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Cuban-American World Food Prize Laureate - 2002-10-21

English Feature #7-36802 Broadcast October 16, 2002

On October 16, the United Nations marks World Food Day, designed to call attention to efforts to combat hunger and malnutrition around the globe. Today on New American Voices, we introduce one of the leaders of this effort -- Pedro Sanchez, a Cuban-American who is this year’s recipient of the quarter-million-dollar World Food Prize. The privately-funded award honors Mr. Sanchez’s work in restoring fertility and productivity to land that was considered too poor for agriculture.

Pedro Sanchez became a refugee in the United States in 1960, a year after Fidel Castro came to power in his native Cuba. At the time, he was a sophomore at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. But his first memory of this country dates back to a much different time, when he was seven years old.

“Our family put our car on the ferry from Havana to Key West, and drove up to North Carolina. No passports were needed, you just put your car on the ferry and five hours later you were in Key West. My first impression is I loved the jams and jellies in the hotels. We didn’t have that stuff in Cuba.”

Pedro Sanchez’s father owned a farm and a fertilizer business near Havana, and sent his son to the United States to study agriculture when the young man was 18. But barely a year later, Fidel Castro staged his communist revolution, and the Sanchez family’s fortunes changed drastically. In 1960 the family’s fertilizer factory was confiscated, and not long after the family went into exile in Florida. For Pedro Sanchez, it meant a complete change in what he planned to do with his life.

“I wanted to study soil science and agronomy, basically to go back to work with my father on his farm in the fertilizer business. When that didn’t become possible, - and then at Cornell everybody was talking about the world food crisis and how India was starving and all that – I said, I’m going to dedicate my life to improving world food production. And I’ve been able to do so.”

But first, Pedro Sanchez had to complete his education. His father, having lost his livelihood in Cuba, was no longer able to support him. So Mr. Sanchez got a scholarship, joined a fraternity where he washed dishes in return for free food, and found jobs cleaning a laundromat and teaching Spanish. He says he didn’t resent the abrupt reversal in his circumstances.

“I accepted that pretty quickly. I said, okay, this happened, bummer [a bad situation], but let’s get on with it. Because I think one thing my parents taught me was certain values, certain moral values and certain ethical values, and one of them is hard work. And I was told that in this country it doesn’t matter who you are, and what your name is, what matters is what you DO. And to this day I feel very strongly that this is the case.”

Indeed, Mr. Sanchez says he never faced any discrimination in this country because of his name or his national origin. The only problem, he recalls, was that he spoke English with a heavy Spanish accent, and he had trouble losing it because he spent so much time socializing with other Latino students at the university.

“At Cornell I was very much involved with the Cubans and Latin American students. We had very good parties, and the reason why I joined the fraternity was that I was having such a good time with these people that I really wasn’t learning English.”

With the possibility of returning to Cuba gone, Pedro Sanchez says he decided to become an American.

“I just made the decision, okay, this is my new country now, I’m going to become an American without losing my Cuban identity, -- I consider myself both, very much so, you know -- I’m going to make it here.”

After receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and his doctorate from Cornell University, Pedro Sanchez went on to become a renowned soil specialist. As part of a North Carolina State University research team, he introduced a new ”miracle rice” into Peru that made the country self-sufficient in rice production for the first time. Working in Brazil, he headed a successful effort to turn thirty million hectares of what was considered useless tropical soils into productive agricultural land. And in the 1990s, as the director of the Kenya-based International Center for Research in Agroforestry, he developed a way of returning nutrients to exhausted soils without relying on costly chemical fertilizers. As many as 150 thousand small-scale farmers in Africa have been involved in applying the techniques developed by Pedro Sanchez on their farms, increasing their yields, in some cases, by as much as 200 to 400 percent.

“There’s nothing more important to me than what has happened, when some farmers told me ‘we are no longer hungry in this village, and now we’re even having a school lunch program in different villages’, giving up food for the schools so when the kids are in school they have something to eat, because they go to school without eating. And one farmer in Zambia when he said to me, these technologies have restored my dignity, because now I can feed my family and help my neighbors. That’s pretty profound stuff. To me those are the biggest rewards.”

Recognition of Mr. Sanchez’s work ranges from an honorary doctorate from the Catholic University of Louvaine in Brussels, to being made a tribal elder by the Luo tribe in western Kenya. Recently, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, appointed Mr. Sanchez to chair a special task force on world hunger. Pedro Sanchez credits his adopted country with making it possible for an immigrant from Cuba to pursue his youthful dream of helping alleviate world hunger.

“This is indeed the land of opportunity. That anyone who wants to come here, regardless of his or her background, if you work hard, and follow obvious ethical principles, you can get ahead in this country without hindrances, that you could never do in other countries. In other countries, you have to belong to a certain class of people or a certain race or a certain this or a certain that to get ahead. Here, these barriers are largely overcome. There’s something special about this country, and the vitality that we have, and why this country produces more than other ones is its ability to absorb people from a wide variety of backgrounds and turn them into Americans, and make them into productive citizens.”

As the recipient of this year’s World Food prize, Pedro Sanchez will be honored at a special global hunger symposium to be held in Iowa on October 24.