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2013 Bullitt Environmental Fellowship Winner: Amber Heckelman

The 2013 Bullitt Environmental Fellowship winner Amber Heckelman is a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia studying Integrated Studies in Land & Food Systems. Her interests are focused on the Philippine peasant experience, food security, sovereignty and sustainability.

Amber HeckelmanIn 2013, Amber Heckelman became Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia and set out to cultivate a deeper understanding of the Philippine peasant experience. She was especially drawn to working with peasants because they are extremely marginalized in the Philippines, yet they are a major source of food security, as well as engage in highly sustainable agroecological practices. In spite of this, millions of peasants have no formal claims to land, no government support, and are merely squatters in their own country. So for her master’s thesis in Anthropology, Amber interrogated the Philippine agrarian sector and identified key actors and policies that contribute to the problems and challenges being experienced by Philippine peasants. But she quickly realized she lacked the tools and resources to effectively help the peasant community that was the center of her research. So for her master’s project in Environmental Science, Amber specifically partnered with the Paloma Institute, a not-for-profit that provides direct support to peasant communities in Haiti, to learn how to actively and effectively serve peasant farmers. She was tasked with: evaluating socio-cultural, economic, political, and environmental factors affecting agricultural projects; as well as, assessing the potential for land use models to serve as educational tools.

Today, Amber is a Ph.D. student in Integrated Studies in Land & Food Systems and her interest in Philippine peasants has become refined, or rather intertwined with her commitment to address food security, sovereignty, and sustainability. As global food insecurity intensifies due to ecological degradation, so does political instability often resulting in wars, diaspora, and the dissolution of economies. Amber’s research aims to participate in the effort to mitigate this vicious cycle and restore food security and sovereignty by exploring and documenting the affects of MASIPAG agroecological practices. Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) is a cooperative of peasant farmers that work with both scientists and NGOs to (re)implement traditional and sustainable farming methods. Preliminary research has shown that MASIPAG farms: (1) are more resilient to both pests and extreme weather conditions than conventional farms; (2) increase and preserve soil quality; and (3) produce more variety and higher yielding crops. Further research needs to be conducted to measure the degree in which MASIPAG farms are resilient to climate change and contributing to food security. The MASIPAG network is a nationwide grassroots organization that is very complex, encompassing672 people’s organizations, 35,000 farming families, 60 NGOs, and 15 scientists from various universities. An actor and social network analyses of MASIPAG, specifically how knowledge is generated and disseminated, can provide valuable insights that can be shared around the world to inform other such farmer networks moving towards the (re)adoption of agroecological practices. This caliber of transdisciplinary research is cutting edge and complements a recent report produced by the World Economic Forum which stressed the importance of “collaborative action” with smallholders to improve food security, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability. Amber’s research contributes to the growing efforts being made around the world to consult with peasant farmers as a means for mitigating hunger, poverty, and ecological degradation, as well as strengthening resilience to climate change. Amber grew up in a community afflicted with gangs, drugs, and violence; and in an environment that reared generations of children who grew increasingly aggressive, defensive, and misguided. For Amber’s single immigrant mother and older brother, there were no resources, assistance, or structural support available, making life difficult and often lonely. But these vicissitudes have nurtured Amber’s humility and have given her the capacity to contextualize the experiences of other marginalized communities. Moreover, they have given her the drive to make a difference. For the last decade, Amber has served the communities she’s lived in, from mentoring at-risk youth near her hometown in San Diego, CA; to completing 3 years of service as an Americorps volunteer; to conducting a workshop for the Philippine American Student Association at WSU, covering profound challenges facing Philippine peasants; to developing a food justice workshop for “low status” and underserved youth in Vancouver, WA. Amber will continue to engage in community service projects as a means for ensuring that families, like her own, have an alternative experience. One in which isolation is replaced with relationships, segregation is replaced with community, and aggression is replaced with compassion.

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