American Geographical Society Councilor Dr. Antoinette WinklerPrins has spent her career in academia conducting research on and teaching about smallholder agriculture, soil science, and environmental knowledge mainly in the developing world, with a particular focus on Amazonia. Since 2014 she has been the Director for the Environmental Programs, which include MS degrees in GIS, energy policy and climate change, and environmental sciences, at the Johns Hopkins University Washington D.C. Center. She currently works primarily as an administrator, but also teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses on food systems and urban sustainability.
Prior to joining Johns Hopkins, Antoinette was a Program Director at the National Science Foundation, directing the Geography and Spatial Sciences Program for three years. While at NSF she was responsible for managing the award competitions that provided funding to scientists and doctoral students in the field of geography and spatial sciences. Antoinette was a faculty member in the Department of Geography at Michigan State University for over 10 years. There her research focused primarily on questions agriculture, agrobiodiversity, and soil use in the Brazilian Amazon. She also advised several doctoral students working across the developing world.
Antoinette’s interest in international development was inspired by her international upbringing, as she moved around a lot as a child while her parents were working for the Dutch foreign service. She originally studied urban geography and urban planning at the University of Michigan with the intention of pursuing a career in urban planning, but eventually decided she was more interested in conducting research on environmental and development issues in the Global South. She spent a number of years of her childhood living in Brazil and learned Portuguese, which prompted her to return to the region for her doctoral research in geography while at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She became interested in soil science and its effect on the Amazon’s agricultural potential, and ended up getting a minor in soil science along with her PhD.
While her own research has been focused on Latin America, Antoinette has advised students who have worked in a variety of regions including Sub-Saharan Africa and the United States. These experiences exposed her to more cross-regional analysis and she discussed how she believes this is parallel to the changing nature of the field of geography. She explained that traditionally the study of geography often required academics to specialize in a certain region, and geography departments were organized around them, with regional course such as “The Geography of Latin America” or “The Geography of Sub-Saharan Africa.” Nowadays, it is more common for geography courses to focus on themes, where faculty and students can draw from a variety of regions, which speaks to the globalization of the world and on the importance of cross-regional comparison and collaboration. For example, Antoinette had conducted work on urban agriculture in Amazonia, and then collaborated with one of her doctoral students in a study of urban sack gardening in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, and they discovered that similar benefits of community building and tolerance were accrued from the organization of community gardens in the United States and the global north, signifying the potential for mutual benefits in exchange and learning.
This comparative work has helped return Antoinette to her urban roots, by focusing on urban agriculture. She is currently editing a book titled “Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice,” for which she is writing the introductory and concluding chapters discussing the similarities and differences between urban agriculture systems around the world. She believes the urban/rural dichotomy in agriculture is no longer as extensive, since local food movements are picking up in the Global North and supporting smallholder farmers in and around cities who were previously threatened by large-scale industrial agriculture. In the Global South, on the other hand, urban agriculture continues as increasing numbers of people are moving to cities and bringing their agricultural skills along with them. She has noted this first-hand as she followed rural farmers she worked with in the Brazilian Amazon who are now increasingly migrating to urban areas.
Currently, with a grant from the National Geographic Society, Antoinette is conducting research with Mexican collaborators on the cultural landscapes and political ecology of the global supply chain of abalone and lobster fishing from Baja California, Mexico, to East Asia. In the future Antoinette hopes to do research on the Shenandoah Valley near Washington D.C. in particular to understand the ways in which smallholder vegetable growers, pig farmers, and organic food producers have been able to survive as the result of the “food to table” movement in urban centers. She also hopes to write a theoretical piece on the reasons why the Amazon River region did not become a center of population in the same way that most major rivers basin around the world, like the Nile, Mississippi, Rhine, or Fertile Crescent did, moving beyond basic explanations of tropical climate and soil which have largely been disproven.
Antoinette’s passion and contributions to the field of Geography in the areas of smallholder agriculture, soil science, and environmental knowledge are truly inspiring and admirable. The American Geographical Society is extremely proud of her continued work in these areas and we look forward to seeing what she will be up to next!
By: Christopher Ewell, AGS on August 3, 2015