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Soils of Change


An agronomist works with rural farmers to help them adjust to climate change.


By Matthew MacGregor


It may seem odd that a former Peace Corps volunteer would help the world’s poor by studying dirt. But Gaye Burpee, an agronomist with Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international relief and development organization, did just that. After obtaining her doctorate in soil physics, Burpee’s work now is a hybrid between natural resource management and agriculture, which she uses to help Latin American and Caribbean farmers adjust their practices to adapt to climate change. At CRS, she guides agriculture, natural resources, disaster relief, education, microfinance, health, HIV/AIDS, and peace-building programs in 13 countries. (And you thought you were busy!) Plenty caught up with Burpee to discuss how she got involved in her work, what she’s seeing in the field, and who will be most affected by global warming.

What was one of your most interesting experiences as a PhD student?
For a four-year period, I traveled back and forth to the Dominican Republic. My field research focused on harsh growing environments, degraded soils, and resilient tropical crops in a farming and fishing village. I used solar power to run my computer and research equipment; lived in a thatched roofed, mud-floored Ramada; and cooked fresh fish, rice, and beans over an open fire. While I was there, the village was fighting to protect its livelihoods and landscapes from encroachment by illegal over-fishing and indifferent government ministries. Ultimately, they were successful in their fight. To make their point, villagers used satellite images documenting reef and mangrove degradation, and photos of government vehicles with illegal nets on the beach.

How does your training in agronomy help with your work at CRS?   
Soils farmed by the poor in much of the developing world are degraded. The soil is unable to support healthy, vigorous plants and trees; and unable to resist insects, disease, or moderate weather disturbances, let alone natural disaster. The knowledge I need to work with farming families must touch not only on the basics of soils, but on the basics of water, markets, storage, finances, landscapes, weather, crops, pests, small livestock, and trees. Understanding the links between natural resources, rural livelihoods, and poverty enables me to contribute to our programs and the communities we work with in more strategic ways to improve immediate food security and ensure livelihoods for the future. My background in soils provides a view that is invisible to many, and too-often ignored. 

How will the poor in the developing world be affected by climate change?

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN states that as precipitation and temperature patterns change, crop yields are decreasing. In addition, there has been an increased spread of disease vectors in the tropics—crop pests and malarial mosquitoes. There has also been an increase in severe weather events. Climate change increases the vulnerability of the poor because of their high dependence on natural resources, because they have less capacity to adapt, because they have fewer assets for coping with shocks, because they tend to survive on the worst lands in the worst dwellings in exposed locations, and because they live in the worst climates. The range of activities that help farmers adjust to climate change is long. It includes disaster preparedness to store food, water and fodder, strengthening ecosystems to resist bad weather through planting drought and disease resistant trees and crops, and healing degraded hot spots in landscapes.

Have you seen evidence of these environmental changes? 

When I attend meetings of farm families and farmer groups, I always like to ask, “How are things different now compared to 20 years ago?” I always hear things like, “Now we never know when the rainy season will start.” What this means is that farmers are fooled into thinking it is time to plant. Farmers end up planting twice or thrice at great cost, eating into any potential profits they might have had. In areas that had plenty of rain for two cropping seasons in the past, farmers say they are now getting far too much rain much of the year, and that cyclones, hurricanes, or typhoons ruin their crops more frequently. It is not uncommon for rural areas in Latin America and Africa to endure drought that kills crops and livestock, only to be followed by heavy rain. These types of anecdotes are supported by empirical evidence, demonstrating how climate change has made it harder for the poor to survive.


Comments

How to kill pests without killing yourself or the earth......

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Stephen L. Tvedten
2530 Hayes Street
Marne, Michigan 49435
1-616-677-1261
"An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." --Victor Hugo