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Inside Iowa State
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June 29, 2001

Where biology meets sociology

by Brian Meyer, Agriculture Communications
When Patricia Negreros-Castillo gets ready to travel to Mexico's tropical forests, she packs a machete and her meat tenderizer.

The ISU researcher uses the machete to take cuttings from the trees she studies. The meat tenderizer helps take the sting out of bites from the forests' "very prolific life forms," she said. To repel bugs, she brings Vicks VapoRub, which she applies to her skin, and sulfa powder, which she sprinkles on her clothes. Then there's the syringe, which in all her years of research she has yet to use. It's supposed to draw out venom in case of a snake bite.

"I don't worry about snakes, but I'm always aware of them," Negreros-Castillo said. "It becomes automatic, like looking both ways before you cross the street."

What also has become automatic is her drive to improve the lives of the Mayan people in Quintana Roo, a state on the Yucatan peninsula. The forests where she works are a five-hour bus ride from Cancun.

Mahogany and Spanish cedar trees in the region have been overharvested for centuries. For the past 16 years seven as an associate scientist and adjunct faculty member in Iowa State's forestry department Negreros-Castillo has worked on revitalizing valuable timber species. Before coming to ISU, she led the Mexico forestry service's research program for the Yucatan peninsula.

Many Mayans depend on the forest for survival. It provides them with food, medicine and housing materials. What it hasn't provided is future economic stability. Negreros-Castillo believes her research may help meet that goal.

Her work is helping to fill knowledge gaps on restoring the forests' productivity. Working closely with local landholders, she is identifying the best sites and methods for planting seedlings, and studying what it takes to make them thrive.

If only it was as simple as digging a hole and dropping in a seedling.

"A complex ecology is involved that we're just beginning to understand," Negreros-Castillo said. "My experiments try to answer ecological questions. If you under-stand the ecology of an ecosystem, then you can cultivate the forest to increase the chance that the species you're trying to foster will survive."

She bristles at the idea that tropical forests should be preserved, untouched, like living museums.

"The global community expects them to be protected, but they don't consider or relate to the people who depend directly on the forests," she said. "Some of the world's poorest people live there. For centuries they've used the forests in non-destructive ways. It's been commercial exploitation initiated outside their communities that's been damaging."

For Negreros-Castillo, research is tied inextricably to society.

"Anything I do as a researcher has a social impact," she said. "Some researchers might say they're going to Mexico to measure the progress of their trees, and leave it at that. But I respect the people too much to do that. I want to find the best ways to share what I discover so it can be put to practical use."

Negreros-Castillo and colleagues from other institutions established Sister Nurseries, an organization that provides an interchange of ideas and research between American and Mexican nurseries. She formed a network of Mayan forest researchers from four countries who shared the goal of making their research results available to the people who can benefit. She also came up with the idea of a "green piggy bank" to motivate Mayans to plant more trees.

"When a baby is born, the parents would begin to plant 10 mahogany trees a year," she said. "The children would help plant, too, when they're old enough. Parents would tell them that in 40 years, they could begin to harvest trees on a continuous basis. They will have created a valuable industry to pass on to their children."

One local agency has adopted the green piggy bank idea and promotes it to communities. In the southern part of Quintana Roo, where forests were cleared for the cattle industry, Negreros-Castillo is working with some cattle producers who are excited about mahogany trials they've begun as a legacy for their kids.

Sometimes, how she interacts with the Mayans goes beyond forestry. Some local workers on her projects spent their earnings on liquor instead of family necessities. So she started paying half their wages in groceries. Lunch breaks sometimes turn into informal nutrition seminars, where she has dispelled such notions as Coca-Cola is expensive because it's so good for you.

About half of Negreros-Castillo's year is spent on her research in Mexico, which is funded by several foundations. The other half is spent teaching, advising and doing research on campus. One of her courses is tropical forest ecology and management, which culiminates in a spring-break trip to Mexico.

When she prepares to walk into the tropical forest, Negreros-Castillo finds herself smiling and feeling . . . well, human.

"In urban areas, everything's moving so fast that we have no chance to remember we're part of the environment," she said. "We forget we're human."

"In the forest, you don't feel constrained. It's liberating."

Patricia Negreros-Castillo's forest travel kit includes Vicks VapoRub, meat tenderizer, sulfa powder and a machete. Photo by Bob Elbert.

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