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Chapter 7: Heart and Soul



In the morning hours of March 1, 1993, I was standing in Gregorio Hernandez’s maize field in southern Veracruz with a familiar who-is-who of leading agricultural researchers and activists from across Latin America. Gregorio, a Nahua from the indigenous community of Tatahuicapan, was managing a field trial of his own design. Mucuna grew vigorously between the rows of maize as a cover crop, fixing atmospheric nitrogen. The ground was covered by a thick mat of decomposing leaves and vines from the previous season, unburned despite the long history of slash and burn agriculture typical of the region. And the maize plants looked very healthy, standing strongly upright in the hot sun and already laden with two ears of corn per plant.

I watched the faces of the scientists gathered in the field, examining the leaves of the maize plants for signs of disease, and finding none. Someone asked Gregorio what prompted him to plant the mucuna intercrop. “The land was tired,” he told us, pointing to a nearby section of his field with pale and thin maize plants growing in bare soil. Rather than wait for the land to rest under a traditional fallow of trees and shrubs, Gregorio had decided to speed things up by letting volunteer mucuna plants emerge as an intercrop, pruning them back when they threatened to engulf the maize. The practice was novel, and offered a more intensive option than the longer rotation from Honduras everyone standing in the field was already familiar with.

Observing Gregorio’s field, and learning from his experience, was the opening session for an international workshop I organized to share observations on cover crops and draw lessons on how to do research with farmers. I wanted to ground the event in farmer experience and set a farmer-centred tone for researcher discussions. By late afternoon, the workshop shifted from the field to Catemaco, the closest town with a hotel conference room and amenities for a group of twenty four, including several farmers. Gregorio was invited, but declined because, like most farmers, he had more pressing things to do.

After three more days of discussion I edited the proceedings into a book with one of my favourite Spanish titles: “Gorras y Sombreros: Caminos hacia la colaboración entre técnicos y campesinos.” It translates poorly to English (Peasant Hats and Scientist Caps: paths towards collaboration between scientists and peasants) but the hat reference evokes the crux of the challenge we were gathered to discuss: How to bridge the life worlds of two distinct communities.

Farmers in Latin America sport a wide range of broad-brimmed straw hats - cowboy, chupalla, sombrero Cordobés, homburg, panama, planter’s, broad sombrero, stetson, vueltiao. Rural markets in Mexico offer many of these choices. Technical people and scientists that work outdoors almost always wear ball caps, usually advertising an organization or an agricultural input such as a brand of pesticide. While a scientist, I liked to wear a cowboy hat with a wide, flat brim because it protected my neck and face from the sun and was cooler than a synthetic cap. It also reflected my farmer wannabe impulse, and growing preoccupation with making a difference in the world of agriculture. My hat collection today still carries the memories of these efforts in the stains on the sweat band and frayed edges of the brims and peaks.

Innovation within Tradition

The workshop in Catemaco was my opportunity to draw attention to farmers as innovators of sustainable technologies. The late 1980s and early 1990s marked the beginning of a move in international agricultural research from a narrow focus on seed-fertilizer technology to consideration of emerging conservation technologies, including cover crops.[1] The trend reflected a growing awareness of the many technical problems of industrial agriculture: pollution from toxic inputs, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, and compaction from mechanization. It also followed on the recent development of the theoretical and practical foundations of ecological and systems perspectives on sustainable agriculture and food production. The work I was doing at CIMMYT fit nicely with this new agenda, including the participatory approach to developing new technologies that was just beginning to eclipse CIMMYT’s on-farm research methods of the 1980s.

The growing pains for researchers were many, humorously captured in three cartoons I included in the Catemaco proceedings. I wanted to highlight the excitement I felt for farmer-based research while also challenging myself and other scientists to do better. Mark Versteeg, a Dutch agronomist with a handlebar moustache and contagious smile, had come to the conference in Catemaco from Benin, West Africa, and kindly shared his cartoons and rough humour with the group. The cartoons demanded of us a shift from the singular discourtesy of the researcher’s gaze to a posture of listening and regard for the differences in world views and practical priorities.

