INSIDE Chico State
0 January 31, 2002
Volume 32 Number 9
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico




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Scrambling Through Thailand

Fulbright Scholar studies resource management in Thailand

Jim Dwyer

Lee Altier is teaching and studying the effects of riparian management in Thailand.

photo: Kathleen McPartland

For Lee Altier, associate professor in the College of Agriculture, learning Thai is only one piece of a busy professional schedule in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The recipient of a Fulbright Senior Scholars Fellowship, Altier is currently working—as a lecturer, researcher, and consultant—on agricultural issues. This is Altier’s first trip to Thailand, and he said, “I am scrambling to learn the language on the run.”

At Chiang Mai University, Altier teaches a graduate class in agricultural ecology to students from Bhutan, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. “Fortunately, I teach in English, and most of my colleagues here can converse well in English,” said Altier. The university is modern, with nice facilities and “smart” classrooms, he said. It includes a large agricultural program with several research stations around northern Thailand. Altier also teaches over the Internet and lectures on sustainable development and water-quality management.

In addition to teaching, Altier is researching agricultural systems of the highland tribal communities. Recently, he has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a computer model that simulates the effects of riparian management on pollutants (particularly nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment) entering a stream. The model is oriented toward temperate climate conditions, however, and his research will determine the model’s applicability to the different vegetation growth patterns found in tropical conditions.

Altier is also studying the relationship between production intensity and pollutants in ground and surface water. Production practices in the area include monocropping, where a single crop is planted year after year, crop rotations, and “swiddening,” where the forest is cleared to grow crops for one or two years and then abandoned for three or more years for fertility regeneration.

Altier’s Thai students sometimes ask why American researchers study agricultural production in other countries when the United States has the most efficient agriculture in the world, said Altier. Although U.S. agriculture is efficient in its use of labor, it is often not very efficient in its use of energy, he explained. Also, looking at management impacts in other parts of the world where agricultural technologies such as pesticides, fertilizers, and mechanization are just being introduced can provide an understanding of the potential effects of our own management practices on water quality, biodiversity, and human communities.

As in California, fertile agricultural land in Thailand is disappearing rapidly due to urbanization, according to Altier. From a global perspective, especially with increasing international agricultural trade, it is important to consider what resource management makes the most sense in terms of production of the world food supply and protection of environmental quality, he said.

Before coming to Chico in 1995, Altier worked as a research horticulturist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Agricultural Research Service Southeast Watershed Research Laboratory in Tifton, Georgia. He received a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Washington and a Ph.D. in horticulture from Cornell University.

In addition to the Fulbright award, Altier has received grants for other international work on agricultural issues. He received a European Union Research Grant for research on nitrogen control by landscape structures in Brussels, and he received a Twinning Grant with Romania from the National Research Council to study management and water-quality functions. He has also received several grants for development of the Riparian Ecosystem Management Model user interface.

With Altier in Thailand are his wife, Karen, and their two children, Aaron, 4, and Ariana, 8. In their free time, he said, they have been bicycling through the villages and hills around Chiang Mai, hiking, and exploring the markets.

Linda Moore


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