Sunday, February 10, 2013

My agricultural extension adventures

Over a few months last year I spent a lot of time traveling Colombia, giving sustainability workshops to dairy farmers with a short-term consulting assignment.  It was at times tiring to be traveling so much and giving workshops to groups that were not always that receptive.  But in general I just felt lucky to have the opportunity to work in something that's interesting and that I believe in. When I would get worn out, or find myself just going through the motions, I'd remind myself of the honor and privilege of my situation:  I am leading hands-on agricultural extension workshops with developing country farmers that might actually benefit in a real way from my work.

When I was in college, studying often drab technical agronomy topics like the mineral content of soils or proper herbicide application rates, I would read inspiring books about grassroots agricultural change, and long to be involved in something like that.  Given that most full-time farmers in the US are already very technified and perhaps even overserved by a complex agronomy extension infrastructure, I didn't see how I might ever have such a direct, needed impact in the lives of people who needed it.  Most international development agencies expressly avoid hiring foreigners to do on-the-ground work.  The thinking is that some guy from the US isn't going to know much about the local reality in a remote zone of Burundi, such that it would be a much better option to hire local ag extension staff. This approach is correct and coherent, but it doesn't leave much of a place for an agronomist like me who wants to help in developing countries but doesn't happen to be from one himself.

So this short gig teaching sustainability workshops was a real unexpected gift for me.  First off, I was lucky to be in Colombia, which on the one hand is a place where my skills are valued, and on the other hand where people seem to accept me despite my being from abroad.  The majority of people in my workshops were happy to have me working with them, and didn't make the type of comments you might expect when there's a foreign "expert" preaching to local farmers.  I often felt more accepted and welcomed and valued among the farmers in parts of Colombia I've never been to before, than I do talking with people from my own hometown of Chicago that might have a different skin color or accent from me.  I would like to think that people's acceptance of me was because they could see that I'm well-versed and competent with the technical and social topics I was managing in the workshop, but I think it had more to do with my audience's qualities than with my own.  I don't know if this unexpected acceptance of a foreigner in the parts of Colombia I've been working in is because of some aspect of the country's culture, or the physical appearance of its people (which is so varied that I don't fall far outside the range of what a normal Colombian might look like), or maybe just the particular juncture the country is in in terms of economic development.  At any rate, I was thankful for people's acceptance, as much as I was thankful for this job opportunity that just sort of came from nowhere.

In my design and execution of these workshops, I tried to maintain a dynamic, participatory ambiance, a co-creation of knowledge whereby I wasn't just dictating content to those present, but rather where we were constructing concepts and strategies together.  In the initial drafting of the workshop, I really had to fight to keep this aspect of my course design, because the standard conception that a lot of people had was of a magisterial course wherein I would enlighten the crowd with lots of technical concepts.  At times I wondered why I was insisting so much on my approach, and if perhaps I should just change it all to make it a technical class more than a participatory workshop.  In the end I didn't; I maintained the interactive dynamic, and after my first few workshops I remembered exactly why.

As someone from my first host organization drove me to the airport after a few workshops, she remarked that the workshops were very participatory, and that the people seemed to enjoy them and get a lot out of them.  I started explaining to her why I'd set the workshops up that way, and as I spoke I began to remember some intellectual elements from my past.  I explained to my host about Paulo Freire, his Pedagogy of the Oppressed (which is his watershed book but to me is a lot less concrete and clear than a collection of brief pamphlets called Extension or Education) that stipulates that students are not an empty vessel to be filled by an omniscient professor, but rather that students and instructor should become co-learners and co-creators of knowledge.  I also recalled my masters thesis research on MSFs or EFAs, the family-based schools that utilize alternating cycles between learning in the classroom and working on personal economic projects in order to form adolescents in the ways of values, work, and critical thought.  And I'd written another master's thesis (this one totally torn apart by my review jury) about participatory plant breeding and farmer field schools, two other grassroots, revolutionary teaching approaches. 