[1] Byerlee and Edmeades, 2021


Image: "Sharing the results of a diagnostic assessment”


One of the cartoons shows a researcher, sitting with a tall stack of papers, presenting the results of a diagnostic assessment to farmers. The farmers are scattered about, lying down and bored to the point of falling asleep. The scene reflects a limitation found in all kinds of conventional research involving people, then and now: experts survey individuals separated from each other by randomized sample designs, spend months in the office analyzing their findings with complex statistical tests, and then (at best) validate the results with some of the people that provided the information.

Findings are often presented in language that is difficult to understand, with few opportunities for people to discuss among themselves or challenge the conclusions. Years later, when I began writing with my colleague Jacques about the foibles of conventional research methods, we likened the practice to that of mosquitoes sucking blood: extractive and irritatingly useless to the people involved.

Another of Mark’s cartoons illustrated a different challenge. It shows a plan for a field experiment littered with “treatments” and “control plots” needed to meet the statistical requirements of experimental designs. These are presented to farmers by the agronomist as though the many plots can address the many different interests and considerations of farmers. The scene makes fun of the idea that on-farm experiments can do everything for everyone: be scientifically rigorous, sensitive to farmer perspectives, and comprehensible to all.

Image: “In this experimental design we have considered all of the concerns of each farmer.”


I had fallen into this delusion a few months earlier with an experiment in a farmer’s field in the nearby Indigenous community of Soteapan. Our purpose was to see how well cover crops could control weeds, compared to treatments with herbicides and manual weeding. When my colleague Hugo Perales and I visited the field near the end of the experiment we found to our dismay that the various control and treatment plots were indistinguishable from each other.

The farmer informed us that his wife and son had gone to the field a few days earlier when he was busy with other chores. They had weeded everything by hand, uniformly, leaving only the maize plants. He had neglected to tell them about the details of the experiment, and we had failed to meet with them in the first place to plan and agree on the purpose of the experiment and what it would look like. The experiment was gone, merged into the more compelling challenge of growing the best maize crop they could, today and with the resources at hand.

I looked at Hugo, his face as relaxed as a baby sleeping, and felt my own frustration at being foiled in my ambition to get the experiment right. He modelled what I came to understand as the underlying spirit of work with farmers for whom experiments have material consequences. Patience and humility were already part of his young demeanour. He told me one day that his chosen path in life was the way of Karma Yoga, one of the classical spiritual traditions of Hinduism. It focuses on right action performed for the benefit of others, primarily through the daily practice of work. Much like the African students I had met some years back in Cuba (Chapter 2), Hugo’s career choice and the work he did as an agronomist was an expression of that path. I had made a similar life decision, dedicating myself to an action-oriented anthropology, but I still had a tendency to rush ahead to get things done.

Hugo presented a paper at the Catemaco workshop comparing researcher and farmer approaches to experimentation, concluding that the differences were greater than the similarities. We later published a paper together called “Innovation within Tradition,” which settled on a solution different from the complex design in Mark Versteeg’s cartoon. It suggested that research start with farmer-led experiments aimed simply at scoping out what is of interest to them, without any pretence of creating verifiable data sets. If promising, researcher-led experiments could follow, to measure effects.

Our point was that the two groups could complement each other sequentially, rather than trying to merge farmer and researcher experiments into one common design. We believed that respect for and engagement with farmers did not mean simply asserting that farmers are scientists just like us, which was a position implied by Robert Chambers, a pioneer of participatory methods, and his early notion of “role reversals.” To ignore farmer knowledge and creativity is arrogant and wasteful but to treat farmer knowledge as the only word is equally unwise and disingenuous.
“You walk a lot,” one farmer had said to me, referring to my travels to many farmers fields throughout Mesoamérica. I understood this observation as an invitation to actively share the scarce and vital knowledge resources my position of privilege had allowed me to collect.

Image: Hugo (right) with Popoluca farmer and his daughter.


