WSUV grad student helping small farmers grow

She wins fellowship for work in Philippines

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter


photoAmber Heckelman Recipient of 2013-14 Bullitt Foundation Environmental Fellowship


Learn more

Learn more about food security and food sovereignty

• Food security: "When all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life," World Food Summit, 1996.

• Food sovereignty: "The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems," Forum for Food Sovereignty in Sélingué, Mali, 2007.

• La Via Campesina, the International Peasant Movement at

• MASIPAG, a cooperative of peasant farmers in the Philippines that works with scientists and nongovernmental organizations to develop and implement traditional, sustainable farming practices,

Amber Heckelman began to understand the depth of poverty in the Philippines when the graduate student visited a massive garbage dump and saw peasant families scavenging for food and living in shacks they'd built on Smokey Mountain II Garbage Dumpsite. Many of them were displaced farmers.

She was determined to do something to lessen the suffering of Philippine peasants.

Heckelman, an environmental science graduate student at Washington State University Vancouver, has received the 2013-14 Bullitt Foundation Environmental Fellowship for her doctoral research focused on restoring food security and sovereignty to Philippine people. The two-year, $100,000 fellowship will allow her to continue her research, including making extended trips to the Philippines in 2014 and 2015 to work with peasant farmers and scientists who are part of a cooperative working to implement traditional, sustainable farming practices.

"There's a growing movement to pay attention to where our food comes from. It has an impact on our health and our environment," Heckelman said. "What isn't being as equally articulated are the human rights violations toward small farmers, landlessness and extreme poverty. We need to pay attention to the farmers behind the food."

Amber's mother, Hernanita "Nanette" Dabajo Schoggens, was born and raised in the Philippines, a developing country where people struggle to feed their families. Her mother's family "always had adequate food, but it was subsistence living," Heckelman said.

The family did not have refrigeration and had to work hard every day to put food on the table. On their plot of land they grew a garden and raised chickens and ducks. Some of the brothers caught fish daily to feed the family. Eventually, her mother married an American and moved to the U.S.

Since then, enormous plantations owned by big agribusinesses such as Dole and Del Monte have hurt the environment and forced small farmers from the land, contributing to more and more Philippine peasants struggling to feed their families, Heckelman said.

In the 1980s, after a decade of implementing mandated farming programs that were counter to their organic practices, small farmers witnessed the degradation of their soil and environment. The promises of having higher crop yields and making more money didn't prove to be true, Heckelman said.

So the remaining small farmers decided to return to their traditional, organic farming practices. In doing so, they saw their soil replenished, their yields sustained and they did better economically.

Extensive network

The small organic farms proved to be more resilient than the big agribusiness plantations that rely heavily on pesticides and chemicals. The small farmers spread the word about their success. Now an extensive network of 30,000 small farmers is working to further change the tide, Heckelman said.

That's where Heckelman's work comes in. Her research in the Philippines will focus on "documenting and measuring climate change resiliency on their farms," she said.

Next year, Heckelman is transferring to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., which has a partnership with a university in the Philippines where Heckelman can continue her research.

As small farmers peacefully protest for change by standing up to the government and big agribusiness, clashes have led to farmers being threatened with violence and some deaths occurred in 2004, Heckelman said.

Heckelman still has extended family in the Philippines who keep an eye out for her and let her know which areas are safe when she's doing her research.

"They worry because of the things going on in the Philippines. They understand the Philippines can be a very dangerous place. They understand there's corruption. You have to be smart about it."

When Heckelman returns to the Philippines next year, she'll be "part of a pretty substantial network, which is a bit safer," she said.