Dissertation Research Field Work: Ysabel Polanco

Published: May 19th, 2011

Category: Student News

I am currently undertaking the field work of my dissertation research project in San Cristobal, a rural division in Medellin, Colombia.

Factors related to the Use of Synthetic Pesticides among Agricultural Rural Communities in, Colombia: Implications for Human Health, Rural Development and Conservation.

Project Summary

Frequently, conventional agricultural practices are at odds with human health and environmental conservation. Use / and exposure to pesticides1 in agricultural communities in tropical countries is a pressing public health problem and an important factor of environmental degradation. The primary specific aims for this project are the following: 1) to implement ecological and ethnographic community-participatory approaches to elicit the macro factors (economic, political, social, and cultural) and micro factors (individual) that influence campesino’s behavior(s) associated with pesticide use/exposure and 2) to compare these macro and micro factors between communities conducting agro ecological practices and communities that use synthetic pesticides. The research project will take place in San Cristobal, Antioquia (Colombia). The strategy of proposed research combines qualitative and quantitative methods. The qualitative approach will be based on community participatory ethnographic research, which will use participant observation, interviews and focus groups aimed at current users of pesticides. The quantitative portion of the study seeks to obtain demographic information, health history, and scale evaluation of attitudes and beliefs. The results of this study will help identify the factors associated with pesticide use which are key aspects in the collective construction of future public health interventions. Such interventions should be directed not only to reduce the transfer of pesticides by the parents from the workplace to home, but ideally to reduce or eliminate the use of synthetic pesticides in their communities. Ultimately, the study will provide a holistic understanding of the problem of use/exposure to pesticides in agricultural communities, in order to improve their short- and long-term health conditions and their opportunities for effective conservation through interventions that combine participatory research, and education, linking local organizations that have a long history of work with the community under study. The results of this research will generate participatory work with the community and will provide information useful to perform further research projects in the area of environmental health, medical anthropology and public health.

Specific Aims

Synthetic pesticides are widely used in agriculture and they have been associated to important adverse health and environmental effects in different parts of the world including Colombia. Many of these health effects are not well understood and their association with pesticide exposure needs to be studied more thoroughly. Additionally, there are different individual, social, community, economic and political factors associated with pesticide use and they must be studied to understand the complexity of the reality and the context in each campesino group.
I propose to conduct a community participatory ethnographic study with a socio-ecological approach in the rural division of San Cristobal, Medellin, Colombia. I will start with adults male and female seeds from most of the veredas (rural subdivisions) and I will use purposive snowball sampling to interview about 65 adult campesinos (stratified by gender and user/non users of pesticides and also by land ownership). I will also conduct focus groups in most of the veredas. The interviews and focus groups will cover general information about the campesino’s life in the vereda, knowledge about pesticide use, decision making about pesticide use, attitudes and beliefs associated with pesticides and demographic information. The overall goal of this proposed research is to explore and understand why campesinos use pesticides, and what are the factors associated to this use. These findings will be compared with non pesticide user communities in the same geographic area to see if differences exist, and the characteristics of those specific differences. The specific aims for this project are the following:

1) To explore the macro and micro factors (e.g., individual, socioeconomic, cultural, etc.) that influence campesino’s behavior(s) associated with pesticide use/exposure. This will be elicited through the implementation of socio-ecological and ethnographic community-participatory approaches.

2) To compare macro and micro factors between two different campesino communities: a) Community 1, composed by several veredas (rural villages) where agricultural practices are based on the intensive use of synthetic pesticide, and b) Community 2, encompassing a community that has moved to agroecological practices2.

Research Questions

1. Why do campesinos in this community use synthetic pesticides for agriculture? What factors are associated with this use?

2. How do campesinos who belong to the agroecological group differ in their attitudes and beliefs surrounding pesticide use?


The study incorporates a mixed methods strategy (qualitative and quantitative). The qualitative part includes open-ended interviews and focus groups with two groups of campesinos. The first group is composed by agricultural adults who are pesticide users and the second group is composed by non pesticide users. The quantitative part includes questionnaires with the same groups of campesinos. About 70 interviews will be performed and about 160 questionnaires will be done in two phases.