Weaving Science and Communal Knowledge to Strengthen Environmentally Friendly Agricultural Practices: Dr Sylvia Cornu-Mecky
“My mission focuses on experimentation, skills and biological materials transfer, for development farmers’ projects. I feel I am in the right place and in phase with my team. I can promote women in position of responsibility. I, with my team, can slowly orientate Caledonian agriculture towards more environmentally respectful practices”.
Those were words of wisdom shared by Dr Sylvia when sharing her journey in the STEM field, weaving her extensive research, development and training experiences with traditional communal practices to bring positive and environmental friendly solutions to communities within the Province of Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia and its surrounding environment. Read on more below on Dr Sylvia’s journey.
- What is your academic and work background?
I started by studying life sciences and ecology in the south of France. I then graduated with a Masters in Management of Agro-Sylvo-Pastoral Systems in Tropical Areas, with the aim of working in the development sector, supporting communities and working towards environmentally friendly agriculture. I then interned with CIRAD (French International Center in Research and Development) in New Caledonia and was offered an opportunity to pursue a doctoral (PhD thesis). With the understanding that soil life played a key-role in plant growth, we wanted to enhance the importance of preserving soil micro-organisms. So my thesis which was pioneering at that time was born – New Caledonia native rhizobacteria, promoting plant growth. Applied to the issue of mining sites rehabilitation and preserving soil fertility of coral islands.
After my thesis, I had the opportunity to teach high school students in the Loyalty Island of Lifou for one year and half. It allowed me to discover the Kanak culture and another way of life, another perspective of time, efficiency, given word and custom.
Then, I was recruited by the Loyalty Islands Province as the head of Rural Development Department, in charge of agriculture, forestry and rearing. I had to work on a master plan for an agriculture respectful of health and environment. At the end of the day, the goal was just to value what farmers were already doing in the Loyalty Islands and to support them in their projects. We created a site that gathered all the existing agriculture-related structures: research, development, skills transfers, commercialization. It became the “Centre d’Appui au Développement Rural Loyaltien”. We wanted to facilitate the link between science and field applications and the appropriation of research results by farmers. We also wanted to concentrate in a single location all the services farmers could need to develop their projects. We also published the Environment and Agriculture Notebooks, to communicate about local farming practices respectful of the environment but also to show what was happening elsewhere in the world and impacts of disrespectful practices. We particularly promoted agroforestry methods. These notebooks were traduced in the 3 languages of Loyalty Island (“Drehu”, “Nengone” and “Iaaï”) and aimed at providing an openness to the world.
We created common tools as the Home of Vanilla, which manages collectively the processing of green vanilla produced in Loyalty Islands. We also created Packing Units of Agricultural Products to facilitate transport and marketing. We also helped local youth to start a farming project on customary owned land. We showed it was possible to work together, respectfully, and attentively, when we all look in the same direction. I am proud of these accomplishments because some still exist today.
In 2007, I took the Head of the “Interprovincial Association of Agricultural Centers” (AICA). It allowed me to work with the two other provinces of New Caledonia and to introduce my vision of a more environmentally respectful agriculture among a structure mainly promoting chemical agriculture. The AICA merged in 2013 with other structures to become the Technopole. I am now Director of land resources division of the Technopole, in charge of 4 centers: CPA (beekeeping), CREA (field crops), CTT (tropical tubers) and CTEM (vegetables crops).
In 2009, Loyalty Island farmers went to the SPC to ask for a standard valuing their agricultural model, contributing to the common work that led to the writing of the Pacific Organic Standard (POS) and the creation of the New Caledonia Organic Association called BioCalédonia.
- Why did you decide to study and work in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field?
I think the very first person who introduced me to scientific curiosity was my grandmother. She was an incredible woman, school principal, feminist before the “Feminism” and a Resistance fighter during world war 2. She always took me and my cousins in incredible adventures in her small old car. She showed us that whatever happens, you should always keep laughing and smiling. She taught me how fascinating botany can be.
As a teenager, I subscribed to the magazine “Science and Life” and I loved reading scientific articles. I really wanted to understand how plants worked. Plus, I grow up between Algeria, the island of Réunion, France and New-Caledonia. I aspired to see the world, to keep travelling and discovering other ways of life. Therefore, I was attracted by science and development and orientated myself in the STEM field.
- What impact does your work have in your community?
My work allows me to slowly influence farming practices to become more respectful of human health and nature. Twenty years ago, I tried to promote organic certification in New Caledonia with Loyalty’s Islands farmers, but we were too isolated at that time. Today, this message has more impact because we are many to bring it. Since BioCalédonia creation, with a certification system adapted to Pacific way of life such as PGS, we can advance the environmental cause. It is the matching of individual energies at a given time that allow this achievement.
- As a woman that has studied and worked in a traditionally male dominated field, what would you identify as one of your key learnings?
More than anything, you must trust yourself. As women in a male dominated field, we tend to think we should always do more and better than men, we should always be perfect but that is wrong. Men always make us doubt ourselves. We must dare to go forth, we must not fear making mistakes. Making mistakes is part of the way, we have the freedom of being wrong too, just like men. Achieving my PhD thesis made me trust myself, feel legitimate in my position and overcome difficulties.
However, we should not lose feminine qualities such as humility, empathy, and good listening. These are our strengths as women.
- Any advice for the younger aspiring women and girls in entering the field of science?
In STEM, you need to be extremely patient and persistent. Science takes time and you go forth by listening contradictory opinions and by questioning. You must step back regularly to make sure you are taking the right direction.
You also need to keep your mind open and curious, towards scientific issues as well as towards humankind. You cannot lock yourself within certainties.