Another presenter at the Catemaco workshop made a similar point. Jeffery Bentley, a young American anthropologist working on alternatives to pesticide use for insect control in crops, shared a room with me at the hotel. Solidly built, with arms as big as stove pipes, he did 100 push-ups every day before breakfast. His work focused on providing famers with information on a few key features of insect biology and inviting them to invent their own pest management strategies. An example I recall is of a peasant woman who, once she understood how ants control other insects in her crops, invented several uses of Coca Cola to attract and help establish ant colonies in her field.

Recognition that answers to some problems are not readily available to farmers applies, of course, to all social groups, including researchers. Jacques and I later wrote that what counts is the synergy between contrasting standpoints and methods, where all knowledgeable actors contribute what they can and must to a workable understanding of a given reality. The challenge for researchers such as myself with specialized knowledge is to learn to listen and speak at the same time, a sensitivity Jacques playfully described as the rapport of finely-tuned married couples. For many social problems, the key is to be sure that the scientist is neither the first nor the last to speak, an idea captured in Robert Chamber’s later book title “Farmers First and Last.”

Image: “I’d like to experiment on different kinds of researchers.”


The third cartoon by Mark Versteeg is more visceral. It shows a man in a straw hat saying that he would love to experiment on various types of researchers. The digging tool on his shoulder, of African origin, makes one wonder exactly how he intends to carry out his experiments. “Back off,” seemed to be the message hidden under the smile.

A CIMMYT agronomist I worked with strongly objected to the implied violence of the image. He also had the view that new agricultural technology should not be aggressively promoted until and unless it had been thoroughly vetted by scientific study. Too much was riding on every corner of a farmer’s field to risk it with uncertain technologies.

I was more willing to see humour in the cartoon, and felt confident promoting the use of cover crops in ways that were already part of farmer practice in some places and by some people. To my mind, the mucuna experience in Honduras, and experiments such as Gregorio’s, were clear points of reference to and proofs of concept for the technology. Little did I know at the time, the CIMMYT agronomist was right to be cautious. Mucuna was not a panacea.

Farmer-to-Farmer

My years at CIMMYT, from the time my son Ryan was born in 1990 until he was about to turn 5, were my alpha male years. I drew people to me, showed leadership, and focused attention on getting things done, all without the domineering physicality associated with the male archetype.

After proving myself with studies of the Honduran green manure revolution, I was at the head of the hierarchy in the tiny tribe of CIMMYT and Central American promotors of sustainable agriculture (albeit a marginal element in the overall profile of regional organizations). I was also a key player in the Sierra de Santa Marta Project (known by its Spanish acronym, PSSM) coordinated by Luisa Paré, the Mexican Quebecoise I had developed the project with. I was liked and appreciated in these settings as someone capable, with good intuitive judgement, and successful at advancing collective goals. My womanizing days were behind me, but I still knew how to charm people, and occasionally used the skill to accomplish my goals.

One of these was to bring the promise of cover crops to Veracruz, the region that had preoccupied me during my earlier PhD studies and where I wanted to improve the livelihoods of people and protect the landscape and its tropical coastal rainforest. Both were important to me, cemented as well by having a son born and raised in the nearby city of Minatitlán. I wanted to remain connected to him, and to give something back to the people and landscape that made me an anthropologist.

In the mid 1980s when I did my field work in the Sierra de Santa Marta I took a hike to the top of the San Martín volcano some 1500 metres above sea level. I wanted to reconnoitre the precipitous decline in tropical forest cover. A local man who lived with his wife in a house on the beach near the tin shack we rented in Jicacal accompanied me. They had no children of their own despite years of marriage, a fate that set them apart from the other families in palm huts scattered along the beach village. She cooked one main meal a day for us, grinding corn on a metate made from the mountain’s volcanic stone. They were the most mouth-watering tortillas I have every tasted.

Her husband and I headed to the mountain carrying a packed lunch and a small calibre rifle in case we encountered a jaguar at the peak. This is where the Nahua maize god statue once sat, protected by animal spirits. Just short of the peak we saw something large dart by us as we struggled through thick forest, but thankfully did not need to fire a shot. The spectacle of me with a rifle walking through the community on our way to the mountain top must have made an impression, however. Someone entered his simple home a week later and stole his rifle. I felt responsible for the loss, and offered to pay for another, but he said it could not be easily replaced.

