Janine Gasco: Seeds of Change
Like many women, Janine Gasco is obsessed with chocolate. Her obsession however, centers less around eating it, and more around finding ways to bring fair trade practices to its production. Having spent more than 25 years researching forest crops such as cacao and vanilla in the Soconusco region of Chiapas, Mexico, the associate professor of anthropology was able to provide a single source of chocolate to Askinosie Chocolate in Springfield, MO.
“I’ve always looked at the historical development of cacao production there,” she says. “Now I’m working with modern farmers, who have had to abandon their lifestyle because the modern global economy has cut them out of the process. I’m trying to find chocolate makers in the United States, who will directly buy from the producers.”
Shawn Askinosie contacted Gasco through the Internet, based on her research. She was able to connect him with a local farmer organization, which sold him five tons of cacao last November. He hopes to have the first chocolate made from this cacao in the next few months.
“We’re working with the idea that cacao is purchased from a cooperative of producers, where the farmers all get the same price for their crop,” she says. “They actually get above market price, which is great, because they make so little when they sell down there. They spend more money than they make to keep growing cacao.
“This is a big part of ethoecology, where we are trying to create alternate ways of how the economy works,” she continues. “I’m really excited about that, and I’m hoping it will help the farmers be able to continue a way of life that they’ve had for thousands of years.”
Last summer, Gasco was one of 12 anthropology professors selected by the National Science Foundation to participate in a one-week "Short Course on Methods in Ethnoecology" at the Duke University Marine Biology Laboratory in Beaufort, NC.
“Ethnoecology is a new field that is very multidisciplinary,” notes Gasco. “It looks at how people interact with their environments, in fields such as ethnoecology, ethnobotany, and ethnobiology. For many years, Western science dominated the field of ecology. What we are learning now is that traditional rural people have very sustainable ways of living in their environments.”
Gasco points out many technologically-advanced societies could learn a lot from “people who are not educated in a formal way, but have generations of experience.” Time-tested practices such as multicropping and non-invasive forms of insect control could benefit Western agribusiness, which is primarily focused on high yield, at the expense of the land and sometimes, the quality of the product.
“Our land use patterns in agribusiness give a really quick return and look promising,” she says. “But if you look at the long-term effects, you find they’re not sustainable.
A lot of times, people think it’s impossible. But we are learning about some things that work really well. The growth of the organic food industry in the U.S. is due to the fact that there are sustainable methods.
“Multicropping is where you plant lots of different crops on the same parcel of land,” she explains. “This used to be seen as very inefficient. In agribusiness, you see acres and acres of one thing. But what becomes clear is that it’s very hard on the soil when you have the same crop year after year. In Mexico, the traditional crops are corn, beans, and squash. An agricultural plot there may look messy. But the beans put nitrogen back into the soil, and the corn takes it out.”
Gasco’s anthropological interests have also led her to study what she calls “a cautionary tale. Putting a people in a pigeonholed category denies you the full understanding of who they are.” Her article, “Beyond the Indian/Ladino Dichotomy: Shifting Identities in Colonial and Contemporary Chiapas, Mexico,” was published last year in New World, First Nations: Native Peoples of Mesoamerican and the Andes under Colonial Rule (ed. David Cahill and Blanca Tovias; Brighton, Sussex Academic Press, 2006).
According to Gasco, the demographic history of the Indian and Ladino (non-Indian) reveals that, “Identity is such an important thing. It’s a dichotomy, that you’re either Indian or you’re not. And they are almost complete opposites, everything one group does, the other doesn’t do, and they look down upon each other because of it.”
The shifting of identity was curious to Gasco, who observed that both groups would change their identities, in order to escape discrimination.
“Sometimes the same person will be called a Ladino in one document, and an Indian in another,” she says. “People will try to pass for the other group, if their own is one that is discriminated against. So it’s not even that it changes over generations. A person can be one or the other, depending on who’s doing the defining.”
In the interest of revealing more about the identities of indigenous peoples, Gasco’s appearance on the History Channel last fall shed some light on the little known engineering abilities of the ancient Aztecs. A recognized expert on Mesoamerican archaeology and ethnography, she was interviewed on location in Mexico City as a scholarly expert for “Engineering an Empire: the Aztecs.”
“Often, when people think about the Aztecs they associate them with human sacrifice and brutal warfare,” she says. “There is a whole other side to their society that often gets overlooked, a pragmatic and scientific side. They lived in the middle of a lake and constructed a whole city there. It was a salt lake, so they had to find a way to bring in fresh water. They built these huge stone pyramids, with materials that they had to import from somewhere else, since there was no stone on their island.”
Gasco underscores the fact that Spanish conquerors of the Aztecs depended on their expertise with the natural environment to help further their own colony, after the initial conflicts.
“When the Spaniards won the conquest, they had to learn from the Aztecs how to build their city,” she says. “They employed Aztec engineers to help them to learn how to live in that environment, and they really couldn’t have survived in that location without them.”
Gasco is also the co-author of a widely-used textbook, The Legacy of Mesoamerica (with Robert M. Carmack and Gary H. Gossen; Upper Saddle River, Prentice Hall, 1st ed. 1997). A second edition is scheduled to come out this year.
- Joanie Harmon-Whetmore