This is good news for me, as I'm one of those people that prefers public speaking to death - by a large margin. I like it.
It's also good news because I feel like my work has advanced progress on an issue that matters, in a country I care deeply about.
The only bad news is that I have to make the decision about whether I want to maintain this blog - this could well be my last post, at least on here. I'm planning on picking up my other blog again (in which I think critically about often vacuous books) once I've graduated and am back at home.
So if this my last post, looking back at the arc of what posted here is interesting. At first, the blogs were all about content: who does what, how it works. This past month, though, I've spent more and more of my time thinking not about how things work but what constitutes a good choice and and what our moral obligations and rights are.
These thoughts have led me directly back to Ishmael.
No, not 'Call me Ishmael.' And not the Biblical Ishmael.
The book is a loose narrative with an intense ethical core. Really, it's about our perceptions, and how we use those perceptions to group people, animals, and entities together, how we rank them.
Does the correct choice change when we are in a different group? Can we know the right choice when we are looking in from the outside - when we have decided that we are on the outside?
None of the questions I have been pondering on this blog and in conversations with friends are answerable, but I think that asking these questions is a practical exercise.
Of course, another practical exercise is finding a job. The good news is that this masters degree has helped me find a concrete direction for my career, and at least a partial understanding of what I'm capable of.
I passed in my thesis this past Sunday, so on Monday I went to Westport for the day. Westport is widely touted as a picturesque village, and they aren't wrong. After a lukewarm lunch, I went to Westport House, which easily garners rave reviews:
Westport House sits on the footprint of the castle of Grace O'Malle, who was a famous pirate: Grace O'Malle hassled the English, bargained with Queen Elizabeth I, and was the namesake of one of our family cats (my favorite, and aptly named).
Highlights from the interior:
Some of the rooms were unfurnished (and thankfully sans lifelike mannequins), and had exhibits that showed the details of the people who have lived in the house.
Naturally, as it's Ireland, there was a room dedicated to The Famine (a fatal lack of agrobiodiversity if ever there was one) and the role of the people who lived in the house at the time: the Third Marquess of Sligo and his family. The marquess - and his wife - turned out to be better than the average landlord; while he did evict people, he only evicted the 'idle and dishonest,' and brought in shipments of food for people in need. During the 1846-47 winter, Lady Sligo told the marquess that he should provide blankets, as it was the coldest year on record in the last 100 years; in addition, the household staff was cut by half to minimize expenses, and charity functions were held to raise money for the estate.
The family stood out in a landscape of disinterested landowners and a sluggish government; I don't think they did everything they could have done, but I'm sure that they saved hundreds - or perhaps thousands - of people's lives.
Fortunately, these days the Marquess of Sligo doesn't have to worry about these matters: rather, he has to worry about making sure his daughters inherit his estate - and that no one causes a stampede by the swan boats. (I gave the swans a wide berth and escaped untrampled.)
The article shows a number of examples: Lake Erie in the United States, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers of India, the Whanganui River in New Zealand, all rivers in Bangladesh, the Amazon rainforest in Colombia, and nature in general in Ecuador and Bolivia.
To my mind, it makes sense to protect nature in this way - though I do agree with the article that legislation that protects nature is sometimes too vague or too flexible to be unambiguously useful, as I know from my own research into Bolivia's Madre Tierra ('Mother Earth') law.
What role does agrobiodiversity have to play in these laws? Do crop wild relatives count as 'nature'? What about traditional varieties, only grown in certain places - often surrounded by a wider biodiversity? What about genetically modified crops: have they crossed the Rubicon into un-naturalness? And what about highly integrated farming systems, such as the 'dehesa' that grow Iberian pigs? In short, what does 'nature' mean? And what role does agriculture have to play within it?
You can make the argument that anything a human modifies isn't nature anymore - though by this definition the only natural places we have left are at the very bottom of the sea in places that plastic waste does not gather.
I find it more useful to go back to the examples the article gives us. Many of the specific places that are protected under these pieces of legislation have been cradles of civilization for thousands of years: the Iroquois on Lake Erie, the Hindu on the Ganges, and the Maori of the Whanganui. No one can make the argument that humans have not changed them over time, and no one disputes their status as 'nature.'
Further, the bodies of water that have been protected have been protected for their use to humanity, either culturally or for the safety of drinking water. Agrobiodiversity serves similar cultural goods, either in preserving polycultural practices or niche crop varieties, and it serves food security in a changing climate.
Are these laws a way to protect agrobiodiversity? At the moment, I would hazard a guess that they are not, but it serves as a compelling precedent.
For more information, Vox made a good video that goes into detail on the Lake Erie legislation:
Some things in life are sacred. The silence of a church, the smile of a child, and tomatoes. However, sacred things are often treated with less respect than we might like: a tour group comes into the church and makes loud comments about the iconography, the ice cream truck leaves just as a girl gets money for a popsicle, and people contentedly buy dry, pasty, mass-produced tomatoes.