What is lost with deforestation in tropical regions is truly irreplaceable. Between 1958, when the first areal maps focused on measuring forest extent were made, and 1991, when the PSSM established its own baseline, some 63% of the 1958 forest had disappeared. A research station established in the 1970s on the north side of the sierra, above Catemaco, documented what was at risk: 2,698 species of vascular plants, 877 species of vertebrates (46 amphibians, 122 reptiles, 140 mammals and 569 birds), 133 species of odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) and 860 species of butterflies, just among those identified by scientists. Among the fauna, 21 species were endemic — native only to this place.

The coastal mountain range is the most northern tropical forest in the Americas, making it a strategic meeting place for birds migrating south from the Nearctic realm and north from the Neotropical realm.

Decline in local livelihoods was equally precipitous. Many Indigenous farmers had become landless due to the relentless expansion of cattle ranching driven by a small number of locally powerful ranchers. Young people were forced out altogether, to urban areas or to work as day labourers in agricultural fields elsewhere in Mexico. Grazing cattle in secondary forests and constant burning to promote pasture growth had eroded the slopes and “tired” the land still farmed here and there by remaining Indigenous people like Gregorio, the farmer we visited during the Catemaco workshop.

I was convinced that cover crops could help farmers feed the soil and rebuild their farming livelihoods. The practice also meant that farmers would not need to burn the landscape to clear fields for crops, linking my two objectives. All I needed to do was to figure out how to bring the solution to farmers throughout the region.

The answer I settled upon was to launch a campaign to provide farmers with cover crop seed and information on uses. I developed simple visual materials and organized training sessions for farmers, drawing on individuals we had been working with to lead the sessions and tell farmers about their own experiences with the technology.


The sessions often took place in the local indigenous language, either Nahua or Popoluca depending on the community, with me, Hugo, or Lorenzo, the campaign coordinator, standing nearby. While the campaign had a narrow technology focus, and was researcher-led, it broke with conventional approaches to agricultural extension on two fronts: The interventions were grounded in local, farmer-based inventions and farmers were the direct conveyors of the information and seed to other farmers, farmer-to-farmer.

The farmer-trainers received a modest payment for the time they spent on the campaign, which included staking out experimental plots where the participants decided to test out the technology. For many, the idea of direct comparisons piqued their curiosity almost as much as the cover crop itself. The effort also brought the farmers and farmer-trainers together in farmer fields, and helped to build relationships. Over a period of two years (1992 and 1993) the campaign reached several thousand farmers and was formally organized into a network called the Red de Promotores Campesino , the farmer-trainer network.

In 1994 I learned about another hillside cropping technology developed by Mexico’s national agricultural research institute (INIFAP) and tested in farmers’ fields around Catemaco. It used Glyricidia sepium, a local, leguminous tree species to create a low hedgerow on a contour line. The technology was a variation on the ancient practice of contour farming with “living fences” planted along the contour to stabilize the soil and foster the gradual formation of terraces.

I was impressed, and convinced Luisa, the coordinator of the Santa Marta Project, and state and federal government officials to collaborate on a campaign to bring cover crops and living fences to even more farmers over a larger area. Like mucuna, it was easy to promote by providing farmers with access to seed and training in use of a simple A-frame and plumb line to mark the field contour lines. Over the subsequent two years, more than 200 fields were marked and planted with hundreds of linear feet of hedge rows, supported by a network of 56 farmer-trainers in communities across both Los Tuxtla and Santa Marta sides of the coastal mountain range.

How I managed to mobilize the people and resources needed to conduct these campaigns is still something of a mystery to me. It was a risky undertaking because the benefits of both technologies took several years to achieve and few farmers had adopted the practices without at least some kind of subsidy (free seed and technical advice, in the case of cover crops; seed, advice and paid labour in the case of living fences).

Working with the state government, dominated at the time by the PRI, Mexico’s most corrupt political party, was also a stretch for Luisa, whose academic work and activism routinely criticized government programs. I was less concerned, however, and through CIMMYT’s connections to government agencies brought together a wide range of technical and policy oriented people to support the initiative. Luisa was also so well connected politically, and respected despite or perhaps because of her sharp political perspectives. Between the two of us, we could open doors.

