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Katlyn Stillings Morris '02: 'How can we best help people in developing countries break the cycle of poverty?'

katlyn stillings morris connecticut college class of 2002
Katlyn Stillings Morris '02 poses by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where she served with the Peace Corps
as an environmental conservation volunteer from
2003-05. 
July 29, 2008

“Agroecology and Rural Livelihoods in Tropical Landscapes of Central America.”

Katlyn Stillings Morris ’02 can explain it in a sentence: extreme poverty often forces people to exploit natural resources rather than think about long term environmental sustainability.

“It is difficult for many people to break the cycle of poverty because the rural poor often have limited or no access to credit for building capital, minimal health and sanitation services, and limited education,” said Morris, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Vermont.

She’s in El Salvador surveying a rural coffee farming community and studying the community’s decisions regarding sustainable agriculture and tree biodiversity.

Without government restrictions or economic incentives, farmers typically won’t manage their farms in an ecologically sound manner – without chemicals, for example. Many small-scale coffee growers in El Salvador, however, are working to produce organic shade grown coffee. Morris will study the motivations behind this and the rewards and results experienced by farmers who practice ecological coffee farming.

In many developing countries, unregulated farming pollutes water, causes deforestation and climate change, and reduces biodiversity. Conditions could be improved, Morris said, if farmers were paid for conserving valuable natural resources or growing crops organically.

Morris was always interested in environmental studies, but her experience at Connecticut College opened her up to the idea that conservation was connected to poverty.

Morris, who majored in environmental studies and Hispanic studies, first “caught the bug” to travel, speak Spanish and learn more about other cultures through classes with Manuel Lizarralde, associate professor of ethnobotany.

“Since he had grown up in Venezuela and worked closely with several indigenous groups, it almost felt like I was part of his experience through his stories,” she said.

During her senior year, one of her Connecticut College classes went to Peru. The trip changed Morris’ life. She traveled for two weeks, flying over Nazca, hiking Macchu Pichu and meeting Peruvians in remote parts of the country. The experience made her realize that she wanted to live abroad and help the less fortunate.

After graduating Morris served with the Peace Corps in Guatemala as an environmental conservation volunteer from 2003-05. She fell in love with the country and secured a grant to start a sanitary landfill to work to alleviate Guatemala’s environmental health problems. She also worked with municipal officials to establish household trash pickup.

“The best part of the experience was that I was totally immersed in that world,” she said. “I wasn’t just visiting to help out for awhile; it was my life and I had to stick with it, even when things were really difficult.”

After she earns her Ph.D., Morris hopes to take a break from working abroad to become a professor and inspire others to work in rural development.

“Not every student is going to feel passionate about saving the environment or alleviating poverty, but I want to at least open their eyes to important issues beyond their comfort zone,” she said.

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