Prof Plants Seeds of Hope in Honduras

Research aims to help small-scale farmers

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Sally Humphries (far right) sits with Honduran women.

When University of Guelph professor Sally Humphries speed-walks along part of the route of this fall’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon, she’ll be raising funds for research and development in a more distant place.

Beginning with her first visit to Honduras almost 20 years ago, the professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology has led a research project to help small-scale farmers in some of that country’s poorest and most marginalized regions. Call it R&D intended to produce not high-tech gadgets but food security and better living standards.

Her project is yielding results in Honduras – so much so that it’s caught the attention of agronomists and plant breeders in a related project connected to Mexican businessman and philanthropist Carlos Slim, ranked as the world’s richest person.

Humphries first visited South and Central America in 1993 as a Rockefeller social science fellow in agriculture. At York University, she had taken social anthropology and Latin American studies and then pursued graduate work in interdisciplinary studies and sociology.

Under her Rockefeller award, she spent two years at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia. But it was while she was living in Honduras that she decided to launch a research program in the Central American country.

Rather than simply study farm practices from outside, she wanted to involve smallholders in a project that effectively turned them into researchers as well.

One key step was to start a non-governmental organization to support the project. Today the Foundation for Participatory Research with Honduran Farmers – known by its Spanish acronym FIPAH – raises funds and involves farmers in research teams.

More than 1,100 farmers in more than 100 research teams in west-central Honduras have received training and helped to test varieties of corn and beans. They’re looking for crop types better suited to poorer hillside soils in the country’s subtropics.

That work involves finding promising varieties to breed with indigenous cultivars called land races. The goal is to develop new strains that might, for instance, resist drought or pack more protein without sacrificing other desired traits.

The project has yielded eight new varieties of corn and beans since the mid-2000s; two more corn varieties were released this year and another two will come out in 2013. (Humphries says the federal government breeding program has produced only four cultivars in 20 years.) Project varieties were tested by Honduran farmers who are now using and distributing the seed.

“What you’re seeing there is capacity on the ground,” says Humphries, adding that the project has yielded other benefits.

A 2004 study showed that the program has helped to shorten some communities’ so-called los junios – a traditional lean period of “hunger days” in early summer – from about five weeks to just over a week.

Benefits go beyond the field. According to a 2008 article published by Humphries and co-researchers in the journal World Development, farmers are making and saving more money.

More important, she says, they are nurturing a sense of hope. Farmers are exploring options and making plans for the future. “People have learned they can change their lives. They become futuristas, not conformistas.”

About four in 10 of those farmer researchers are female. Women have traditionally had little voice in making decisions on the farm, says Humphries, but that’s changing. “You can see these subtle changes starting to take place in their household,” says Humphries. She and co-authors discuss the domestic impacts of the program in an article to appear this year in World Development.

Encouraging women to become leaders is critical not just in Honduras but in developing countries worldwide, says Susan Walsh, executive director of USC Canada in Ottawa.

That non-profit organization works in South and Central America, Africa and Asia. Since 2000, USC Canada has supported the Guelph professor’s project through funding from the Canadian International Development Agency.

USC Canada’s Seeds of Survival program in Honduras aims to ensure food security and sovereignty, says Walsh. “Women are often seed savers. Globally, they are critical to selection of the right seed for next year’s crop.”

She says Humphries’ work is also important for farmers trying to adapt to unpredictable weather extremes expected along with climate change. Shorter corn varieties that stand up to high winds are favoured in Honduras, which ranks among the most disaster-prone countries in the world.

Humphries has also involved young Hondurans in a program to train youngsters to become farmers, researchers and agronomists.

This past summer, Humphries visited Mexico to discuss the project at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. That non-profit research centre works to improve food security and reduce poverty.

A new multimillion-dollar project in Mexico supported by Carlos Slim aims to improve food security, stem loss of biodiversity and improve human rights in that country. Referring to the FIPAH initiative in Honduras, she says, “This little project will help to teach a massive project in Mexico.”

Not that things have always run smoothly in Honduras.

Originally the initiative attracted a number of would-be farmers who saw it only as a subsidy handout. She had to weed through early entrants to find dedicated farmer researchers.

Today the country still suffers from political corruption and from crime linked to drug trafficking. “Honduras is a very dangerous country,” says Humphries, who always travels with FIPAH agronomists.

Back in Canada, Humphries is director of U of G’s international development (ID) program. The program now boasts about 600 undergrads, nearly double the number in 2000. Graduate students in ID are supervised by faculty members across campus.

One of those students is Warren Dodd. He arrived in 2007 as a U of G President’s Scholar to begin an undergrad in international development. Working with Humphries as his scholarship mentor, he visited Honduras twice, learning about community development, helping to run field experiments and looking at effects of worker migration to the United States.

He says the project’s goal is “to create long-term sustainable agriculture and community development for small-scale farmers in marginal areas in Honduras. It’s a project that is noticed and respected by municipal governments and the national government.”

He’s now studying worker migration in southern India as a PhD student with Humphries. His supervisor is part of a larger project there to promote millet growing and consumption. That project involves Guelph biologists and food scientists as well as researchers at other Canadian and Southeast Asian universities.

Food security and nutrition in Honduras was the research topic for Rebecca Ivanoff, a recent master’s grad who worked with Humphries and Prof. Elizabeth Finnis, Sociology and Anthropology.

Ivanoff interviewed Hondurans to learn about cultural perceptions and carried out nutritional analysis of corn. Although coloured corn varieties contain vital nutrients such as vitamins, proteins and anthocyanins, farmers and consumers often look askance at dark-hued cultivars.

“There are interesting cultural ideas that people hold around the colour of different foods,” says Ivanoff, who earlier had studied arts and science at Guelph. Besides sharing her master’s thesis with FIPAH, she’s now writing a pamphlet for the farmer groups she worked with.

Now finished her degree, Ivanoff plans to meet with Humphries and other Guelph members Oct. 14 for a Run for Biodiversity to be held as part of the annual half-marathon on the Toronto waterfront. At last year’s event, they and other participants raised money for USC’s Ethiopian project. Funds raised this year for USC Canada will go to Honduras.

Last year’s event was a first for Humphries, who took about three hours to speed-walk the half-marathon.

She entered partly to mark the birthday of her late partner, Leo Smits, who died in summer 2011. Smits was head of the family and community social services program at the University of Guelph-Humber, and taught for years in the social service worker program at Humber College. He had often accompanied Humphries on her research trips to Honduras, including that inaugural visit under her Rockefeller scholarship.