SKJ Fellow Angela Serrano pursues research in Colombia

Serrano collecting palm oil fruits fallen from bunches after harvesting

Angela Serrano is pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology with a research focus on agri-food systems. As a Scott-Kloeck Jenson (SKJ) Fellow, Serrano applied funds from the program to conduct research for her dissertation, exploring how oil palm changes risks and opportunities for small-scale farmers growing this crop. While conducting research in Colombia, Serrano shared her experiences and perspectives on her research, future plans, and what the SKJ Fellowship has meant to her. Serrano plans to graduate in May 2021.

What made you choose UW–Madison to pursue your Ph.D.?

I was looking for a school were there was a strong focus on social sciences and agriculture. When choosing a graduate program, I really liked the fact that there are different groups at UW–Madison with this focus, such as the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, and the Center for Culture, History, and the Environment.

Describe your field of study.

I’m pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology and my field of study is the sociology of agri-food systems. I grew up in a family of farmers in one of the most unequal countries in the world. So, I grew interested in how access to land and decisions around food shape social inequality.

How has being a Scott Kloeck-Jenson Fellow impacted your studies and research? Has it created any opportunities you might not have had otherwise?

The Scott-Kloeck Jenson Fellowship funded my preliminary dissertation research, a period in which I collected initial data and evaluated the feasibility of conducting my proposed dissertation research. My dissertation is about how oil palm changes risks and opportunities for small-scale farmers growing this crop. Being able to conduct preliminary research allowed me to carry out this dissertation in two important ways. First, it helped me to build initial connections with the farmers’ and farmworkers’ organizations that I am working with nowadays. Second, it allowed me to collect initial data to apply for the necessary funding to conduct the remaining portion of my dissertation project.

Tell us about your research abroad. How did you pick this topic in the part of the world you chose? What is it like living there? What does a day in the life of a SKJ fellow abroad look like?

I live in northeast Colombia. I chose to conduct my research about palm oil in Colombia for three reasons. First, palm oil is the most consumed oil in the world and growing palm oil crops is causing significant transformations to many lives and landscapes around the world. Second, Colombia is the fourth largest producer of palm oil and the social and environmental transformations that oil palm has produced here are less known than those happening in Southeast Asia. Third, as I am originally from Colombia and most of my friends and family live here, I have a network of contacts who I knew would be able to connect me with key actors in the oil palm industry. So, this research seemed relevant and feasible.

I am living in Bucaramanga, a city near Magdalena Medio, one the largest oil palm producing regions in Colombia. From Bucaramanga I can easily travel to different parts of this extensive region. On the days I travel to farms in the area, I usually leave home around 6 a.m. and reach my destination sometime between 8 and 10 a.m. I visit farmers, conduct interviews, or discuss ongoing projects with farmers and farm workers. I head back to Bucaramanga around 5 p.m. When I’m not traveling outside the city, I usually start my day writing memos and transcribing field notes. During the rest of the day, I read academic literature, analyze my data, or conduct interviews with government officials and other relevant actors for my work who are based in Bucaramanga. Most of my days are very different from each other, but they usually involve a combination of talking to people and reflecting about the information I am gathering.

Some might be surprised to hear that a sociologist is studying palm oil crops. What is the connection?

As palm oil consumption has multiplied by four over the past 20 years, the lives of many farmers who live in palm oil producing regions have changed dramatically. Everyone who eats processed foods is connected to oil palm. This ingredient is present on about half the packaged products available in any U.S supermarket. Can you imagine the amount of palm oil needed to supply all of that? The size of oil palm crops in the world is larger than the state of Wisconsin. And the expansion of this crops has been rapid, happening mostly over the past 40 years. At the same time, there have been dramatic changes in palm oil producing regions, including deforestation and labor rights violations. So, the palm oil industry has transformed the lives of many people around the world to produce one of the main ingredients for processed food in the U.S. and other countries. It’s important for sociologists to study the connections between oil palm production and consumption as well as the socio-environmental changes that are happening around palm oil.

What specifically interests you about this area of Colombia? What are you hoping to find?

Magdalena Medio is the area where the largest communities of small-scale oil palm growers in Colombia are located. The livelihoods of many of these farmers have grown more precarious since they planted palm, and this is understandable due to the adverse conditions that this crop poses for small-scale farmers. However, many other small-scale oil palm growers have more secure livelihood sources now than they did before planting palm. I’m hoping to better understand the factors that have allowed this second group of farmers to confront the risks posed by an environmentally damaging and capital-intensive crop. I’m hoping to learn from this case in other to inform social theory and public policy about the conditions that allow peasant communities to build stronger livelihoods even in the context of the harsh conditions that industrial agriculture and trade pose for peasant farming nowadays.

When not researching, what are your favorite things to do where you are located?

The best part about living in Bucaramanga has been to spend time with my nieces and nephews, who live here! I have also been able to explore this part of the country. While I was born in Bucaramanga, I have spent most of my life in other places. So, I love to walk on trails in nearby mountains or just wander around in the street.

When do you plan to return to Madison?

Probably in the summer of 2020.

What are your plans upon graduation?

I want to pursue an academic job in Latin America.

Do you think adding an international experience is important for students, even if they plan to have a career in the U.S.? Why?

Definitively. For me, that international experience has been living in Madison. Living there, I have deeply appreciated the perspectives of other students who had lived or conducted research abroad. I have felt that they are more open to alternative perspectives and that can valuable both in terms of human connections and academic research.