You are a PhD student and a junior researcher at the Center for Development Research, University of Bonn. Why did you choose Agricultural and Environmental Economics?
JMA: First, I believe that understanding the interactions between the production of agricultural products and the use of natural resources for its production is imperative if we want to find sound policies that lead to sustainable development outcomes. This is crucial if we want to reduce the possibility of reinforcing trade-offs but instead induce synergies between the objectives of protecting the environment and keeping up with satisfying the demands of the world’s population.
Second, economics offers powerful tools to structure and analyse information to give some insights of such intertwined relationship, and also can point out some potential solutions to reach desirable outcomes.
You have worked in Namibia on land reform projects. What is your opinion on such projects? Do local communities benefit from the outcomes?
JMA: In Namibia, I was involved in the implementation of an integrated regional land use plan. Such initiative is one of the different existent policies for a better use of land-based resources. In the special case of Namibia, in which frequently different ministries work independent from each other, it was important to create a tool that points out conflicts and enables a more effective and efficient use of land. For instance, some conservation areas are overlapped with agricultural developments and by sketching the land use plan, different stakeholders could visualize their competing activities.
With respect to the local communities, I cannot tell to what extent they benefited as I did not spend enough time in the country. However, I do think it potentially brought some benefits as one of the main aspects of the project was to bring the voices of local people into the decision making process (a bottom-up approach) with respect to projects (like a large irrigation dam) that would directly affect their land. Of course, such strategy can only work if the opinions of the local people truly enter the decision-making process and if the ones involved truly represent the interests of local communities and not the interests of a few influential individuals.
Interestingly you studied economics and environmental issues. I am sure you are aware that there has always been a clash between the two disciplines as far as sustainability is concerned. Economics have been accused of putting financial needs ahead of environmental concerns. In the face of the Sustainable Development Goals, do you think economics finally understand the concept of sustainability?
JMA: Sustainable Development as a concept has been contested for many decades. One concern with this concept is due to the misunderstanding of equating sustainability with protection of the environment. As the ambitious SDGs pointed out, there are complex and diverse objectives that need to be fulfilled to reach a sustainable world.
Based on the idea that sustainability NOT only entails protecting the environment, economists had made important contributions for decades in important issues like poverty reduction and income inequality. It can also provide useful assessments for a more effective and efficient use of efforts to reach the SDGs within and across countries, as well as to highlight win-win strategies.
With respect to protecting the environment, economists contributed to the understanding of costs and benefits regarding transforming natural ecosystems. I believe this is an important part of the puzzle if our objective is to find better outcomes for societies and the environment.
You are native Mexican, but have lived and worked in Namibia, now you are a student in Germany and your PhD topic is on Brazil. What have you learned from interacting with so many different cultures?
JMA: One important aspect I learned was to understand the social and environmental context in which people are living as it helped me to better comprehend their norms and traditions; an imperative thing to do if one wants to avoid cultural clashes and have constructive relationships. In the context of doing research it helps to gain the trust of interviewees and improve the quality of data gathered (and hopefully the quality of the research as a whole). In the context of projects for sustainable development, it can increase the chances of stakeholders cooperating to find appropriate solutions to different challenges, and that projects implemented can endure.
What motivates you in the morning and how do you think about it in the evening?
JMA: During my childhood I had sadly seen how the forest in Mexico had been depleted, some of its rivers had disappeared, and the livelihoods of those dependent on natural resources were affected. Therefore, I want to understand the elements needed to find a proper balance between human needs and protection of natural resources to be able to develop useful solutions. This idea used to and still motivates me every day. The motivation has become stronger since I am now a father because I wish my daughter to be able to enjoy nature for many years to come. In the evenings when I am tired after the day’s events, the best medicine is one good-night-kiss from her and then the motivation remains strong.
Which question would you like to answer that you have never been asked before?
JMA: Is the world going to fully implement the SDGs and reach desirable outcomes?
I believe the SDGs are truly ambitious and the challenge ahead is great but if truly implemented, at least on a large extent by all countries, then we could reach a world that at the moment feels a bit utopian.
The interview was conducted by Nteboheng Phakisi