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Grad student awarded $100,000 fellowship to help restore food security in Philippines

Heckelman_AmberAmber Heckelman, a doctoral student studying environmental science at Washington State University Vancouver, has won the 2013-2014 Bullitt Foundation Environmental Fellowship worth $100,000 for her research that centers on alleviating the suffering of Philippine peasants by restoring food security and sovereignty.

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. In the Philippines Heckelman 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.

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 sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

Food sovereignty, a concept launched by La Via Campesina, 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 often resulting in wars, diaspora and the dissolution of local economies. Heckelman’s research aims to participate in the effort to mitigate this vicious cycle and restore food security and sovereignty by exploring and documenting the effects of MASIPAG agroecological practices.

Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development) is a cooperative of peasant farmers based in the Philippines that works with scientists and non-governmental organizations to develop and implement traditional, sustainable farming practices.

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 and 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,” said Heckelman.

The Bullitt Environmental Fellowship is a two-year, $50,000 per year fellowship for graduate students interested in pursuing leadership positions within the environmental field. An outstanding, environmentally knowledgeable graduate student from a community under-represented in the environmental movement, who has demonstrated an exceptional capacity for leadership as well as scholarship, is selected for the fellowship.

“Amber is an amazing and dynamic student, and has all the traits of a successful scholar: she is driven, passionate and intellectually curious. She’s one of a growing number of truly interdisciplinary scholars, someone who will develop advanced understanding of human and environmental systems through a deep understanding of the science, culture and research in both areas. And her 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 M. Jahi Chappell, assistant professor of environmental science and justice, and Heckelman’s advisor/committee chair at WSU Vancouver.

The Bullitt Environmental Fellowship 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.

The Bullitt Foundation was founded in 1952 by Dorothy Bullitt, a prominent Seattle business woman 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.

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