October 15, 2020, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)
Indigenous Farming in Mexico and Belize – An interview with Karla Hernandez-Aguilar
Karla G. Hernandez-Aguilar is a PhD student on the Palaeobenchmarking Resilient Agricultural Systems (PalaeoRAS) project
Why did you decide to do a PhD? What were you doing before?
Before joining the University of Nottingham, I worked in Southern Belize for two and a half years as the Protected Areas Program Director at an NGO called Ya’axche Conservation Trust. I established working relationships with many indigenous small-scale farmers and cattle ranchers and I became increasingly aware and concerned about the impact of climate change on their livelihoods.
I started noticing that there was a gap between the scientific literature and the reality of agriculture and people’s livelihoods. I realised there was a need to incorporate many elements of my job into scientific research but I couldn’t really do that in my previous position because of limited time and funds.
Why did you choose this particular PhD project?
The Future Food Beacon opportunity has allowed me to achieve my aim of studying the area I used to work in. I believe that my research will have a positive impact on many people’s livelihoods both in Belize and within my home country of Mexico. On a personal note, the topic I am researching is of great importance for my family as my grandad was a traditional indigenous farmer.
How is your first year going? Any highlights or successes?
Overall, I feel that my first year has been full of learning and positive experiences. Coming from a background different from geography or specialized agriculture, it has been interesting and challenging getting involved in a topic that has a great impact on our daily lives, but which often is taken for granted. This year has given me the opportunity to rethink and revalue the way I look at food systems. I have received good guidance from my supervisors and colleagues to gain this perspective. This is a learning process!
How are you approaching this research?
I had the opportunity to spend considerable time out in the field (approximately 6 weeks), getting to know my research sites, learning the Maya terms and culture, familiarizing with the sampling techniques and methods first-hand and meeting our in-country collaborators. I have adopted quite a wide multidisciplinary approach and it has been challenging but also a new way of learning about different topics and motivating me.
Who have you been collaborating with?
In Mexico, we are collaborating with UADY and ECOSUR through Prof. Roger Medina-González and Dr. Birgit Schmook. In Belize, a new collaboration was developed with the Ministry of Agriculture to support our research. I am also collaborating with different indigenous small-scale farmers in both Mexico and Belize. A total of 6 Maya communities will be engaged in this research.
How do you communicate with so many diverse stakeholders?
I have established a good working network with representatives from academia and government in both countries. The Ministry of Agriculture in Belize, through its Research, Development and Innovation Unit, is very interested in the outcomes of this research as it will help to guide their future work to support farmers.
Farmers in both countries are interested in learning more about my research as this is something that could be useful in their agriculture systems. For this reason, they are willing to support our local efforts through data collection and have been involved closely in the research process.
Have you had to adopt your project in the face of Covid 19?
Yes, and I am eternally grateful for the dedication and support that farmers in Belize and Mexico and in-country collaborators have provided to my work during Covid-19 since I have been forced to adapt my methodology.
I have been collecting information through surveys, with the help of local field assistants, about how small-scale farmers have been adapting their food systems and techniques to the effects of the pandemic and to the severe droughts, flooding, tropical storms and hurricanes that they have experienced simultaneously. In addition, new and creative ways of data collection have been developed and are being tested out.