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July 21, 2003

International agroecology course draws global participants

By Jennifer McNulty

With participants from Tunisia, Venezuela, Mexico, Korea, Vietnam, Italy, Nigeria, Canada, and the United States, the International Agroecology Short Course drew its most diverse group of participants ever this year.

Photo of class members

International visitors identify insects at the UCSC Farm during an intensive two-week agroecology course. Pictured from left to right are Felipe Pulido of Venezuela; Janet Bryer, UCSC research assistant; Myung-Chul Seo of Korea; Olgaly Ramos, a graduate student at Kansas State University; Ernesto Mendez, a UCSC doctoral candidate; and Sen Hoang of Vietnam. Photo: Ariane de Bremond.

"One of the great benefits of this course is that we get together with people from all over the world," said Stephen Gliessman, Alfred E. Heller Professor of Agroecology in the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz, who developed the course five years ago. "I learn as much from the participants as I try to teach them."

The short course offers an intensive series of lectures, farm visits, demonstrations, and seminars designed to provide a forum for researchers, government representatives, farmers, and educators to share knowledge and build an international network of those interested in promoting sustainable agriculture.

This year’s course, from July 13 to 26, focused on interactions between human and ecological communities in heterogeneous rural landscapes. "There is an immense variety of agricultural communities and landscapes in the world," said Gliessman. "We need to learn how agroecology can reach them and help promote the transition to sustainability."

Samia Belkhiria, who administers Tunisia’s organic program, attended the course because she felt her knowledge of broader agroecological principles was weak. "Organic is just part of the system," said Belkhiria. "I needed more knowledge about other parts of agroecology, not just organic."

Upon returning to Tunisia, Belkhiria will write a report about the course for the Minister of Agriculture that will be distributed to everyone in organic and sustainable agriculture. "It’s been very interesting," said Belkhiria. "I hope to send others to attend the course in the future."

A delegation of five researchers and academics from Vietnam also attended the course, with representatives coming from northern, central, and southern Vietnam. Although ecology is a relatively new concept in Vietnam, community-based resource management lies at the heart of the government’s efforts to avoid deforestation, minimize soil erosion, and protect water supplies, said Sen Hoang, a lecturer at Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry.

Olgaly Ramos attended the course as a graduate student in entomology at Kansas State University. For Ramos, the course was an opportunity to broaden her perspective and take a "systems approach" to agroecology.

"I started in biology, then specialized in biological control, and now I’m focused only on insects that feed on wheat and corn when they’re in storage," said Ramos. "I want to have more variety and to learn about other areas."

After graduation, Ramos plans to return to her native Puerto Rico and teach at the university level. "I want to try to talk them into including courses on agroecology," she said.

Similarly, Roberta Castillo Martinez, a professor at the University of Quintana Roo in Mexico, hopes to open an agroecology program on her campus.

Laura Trujillo and Carlos Guadarrama (UCSC Ph.D. ’00), both professors at the University of Chapingo in Mexico, studied as doctoral students with Gliessman and returned to UCSC this summer as instructors.

The challenge facing agroecology today is the need for greater understanding of the social forces at work, said Trujillo, whose expertise is in the political ecology of coffee production in Mexico. The crash of coffee prices a few years ago has highlighted the need for a focus on markets.

"Most people have experience producing organically--managing the soil and the ecosystem," she said. "They want to understand the social part of it, not the technical part. They want to know what happened to the ideas about networks and unions, and they want to know what is going to happen with the market for their products."

Indeed, the economic downturn in Mexico has wiped out many opportunities and created enormous barriers on the path to sustainability, said Guadarrama.
"Ecology is trendy and in the news, but the reality is quite different," he said. "It’s a lot of trouble to push technological innovation in agriculture. Students were just starting to get good jobs, and now we’re in a depression. It’s so bad, there are no jobs for anybody."

Twenty participants attended the course this summer; several received financial support from the Ford Foundation. Next year’s course will take place in Latin America, said Gliessman. In addition to Gliessman’s agroecology research group, the course was organized by the UCSC Program In Community and Agroecology (PICA), an on-campus living-learning residential program centered in the Village on lower campus, and the Community and Agroecology Network (CAN), a nonprofit based in Santa Cruz. More information is available online.

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