Liberation Ecology: From Basic Plant Ecology to Paulo Freire

Ecological Inspirations from Associate Editor Julieta Rosell 

julietaJulieta is based in the Instituto de Ecología at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México – one of the largest Universities in Latin America. Julieta’s research focuses on plant ecology and evolution. She has worked on the functional ecology of woody stems, including mechanics, storage, and structure of bark and wood, along with the evolution of life forms in diverse clades in the wet and dry tropics. She has recently started work on the functional ecology of maize and bean races, plant-soil relationships in agroecosystems, and ecological issues in forest management and conservation. 


I am a lucky Mexican woman. I have been able to pursue a career in science in a country where just finishing school, let alone getting into university, is not an option for many, and especially women. Becoming an ecologist in a country with these social challenges, but also in one of the world’s greatest hotspots of both cultural and biological diversity, has been motivating and inspiring. And although the environmental and social challenges might differ between countries, the discoveries of ecology are as relevant to human well-being in Mexico as they are worldwide. In my research, I focus on how and why plants allocate their hard-won carbon to different structures and functions. For example, by trying to understand why a plant allocates more or less carbon to produce a thick or a thin bark, my research underscores the fact that fire is not the only environmental driver of bark thickness. Factors such as water storage, photosynthate translocation, bark photosynthesis, and mechanical support also drive variation in this trait, especially in the many virtually fire-free forests of the world. Basic bark functional ecology can thus help to improve our management plans through a better understanding of how plants might respond to changes in precipitation or fire regimes that are predicted to occur in many areas. Likewise, this knowledge can help improve carbon flux models by understanding how the amount of carbon stored in bark changes across environments. How to successfully deliver these fruits of ecological research to society and how to achieve the richest possible science-society dialogue is one of the great challenges close to the heart of scientists everywhere.

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Digging bean plants for measurement in central Mexico. Credit: Julieta Rosell

Here in Latin America, there is a home-grown answer, one to which I am increasingly turning to in my research. It goes by names as diverse as popular education, community education, or participatory action research. These approaches share a vision of community self-improvement through appropriation of knowledge and the means of applying this knowledge. These approaches trace their lineage to authors such as the Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire, who set down an inspiring vision of education as a political act, one that takes place beyond the classroom, and one that, most of all, is aimed to achieve social transformation. He called it education for liberation. This vision has inspired decades of popular education all around the world, as well as movements such as the Latin American Liberation Theology in the Catholic Church in the 60s and 70s. Having proven itself very valuable for social transformation, this approach can also prove itself successful in bringing society and ecological research together in an effort to build more sustainable trajectories for our socioecological systems.

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Fabiola interviewing a farmer for a study integrating traditional knowledge and ecological research regarding carbon allocation in maize. Credit: Julieta Rosell

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Working with land owners and students in projects on the management of a Mayan rainforest and the carbon stored in bark and wood of its majestic trees. Credit: Sandra Garcia.

In bringing science and society together, hard ecological science can establish a very fruitful dialogue with local knowledge. This has been my recent experience. Mexico is blessed with more than 10% of the world’s biodiversity, including extensive forests, and a vast cultural wealth, with over fifty indigenous languages spoken by dozens of extant cultural groups. A great amount of traditional knowledge has remained tied to this cultural diversity, including a massive storehouse of sustainable farming and land management techniques. Integrating this knowledge with cutting edge ecological research has been the focus of some of my most recent research. If you want to see corn and bean farmers tending the ancient milpa (Mesoamerican cornfield) together with scientists, or Chinantec people proudly walking through their very diverse and sustainably managed pine forests, or Mayans on motorbikes with ecology grad students, come and visit. It’s all in a day’s work in Latin American liberation ecology.

Julieta Rosell
Associate Editor, Journal of Ecology

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