I was interested in getting things done by identifying and eliminating barriers to adoption, on the assumption that the technologies were inherently good. I also thought that the partnership would be a clever way to co-opt government programs and resources for sustainability and empowerment-oriented activities the government wouldn’t attempt otherwise.

Ironically, this thinking, and its focus on leading through technology, was the same blind spot found in the conventional work of CIMMYT and Mexican government agricultural programs I so confidently criticized. The only thing that was different was my perspective on what was good technology and a good approach to technology development and dissemination — farmer-based innovations with sustainability goals built into the practice in the first place, and farmer-to-farmer dissemination strategies. My intervention simply needed to fit this “better” supply.

I received encouragement on this path from many sources. When I brought the idea of a campaign to my boss Derek I asked if he thought I should set it up like an experiment, with controls and areas receiving some kinds of supports that others wouldn’t have. “No,” he said, “just do what you think will work best with the resources you have.” Without knowing it at the time, by following this advice we avoided the practical and ethical dilemmas of development interventions designed like clinical drug trials where some receive the new drug and others don’t. In a sense, the approach we adopted was closer to what farmers tend to do: show indifference to exceptionally precise measurements, and abandon controls once convinced of benefits.

None of it would have been possible but for Lorenzo Arteaga, the campaign coordinator. Tall and lanky, Lorenzo had trained to be a priest, abandoning the vocation after a few years to marry Concha, a woman from a community near Catemaco where he grew up.

Lorenzo radiated warmth and positivity, showing genuine care for people and enthusiasm for what we had to offer and how we were going about it. He was a farmer himself, experienced in the commercial production of Jalapeño peppers and versed in several novel technologies for managing cattle with electric fences. He threw himself into the task, covering for me during long periods when I was working elsewhere.

While the work in Veracruz was important to me and to CIMMYT, I had many other irons in the fire, travelling some 130 days a year. I attended conferences in Panama and Costa Rica, visited remote parts of Nicaragua and Guatemala, and returned regularly to the Atlantic coast of Honduras. I also gave talks at Wye College in the U.K. and Cornell University in upstate New York, spreading the good news of farmer innovation and adoption of cover crops.

I went to Ghana in search of traditional food uses of mucuna, and to Benin where I encouraged and evaluated efforts by CIMMYT sister organizations to promote mucuna cover crops in the fight against Imperata cylindrica, an invasive grass undermining maize productivity throughout West Africa. It was exhausting, and I would often return home sick with intestinal parasites. On one occasion I arrived at my house with a mysterious pustule in my toe full of tiny, wriggling worms.

Debra would nurse me back to health. Weeks would go by as I wrote reports, typically as the lead in co-authored publications with agronomists, economists and plant breeders, and secondary author on reports of the Santa Marta Project. Our home was on the CIMMYT campus, a quiet green space where Debra also poured her love into raising our son Ryan. I could walk home from the office for lunch, and be thrilled by his joy at seeing me approach, shouting “Daddy, Daddy!”

Mexico was an easy country to travel in, and we took many short and longer trips by car to the colonial cities of the central plateau, western and coastal communities rich in Indigenous crafts and unpopulated beaches, and the tropical regions of southern and southeastern Mexico. Ryan was portable, and also easy going as a child. His smile and open demeanour attracted attention in every restaurant, periodically prompting the server to ask permission to whisk him away into the kitchen. He would disappear for the longest time, and return smiling and vocalizing some new word. The Mexican people love children and care for them passionately.

Near the end of our time in Mexico we went to the Sierra de Santa Marta as a family, stopping at Lorenzo’s home in Catemaco. He and his wife Concha lived in a modest house on a large property full of fruit trees. She made us chile rellenos, a Mexican dish of mild poblano chiles stuffed with cotija cheese, covered in an egg batter, and lightly fried. The result is drizzled with a light tomato sauce, served by Concha with freshly made tortillas, strong coffee, and fresh papaya harvested from their yard.

Debra and I still talk of that meal, and the warm conversation. Lorenzo had a way of engaging with people I admired. Smiling, joking, but always focused on what he could do to help. He experienced in his own life the anxiety and pressure that comes with trying to find a better way to make a living as a farmer, bridging the psychological distance between farmers and researchers such as myself that make a living working with farmers, not being one.

Later, Lorenzo told me the tragic circumstances of Alvaro, a handsome and bright eyed man of twenty when I met him. Alvaro put himself enthusiastically into the various tasks he was asked to do as a promotor with the Red de Promotores Campesino, including working with cover crops in his own fields, taking his neighbours to see what he and others were doing, and helping set up a simple comparison of a cover crop with a normal practice.

Alvaro was not an ideologue or technological purist. To control weeds he routinely used the glyphosate-based herbicide “Round Up,” originally produced by Monsanto. This brand is the most widely used herbicide in the United States, Canada and Mexico because it is effective at killing weeds, especially annual broadleaf weeds and grasses that compete with crops.

It is also toxic to human beings and most other life forms. One day he was out spraying weeds in a field when he noticed that the back-pack sprayer he was using had cracked and the pesticide soaked his entire back, buttocks and legs. This was the second time he had been exposed like this, having previously spent time undergoing emergency treatment at a local hospital. This time, his body went into shock due to a reaction that wiped out his red blood platelets. Despite medical assistance, he died a painful death, leaving behind a wife and young child.

At the time, I felt outraged at the chemical companies that manufactured and promoted their products knowing full well that resource poor and uneducated farmers often used them inappropriately. I also felt empathy for Alvaro’s decisions. Farmers are like people everywhere. They have families they feel responsible for, personal ambitions that go far beyond their current circumstances, and a desire for connection to something greater than themselves. While I could not be sure of Alvaro’s motivations, I did recognize that my own position of privilege allowed me to walk away from risky behaviours that for farmers offered the hope of immediate gains.

My foray into organizing farmers in response to farming problems was sensitive to individual needs but lacked grounding in local institutions and local leadership. I had been exposed to but, in retrospect, did not fully understand and appreciate the significance of the kind of peasant and union organizing I had heard about from Eric Holt-Gimenez and Marcial López, two Nicaraguans at the 1993 Catemaco workshop. They had presented on the Sandinista experience of the 1980s building the capacity of farmers and farmer institutions to help themselves. Eric, like me at the early stages of his career, went on years later to write the definitive English language history of the Nicaraguan Campesino a Campesino movement. He now heads the organization Food First, a “people’s think tank” founded in 1975 by Joseph Collins and Frances More Lappé, author of “Diet for a Small Planet.”

Lorenzo, through his connections to the Catholic Church, was also familiar with the philosophy and approach of local ecclesiastic groups steeped in the Latin American tradition of liberation theology. I visited a seminary in the lowlands of the Sierra de Santa Marta, and was moved by their patient and caring perspective on working with local communities.

Luisa was also attracted to the progressive political agenda implicit in their work and advocacy with communities. She was the most politically savvy and energetic person I had ever met, a firebrand with a keen eye for how power seeks advantage and a firm resolve to bring justice to situations of injustice. Her first campaign as the director of the Sierra de Santa Marta project was to beat back an ill-conceived plan by a US-based company to establish a eucalyptus plantation on the communal lands of Pajapan where Jacques and I had worked. It brought her into conflict with the state government that supported the plantation, adding to what was already her reputation for radical agrarian causes.

Under our joint leadership, the Red survived the encounter with the state government, including delays in resources that seriously undermined the campaign and credibility of the farmer-trainers involved. Still, the network quickly became a central player in all activities of the Sierra de Santa Marta project, helping to deliver on goals but also defining what the project would work on. In response to farmer demand, Luisa and others broadened the range of livelihood strategies the Red addressed: honey production, cultivation and marketing of decorative palms (Piper auritum), tree planting to protect water sources, ecotourism in communities with intact forests, more sustainable ranching practices, and techniques for improving oyster production in the Laguna del Ostión. Many of the livelihood projects suffered set backs and limitations. Some thrived, however, at least in particular communities and for particular households.

