Sustainable Agriculture in Ecuador by Anastassia Kolchanov

 Amazonian views of a local chakra, a traditional inter-crop system developed by the Kichwa people

Amazonian views of a local chakra, a traditional inter-crop system developed by the Kichwa people

This summer, I had the fantastic opportunity to visit the Amazonian rainforest through Sustainable Summer, an absolutely wonderful organization dedicated to the creation and facilitation of trips across the world focused on environmental justice and sustainability.

One of the main goals of this particular expedition, Sustaining the Amazon, was to witness the development of sustainable living and economic practices in a developing country such as Ecuador. During our two weeks of travel, we encountered a variety of local businesses that were using environmentally friendly practices while also creating profit that gave back to Amazonian communities. In this photo essay, I would like to focus on two particular businesses that struck a balance between sustainablity and ethics: Kallari Chocolate and Huasquila Lodge's Guayusa Tea Operation. 

Kallari Chocolate: An Indiginous Sustainable Enterprise

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Kallari Chocolate is a unique cooperative that is run completely by Kichwa farmers. From agriculture to business, Kallari Chocolate has built itself almost completely on the support of the local community.  In the late 1990s, the local community became tired of feeling powerless when it came to crop distribution, payment, and cacao quality. The Kallari village was willing to come together to cut out the middleman and to change the way the community saw economic security. 

With the help of volunteers, the community soon adapted its agricultural systems and formed a cooperative of farmers who raised crops organically. The locals adapted from the monoculture cacao trees that lined the valleys to the chakra system. The chakra system was used for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, and is the traditional way to farm in Ecuador. Chakras are essentially farms that utilize the inter-cropping system, in which the farmer plants a multitude of trees, plants, and tubers that all interact with each other. 

The three images above portray one of the local farmers cutting down a palm tree, which can later be used for a variety of puposes. On the left, he shows us the flower of the palm tree, which he harvests to save for later use. The second and third images show the farmer's process of finding the inner core of the palm, which is harvested as hearts of palm. The outer bark of the palm trees are used as materials for building shelters. Other sections of the palm have holes cut into them, making them the perfect environment for the chontacuro beetle larvae. The chontacuro, in addition to being a sought after traditional Amazonian food, is used in indigenous medicine to heal conditions such as epilepsy and arthritis . 

This is a prime example of the chakra system at work. One does not see rows and rows of palms waiting to be chopped down for their hearts. On the contrary, the images show a secondary forest that has a multitude of plants useful for the survival of the people, physically and fiscally. All parts of the plants are utilized, and the array of organisms thriving in the chakras provide a variety of nutrients for the soil. In fact, the carbon content in the air and root biomass show that cacao chakra systems contain 896% more carbon than monocultures (which is great for the health of the plants and quality of the produce). Thus, the chakra system allows for the communities to give back and maintain healthy, adaptable farms.  

Above on the right we have Luis, the chief community liason of the Kallari cooperative, crouching next to the participating farmer. Luis was our guide during our tour of the Kallari site. Here, Luis explains to us the agricultural side of cacao: the varieties, ideal conditions, and how to plant it. Luis had explained to us that there were five types of cacao, but only one of them was unique to Ecuador: the Nacional. This specific cacao is relatively rare and sought after for its unique taste.

As he held the Nacional cacao bean in his hands, the local farmer chopped another one down from the tree and split it in half. The second image shows the farmer planting one of the fleshy seeds from the cacao pods into the soil. The cacao seeds, interestingly enough, tasted citrus-like and sour, which called for many of us to plead for seconds. 

After leading us out of the chakra and into the home of one of the cooperative's members, Luis and the family showed us how the cacao was made into a chocolate sauce at a basic level. We participated in the bean shelling process which was an exhaustive procedure, as well as grinding the beans into a fine powder (as seen in the images above). 

