Culture

Latin America Is Fighting A Banana Fungus That Threatens America’s Favorite Fruit

Did you wake up and eat a banana for breakfast this morning? Straight out of the peel? Or maybe you chopped it up into a few pieces and tossed it into a smoothie or over a bowl of cereal?  

Or maybe your abuelita fried a few up and served them with some crema and a side of rice and frijoles? 

Bananas are a staple food item around the world. In fact, we consume around 114 millions tons of them every single year. So you can imagine why many people are freaking out over recent news that a banana killing fungus has taken hold. It could literally spell the end for our beloved banana. 

A deadly fungus has infested banana crops across Colombia.

Bad news for banana lovers: A fungus that’s particularly adept at killing the fruit has finally reached Latin America — a major supplier of the world’s bananas — as scientists long feared it would.

Recently, officials in Colombia declared a national emergency after confirming the presence of this deadly fungus, known as Fusarium oxysporum Tropical Race 4 (TR4), in the country, according to the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA)

This is the first time the fungus has been detected in Latin America. However, the fungus isn’t new — for decades, it has been devastating banana plantations in Asia, Australia and East Africa.

This is potentially devastating news because Latin America was one of the few remaining fungus-free regions in the world.

Although this fungus isn’t harmful to humans, it is a “serious threat” to banana production, according to the United Nations. The fungus attacks the plant’s roots and blocks its vascular system — the network used to transport water and nutrients — and ultimately kills the plant. Once the fungus finds its way into soil, it can’t be treated with fungicides, and it’s very difficult to remove.

So what does this mean for the fruit so many of us have come to enjoy?

Well, the fungus attacks the most commonly exported banana, the Cavendish banana. “For Western countries, the vast majority of the bananas we eat are from the same Cavendish subgroup,” Nicolas Roux, a senior scientist at Bioversity International in France, told Live Science in a June interview.

“What we’re having is an almost apocalyptic scenario where we’ll probably lose Cavendish [banana]” Sarah Gurr, Exeter University’s chair in food security, told Wired in an interview.

Also, side note, the Cavendish bananas which are what most of us buy in the supermarket, are literal clones of one another.

Cavendish bananas reproduce asexually, meaning that the plants are essentially clones of their parents. This means banana crops lack genetic diversity, and infections can spread quickly. That’s not weird at all. 

Virtually every supermarket banana in the world is a Cavendish, a strain chosen for its hardiness and easy cultivation. In the 1950s, it replaced the Gros Michel, a comparable banana that was all but wiped out by the soil-dwelling fungus Panama disease. Also known as Fusarium fungus, the blight blackens bananas from the inside out. Once it’s infected a plantation, its fruit is toast. Even decades after bananas have gone, the spores hang around in the soil, with the potential to re-infect crops all over again.

Colombia is just the most recent outbreak. This fungus has been wreaking havoc globally for years.

For the past 30 years, the fungus has wreaked havoc on banana plantations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Now, Colombia’s agriculture and fishing institute has declared a national emergency after the fungus was found in the northeastern province of La Guajira in June. Nearly 170 hectares (420 acres) of plantations have since been quarantined

So what’s the plan? How will we save the banana? 

A number of ideas have been proposed to help save the Cavendish banana, including genetically engineering plants that are resistant to TR4. Meanwhile, researchers are trying desperately to find a new kind of banana that can survive Tropical Race 4.

Scientists in Australia have created a fungus-resistant variety using genetic engineering. It’s still being tested and would require government approval before it could be grown or sold. 

Other scientists are looking through nature’s storehouse. Unfortunately, 80% of banana fruits are susceptible to TR4. And none of the fungus-resistant plants are ready to replace the bananas that currently fill supermarket shelves. Most of them are cooking bananas, or plantains. Others are wild bananas with tiny fruit that’s inedible; the pods are full of seeds.

The hope, however, is that plant breeders can take these plants and cross-pollinate them, mating them with other, more commercially viable bananas, reshuffling the genes to create new varieties that are both delicious and immune to TR4.

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Nicole Chapaval Advocates For More Latinas In Tech Through Teaching App Platzi

Fierce

Nicole Chapaval Advocates For More Latinas In Tech Through Teaching App Platzi

The gender disparity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) jobs remains wide in Colombia. As of 2019, Colombian women hold 32.9 percent of all STEM jobs in the country.

Nicole Chapaval, the VP of education at Platzi, wants to get more women into STEM. As someone who found herself in tech, Chapaval understands what it takes for women to break into the industry.

Chapaval’s own passion for computer science started in her youth. Despite wanting her parents’ reservations about her career choice, she went to school to study software engineering.

“I learned how to code with Platzi. I was a student back in 2012 before I worked here,” she told mitú.

Platzi is a professional learning app targeting people ages 22 and older.

Photo courtesy of Apple

Instructors for the app are teaching livestream courses on programming, marketing, design, and business. The classes are available in English and Spanish.

Chapaval took an interest in content optimization practicing her coding on a personal blog while taking online courses. Starting out as a student advocate, the two founders of Platzi noticed her dedication and started to involve her more in the team.

As Platzi expanded, so did Chapaval’s job description.

Chapaval has been successful in her career. Yet, despite the success, she has seen the gender disparity firsthand. It has only further inspired Chavapal to work to get more women in their tech careers.

“One of my first jobs was in a company that was doing mobile applications and in this company there were 15 male developers and myself,” she says.

