Patrick Van Damme, Belgian professor in tropical agronomy, has recently been appointed to head the Faculty of Tropical Agri-Sciences, becoming the first foreign dean in the history of the University of Life Sciences. I met with Mr van Damme to discuss the faculty’s projects and plans, but I first asked him about his links to the Prague institution.
“I first came here in 2006 at the invitation of my colleague Ladislav Kokoška, who asked me to give a course on ethno-botany, that means plants used by people. And after that first experience he invited me back each year.
“A bit later, around the year 2010, he also asked me whether I could preside the MSc theses defences. So I became a chair of those juries and during one of those, in 2012, he asked me whether I would be interested in teaching on a more regular basis and I said yes.
“So on July 1 I started my first contract with what was then still an institute and not a faculty. After a year the Institute of Tropics and Subtropics, as it used to be called, became a faculty.
“Since then I was coming here on a regular basis, not only to teach, but also to coach colleagues and students with their research, and maybe to add some English flavour to the programme.
“Two years ago there was this idea raised that they could nominate me for the position of dean and then gradually that took its course and in the beginning of this year I was nominated and I started my deanship on April 25 this year.”
Many of our listeners are perhaps not even aware that there is a Faculty of Tropical Agri-Sciences here in the Czech Republic. What exactly is the focus of your research and education?
“Basically the focus is on tropical agriculture in the broad sense. We could also call it agro-sylvo-pastoralism, which includes crops, trees forest trees and animals.
“It is about the integration of all those, but also about the specific domains within crops, animal husbandry and tree growing. So that’s the teaching and it’s also the focus of research.
“But of course once you start with plants, not necessarily only crops, plants as such become interesting. So we also have this ethno-botanical course, where we try to see what plants are used by people in the tropics to feed themselves, to be the raw resource for preparing drinks or pharmaceutical products.
“The idea is to try and analyse those plant compounds and see whether there are any interesting ones to derive more formal pharmaceutical products out of them. So there is a whole chain of activities starting from what I call the tropical reality.
“Tropics are the areas around the equator, be it in Asia, Africa or Latin America, and the faculty now has links with several countries in the south.
“So we have a direct connection with colleagues, universities and research institutes in the south, which allows us to collaborate with them and to work on certain topics together.”
How does this ‘tropical reality’ concern the Czech Republic?
“It does, in a way. If you talk about socio-economics, or rural development, maybe there is a difference in scale, in sociological background, but the mechanisms and problems are basically the same.
“In the Czech Republic you also have rural areas which are not necessarily practising the most modern production techniques. So there is scope for improvement.
“So our researchers know a bit about the reality here, they blend that with their academic background, and then they interact with people in the south, who have similar problems.
“Then there is the second level, more technical, that with the global warming now, the Czech Republic is also becoming dryer and hotter in summer.
“What we have seen is that over time now a number of crops that we equate with southern areas are also being at least tested in the Czech Republic.
“We are among the only faculties of tropical faculties, at least in the northern hemisphere.”
“An obvious example which has of course been here for some time is grapes to make wine. In Medieval Time it was warmer here and there were grapes. But then there was a small Ice Age, temperatures in summer were lower and cooler, and so grapes were out again.
“You also shouldn’t forget that maze for instance, was not grown in more temperate zone of Europe before 1980, but then, gradually, because there was a need for maze to feed the cattle.
“By having specific varieties, they were able to get good yields. We will see the same phenomenon with chickpeas, grapes and some other crops from Mediterranean and tropical areas.”
Would you say that with the global climate change becoming an increasing problem, the significance of your institution will be growing?
“Definitely, I would think so. I have seen this already happening in Belgium and Holland and of course France, but that’s a Mediterranean country, at least the southern part.
“We have been working on these alternative southern crops for quite a number of years. Of course for the near future it will remain a ‘niche commodity’, only serving a small part of the market.
“As I said with maze, it started in 1980s in Belgium, and I think that today, more than half of the acreage of the annual crops is maze. So it went from zero to a half.
“We have colleagues who have been working in Syria, in eastern Mediterranean area, and the crops growing there are rather close to what we may have in the Czech Republic. So I think the importance will grow and we can contribute.”
The history of your faculty dates back to the 1960s. What would you say is the reputation of the faculty today?
“I think we are quite well-known for certain thematic fields, although they might be niche. We are still small. We have around 500 students and maybe 22 - 25 professors. However, we are among the only faculties of tropical faculties, at least in the northern hemisphere.
“So I think that we are an ideal partner to attract interest from other institutes, laboratories or scientists, who would like to do research on a given tropical theme.
“A number of crops that we equate with southern areas are also being at least tested in the Czech Republic.”
“So for some aspects, I was already mentioning pharmaceutical products or animal production, where we grow an Eland antelope species from West Africa here on the experimental farm.
“Those animals eventually go back to Senegal to live in the wild but we also do a research on the Elands, how to grow them in this kind of environment.
“So for specific themes, I think, we are an interesting partner and we are known for what we are doing. Of course, as we always say, everything can be better.
“So that is maybe one of the objectives now, for the near future, to try to pimp what we are good at and make ourselves a bit more known, both to the Czech public as well as to other countries within Europe.
“Of course we are part of a number of European exchange programmes, be it in teaching and research. So now it becomes more of a necessity to engage more in international research programmes, in international collaboration with other people, and to complement what they may have as competences.”
To end on a more personal note, I know that you speak many languages, so how is your Czech?
“Improving! I do my best. It’s not an easy thing, of course. In a way it’s good to be living here, at least partly, in an environment that is basically Czech speaking. When you switch on the TV, it is Czech 24/7.
“Most of the teaching at the faculty is in English. We only have one Czech-taught programme in the bachelor degree. All the rest of the programmes are in English.
“So of course there is not much of a challenge to engage in conversation in Czech with my colleagues at the faculty. But at university level, we are the only faculty that has all these programmes in English.
“So I think there is a challenge to try and understand at least what they are saying and then also to respond to them. So I will try to improve on my Czech as much as possible.”
Would you say there are any similarities between the Czech and Belgian cultures?
“I must say that in the beginning, it was a little less obvious, maybe because of the language barrier. But I think that we seem to share at least a common sense of humour.
“You may know the Belgian absurd painter Magritte and we sometimes refer to ourselves as living in Absurdistan. And I find the same kind of reflection here in the Czech Republic. So I like this sense of humour.
“I also think that when foreigners come to Belgium they find it difficult to understand us sometimes and that we keep our distance. When I was first came here I also had this impression that there was this kind of emotional distance between Czechs and me.
“But gradually, after a few beers at the pub, people open up. So I think most Czech people are fun and I love it here.”