Chapter 6: Cowardly Land Becomes Brave Again

My first real job as an anthropologist began with Cajun blackened fish and Louisiana mud pie at a restaurant in downtown Manhattan.

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 an upscale 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. 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. Interdisciplinary and more socially oriented research, they thought, might be able to correct course.

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 both respect for the values of science and an unfailing commitment to farmer discovery as the basis for just and ecologically sound change. 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 my experience through the frame of a single plant, Mucuna pruriens var. utilis (a.k.a. The Fertilizer Bean).

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 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 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 pruriens using a dibble stick. After seven to eight months the plant, called velvetbean in English, develops into a thick tangle of soft, broad leaves, vines and seeds easy to slash down with a machete. Maize is then planted directly into the layer of decomposing leaves and vines.

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 spanning the tropical regions of Mexico, Central America and West Africa. While I was not the first to notice the invention on the Atlantic coast, that credit probably goes to Milton Flores and Roland Bunch,1for a time I was at the centre of the excitement. A year or two after starting to document the Honduran experience a scientist at CIMMYT told me mucuna would make me famous.

To begin my march to fame, however, I had to set up an apartment for myself and my pregnant wife. I had negotiated an arrangement with CIMMYT that allowed Debra and I to live in Jalapa, Veracruz, for the duration of my wife’s pregnancy and until we could return to CIMMYT headquarters outside of Mexico City 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 beautiful place for a home birth, far from the polluted air of Mexico City. We knew that if we had stayed at CIMMYT our child’s first breath would include unhealthy amounts of carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, ozone and both course and ultra fine particulates. I travelled back and forth between Jalapa and CIMMYT, and flew to Honduras in October, 1990 for my first encounter with Mucuna pruriens and the farmers growing it.

I was gone for three weeks just prior to her due date, 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 other main cities. Whereas Tegucigalpa (the capital) was where “people decide” and San Pedro Sula (the economic centre) where “people earn money,” La Ceiba was where “people dance.” It was a small, picturesque coastal city with a large 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, I danced with his friends in a local bar.

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.

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 six months later 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 growing seasons, and the possibility of harvesting winter maize when prices are at their annual peak. Sacrificing land to grow mucuna first was worthwhile given the maize price premium.

In the 1990s, land in northern Honduras was not a constraint if you were prepared to cultivate the hillsides. A colleague at CIMMYT, a Colombian agronomist, 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 solved this problem by 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.

A third advantage, reflected in the name “Fertilizer Bean” by 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.

When asked to rank these advantages, 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 land and labour resources available in the household. I introduced a methodological innovation into the survey process to bring out the detailed reasoning of 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 was 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 by scientist 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 technologies systematically or incrementally, depending on the willingness of national governments to subsidize agricultural inputs and agricultural extension.

When I returned from my first field visit to Honduras in the fall of 1990 with a completed survey in hand, colleagues remarked on how quickly it had come together. They also said that they appreciated my attention to writing up the results quickly, in Spanish. My wife Debra was also happy with my approach to writing and publishing, but for a different reason. I had left her pregnant and alone to go to Honduras but stayed home in Jalapa 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 life. A favourite family joke (at least a favourite of mine) is to say that Ryan was born in Jalapa (the namesake for the hot Jalapeño chile pepper) but doesn’t burn your mouth. He is “Jalapeño, pero no pica.” For me, it meant that he was sweet, good-natured and bright, much like the Mexican people.

Farmer Discovery

The study of mucuna, a plant virtually unknown 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. 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 curiosity he felt was 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 into the topic, and push for more attention to farmer discovery and farmer participation in agricultural research.

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 been developed without the direct benefit of researcher science. It was a modern act of “farmer discovery” and had spread among thousands of poor farmers without the aid of professional agricultural extension. We found that some 83% of the farmers in communities across northern Honduras were currently or had recently used the mucuna - Maize crop rotation. 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. The head of CIMMYT decided to make the slide show I had created on the subject a preferred presentation for guests and dignitaries visiting 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 “sustainable 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.

I went down a rabbit hole. The botanical literature revealed that the mucuna 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” (Sting - sting - ferocious) while the cultivated type is called “Pica Pica Mansa” (Sting - sting - tame).

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 encounter on a jungle road with a squad of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland fighting for independence from India. 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 while also visiting with researchers in Benin and Nigeria. The elderly Ghanaian 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: Nescafé.

Raw velvetbean seeds contain about 27% protein and are rich in minerals and medicinal properties. 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 supported from my position at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) some years later. It contributed to a distinct thread of research on food uses of mucuna and other cover crops supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and others in Mexico, Central America and West Africa.

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 as well as West Africa. 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 from India when they were pressed into Caribbean 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 more than a hundred thousand hectares in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina and was grown in parts of Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Florida.

Then something changed. 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. They couldn’t grow a paying crop while the velvetbean was building up the soil and controlling the weeds. Soybeans, introduced to southern farmers following the Great Depression, proved to be a more versatile solution to agricultural problems, with high 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 UNESCO Biosphere 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 language, food tradition based on yucca (a root crop), and a musical form called punta with a unique rhythm that moves the whole body. 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 Herman Brix 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 agronomist 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 his farm 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 field for his cattle.