My own involvement in the farmer network and in the Sierra de Santa Marta project ended abruptly in June, 1995 when I moved back to Canada. Our son was about to turn five, and my wife and I did not want to send him to school in the haze that was and still is Mexico City. Debra gave me the mandate to live anywhere I wanted to, so long as it started with “C” and wasn’t Cambodia. That later became anywhere starting with “O” for Ottawa, a direction I was fine with.

A few weeks before my departure, Luisa organized a fiesta in the Popoluca village of Soteapan hosted by women promotores she had been mobilizing. Minerva, a leader of the group, presented me with a cloth tortilla-wrap embroidered with an image of mucuna and the words “Manshu sīīk (Popoluca for mucuna), Red de Promotores Campesino” below. It hangs today in a frame above my basement workbench as a reminder of that day. Sitting on benches in front of Minerva’s home, we ate soup, freshly ground tortillas and refried beans, washed down with a hot drink. The “Nescafe” was made from finely ground mucuna seeds.

Postscript: Means and Ends

Most researchers, and all activists, dream of having a positive impact on the landscapes, people and institutions they work with and dedicate their professional lives to. The desire for impact is deeply personal, and easily coloured by preconceptions and the desire to preserve a successful, coherent, tidy and inspiring image of the enterprise.

The Sierra de Santa Marta project (PSSM) was my first experience at the helm of a development intervention. Launched in 1990 by Luisa, Jacques and myself, it survived 28 years, finally closing in 2018. This persistence is in and of itself a significant accomplishment. Different people took on the mantle of leadership over the years, and several sister organizations emerged along the way, each with their own geography and character. All included among their goals the improvement of rural livelihoods and the conservation of the remaining forests of the region.

Little remains locally of the two technologies I promoted. Farmer use of living fences and cover crops began to decline a few years after the campaigns stopped. Subsidies were necessary to get over the initial costs of shifting to the new practice, something anticipated in the design of the campaign but not delivered efficiently or sustained by outside groups. I recall hours of argument with government officials over delays in the delivery of seed and payments to farmers.

I felt partly responsible for the failures, and frustrated by the outcome. Towards the end of my time at CIMMYT, Mario Ramos, a Mexican biologist and senior manager for the Global Environment Facility (GEF), contracted me to do a study on what it would take to bridge the gap between the short term costs of the technologies and the longer term benefits of forest conservation. I did the first analysis with Olaf Erenstein, a young Dutch economist with CIMMYT who now heads the CIMMYT Economics Program. We concluded that three years of subsidies was the minimum investment needed to create conditions for stable adoption.

The need to invest in a transition period is true of many techniques designed to conserve and improve the soil, water and biodiversity of agricultural systems, making the switch to sustainable agriculture difficult in most settings. The recent decision of the government of Sri Lanka to suddenly cut off farmer access to chemical inputs has thrown agriculture and national food supply in the country into a crisis, in large part because the policy failed to recognize that ecological approaches take time to create favourable conditions. Transition strategies that respect farmer livelihoods are needed, rather than cold turkey conversion therapy (see Chapter 12 on the transition out of tobacco farming in Bangladesh).

My friend Grant, a successful farmer on an island in the Yukon River above Dawson City, put it this way: “I’m here, in one of the most remote and coldest places on earth, not to make a statement but rather to make a living.” Cover crops and living fences, on their own, couldn’t produce that outcome.

Other impacts of the PSSM are more promising. The rate of deforestation in the Sierra de Santa Marta has slowed significantly. While much of the remaining forest is naturally protected by exceptionally steep and rough terrain, a key factor has been the creation of Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve, recognized by Mexico in 1996 and internationally in 2006 by UNESCO. This legal entity puts pressure on all levels of government and local people to avoid damaging the remaining forests.
The biosphere reserve declaration would not have been possible but for the groundwork laid by the Sierra de Santa Marta project. The project team created the detailed maps showing the forest boundaries and various kinds of buffer zones, documented the population and economic dynamics, and outlined goals and programs to guide conservation of the nucleus and co-management of the buffer zones.

