Amber Heckelman is a product of her environment. Her life experiences led her to pursue a doctorate in environmental science at Washington State University Vancouver where her work centers on alleviating the suffering of Philippine peasants by restoring food security and sovereignty. Heckelman’s compelling work won the 2013–2014 Bullitt Foundation Environmental Fellowship worth $100,000.
The lens that shaped Heckelman’s passion
Heckelman is a Philippine-American. Her mother grew up in a small province in the Philippines. Her mother’s family had neither running water nor electricity. They did have a garden, chickens, pigs and access to the ocean. Heckelman says her mom may admit to growing up poor, but she will refrain from sharing any struggles. Rather, she shares fond memories of walking to the river to wash clothes.
Like many girls from Philippine provinces, Heckelman’s mother worked as a maid in Manila. There she met and married a U.S. Navy man and moved to the United States. When Heckelman was 4 years old, her parents divorced. She and her brother were raised by their single mother in a ghetto in southeast San Diego.
“I come from a place that turned many of my childhood friends into drug users, drug dealers, gang members and criminals,” said Heckelman. “This environment reared generations of children who grew up increasingly aggressive, defensive and misguided.”
Despite its hardships, Heckelman took a certain kind of strength from her community. Like her mother, she chooses not to discuss her struggles without offering some balance.
“Many of the families that surrounded me suffered from poverty and the legacies of racism and discrimination, yet they persevered. It was wonderful to grow up in a community rich in cultural diversity and full of strength and resilience. My community was both vibrant and violent. I grew up in the space between,” said Heckelman.
While Heckelman will confess to being afflicted with some negativity while growing up, her interest in school helped her excel, and her placement in advanced classes separated her from the kids in her neighborhood. Her scholastic achievements allowed her to leave her community to attend college where she discovered a different kind of living and being.
“One day I woke up with a new awareness and concern for the environment and people in the world. I shed the built-up aggression and replaced it with compassion and respect for myself and others. I engaged in community service projects as a means of ensuring that families like mine have an alternative experience—an experience in which isolation is replaced with relationships, segregation is replaced with community and aggression is replaced with compassion,” said Heckelman.
A trip to the Philippines
In 2007, Heckelman participated in the Philippine Education through Alternative Cultural Exposure program, which is affiliated with the University of Philippines-Diliman. In the Philippines she witnessed extreme poverty and suffering. She saw homes built on landfills and people, many of whom were displaced and landless farmers, rummaging through waste looking for food.
“Upon completing the program I made two vows: to share these stories and to return to the Philippines to help,” said Heckelman.
Learning how to help
In 2009 Heckelman was an anthropology graduate student at WSU Pullman, and she set out to cultivate a deeper understanding of the Philippine peasant experience.
“I was drawn to working with peasant farmers because they are marginalized, yet they are a major source of food security and engage in highly sustainable agroecological practices,” said Heckelman.
Agroecology views agricultural areas as ecosystems and is concerned with the ecological impact of agricultural practices.
For her master’s thesis, Heckelman interviewed members of the Philippine agrarian sector and identified key individuals and policies that contribute to what she characterizes as the extreme poverty and pervasive landlessness peasant farmers face.
“I quickly realized I didn’t have the knowledge, resources or capacity to effectively help peasant farmers,” said Heckelman.
Refining the goal
Today, as a doctoral student in environmental science at WSU Vancouver and drawing from her master’s degrees in anthropology and environmental science, Heckelman’s vow to mitigate the suffering of Philippine peasants has been intertwined with a commitment to addressing food security and sovereignty.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.
Food sovereignty, a concept and food systems framework launched by La Via Campesina, puts the aspirations, needs and livelihoods of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies, rather than the demands of markets and corporations.
“Essentially, food sovereignty ensures the rights to use and manage lands, territories, water, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those who produce food and not in the hands of the corporate sector,” said Heckelman.
As global food insecurity intensifies due to ecological degradation, so does political instability often resulting in wars, diaspora and the dissolution of local economies. Heckelman’s research aims to participate in the effort to mitigate this vicious cycle and restore food security and sovereignty by exploring and documenting the effects of MASIPAG agroecological practices.