Wanting to engage with her male colleagues, Chapaval admitted to feeling weird when her enthusiasm was not reciprocated.

“I was always very extroverted and wanted to meet everyone [but] they didn’t want to talk with me,” she says.

Chapaval teaches 60 percent of computer sciences courses hoping to attract more women to the field.

Photo courtesy of Apple

“I think that representation is very important. So I try to be very vocal and very present with everything that we do in social media and in content creation,” she says.

Whether it be attending company livestreams or podcasts, it is imperative for Chapaval to have women witness others in the field to show the possibilities they can achieve.

Prideful, she also amplifies the achievements of other Latinas in STEM, like that of Diana Trujillo. Yet, she still expresses a need for more women to get managerial roles.

“I am very proud of Trujillo,” she says. “She’s from my hometown and she was in the NASA project that launched the Perseverance Rover. These kinds of things are great!”

Thirty-six percent of Platzi‘s more than 1 million students are women and it is growing.

Photo courtesy of Apple

“That’s very low,” she says, “but we doubled that percentage from 2018 so we still have a long way to go.”

A key step needed to attract more students is accessibility, both financially and in content. Platzi, Chapaval mentions, offers free programming courses that aim to be accessible to those with low internet connection in all parts of Colombia and Latin America.

It’s not just about what you are learning as an individual, but also as a team or a group,” she says. “That also adds to the working ecosystem of Latin America.”

Regardless of gender, age, or background, Chapaval believes “education is very important if we want to break these blockers.”

In fact, two crucial skills she believes everyone should know is programming and English. “I like to say that both skills have to do with communications; communication with machines and with other people in the world,” she says.

In a time when remote jobs are pertinent due to the pandemic, having communication skills is a valuable asset for STEM careers in any country.

“Programming should be a basic skill that schools teach as well because it’s not only [beneficial] to be a developer,” Chapaval says. “It helps you understand how to solve problems in a logical way.”

Chapaval is grateful for her personal growth in STEM and hopes that Platzi can help others grow.

Photo courtesy of Apple

“I hope [students] can create what they dream of with the coding skills that they can get with us and can show it to the world,” she says.

“Latin America is a lovely region and a lot is happening here,” she says. “I hope that if this community can get to know each other and create the next big companies and big solutions for problems that we have right now, I would [be] fulfilled.”

As the gender disparity in STEM slowly expands, Chapaval continues to vouch for women to speak up and push through in the field.

Proudly Chapaval says, “Latinas are very extroverted, and the tech and software engineering world needs more extroverted people [like us] to add to their ecosystem.”

The App Store featured Platzi for Women’s History Month.

Read: She Came As A Teen From Colombia With Only $300 To Her Name, Now She’s a Director For NASA

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Once A Cartel Hub, Colombia’s Medellín Has Become A City Of The Future

Culture

Once A Cartel Hub, Colombia’s Medellín Has Become A City Of The Future

Medellín, Colombia was once home to one of the world’s most powerful cartels – Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel. During the ’90s, drug gangs and guerrilla fighters controlled the city’s streets and few people ventured out the relative safety of their immediate neighborhoods.

That Medellín is a distant memory for many Paisas thanks to the fall of the cartels, but also to a distinct set of ideals and values that have shaped the city’s development over the last decade.

Medellín was named the world’s third city of the future and it’s leading in so many categories.

Medellín is nestled in a valley high in the Andes, and many of the city’s poorest residents live in comunas they built on the steep slopes. And although the city still struggles with high rates of poverty, city planners are working to bridge the divide between these poor communities with little access to public amenities and the core of Medellín.

The technology that helped save Medellín is not what you’d see in San Francisco, Boston or Singapore—fleets of driverless cars, big tech companies and artificial intelligence. It is about gathering data to make informed decisions on how to deploy technology where it has the most impact. 

Where most smart-city ­initiatives are of, by and, to a large extent, for the already tech-savvy and well-resourced segment of the population, Medellín’s transformation has for the most part been focused on people who have the least.

The city’s cable car system is one out of sci-fi novels.

Think of a gondola suspended under a cable, floating high off the ground as it hauls a cabin full of passengers up a long, steep mountain slope. To most people, the image would suggest ski resorts and pricey vacations. To the people who live in the poor mountainside communities once known as favelas at the edges of Medellín, the gondola system is a lifeline, and a powerful symbol of an extraordinary urban transformation led by technology and data.

“The genius of the Metrocable is that it actually serves the poor and integrates them into the city, gives them access to jobs and other opportunities,” says Julio Dávila, a Colombian urban planner at University College London. “Nobody had ever done that before.” As people of all classes started using the cars to visit “bad” neighborhoods, they became invested in their city’s fate, heralding a decade of some of the world’s most innovative urban planning

Designers have created safe spaces for all with parks and libraries.

The Metrocable succeeded in connecting Medellín’s poorest neighborhoods to the rest of the city – but where would they hang out? This lead to the construction of five libraries sprinkled throughout Medellín, all surrounded by beautiful greenery. These “library-parks” were among the first safe public spaces many neighborhoods had ever seen. 

The key ingredient of Medellín’s transformation, experts agree, is perspective: The city looked beyond technology as an end in itself. Instead, it found ways to integrate technological and social change into an overall improvement in daily life that was felt in all corners of the city—and especially where improvement was most needed. “Medellín’s vision of itself as a smart city broke from the usual paradigms of hyper-modernization and automation,” says Robert Ng Henao, an economist who heads a smart-city department at the University of Medellín.

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