The information was compiled and published by the project, UNAM and SEMARNAP, the national body that oversaw the creation of the reserve on behalf of the federal government. Fernando Ramírez, a biologist who led the project for many years and added credibility to the science behind the maps, was key to this outcome. I remember sitting with him in the spring of 1991 at the Playa Azul Hotel in Catemaco. We had gathered there with other new recruits to the project to plan our work together. The hotel later hosted Sean Connery during filming of “Medicine Man,” a flawed film about pharmaceutical company scientists racing to stop deforestation as they searched for a cancer cure discovered by an Indigenous medicine man.

Fernando, a handsome man with black hair and thick moustache, mesmerized us with his knowledge and enthusiasm for the plants and animals of the region. His real-life and decades-long commitment to the cause of protecting the forests of Los Tuxtlas and Santa Marta stands in sharp contrast to the commercial fiction and glorification of bio-piracy in the Hollywood film.

As with any real-life story, however, the accomplishment is tinged by lost opportunities. Luisa and a colleague document in a 2006 book the tortured tale of conflict and competition between the state and federal governments over the creation of the biosphere reserve. Representing two different levels of government, the state and the federal agencies undermined each other at every turn, confusing communication and bungling the process of setting up the reserve. Eventually, each government expropriated land for the reserve nucleus from communities, some of which, like Pajapan, had titles going back to the 1600s. This act of state impunity, and corrupt handling of compensation, turned the process of creating the reserve into a bitter agrarian struggle. It closed off any possibility for direct community participation in co-creation of the reserve and co-management of the buffer zone meant to protect the nucleus and the sources of water the communities and nearby cities depend on. Instead, there was, and remains, conflict and resistance.

The dreams we had of co-creating a biosphere reserve with the local population and facilitating the adoption of sustainable agricultural technologies, were not to be. They were not well aligned with the political, economic, and social realities of the region and the time. Dominion by cattle interests, government corruption, and fragmentation of Indigenous and local leadership pulled in a different direction.

In recent conversation with Luisa, I reflected on these and other lessons of our work together, especially with respect to the Red de Promotores Campesino, our joint legacy in the Sierra de Santa Marta project. While well intentioned, we had treated the Red as a means to an end, defined at the time as better livelihoods for farmers and reduced pressure on the remaining forests through use of meaningful and accessible technologies. This orientation was misaligned in a different sense, driving change from the outside-in, from us to them. It inevitably lost energy and direction as circumstances and individual involvement changed.

Luisa later tried to correct the gaps we had left in the network leadership structure, starting with reorganizing the Red as a member cooperative and encouraging individuals to take up positions in the ejidos, municipal governments, and ecology commissions in their own communities. She had come to understand that self-organization was a more compelling end goal than any particular technology or even abstract outcomes such as better livelihoods and forest conservation. Her efforts, over a dozen years, involved constant and caring attention to people and political dynamics she had come to know well. Various people responded, in turn making a difference by contributing in small and larger ways to better local governance.

While there is no direct line connecting the work of the PSSM to the present state, today there is a dynamic, Indigenous-led social organization in the Sierra de Santa Marta. It forcefully articulates collective demands, raising concerns about fracking for oil and gas in their territories, threats to water sources, and land policies driving young people out of the region. That is a hopeful sign.

When I left Mexico to take up a position at IDRC, I was satisfied with what I had accomplished and confident that I had given my best to the undertaking. Personal lessons from my third life in Mexico were many, spanning another five years after my earlier encounter as an artist with the magic of the people and the country and as a student of anthropology exploring the complexity of the society. I had drawn inspiration from Lorenzo’s positivity, Hugo’s equanimity, Fernando’s commitment, and Luisa’s political courage. These qualities found an echo in my own soul, helping me to grow. That too is a hopeful sign.

I did not know when I arrived in Ottawa that I would not return to live in Mexico again, and rarely see the friends I had made there. When ever I meet Mexicans, in Canada or elsewhere, I still describe myself as “medio Mejicano,” half-mexican. After all, both my sons were born there. And, as the singer Neil Young might say, all my changes were there.

  1. Byerlee and Edmeades, 2021 ↩︎

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