Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 3. Guatemala

In April 1976, my wife and I moved to Turrialba, Costa Rica where I set up an office for the International Potato Center at CATIE – Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza. My principal remit was to develop a research program on adaptation of potatoes to warm and humid environments – the so-called tropical potato, as well as supporting the regional activities that were led at that time by my colleague Oscar Hidalgo from the regional office in Toluca, Mexico.

Very soon the focus of my work became the bacterial wilt pathogen (Ralstonia solanacearum), and this led to the identification of some interesting sources of resistance to the disease and development of agronomic practices to reduce the severity of attack in the field. And when Oscar moved (in late 1977) to North Carolina to begin his studies for a PhD in plant pathology, I became CIP’s regional leader for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and we transferred the regional office to Turrialba. And in early 1978 we began to develop the concept of what became PRECODEPA, a cooperative regional potato program funded in large part by the Swiss government. Through PRECODEPA I visited Guatemala many times. The potato scientists there took responsibility for postharvest storage technologies.


In the south of the country the mountains stretch from the frontier with Mexico in the west to El Salvador and Honduras in the west. And it’s in the mountains to the west of Guatemala City, in the region of Quetzaltenango that most potatoes are grown. Much of the country, stretching way to the north is low-lying tropical rainforest – the home of the Mayans, and where we visited Tikal in 1977.

There are many volcanoes in Guatemala, some active. To the west of Guatemala City lies the old city of Antigua, and further west still the Lago de Atitlán, with a ring of villages on its shores, each named after one of the Twelve Apostles. The highly picturesque town of Sololá lies close by to the north.

27-1977-07 Solola 09Unlike Costa Rica, which has a very small indigenous community, Guatemala is ethnically and culturally very rich, and reminded us of our years in Peru. The beautiful weavings and typical costumes can be seen everywhere, and on an every day basis.

Guatemalan agriculture is quite interesting based as it is on multicropping or milpa systems of maize, beans and squashes. In fact, multi- or intercropping is extremely common in Guatemala, and I’ve even seen potatoes intercropped with maize and other crops there – something that is quite uncommon in other countries.

06-1977-07 Comalapa 0102-1977-07 Lago de Atitlan 02

During one of our visits we met with representatives of an NGO (with several US citizens involved) in a small community, Comalapa, about 67 km west of Guatemala City and north of the provincial capital of Chimaltenango. I must have been very naive. It’s only quite recently that I became aware of the civil war that was ongoing in Guatemala at that time, and I’ve often asked myself whether we were lucky not to have come across either right-wing or left-wing groups that made people ‘disappear’.

Here are some photos that I took around Lago de Atitlán and Sololá.

Rice for the world . . .

Conferences are an important part of any scientist’s annual plans. You could attend a conference almost on any subject, and held in almost any part of the world. Many scientific societies hold annual meetings, and sometimes specialist meetings in between. When I was an active potato scientist in the 1970s I did manage to attend at least one Annual Meeting of the Potato Association of America. The 63rd Annual Conference was held in Vancouver, Canada on the campus of the University of British Columbia, 22-27 July 1979, and I was working for the International Potato Center in Central America at the time. I was able to combine this work trip with some vacation, and my wife Steph and 15 month old daughter Hannah came along. We had two or three days in San Francisco on the way north (my only visit to that wonderful city, apart from an overnight airport stop), several days in Vancouver (where the sun shone brightly all the time we were there), followed by a road trip through the Canadian Rockies to Edmonton, Alberta to spend a few days with my elder brother Ed and his wife Linda. From there we went on to Madison, Wisconsin to visit with Profs. Luis Sequeira and Arthur Kelman at the university, to discuss my work on bacterial wilt of potatoes. And then we flew home to Costa Rica via Chicago and Miami.

When I was with IRRI I managed to attend four or five annual meetings of the Tri-Societies (ASA-CSSA-SSSA): the Agronomy Society of America, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America, a huge shindig of several thousand attendees. I was a member of Division C-8 of the CSSA on genetic resources and was invited a few times to present my rice research.

IRC 2014 logo finalFor rice, however, there is only one meeting of significance, and that’s the International Rice Congress, with the 4th Congress (IRC2014) scheduled to take place in Bangkok, Thailand from 27-31 October 2014. And I have been taken on as a consultant by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to lead the development of the congress science program. Before I retired from IRRI in 2010 I had a similar role for the 3rd Congress (IRC2010) that was held in Hanoi, Vietnam in early November 2010. Planning had begun in early 2009, and after retiring I completed my role from my home in the UK.

I’m excited to be involved in IRC2014, not only because the congress is a prestigious meeting for rice science, bringing together rice scientists from all over the world (there were more than 2000 attendees in 2010), but it will help keep me up to date with latest advances in the rice world.

Planning is at an early stage, and a possible theme will be Rice for the World . . . watch this space; I’ll link to the official congress website when it’s up. I’ll be going out to Thailand at the end of April for a few days to meet with colleagues at Kenes Asia, the company that will handle all the logistics for IRC2014. Then it’s on to IRRI in Los Baños in the Philippines for about 10 days. Hopefully at the end of that trip we’ll have a science support committee in place, ad the broad structure of the science sessions mapped out. Of course there’s an enormous amount of work to arrive at a final scientific program, not least determining the detailed structure of the program – along scientific themes or disciplines, geographical regions, or even rice ecosystems. Lots of points to discuss and decisions to make.

bitecThe congress will be held at BITEC – the Bangkok International Trade & Exhibition Centre. Hopefully I’ll have chance to visit the venue during my two days in Bangkok. That’s very important to get a much better idea of just what is possible in terms of parallel sessions, space for poster sessions, and the all important plenary or plenaries. I haven’t been to Bangkok for many years and although traffic congestion is still bad, getting around has improved considerably, I’m led to believe, following the opening of the Skytrain.

Once the congress website is up and running, and there’s more to report about the science program at IRC2014, I’ll be making regular updates. Do come back.