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Chapter 6: Cowardly Land Becomes Brave Again



Our move to Mexico, and my first real job as an anthropologist, began with Cajun blackened fish and Louisiana mud pie at an upscale restaurant in downtown Manhattan. Debra and I were guests of the Rockefeller Foundation and their program to bring PhD graduates of the social sciences into the highly technical world of plant breeding and agronomy in developing countries.

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. The United Nations, The World Bank, and many national government, including Canada, funded the research. 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 food and agriculture issue.

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. Monocultures produced a dramatic bump in harvested grain, and were appealing to scientists, governments and farmers alike. If Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz had been involved, she might have said of the new landscapes, “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 developed. Joyce Moock, the Associate Vice President at the Rockefeller Foundation, oversaw the program and chaired my interview in New York with a three-person selection committee.

My wife Debra 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. She later turned the program away from its focus on North American graduates to scholars emerging from African universities and centres based in Africa, but retained the practice of including spouses in interviews whenever possible.

The success of the post-doctoral fellowship also depended on an offer of an assignment from one of the research centres. I turned down a position based in The Netherlands because the centre wanted me to live near Amsterdam and work with partners in South America. I calculated the hours in an airplane and determined that my body would drown in the feeling of being somewhere in the mid-Atlantic.

Instead, I went for an interview at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, where I was offered a position with their tropical pastures program. They needed a social scientist to work with ranchers in Brazil to study how a novel pasture variety might work in their farming systems, and assess its impact on rates of deforestation. My PhD research on cattle, corn and conflict in Veracruz, Mexico, seemed like a good fit.

I remember one of the Rockefeller Foundation committee members asking me in New York if I was “willing to take the bull by the horns.” This turned out to be a prescient question I only recognized as I stepped off the airplane in Cali and was greeted by two young CIAT researchers with a warning that the proposed research 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 new pasture technology.

I appreciated their concern and candour, but remember being more unsettled by the apparent dispute within the organization than anything else. I also had doubts about 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 only been a few incidents affecting staff and families, the prospect of leaving my pregnant wife in Colombia while I travelled for long periods of time to the Brazilian Amazon was worrisome.

On my way back to Ottawa from Cali I made a side trip to Mexico and arrived unannounced at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (known as CIMMYT, the Spanish acronym). It was located a few kilometres from Chapingo, Mexico’s premier agricultural university outside of Mexico City.

The organization is the direct outcome of Norman Borlaug’s work towards the Green Revolution, and arguably the most storied of all the international centres. With no other offer in hand, and Cali looking dicey, I needed to take my life into my own hands if I was to make something of the good fortune I had been given. I made my way to the CIMMYT Economics Program offices and, according to the head of the program, Derek Byerlee, introduced myself and boldly asked, “Why haven’t you hired me?”

Much later he told me the audacity got his attention. I don’t recall the interview, but he and his colleague Rob Tripp offered me a job. Accepting it turned out to be the most consequential decision of my working life. It drew me deeply into a fascinating world of agricultural science, helping establish my reputation for rigorous and engaged research practice. Mostly, however, I was relieved to be able to return home from Colombia and Mexico with a job offer my new wife might find appealing.

A year or so after I became a “Rocky post-Doc” working at 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 later 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. 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 creation of new technology and new knowledge. I learned to listen deeply to farmers and scientists, creating in me both respect for the values of science and great admiration for the power of farmer discovery.


Image: Honduran boy pointing his machete to a field of fertilizer bean.


Teodoro Reyes and the Fertilizer Bean

While Cajun blackened fish and Louisiana mud pie marked the culinary beginning of my journey as an anthropologist, Honduran farmers and an obscure bean became my primary teachers.

Teodoro Reyes, a farmer I met on a hillside near La Danta on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, was one of the first. 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 again.” He was referring to Mucuna pruriens var. utilis (a.k.a. The Fertilizer Bean, or Velvetbean), an audacious plant with the humble purpose of protecting and improving the soil.