There's nothing quite like the disappointment of buying a tomato, cutting it in half, and finding the insides to be white, mealy, and dry, massive air pockets squatting inside the fruit. Ten months out of the year I am aghast to find tomatoes like this for sale - Garrison Keillor said these sorts of tomatoes are "strip-mined in Texas," and I can't help but think of this as I dump them into sauces and slide slices into grilled cheese sandwiches. I try to overwhelm their flavor with red pepper flakes, strong cheese, and emotional numbness.
This is a lot of fuss for tomatoes, and I get it if you don't get it.
The problem is that most people think they dislike tomatoes, and this is because they haven't had a real tomato.
A real tomato is never white; a real tomato is a delicate thing because it is so juicy and its skin so thin. Real tomatoes come in pink, red, orange, yellow, purple, brown, and green. Real tomatoes glow, and you know when to pick them off the plant by the weight in your hand.
If a groundhog eats your tomatoes - and not only that, but eats your Paul Robesons - you decide it's about time to learn how to shoot a gun.
Heirloom tomatoes have served as the seed for my interest in agrobiodiversity; certainly, they're probably more nutritious than normal tomatoes, and they're keeping genetic material alive, but really, all I want is a tomato. A real tomato, one that wasn't strip-mined anywhere. One that tastes like late afternoon sun in August, one that tastes like standing in Jane's garden - the place where I fell in love with gardening - listening to Jane tell us about the Patriarchy; I want a tomato that tastes like eating in warm evenings under soft light, listening to crickets. I want tomatoes with flavor that is sweet and round and full, citrusy or with cherry notes.
Last Saturday I went to the Galway market, straight to the stall I'd found last September. They sell Real Tomatoes. And it is bliss.
If you don't believe me, I challenge you to a tomato tasting: cut up a variety of tomatoes, sprinkle on a tiny amount of salt, and eat them fresh. No oil. No cooking. You'll never look at a supermarket tomato the same way again.
One of the biggest challenges facing a small farmer with diverse varieties on their farm is getting certified. This ensures that the food that is produced is up to the markets standards of food safety, and also that the farmer can capitalize on the certification by selling to other markets.
I saw this in Junin; the farmers who gained the SGP certification were doing quite well in comparison to before, selling their goods at good prices. In order to gain the certification of SGP (Sistema de Garantia Participativa, System of Participative Guarantees), they were required to undergo a three year approval period, make changes to their farms, formalize themselves into groups, file paperwork, and let their farms be inspected by third parties. If the producers who apply pass (the procedure is strict enough to weed out people who are not truly committed), they can use the SGP seal, which communicates food safety and the environmental practices used to grow the products.
SGP is used in a number of countries in Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and, of course, Peru. The rules SGP is run by vary depending on the country, which makes sense given that each country has different legal standards. In Peru, SGP is underpinned by the Law of Organic Production (N°29196) and the Supreme Decree N°010-AG.
The SGP is run by a national council and regional councils and are comprised of elected members: in addition, the SGP is structured to work with agricultural institutions within the country. In Peru, this is ANPE-Peru, IDMA, INIA, and ASPEC, amongst others, including regional agricultural boards (DRAs).
What all of this means is that there is a framework that small farmers can use to bring their produce to market; SGP covers their operations from the field through primary processing. While the SGP regulations are not flexible in terms of the quality expected, it is flexible about how farmers get help and encourages innovation, providing an organizational structure that bakes in training for farmers.
I keep thinking about the cuy (guinea pig) farmer in Junin who said that when she takes her cuys to market, she sells out in two hours - though much of the time, it is as little as twenty minutes! She said that her customers like knowing that the cuys were raised well, that the taste of her animals is better than conventionally-grown cuys, and that when people eat her cuys, they don't have to worry about getting sick.
Food safety, as I've said on this blog, is a massive problem not just for Qali Warma but also for the rest of the country. I can't tell you how many conversations I had (often with chatty taxi drivers) who, upon learning what I was studying, started talking about how risky Peruvian food is. (They would then often inquire gently but directly as to the state of my guts.)
As I was standing in line at the airport to take my flight out of the country, I got to talking to a guy from the department of Ancash who was going to do his masters in Maritime Engineering in Denmark; he told me he was hoping to get a job in Denmark when he graduated for a few key reasons: one, the pay is significantly better in Denmark, two, Peru's corruption is legendary, and three, that the food is not guaranteed to be safe. I couldn't disagree with him; after all, I don't eat fresh greens in Peru because I don't trust food that hasn't been cooked, either because it could be contaminated en route to the market or because the water I washed it with in my kitchen isn't clean to Western standards.
The SGP certification isn't a silver bullet: the processes that are demanded by the certification make the food significantly more expensive, and it is not a system that will be able to crank out enough food to feed a whole nation, but in my opinion, it is an important element of Peru's food system and hopefully will only become more so in the future.
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Fiestas Patrias - National Holidays - of Peru's independence. They take place around July 28th, the official day of Peru's independence from Spain, and involve a lot of patriotic brouhaha over a long weekend. I celebrated the holiday by going to the Plaza de Armas area of Lima, poking into churches, eating, and going to an art museum.
The number of flags I could see when I moved into my apartment: 1. The number of flags I could see when I left: 14 (that's very nearly every building).
When I was in Peace Corps, we learned a classic Criolla song which is all about the fabulousness of Peru. I couldn't get it out of my head: