Students get hands-on experience in the Andes

Students on-site in the Altiplano (Andean highlands)

Students on-site in the Altiplano (Andean highlands)

Ecuador is a country of contrasts: tropical Pacific beaches and Amazon rain forests separated by the majestic Andes mountain range. About the size of Colorado, Ecuador also includes the Galápagos Islands, whose astonishing range of animal and plant species influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Despite rich resources such as oil, a major export, Ecuador has a sizable population living below the poverty line – about 38%, according to the CIA World Factbook. To help those people, many of them subsistence farmers in remote mountain areas, a team of Virginia Tech professors and undergraduate students traveled to Ecuador this year to research how improved agricultural practices can win wider acceptance.

“We wanted to study why people do what they do,” said Jeffrey R. Alwang, professor of agricultural and applied economics in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He leads an applied research project in Ecuador and Bolivia that is studying all facets of farm life in the Altiplano – the Andean highlands – and teaching conservation practices such as reduced tillage, crop rotation, and contour plowing. The goal of the project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and managed by Virginia Tech’s Office of International Research, Education, and Development, is not only to raise farm families’ incomes but also to improve water quality and reduce erosion, a significant problem on the steep Andean slopes.

With Tech Professors Darrell Bosch and George W. Norton, Alwang organized a program that took five undergraduates to Ecuador in May and June for six weeks of study. Norton said the program is unusual. “It’s hard to get undergrads involved in hands-on research, especially in a developing country,” he said. “There are programs for graduate students but very few in which undergrads can spend concentrated time doing field research.”

The students – Julia Gibson, Lindsay Hall, Jessica Martin, Andrew Sowell, and Erin Zeiders – were selected in late 2008 for the internships, which paid their expenses using scholarship funds from CALS and the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program (SANREM CRSP), for which Alwang, Bosch, and Norton are principal investigators. The students took a spring seminar taught jointly by the three professors in which they studied Ecuador’s culture, history, and economy, and polished their Spanish language skills. They wrote a research plan, formulated objectives, and developed hypotheses. Finally, they learned what to pack for their trip, how to avoid getting sick, and how to adjust to altitudes as high as 12,000 feet.

“The class was definitely beneficial,” Erin Zeiders said. “Had we not had it, there would have been way more culture shock.” Despite the orientation, she got food poisoning from ceviche, a dish made of raw fish marinated in lime juice. Classmate Lindsay Hall agreed that selecting food required vigilance: “One of the first meals I ordered was chicken soup, and it came with the entire chicken foot, including the claws. You had to be wary.”

Alwang led the first two weeks of the program, which included language classes and brainstorming to refocus the research plan. Bosch took the lead for the next two weeks, when the students began one-on-one surveys with farmers on what conservation practices they were applying and, if none, why not. They used the participatory appraisal approach, which relies on the experience and knowledge of local people to come up with solutions to local problems.

“Some of the hills are so steep, tractors can’t plow horizontally – they have to climb to the top of the slope and roll down,” Bosch said. “Otherwise they will overturn.” Such furrows allow rainwater to wash downhill, carrying topsoil with it. The 5-year-old SANREM CRSP program is training farmers to use hedges to trap sediment and retain water, to plow around hills instead of up and down, to rotate improved pasture with potatoes, and, in the lower part of the watershed, to try crops such as blackberries that hold soil well and command high market prices.

“For the farmer, the main consideration is survival: making a living,” Bosch said. “We focus on practices that make the lower land more productive, reducing the need to go up the steep slopes.”

Divided into three teams, each accompanied by a local extension person or a scientist from the national agricultural research institution, which is collaborating with Virginia Tech on the SANREM program, the students went from farm to farm. They conducted interviews in Spanish, asking about planting and harvesting schedules and the history of each area. They walked with farmers in the fields to observe and record the conservation practices being used. In less than four weeks, they interviewed nearly 100 farmers, both women and men, and recorded their findings in a database with a short paragraph about each site.

Norton led the final two weeks, which concluded with a field day at a farm near Guaranda, the capital of Bolivar province. More than 100 farmers and about 50 representatives from local organizations assembled to hear presentations by extension personnel and by the students, who outlined their research findings. The event drew mayors and business people from local towns, technicians from Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture, and personnel from the International Red Cross and Christian relief organization World Vision. Farmers met in small groups to exchange information on their successes and innovations.

Word that Virginia Tech students were participating caught the attention of the local television station and the national station in Quito. “The fact that they were there made a difference,” Norton said. “Local extension agents were interviewed on TV, and they had a chance to talk about conservation agriculture practices. Local organizations got a look at the bigger picture.”

The students benefited from the program in ways they had not imagined. “Being in a developing country was an amazing experience, seeing how the other half lives,” Hall said. Regarding the research, “I thought I would be more of an observer. The professors gave directions but let us do the hands-on work. It was a huge learning opportunity.”