The farming practice is a simple crop rotation, locally called an abonera. It starts with clearing a field and planting it every metre or so with the bean using a dibble stick. After seven to eight months the plant develops into a thick tangle of soft, broad leaves, vines and seeds. The plant withers when slashed with a machete and forms a layer of decomposing leaves and vines. Maize is then planted directly into the mulch.

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.

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. By the time the maize crop is established, the bean 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.

Because of these features of the rotation, 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, leafy growth provides excellent habitat for rats, and consequently for poisonous snakes. 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 the sudden rise from sea level to 2400 metres at the peak 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.


Image: Milton Flores, an Honduran agronomist and activist, examining mucuna residue.


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.

The topography can also be a guide to the distribution of wealth in agricultural land. 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 deforested, vulnerable to severe land degradation, landslides and drought.

Image: Extreme sloping hillside cleared for maize.


The northern coast was an exception. Hillside land was still available, but vulnerable to soil erosion. The abonera rotation with Mucuna 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.

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. It also allows for the continuous cultivation of the same field, year after year, without the need to extend fallow periods or add external fertilizer. This ability to make cowardly land become brave again was unheard of in any agricultural system in the humid tropics, anywhere in the world.


Image: Maize in a think mulch of mucuna.


My first encounter with Mucuna pruriens and the farmers growing it was in October, 1990, two months before Debra’s date to deliver a child. I had negotiated an arrangement with CIMMYT that allowed us to live in Jalapa, Veracruz, for the duration of her pregnancy and until we could return to CIMMYT headquarters outside of Mexico City with our baby. Luisa Paré, who was living in Jalapa and managing the IDRC funded 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. Jalapa was familiar territory for me, and we had a kind and skilled midwife on hand to care for Debra while I was away.

I was gone for two and a half weeks, meeting Honduran researchers at the Regional University Centre of the Atlantic Coast (CURLA) located in La Ceiba, a small, picturesque coastal city with a large Garifuna population. A national park, Pico Bonito, covered in an old growth, humid tropical rainforest, protects the city from flooding by raging rivers descending to the sea.

The islands of Roatan, famous for snorkelling, are offshore, adding to the tropical paradise vibe of 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.”

The university faculty rarely received visits from international scientists, who were drawn to the bigger national school, 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 one of the most prestigious agricultural research organizations in the world. 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.

On that trip, and during many subsequent visits to Atlantic Honduras, I established a working relationship with partners new to me and to CIMMYT, planning and executing large surveys of farmers along the coast. I also developed an innovative approach to assessing farmer priorities, bringing out the detailed reasoning of mainly non-literate farmers by using coloured drawings of the advantages and disadvantages of the system. The survey crew laid the laminated cards in front of farmers and asked, “Of these advantages, which is the most important to you?” They then removed the selected card and asked, “Of those that remain, which is the most important to you?” This method of questioning produced a hierarchy of priorities, an approachI integrated into many participatory tools that became the focus for my research contributions decades later.

The hierarchy, and statistical analysis that followed, showed that adopters of the abonera system valued specific combinations of benefits. Differences in farmer circumstances showed a statistically significant connection between reasons for using the system and the land and labour resources available in each household. In short, the land-poor prioritized land productivity criteria and the labor-poor prioritized labour productivity criteria.


Image: Farmer showing his priorities. Card showing erosion control.


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. Don Winkelman, 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. The strength of the two concepts was that they provided a pathway to scale out new crop technologies systematically or incrementally.

When I returned from my first field visit to Honduras in the fall of 1990, I thought I had encountered an ideal cropping practice for hillside farming, suitable for a wide range of farmer circumstances. My boss, Derek, told me he appreciated my ability to get to the bottom of things, a curiosity he felt was needed to be a good researcher. It was a good start to my post-doc.