“Amber is an amazing and dynamic student, and has all the traits of a successful scholar; she is driven, passionate and intellectually curious. She's one of a growing number of truly interdisciplinary scholars, someone who will develop an advanced understanding of human and environmental systems through a deep understanding of the science, culture and research in both areas.”
—M. Jahi Chappell
Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development) is a cooperative of peasant farmers based in the Philippines that works with scientists and nongovernmental organizations to develop and implement traditional, sustainable farming practices.
Preliminary research has shown that MASIPAG farms:
- Are more resilient to pests and extreme weather conditions than conventional farms
- Increase and preserve soil quality
- Produce more variety and higher- yielding crops
More research needs to be conducted to measure the degree to which MASIPAG farms are resilient to climate change and contribute to local food security.
MASIPAG is an incredibly complex grassroots organization that encompasses 672 people’s organizations comprised of farmers and local community members, 30,000 farmers, 38 NGOs and 15 scientists from different universities. An analysis of how knowledge is generated and circulated will provide valuable insights that can be shared with farmer networks worldwide to help them move toward adoption, and in some cases readoption, of agroecological practices.
“This caliber of socio-ecological research is cutting edge in the field of environmental science and complements a recent report by the World Economic Forum that stresses the importance of ‘collaborative action’ with smallholders to improve food security, economic opportunity and environmental sustainability,” said Heckelman.
Bullitt Foundation Environmental Fellowship
The Bullitt Environmental Fellowship is a two-year, $50,000-per-year fellowship for graduate students interested in pursuing leadership positions within the environmental field. An outstanding, environmentally knowledgeable graduate student from a community under-represented in the environmental movement, who has demonstrated an exceptional capacity for leadership as well as scholarship, is selected for the fellowship.
“Amber is an amazing and dynamic student, and has all the traits of a successful scholar: she is driven, passionate and intellectually curious. She’s one of a growing number of truly interdisciplinary scholars, someone who will develop advanced understanding of human and environmental systems through a deep understanding of the science, culture and research in both areas. And her research will offer a better understanding of the ecology and social dynamics underlying farmers’ situations in the Philippines, as well as increase our understanding of the broader connections between food security, farmer well-being and biodiversity loss/ecological degradation,” said M. Jahi Chappell, assistant professor of environmental science and justice, and Heckelman’s advisor/committee chair at WSU Vancouver.
“The resources from the Bullitt Foundation will allow me to continue giving back to the communities, students and my university,” said Heckelman.
Amber Heckelman credits the following faculty members for helping her cultivate her determination and ambition for her work. Her thanks go out to:
John H. Bodley, Regents professor of anthropology at WSU Pullman, for his guidance with interrogating neoliberal globalization and its implications on marginalized communities
M. Jahi Chappell, assistant professor of environmental science and justice at WSU Vancouver, for consistently challenging and supporting her, while never ceasing to expose her to the complexities of agroecosystems
Andrew Ford, professor of environmental science at WSU Pullman, for believing in her the day she walked into his office and said she wanted to get a second master’s degree
Kevin Murphy, assistant research professor of crop and soil sciences at WSU Pullman, for introducing her to MASIPAG
The Bullitt Environmental Fellowship will allow Heckelman to attend significant conferences and trainings. It will let her purchase equipment necessary for field work and provide for travel to the Philippines. It will also enable Heckelman to balance her courses, research and teaching with civic engagement activities. For the last decade she has served the communities in which she has lived by mentoring at-risk youth, teaching a workshop to the Philippine American Student Association that addressed the challenges of Philippine peasants, and developing a food justice workshop for underserved youth in Vancouver, Wash.
The Bullitt Foundation was founded in 1952 by Dorothy Bullitt, a prominent Seattle business woman and philanthropist. The foundation focuses on safeguarding the natural environment by promoting responsible human activities and sustainable communities in the Pacific Northwest. It looks for high-risk, high-potential-payoff opportunities to exert unusual leverage. It has a special interest in demonstrating innovative approaches that promise to solve multiple problems simultaneously. It strives to build the intellectual foundations and political support needed for sweeping innovation.
This article appears in the Fall 2013 issue of NW Crimson & Gray Magazine
NW Crimson & Gray magazine is a quarterly magazine produced by Washington State University Vancouver that highlights the WSU Vancouver community and higher education in SW Washington. Subscribe for free or download the issue online.