Research furthers food security, sovereignty

HeckelmanPhoto of Amber Heckelman by Laura Evancich, WSU Vancouver.

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Amber Heckelman, a doctoral student of environmental science at Washington State University Vancouver, has won the 2013-2014 Bullitt Foundation Environmental Fellowship worth $100,000 for research that centers on alleviating the suffering of Philippine peasants by restoring food security and sovereignty.
Awarded annually since 2007, the prize goes to an outstanding, environmentally knowledgeable graduate student from an underrepresented community who has demonstrated an exceptional capacity for leadership as well as scholarship. This is the third year in a row the honor has gone to a WSU student.
“Amber is one of a growing number of truly interdisciplinary scholars,” said M. Jahi Chappell, assistant professor of environmental science and justice and Heckelman’s advisor/committee chair at WSU Vancouver. “She is someone who will develop advanced understanding of human and environmental systems through a deep understanding of the science, culture and research in both areas.”
Helping her mother’s country
In 2007, Heckelman, whose mother grew up in the Philippines, participated in the Philippine Education through Alternative Cultural Exposure program, which is affiliated with the University of Philippines-Diliman. She witnessed extreme poverty and suffering. She saw homes built on landfills and people, many of whom were displaced and landless farmers, rummaging through waste looking for food.
“Upon completing the program I made two vows: to share these stories and to return to the Philippines to help,” said Heckelman.
Her research aims to participate in the effort to restore food security and food sovereignty by exploring and documenting the effects of the agroecological practices of the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura or MASIPAG). It is a cooperative of peasant farmers based in the Philippines that works with scientists and nongovernmental organizations to develop and implement traditional, sustainable farming practices.
Researching collaboration, resiliency
Preliminary research has shown that MASIPAG farms:
• Are more resilient to pests and extreme weather conditions than conventional farms
• Increase and preserve soil quality
• Produce more variety and higher-yielding crops
More research needs to be conducted to measure the degree to which MASIPAG farms are resilient to climate change and contribute to local food security.
MASIPAG is an incredibly complex grassroots organization that encompasses 672 people’s organizations comprised of farmers and local community members; 30,000 farmers; 38 NGOs and 15 scientists from different universities. An analysis of how knowledge is generated and circulated will provide valuable insights that can be shared with farmer networks worldwide to help them move toward adoption, and in some cases re-adoption, of agroecological practices.
“This caliber of socio-ecological research is cutting edge in the field of environmental science,” said Heckelman. “It complements a recent report by the World Economic Forum that stresses the importance of ‘collaborative action’ with smallholders to improve food security, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability.”
“Amber’s research will offer a better understanding of the ecology and social dynamics underlying farmers’ situations in the Philippines, as well as increase our understanding of the broader connections between food security, farmer well-being and biodiversity loss/ecological degradation,” said Chappell.
Food safety and security defined
Heckelman’s vow to mitigate the suffering of Philippine peasants has been intertwined with a commitment to address food security and sovereignty.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing when all people at all times have access to safe and nutritious food sufficient to maintain a healthy and active life.
Food sovereignty, a concept launched by La Via Campesina (an international peasants’ movement), puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
“Essentially, food sovereignty ensures the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not in the hands of the corporate sector,” said Heckelman.
As global food insecurity intensifies due to ecological degradation, so does political instability; this can result in wars, diaspora and the dissolution of local economies. Heckelman’s research aims to participate in the effort to mitigate this vicious cycle.
About the fellowship
The Bullitt award is a two-year, $50,000 per year fellowship for graduate students interested in pursuing leadership positions within the environmental field. It will allow Heckelman to attend significant conferences and trainings. It will let her purchase equipment necessary for field work and provide for travel to the Philippines.
“Amber is an amazing and dynamic student and has all the traits of a successful scholar,” Chappell said. “She is driven, passionate and intellectually curious.”
The Bullitt Foundation was founded in 1952 by Dorothy Bullitt, a prominent Seattle businesswoman and philanthropist. The foundation focuses on safeguarding the natural environment by promoting responsible human activities and sustainable communities in the Pacific Northwest.
It looks for high-risk, high-potential-payoff opportunities to exert unusual leverage. It has a special interest in demonstrating innovative approaches that promise to solve multiple problems simultaneously. It strives to build the intellectual foundations and political support needed for sweeping innovation.