In short, I remembered past lessons and studies that have apparently shaped me very profoundly, but that I had somewhat forgotten as explicit influences on my thinking and work.  This was why I had designed the workshops as I had, this was why I had stuck to my guns in terms of the importance of maintaining a co-creation of knowledge and not just a one-way flow of theory from me to the workshop attendants.  Recalling all this thanks to my conversation with that person from the host organization was a delightful revelation for me, and it made me think back to the pleasurable times I'd passed in the literary presence of Freire and other pedagogy theorists.  Again I was confirming how lucky I was to be able to finally apply all those concepts and ideals I'd read about wistfully in college.  I'd always assumed that I'd never have the chance to work at the grassroots with peasants in developing countries like Guinea-Bissau or Brazil, where my pedagogical heroes had developed their methods and ideas.  But here I was!

Another nice part of doing these workshops was feeling that I was not only following in Freire's footsteps, but in my wife Caro's, too.  Shortly before meeting me, when she was a bit younger than I am now, she worked for the National Federation of Panela Producers.  This job had her travelling all over rural Colombia, giving workshops with panela farmers (panela is a solid sugar cane molasses produced by small farms in Colombia, and consumed by most of the populace as a source of energy and nutrients).  She had passed through the same places I was visiting now, though some ten years ago when they were much more dangerous.  So now, even as I sometimes felt lonely to be in strange hotels away from my family, I also felt close to my wife in a special sort of way, like someone who follows the trail of James Joyce's old haunts in Dublin, or drinks at the same taverns Hemingway did almost a century ago, or looks through his dead father's high school yearbook.  

Through the course of 20 workshops in 19 different towns, I've seen a fair amount of the regional differences in culture and character in Colombia.  I've worked in Narino, where the indigenous highland peasants are quiet, reserved, and razor-sharp in their observation and understanding.  This was perhaps my favorite place to work, as the dynamic was much like what I'm used to in Boyaca.  I've worked in Cauca, where the humble Nasa Indians I worked with were similar to what I'd seen in Narino, while the group of 90-plus arrogant students in Popayan, the capital, made for a chaotic, tedious, not-very-interactive class, my worst workshop of the whole stint.  I've worked in a hot and sweaty lean-to shed in Meta, where the sun beat down on the asbestos-tile roof overhead, and the electric fans were too loud to use.  I've worked in various places on the Caribbean coast, where people are warm and interested, though they have horrible manners in terms of answering the phone and interrupting the class, and they don't participate very much.  (Incidentally, I fell in love with Barranquilla, an industrial port city that no one waxes rhapsodic about, but that I felt had a good mix of big-city cosmopolitanism with the laid-back of a small Afro-Caribbean village).  I ended up doing like five workshops on the high plains in Boyaca and near Bogota, where the dynamic was nothing new to what I'm used to in my normal job, but it was cool to get to know new little corners of central Colombia.

Last of all, I mention a string of workshops I did in the Cauca Valley department, where Cali is.  In terms of the character of the people, this was (is) the part of Colombia where my feelings are most tumultuous, most ambiguous.  On the one hand, the larger-scale aspects of the culture in this department are to my liking.  Cali is a gritty but vibrant industrial city, and along with its large black population, it reminds me in many ways of Chicago.  There are great (though underappreciated) museums, the best zoo in Colombia, lots of amazing restaurants, a happening nightlife that I haven't really partaken of, and a sizzling musical culture.  Cali is the capital of salsa music in Colombia, and its style is much faster and more frenetic than the relatively moderate and paced rhythm of Caribbean son and salsa.  On top of this, half of my wife's family is from Cali, and I like them a lot, especially their odd little hobbies like making Tiffany lamps or painting canvases, all of which they do with an impeccable artistic taste and attention to detail.

