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Intersection of human need and ecology

Laura Meitzner Yoder (right), her son Micah, and two colleagues enjoy beautiful Michigan, a location of the AuSable Institute for Environmental Studies.

As early as high school, Laura Meitzner Yoder ’93 was concerned with justice matters. Some of her other favorite subjects included biological sciences and politics, which combined to launch her interest in learning about and getting involved in world hunger issues. These interests then united with agricultural and environmental concerns in tropical areas, which eventually led her to work on land access issues of importance to rural people.

Yoder grew up in a rural area of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and lived on a small farm with her family. At the time, Yoder enjoyed playing around the nearby pond and stream, which likely encouraged her current fascination of nature.

Now a professor, Yoder has come a long way since then and her days as a Messiah College student. Her passion for international living and sustainable agriculture developed at Messiah, where she took advantage of many opportunities to be exposed to experiential learning in the U.S. and abroad and to learn about and observe diverse agricultural and environmental challenges.

“I benefitted tremendously from the ‘extension’ opportunities at Messiah, including Au Sable Institute, J-Term field trips, Spring Break service projects, independent studies and study abroad,” states Yoder.

Although Yoder’s first time traveling internationally was to London in high school, she did not become fascinated with tropical agriculture until she took tropical ecology as a J-Term class during her sophomore year with professors Gary Emberger and Richard Stevick. Through that course, Yoder’s eyes were opened to unfamiliar plants and cultivation techniques in Central America, including Costa Rica, Belize, and Guatemala. Upon the completion of the class, her research then became focused on botany in tropical areas. This growing interest persuaded Yoder to spend her senior year in Quito, Ecuador with Brethren Colleges Abroad (BCA). She has since taken advantage of many chances to teach and to conduct research on agricultural and environmental issues in both Latin American and Southeast Asian countries for over 10 years.

After the 2004 tsunami disaster, she and her husband, Jeff, assisted with Mennonite Central Committee in Aceh, Indonesia from 2005-2008. She later spoke on resource rights at the international agriculture conference of ECHO (Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization) in Florida. Upon learning of her experiences in Indonesia, a fellow speaker gave Yoder the website for ISDSI (the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute) in Thailand. She was soon asked to teach at ISDSI, to share her knowledge in politics of forest access and use through field-based experiential courses.

“I have really enjoyed many aspects of living in several countries of Southeast Asia: friendly and helpful people; ready access to a huge array of fresh, seasonal tropical fruits; being immersed in interesting and diverse cultures; flexible and family-friendly work settings; and the opportunity to work on the justice and environmental issues of central concern to me,” says Yoder.

In December 2010, Yoder wrote the article, “Seeking Environmental Justice in Southeast Asia,” which was featured in the Intervarsity publication, The Well, a website for graduate and professional women both giving and receiving spiritual wisdom as they seek to follow Christ in the academic world. Yoder hopes this article and others will spark student interest on this topic. 

Presently teaching a course on the politics of forest access in upland Southeast Asia, Yoder hopes that students will truly consider how these agricultural matters are related to environmental health and justice. She states, “I hope that my students and those who read the article may come away with an understanding of how complex these issues are, and how we cannot evaluate ecological phenomena like burning forests without also learning about the social and political contexts of those actions.”

Story by Priscilla Morales ‘12 

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