Debra was happy too, but for a different reason. I had left her pregnant and alone to go to Honduras but stayed home analyzing the survey data and writing the first report in Spanish 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, like the fertilizer bean.


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 do a kind of anthropology well suited to my character: curiosity, attention to detail, an ability to think laterally. This was one of the reasons CIMMYT managers kept me on for another three years after my two-year Rocky Doc fellowship was over. The additional time allowed me to go deeper into the topic.

While not apparent to me or others in CIMMYT 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 any purchased external inputs, it had been developed without the direct help of researcher science. It was a modern era act of “farmer discovery” and had spread among thousands of poor farmers without the aid of professional communication strategies known in the agricultural sciences as “extension.” From a few early adopters between 1970 and 1980, by 1992, the date of our largest survey, it had reached the vast majority of hillside farmers in the region, spread farmer-to-farmer.

It was a revolution in hillside farming practice, one I ironically called “the Green Manure Revolution” in several articles I published in international agriculture fora. While I was not the first to notice the invention, that credit probably goes to Milton Flores and Roland Bunch, two men based in Honduras,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.

The Mucuna story quickly became an attention grabber in international agriculture circles. The Executive Director of CIMMYT, Don Winkelmann, 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 making poor or degraded land productive once again.

Without hesitation, I went down a rabbit hole to learn everything I could about this audacious plant.

What I discovered was a world in a grain of sand. 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” in English, have abundant, long stinging hairs on the pod and can cause intensely itchy dermatitis in humans. 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 Brava type was used to keep people from wandering into fields where they were not welcome. In Nigeria, the itchy type is known as the “Devils Bean.”

The cultivated species, Mucuna pruriens var. utilis , probably originated in southern China or northeastern India where reports from the 18th and 19th century indicate that the bean was eaten as a vegetable. Raw velvetbean seeds contain about 27% protein and are rich in minerals and medicinal properties. The bean also contains chemical compounds that, in high concentrations, produce nausea and vomiting. An incident of acute psychosis in Mozambique in the 1980s was attributed to velvetbean consumption during a drought when water was not discarded as part of the food preparation process.

A year after I joined CIMMYT I came across mucuna in a backyard garden near Kumasi in Ghana, West Africa while 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. Farmers in Mexico and Guatemala told me they mucuna grown and roasted to make a coffee substitute, a use reflected in another local name for the plant: Nescafé.


Image: Ghanan grandmother with mucuna seeds and pods.


A decade later I was able to confirm Asian food uses first hand when I came across mucuna in a backyard garden in Nagaland, a remote corner of northeast India. The Naga woman growing mucuna in her yard explained to me that the seed was boiled, crushed, boiled again then eaten like any other vegetable. 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 English common name for the cultivated species is velvetbean. It was used historically as an aphrodisiac and in Ayurvedic Indian medicine to treat nervous disorders and arthritis. One of the chemical compounds, 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.

Reconstructing the story of how velvetbean got from China and India to the Honduran hillside, and converted from a minor vegetable to a major agronomic crop, turned me into a plant detective. I combined archival research with hunting trips to remote jungle rivers 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.


Image: Figure from my Economic Botany article.


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 food 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.

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 in the 1970s carried the fertilizer bean with them from Guatemala to the Atlantic coast of Honduras.

I went first to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s port on the Caribbean, 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 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 rainforest 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 it 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, until the animals were replaced by tractors to transport bananas to the railhead. This reflected the use of velvetbean as a forage crop in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

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 (mule bean) used by the Ketchi Indians of Guatemala as a crop rotation with maize. When I read the name they used for the plant, the penny dropped. I imagined that Ketchi workers had seen mucuna used on banana plantations as a forage crop for mules and noticed that the soil underneath the residue was weed-free and moist even at the height of the dry season. From there they invented the rotation with hillside maize, a technology passed on to Honduran farmers by two brothers migrating from Guatemala.

