When Alison Palacios ’08 read Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace by Indian physicist-turned-environmental-activist Vandana Shiva, she didn’t realize how much she would be affected by the book about genetic engineering, the privatization of natural resources and disempowerment of women laborers.
“As I read more about the plight of women farmers in rural India who were losing control of their traditional seeds, I wanted to learn more and more,” says Palacios, who grew up on a farm outside Springfield, Minn.
Last October, the St. Kate’s alumna who graduated with honors in economics and international relations submitted a Fulbright application to study the effects of biotechnology on women laborers in India. Recently, she learned she had won the highly coveted scholarship.
“India is the perfect place for this research because of the pronounced gender divisions and the significant percentage of the population that is rural and largely dependent on agriculture,” explains Palacios. “Moreover, India has strong ties to U.S. agricultural interests; several U.S.-based biotechnology firms have a presence in India — Monsanto, Pioneer, Cargill — and target the Indian market to meet food demand from a growing and already enormous population.”
Palacios will spend four months, beginning this August, based in Delhi and working primarily in nearby rural areas with the Institute of Rural Research and Development, a non-governmental organization that promotes sustainable development and women’s empowerment.
From January through April 2011, she’ll serve as a research scholar with the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad.
“On the side, I’ll work with the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, Vandana Shiva and Pioneer Seed Company to observe their training courses for farmers and access some of their data and corporate contacts,” she adds.
Yes, that’s Vandana Shiva she’ll be meeting — the author whose book inspired her trip. “I just looked her up online and sent her an e-mail,” Palacios says. “She turned out to be really accessible.”
Palacios hopes to spend a week or two visiting Shiva’s nonprofit Navdanya, which promotes biodiversity and organic farming.
This will be Palacios first trip to India, but she is no stranger to traveling or visiting foreign cultures. In her first year at St. Kate’s, she studied abroad in Spain and Morocco, and trips to Egypt, Turkey and China followed in her next two-and-a-half years at St. Kate’s.
“One of my goals in college was to see as much as I could,” she says. “And I found so many opportunities to do this at St. Kate’s.”
After India, Palacios has plans to pursue a graduate degree and Ph.D. in economic development.
“I’m excited about getting the Fulbright grant,” she says. “I was really banking on it, and I didn’t have a Plan B. This grant is giving me the chance to develop my skills and contribute to the existing literature on biotechnology and women.”
The latter is particularly important, she adds, to shed light on the interconnectedness of women’s socioeconomic wellbeing and agricultural production as a whole.
“Even though we're half a world away [from the rural women in India], we live under the same food system,” she says. “Systemic changes that improve their socioeconomic condition and food security will also be favorable for middle-class America, and everybody else.”
The Fulbright Scholar Program, established in 1946, sends nearly 1,100 American scholars and professionals per year to about 130 countries.
St. Kate’s Master of Library and Information Science Professor Mary Wagner also received a 2010–11 Fulbright grant.
Wagner will work with faculty at the University of Zambia in Lusaka on curriculum development and collaborate with the Lubuto Library Project to identify service-learning opportunities for students.