Scene four: An engineer with the American company International Railways of Central America, and native of Georgia, watches as mules transport bananas of the United Fruit Company to the railway car. Once back home, he sends seed from the family farm 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. The soil underneath is moist, even at the height of the dry 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, rotation crop, intercrop), are the result of experimentation by numerous farmers and scientists spanning several centuries and at least six countries. The lesson, that innovation is a collective, transpersonal act, has been demonstrated time and time again by formal histories of discovery, even though the misleading 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 rare scientific genius or mystical intervention 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. This is the science of the concrete.

These two lessons - the collective who and the concrete how of discovery - can also be found in the process of telling the mucuna story. In the early 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. My approach to research publications helped. I always 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 disliked the hubris of much survey work but also avoided romantic presentations of farmer experience. Absurdly, an earlier report I prepared on the topic was republished a couple of years later, word for word, by a university professor that had nothing to do with the research. He had plagiarized the report, making himself the sole author in a regional journal. Plagiarism, of course, is the ultimate form of flattery.

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 or the most persistent enthusiast of mucuna and the broader potential of cover crops to transform agriculture. 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, made sure that farmer use of cover crop rotations and intercropping practices was promoted in a wide range of settings in Central America and Mexico. Milton, a young man at the time 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.” Internationally acclaimed scientists also picked up the thread.

Bernard Triomphe, a coauthor with me and Gustavo Sain of the most frequently cited book on the topic, recently said to me that Milton’s video to was a stellar translation of practical experience into a story that farmers can relate to directly, without the need for technical knowledge. 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 technology puffery, delivered sardonically with a gentle French accent, helped convey the message credibly to other scientists. 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 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 jokes about Argentines, the Pope and the American President sitting together on an airplane.

The work we did together continues to be cited, contributing to the internationalization of the Central American experience with cover crops and helping inform new research agendas. What made the mucuna story we told meaningful is that it called into question mindsets that promote exclusionary, hierarchical and patriarchal practices of scientific discovery. The origins of the technology in farmer discovery established a credible link between the living practices of the farmer world and the scientist world, documented in a growing body of credible research evidence on ecological and regenerative agriculture. As would become clear to me later in my professional life, reconciling the two worlds means striking the right balance between what scientists have to offer and what farmers know, and don’t know.


The promise of mucuna to pave the way to bountiful maize harvests everywhere never moved beyond the Atlantic coast of Honduras, other than as an experimental and heavily promoted practice. Thirty years on from those heady days, the species is simply one, albeit a storied example of cover crops used by farmers in some circumstances and for varied reasons and periods of time.

Use of mucuna in coastal Honduras declined sharply in the 2000s, under pressure from cattle ranching and the arrival of itchgrass (rottboellia cochinchinensis), an invasive weed it could not handle without more attention than farmers were willing to give to managing the cover crop.2 In West Africa, mucuna cover crops were strongly promoted by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, CIMMYT’s sister organization, and the non-governmental organization Sasakawa Global 2000, as a way to control spear grass (Imperata cylindrical), a highly invasive weed plaguing intensively managed lands in Benin. I was there at the height of excitement about this successful research, funding through IDRC a regional workshop and an information clearing house to disseminate information on cover crops in West Africa. Once the incentive of access to additional fertilizer provided by the Sasakawa Foundation was dropped, however, use by farmers fell away too as the crop provided no direct financial benefit.

Other researchers wisely turned their attention to reviving forage and food uses of mucuna, hoping that combined benefits would be enough to support sustained adoption. Marjatta Eilieta, a Finnish agronomist I met in the last year of my tenure at CIMMYT, coordinated a major research effort on this topic, making use of varieties with relatively low levels of Levodopa and other anti-nutritional factors. The results, while promising, were not actively promoted and failed to gain traction in international development circles. This may have had something to do with the divide between Green Revolution approaches to livestock promoted by most governments at the time and small-farmer crop production which by then was shifting to more sustainable technologies.

In retrospect, all of these efforts have been worthwhile, even though none have been “the solution” to key farming problems. Many of the cover crop technologies developed by scientists in the global South and global North, often inspired by traditional agriculture, have proven to be useful to making agriculture not only more sustainable but also more resilient in the face of a warming and less predictable climate. A new revolution in farming is afoot, under the rubrics of regenerative agriculture, agroecology and ecological agriculture. While specific technologies, like Facebook or Twitter, may come and go, what matters is the broader orientation of the technology. Does it work with nature or against us?3

1 Milton Flores ran a small non-governmental organization focused on documenting cover crop use in Central America. Roland Bunch, the author of an immensely popular book on developing country agriculture called “Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement,” worked at the time as the Honduras director of World Neighbours, an Oklahoma based organization that operates in some of the poorest countries of Latin America, Asia and Africa.

2 Neil, S. and D. Lee. 1999. “Explaining the Adoption and Disadoption of Sustainable Agriculture: The Case of Cover Crops in Northern Honduras,” unpublished paper, Cornell University.

3 See Chapter 10: The Wealth of the Social Landscape, for a spiritual perspective on technology from the teachings of Lalon Shah, a 19th Century poet and philosopher.

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