I published the account in Economic Botany, a prestigious journal for the New York Botanical Garden “devoted to Past, Present, and Future Use of Plants by People.” The article, called Velvetbean: A “New” Plant with a History, is my most-cited sole-authored paper, and is still used as an authoritative source on mucuna. I started it with the cliché “Everything old is new again” but fortunately, for my own self-respect as a writer, the editor of the journal rejected the line and published the rest.

The linkages traced across time and space illustrate something important about the nature of scientific discovery. First, they show the social qualities 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. The mucuna story smashes this mindset and 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, and learning to make it food through the technology of cooking. It was undoubtedly women that did this, like the Naga in crimson red pressed into service with her family as an indentured worker bound for British Trinidad and Tobago and the Ghanaian grandmother dressed in sapphire blue straining the soaked seed to make her grandchildren soup. Observing and transforming the gifts of nature into food from one generation to the next is truly the mother of invention.

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. Each new use of mucuna emerged from some quality observed in its present use: food, forage, cover, fertilizer. 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. He 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 of all of our senses and faculties interacting in the present moment. From the possibility of what is, the magic of what could be emerges as an image of maize plants growing in a thick mat of mucuna residue. This is the science of the concrete.

The linkages across time and space 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 agricultural 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 pretentious nature of much survey work. He also avoided romantic and anecdotal 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 and publishing in a regional journal. This was my second experience of plagiarism, the ultimate form of flattery.

While publishing was good for my academic career, the mucuna story underlines collective impact over individual achievement. 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, worked hard to promote cover crop rotations and intercropping practices 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.” Other internationally acclaimed scientists also picked up the thread, as did researchers in West Africa.

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 was a stellar translation of practical experience into a story that farmers could relate to directly, without the need for technical knowledge. By contrast, his own research on the agro-ecology 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 of technology, delivered sardonically with a gentle French accent, helped convey the message credibly to other scientists. Gustavo Sain, an Argentinian economist at CIMMYT responsible for training researchers in Central America, worked with me on the economics of the abonera system. We adapted quantitative methods to capture the unique features of the farming system, giving weight to key observations about why a rotation crop made economic sense from both 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 (Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten all the punch lines).

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


Postscript

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 Currently, the region is under pressure from many forces, including drug cartels growing coca on remote hillsides and transforming the paste into cocaine for illegal export. While the abonera system remains a remarkable technology, unbeatable as a system for growing maize on hillsides, it simply cannot compete in this wider and vastly more complex social context.



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. The rotation was an effective control for spear grass (Imperata cylindrical), a highly invasive weed plaguing intensively managed lands in the region. I was in Benin in 1995 at the height of the campaign, to observe and provide advice. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the incentives provided through the campaign had distorted farmer assessment of the technology. Once the incentives were dropped, use by farmers fell away too. It was simply too difficult for farmers to dedicate time and resources to growing it for agronomic purposes alone.

Later, when I worked at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), I organized a successful workshop to share the West African experience.3 I also funded the development of an information clearing house on cover crops in West Africa, and laboratory research on the variability of Levodopa and other anti-nutritional factors in mucuna seed. By then other researchers had wisely turned their attention to reviving historical 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. Recently she told me that the results, while promising, were not actively promoted and failed to gain traction in national and international development circles.


Image: Farmer (left) and extension worker standing in a mucuna demonstration plot in Benin, 1992.


In retrospect, all of these efforts have been worthwhile, even though none have been “the solution” to key farming problems. Cooperation between scientists and farmers remains important as the world struggles to redirect agriculture from its destructive path towards a mode of production that can feed the world without costing the earth. I take pride in having contributed to this process, although the promised fame from Mucuna still eludes me.



  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. Buckles, D., A. Etèka, O. Osiname, M. Galiba, and N. Galiano, 1998. Cover Crops in West Africa: Contributing to sustainable agriculture. IDRC/IITA/Sasakawa Globel 2000. ↩︎

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