July 23, 2009

A half-century later, Cornell revisits a small Andean village

More than 50 years ago, a Cornell mission to a small village in the Andes introduced social changes that made a profound improvement in the life of the village. Today, echoes of that mission are still visible and may help the community again.

From 1952 to 1966 Cornell had an active presence in Vicos (pronounced "vee-kos"), a peasant community in northern Peru, then with a population of around 2,000, mostly engaged in subsistence farming. Cornell experts taught them the agricultural wisdom of the time, the so-called green revolution, using new crop varieties with heavy applications of fertilizer and pesticides to increase yields. The hope was to produce cash crops that would bring more income to the community and raise the standard of living.

The green revolution, of course, contained a gotcha: It produced a monoculture -- in this case, a particular variety of potatoes. When a nematode came along that liked that particular variety and was resistant to pesticides, the crop was devastated. Heavy applications of chemicals also caused long-term damage to the environment and human health.

Fortunately, another piece of prevailing wisdom of the time was that the development team should deal only with male heads of households. Many women continued the old ways, cultivating a wide variety of different strains of potatoes, and their nonconformity paid off in the survival of crop diversity. Today Vicos produces about 120 varieties of potatoes for food and for sale.

Cornell also left a legacy of democracy and education that changed the community. The people had lived in virtual slavery to the legal owners of the land. Absentee landlords not only owned all the land, but could hire out workers to mines, textile factories or other businesses. Cornell rented the "hacienda" -- the organization that owned everything, including 1,700 people listed as chattels -- and carried out a planned "devolution of power" that eventually led the people of Vicos to buy themselves out. Despite being an ecological mistake, the short-lived boost in agricultural production had helped to finance the buyout.

Cornell helped set up a new health clinic with a visiting doctor, nurse and dentist and a school lunch program was established, and nutrition and health were notably improved. A school was built and teachers brought in, and today the village is among the best educated in the area, with an unusually high percentage of students going on to college. Since Vicos tradition requires farmers to live on their land, most college graduates return and enrich the community. The population has grown to around 5,500.

In 2005, at the request of the community, Billie Jean Isbell, professor emerita of anthropology, returned to Vicos to study the long-term results of Cornell's "directed change." Today, Isbell says, "Cornell doesn't do a top down 'we will change your society.' Efforts to change people like that around the world have failed miserably. Rather, we work collaboratively."

In 2006, again at the request of the community, she organized a conference on the Cornell campus attended by anthropologists and three representatives of the Vicos community to review the effects of the Cornell effort. Isbell and colleagues launched a project to digitize historical documents and photos, including many collected by the earlier teams of researchers. Now through a grant from the Herman Goldman Foundation, 50 years of Vicos history is available at: http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/vicosperu/vicos-site/, a site utilizing the Vicos collection in Kroch Library. The collection includes thousands of photographs, including photos of Sen. Ted Kennedy visiting Peru to help persuade the government to allow the Vicosinos to purchase their land, and photos of the actual signing ceremony.

A widespread "privatization" movement in Peru now makes it necessary for Vicosinos to document their ownership of the land. The law requires showing a continuous legal trail from Spanish land grants in 1593. But many documents kept in Vicos were destroyed in an earthquake in the 1970s. The documents collected by Cornell researchers may help, and in the process Cornell Library has taught Vicosinos the skills they need to research and digitize archives in Peru.

Meanwhile, Isbell reports, a new and more sustainable green revolution is taking place. With a view to the future, Vicos and surrounding communities are participating in a national network of organic growers providing produce for restaurants in Lima. And internationally renowned Peruvian chef Gaston Ocurio is providing fellowships for young people from Vicos to attend his cooking and restaurant management school, while others are being trained in ecotourism.