But on the other hand, Cali and the Valley in general have a haughty, close-minded, parochial attitude.  A famous saying is, "Cali is Cali, everything else is just hillside," which is indicative of the not-entirely-well-founded superiority complex suffered by everyone there.  Civic culture is nonexistent--there's dog poop and garbage everywhere, the highways are perfectly constructed but smell of burning sugarcane residue (and you see distant flares everywhere if you ride the bus at night), and on a bus I rode on one woman thought nothing of getting up and turning off the in-ride movie that everyone was watching, because she didn't like it!  In my workshops in smaller towns of the Valley, people were mildly participatory, but in some respects they mixed the poor manners considered typical of Colombia's warmer regions, with the coldness and even disdain typical of the big city.  Add into the mix that many of the farmers in my workshops were from the Valley, but not the lowland, hot, well-developed part that comprises the majority of the area and the population, but rather from remote highland areas upwards of 10000 feet altitude.  To get to these places you have to drive two or three hours, then walk another hour or two.  There is no electricity, no roads, no garbage pickup, and no security.  The presence of law and order is limited to guerrillas and mafias and paramilitary groups that mete out their own brand of justice.  So I had a few workshops in which a large part was taken up by frustrated residents of these regions who'd gone to so much effort to come down and attend, and now spent the whole time opining (very vocally) that what I was saying was unrealistic, impractical, and a waste of time.  Oh yeah, and in one such workshop, there was a construction crew pounding from the other side on the wall behind me during the whole session.  Worst, or best, of all was that after eight hours of constant haranguing and criticism and general unpleasantness from the workshop participants, all my evaluations came out very positive!  The exact opposite of what sometimes happens in Boyaca, where people seem happy and interested, then rip you to pieces in the post-workshop evaluation.

Through all this time in the Valley, I was reminded of something Caro's grandmother had said.  She is from Cali, and loves the city with a passion.  But on a recent visit to Boyaca, which she and most of her family probably consider an uncultured backwater, she made an interesting observation.  Whereas in the Valley things seem neater, more polished, more bourgeois, and in Boyaca everything is poorer and more rustic, she felt that the children seemed healthier in Boyaca.  When she would go into roadside stores in Boyaca, or see kids outside, the kids were always active, helping their parents with daily chores.  They were involved, bright-eyed, engaged.  In the Valley, she felt that kids were often munching junk food from foil packets as they dully watched TV or played video games.  They weren't helpful, weren't even present, really, just bored and boring.  I attribute this difference to the strong agrarian culture in Boyaca, which favors families' working together, everyone pitching in, and at the same time a critical, aware stance towards life.  In the Valley, agriculture is based on large-scale industrial plantations.  Kids don't help their parents in the fields, there are few small family farms, and this carries over into other sectors, where there aren't many mom-and-pop, family affairs.  I wonder if this also explains some of what I perceive as a disagreeable culture and manners in the Valley.

I also wonder about the larger socioeconomic ramifications of Boyaca's diversified, agrarian-focused economy vs. the Valley's focus on industrial agriculture and manufacturing.  My preconception is that industrialization and urbanization tend to create a lot of wealth, but that it is unevenly distributed, while an agrarian economy often keeps people poor, but relatively egalitarian, and with certain basic needs met.  If this is the case, there is a valid debate as to which model of economic development one should opt for, especially considering that the massive wealth created by industry and capitalism can be wisely directed toward social programs to help those left on the wrong side of the inequality divide.  This differentiation between rich but unequal societies and poor but egalitarian ones would also explain the flashy but unequal feel of the Valle (and perhaps the seeming resentment and gruffness of its people), and Boyaca's laid-back, pleasant yet poor atmosphere.  However, some basic research on social indicators in the two departments shows that Boyaca both has double the percentage of the populace with unmet basic needs, and that its GINI coefficient (a common measure of economic inequality) is in fact higher than the Valley's.  So there goes my theory out the door.  I still like Boyaca better, in the same way that I prefer Cartagena's vibrance and openness (though it is one of the poorest, most desperate cities in Colombia) to Santa Marta's manicured lawns and high fences.

