AMES, Iowa — Elisa Cárdenas, a second-year graduate student pursuing double degrees in community and regional planning and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University, received a $4,500 Graduate Student Travel Award for International Study in Sustainable Livelihoods to study the work of a nongovernmental organization that supports small-scale quinoa producers in Ecuador.

The scholarship provides resources for students in the social sciences to pursue graduate-level multidisciplinary research with an international theme of importance to the improvement of individual, family or community livelihoods in a developing country. The award is made possible through an endowment established by Lorna Michael Butler, the first holder of the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State, and Robert O. Butler.

Cárdenas, of Riobamba, Ecuador, applied for the funding to analyze the work of an NGO that seeks to alleviate poverty among small-scale rural producers of quinoa in Chimborazo, the top quinoa-producing province in that country.

“[Their work] focuses on the empowerment of vulnerable indigenous families through providing guidance and assistance in the production, commercialization and exportation of quinoa,” Cárdenas said.

She notes that while many NGOs use a sustainable livelihoods approach (SLA)—a holistic way to analyze and address poverty that emphasizes identification of people’s assets, strengths and capabilities to determine how best to improve living conditions—those in South America have been slow to adopt the method. In her research this summer, Cardenas is using SLA as a framework to examine the effectiveness of the Chimborazo NGO’s poverty-alleviation efforts.

From May 29 through July 31, Cárdenas is interviewing NGO staff and quinoa producers the NGO has aided to learn about the organization’s programs and benefits to producers as well as how effective and sustainable its activities are.

“Quinoa production, due to its popularity and positive financial returns, can provide substantial opportunity for producers,” she said. “However, it is important to consider the effects that high demand for quinoa might have on the human, social, natural and physical capital of the agricultural producers, which is also necessary for a sustainable and holistic approach to poverty reduction.”

Cárdenas’ research will inform her master’s thesis on the same topic, she said. She expects to receive her master of community and regional planning and master of science in sustainable agriculture degrees in December.

Elisa Cárdenas, Community & Regional Planning / Sustainable Agriculture, sumacc@iastate.edu
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289, hsauer@iastate.edu