkable and worthy of celebration as an act of “farmer discovery.” No scientist or extension worker was involved, other than by virtue of the historical connections of all invention. The subtitle of our synthesis book, “Farmer innovation with mucuna,” correctly balanced the story of the technology with the story of the social process of farmer-led innovation and dissemination. This acknowledgement does not mean that farmers were the only actors that made a difference. Discovery of effective cover crop and forage crop technologies in the United States and extension of the practice across the American south in the 1900s is no less remarkable, and undoubtedly involved the combined efforts of farmers and scientists in fields and at experiment stations. Gaps in farmer knowledge are significant, and scientists have much to offer beyond the commercial interests that fund much of the world’s agricultural research. The experience does, however, highlight a fundamental problem in the Green Revolution mindset and research paradigm, which starts with a firm rejection of traditional agriculture (exclusionary) and gives scientists the privileged place (hierarchical) in the development of new agricultural technology.

It also reminds us of humanity’s debt to women. At the base of all the mucuna inventions was the act of taming the wild velvetbean in the first place. This was almost certainly a contribution from women in ancient Indo-China, carried on over centuries by women in Nagaland, Ghana, and countless other places where the seed was collected, selected, cared for and transformed through the technology of cooking into a source of human nourishment. If I could go back in time, this female-centred story is one I would want to research. My friend P.V. Satheesh, a brilliant Indian activist, captured the core idea on a T-shirt critical of the 1990s fad “Women In Agriculture.” The shirt he created with an image of a woman farmer crossed out the “In” and replaced it with “Are”, emblazoning the truth that “Women Are Agriculture.” A later chapter of this memoir, called “Food, Ecology and Culture,” delves into the role of women not just as the traditional seed keepers but also the people that learned to transform plants into food, mediated through culture.

The next chapter builds on the lessons from Honduras by relating some of the tinkering I and others did with mucuna in the Sierra de Santa Marta, Veracruz, and the creation of a farmer-to-farmer network focused on harnessing the pragmatic knowledge of farmers and their ability to innovate. It also references the dramatic fall of the abonera system of northern Honduras, documented by others shortly after I left Mexico for Canada. For now, however, I want to take you back to New York where my mucuna story began. The account comes from Bernard, who over two years of intensive field work in Honduras built up a deeper relationship with individual farmers than I ever did. He recently told me that the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia launched a reunion with his closest informant and mucuna mentor, Don Chema Ayala of San Francisco de Saco. Don Chema’s son, xxx, who was 15 when Bernard hired him as a field helper, had reached out to Bernard on Facebook when France won the championship. “Congratulations!” he said. A year later, Bernard spent three days with him and Don Chema in New York where they were now living. I don’t know that they ate blacken fish and mud pie, but the friendship was renewed. Everything old became new again.


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