In all my travels, and especially when noting the different cultural characteristics of each region, I sometimes got irritated with people.  After the seventh person who comes into a workshop an hour late and interrupts everything to greet everyone (while I'm just wondering why I or anyone else should care that he even exists), or the tenth person to say that it is impossible for them to keep basic notes on their ranching activities and thus that my workshops are useless, it is easy to get impatient.  But in my worst, Daniel-Day-Lewis-in-There-Will-Be-Blood misanthropic moments, I would try to snap out of it, and of course I never said anything or did anything ugly to anyone in response.  I'd always dreamt of working with the rural poor, and in my youth I was often impatient and even hateful of the bourgeois, unconscious ways of my US compatriots.  Now I was working with the Third World poor, and when I would feel similar anger with them, it became clear that the generalized righteous indignation of my college years was just a noble front to channel what is really a shameful character flaw:  my impatience and intolerance of other human beings.  Of course in some ways my impatience was an ironic manifestation of my solidarity with these farmers; I couldn't get irritated with them unless I were working with them regularly and committed to them.  Not getting annoyed with people from time to time is unnatural, and it would be condescending of me.  But anger and rage have no place in a healthy life, and I've gradually gotten a hold on them during and after my stint of giving workshops.

Much to my shame, my babyish impatience and tantrums got the better of me in at least one way.  My employer would advance me expense money before each trip, and then I accounted for all my expenses afterwards and reimbursed them the difference.  This was the first time I'd ever had any sort of an expense account, and I felt like really big stuff.  I was a business traveller like George Clooney in Up in the Air, except in small towns in a developing country, which is a twist right up my alley.  I was amazed at the relatively nice places that existed even in out-of-the-way towns (I'm sure I've got Colombia's vast circulating supply of narco-money to thank for that), and felt privileged to stay in them, even as I didn't want to turn on the AC or spend too much company money.  But one time, in the midst of a long, grueling run of workshops, when I'd already gotten accustomed to a certain level of luxury, I was annoyed at to have to stay in a less-than-stellar hotel.  It wasn't bad, it just wasn't very nice either, and I set about pouting.  This was totally unlike me--I normally pride myself on being low-hassle, and especially in terms of living conditions, I'm accustomed to making do with very basic accomodations when I have to.  I guess I was really just upset at what I'd perceived as a momentary lapse in my employer's taking care of me, because there were a few towns where they hadn't organized all the logistics beforehand, and I was left to find transport, contact the local point person, and even print out my class worksheets myself.  None of this was anything difficult that I couldn't do, but my boss's not taking care of it as agreed made me feel underappreciated. 

At any rate, for the next few destinations I went on a minor spending spree.  I ate finer food than before, and I even stayed at the most exclusive hotel in Popayan (a converted monastery that I'd highly recommend).  Obviously I couldn't buy clothes or video games or whatever with my expense account, and I wouldn't have committed such a breach of ethics anyway, but spending a bit more than I knew I had to felt like a valid revenge.  This got old quick, and didn't make me feel any better or more appreciated.  So soon thereafter I decided to acknowledge how lucky I was to be getting paid well to do something fun, and just enjoy my work.  From then on, when I felt my employers weren't doing something they were supposed to, I brought it up with them, but mainly I followed the philosophy that my anger did me more harm than it did them, and I cheered up.

Even that first night of my spending binge, I left my hotel in the evening to walk around Popayan.  Popayan is a colonial city, all painted in white limewash.  It is urbane and sophisticated, but also small, manageable, and with a strong peasant character.  I went to the central plaza, with its banks and colonial churches, I went through a low-end mall of small, bustling stalls selling clothes, bootleg CDs, and lots of fried street food.  Eventually I got lost, and just wandered around the nondescript (though lovely and colonial) residential streets, with their parking garages, corner stores, and shoe repair shops.  I was amazed to find normal, humble people living just in the shadow of Popayan's world famous colonial core, going about their daily lives.  This is one of the perks of living in Colombia right now--there is lots of authentic culture and architecture, and people appreciate it and are increasingly preserving and restoring it.  But given the lack of a large, foreigner-heavy tourist industry, a guy like me can not only marvel at the more official sights, like 17th-century churches or esteemed restaurants.  No, I have the luck to be able to lose myself in the back streets of Popayan.

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