Friday, August 8, 2008

PS 78-67: ESA sowing SEEDS of sustainability in Chiapas, Mexico

Elvia Meléndez-Ackerman1, Jorge Ramos2, Melissa Armstrong3, Steven A. Sloan4, and Diana Guzman4. (1) University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, (2) University of Washington, (3) Ecological Society of America, (4) University of Puerto Rico, Bayamón


Pressing issues such as global warming, high rates of habitat loss and transformation, invasive species and their impacts on biodiversity and available resources for an increasingly growing human population have created an unprecedented demand for trained ecologists versed in interdisciplinary approaches.  In parallel with such demand, the United States faces an underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the scientific workforce (even more so in the ecological sciences) despite clear trends that these groups are growing proportionately faster in our country.  Recognizing both of these issues ESA-SEEDS works continuously in the development of innovative and meaningful activities to attract a large and diverse student population to the ecological workforce.  Last year it sponsored the second of two international field experiences for undergraduates that took place in Chiapas, Mexico.  The theme was “Forest and agroforest landscape transformation in southern Mexico: consequences for biodiversity, conservation, and rural livelihoods.

Eighteen students, three resource faculty, and two ESA SEEDS staff faced the issue of sustainable land uses from diverse points of view that included scientists from El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), local farmers and cattle ranchers, cooperative workers, human rights activists and other citizens from the state of Chiapas.  The setting was ideal in that students were presented with genuine enterprises by the academic world (led by ECOSUR) to bridge scientific and traditional knowledge in the search for sustainability of agricultural systems.  Unique aspects of this international experience included a multicultural field experience with Mexican and US students presenting results graphically and without words, a town hall meeting with representatives from two production cooperatives, and exposure to information on the class and ethnic struggles within the state of Chiapas and its relevance to agrarian reforms in Mexico.  An important message was that it is crucial to think about ecological problems globally.  Activities such as the Chiapas Field trip are an excellent example of how SEEDS students can generate ideas on how to develop ecological projects with global impacts and applications.  Recent data shows that international experiences could be an effective tool to attract students into ecological studies.  A post-trip student survey taken one year later (N = 8) suggests that this activity may have planted SEEDS of sustainability by influencing students’ career choices and post course activities.