Finally, after leaving the Kallari cooperative, Luis took us to the processing facility which gathers the crops of 40 families to be made into chocolate. The processing plant first receives the beans in crates, which are left for several days outside to ferment. The fermentation is necessary to bring out the full richness of the cacao beans. After fermenting for several days, the beans are brought out to dry in buildings such as the one in the first image. They trap the sunlight inside to expedite the drying process. Too little or too much moisture in a bean can yield unsatisfactory results, so Kallari's employees work hard to ensure the quality of the beans. Following the drying, the beans are packed into large woven bags, with their initial weights coming into the facility and their final, smaller weights leaving the facility. These weights are important to note, since the families are paid by the weight of the beans. Interestingly enough, in order to benefit the farmers, Kallari pays the families the larger weight which in return gives them more income. 

After this, the beans are sent off to various factories around the region to create the chocolates. Luis had mentioned that in the near future, they would like to make the chocolate right in the processing center. In this way, Luis stated, the Kallari company would be even more centralized to the people's needs in the community. 

Kallari is a fascinating example of what can be done to improve regional economy while listening and supporting local farmers and ecosystems. This may be the epitome of sustainable alternative chocolate (which is absolutely delicious). 

For more information about Kallari, visit their website.  

And if you want to get your hands on some delightful Amazonian chocolate, try Whole Foods or Amazon

Huasquila Lodge's Guayusa Tea Operation

 Guayusa leaves growing on Huasquila property 

Guayusa leaves growing on Huasquila property 

Huasquila Lodge, an ecolodge situated in the Amazonian rainforest, provides more than just jungle excursions and accommodation. In the recent years, one of the founders of the lodge, Pablo, has taken initiative to capitalize on a product that grows abundantly in the region: guayusa. 

The guayusa tree produces leaves that contain caffeine, antioxidents, and a variety of other useful propreties. The leaves are gathered, dried, and made into a tea, which is easier for the body to digest and has a sweeter taste than moste caffinated teas. 

Pablo has planted several dozens of guayusa trees on the ecolodge's property, and is working with six other families to maintain the tea operation. All of the families use the chakra system for farming, and all of their products are organic. In addition to guayusa, the operation also grows lemongrass (also known as herba luisa in Equador) to sell. 

On the left stands Pablo, who is holding a bag of lemongrass ready to be sold. Pablo kindly guided us through the various small structures that currently house the drying and distillation portions of the process. Pablo explained to us the process from seed to distributor in a series of steps. With lemongrass, the men from the families generally collect while the women peel the grass into smaller portions. The job is quite meticulous, since the lemongrass has to be peeled in a specific manner in order to avoid cuts along the plant's sharp edges. After being picked from the fields, the lemongrass comes into the sheds. They can either be distilled into lemongrass oil, as seen with the machine in the last image. Aletrnatively, they can be stacked onto racks in order to dry into tea leaves.  The drying process takes three or so days with both the lemongrass and theguayusa leaves. Afterwards, both are sent off to distribution companies in the region. 

Pablo told us that this operation is coming at a very opportune time for guayusa. The tea is making headway in German markets, and is starting to become extremely popular in the United States thanks to Runa. 

Runa's Tea operation was founded not too far from Huasquila Lodge. Several years ago, a graduate student visited the area for some volunteer work. He was introduced to guayusa tea, and came the following year to tap into the community's rich resources. Runa now works with the surrounding communities to grow vast quantities of guayusa in an organic, sustainable, and ecofriendly way. No one in the area every dreamed of profiting from such a common resource, but it turns out that guayusa has saved the region economically (in some ways).

Pablo hopes that with his own operation, he can give families a secure income, even if there are only 6 of them for now. Pablo hopes to greatly expand his business in the coming years, and wants to turn to exporting the tea leaves internationally. Pablo continues to dream big, and hopes for a brighter future for his community. 

(Although Huasquila's guayusa tea is currently only available at the lodge itself, Pablo intends to start selling it to a broader customer base win the next several years.)

These are some final parting images from Ecuador. Even through these three small photographs, I hope it is clear just how wonderous and fantastic the country is. The people are no less fascinating. As seen through these two examples, sustainable business is growing in popularity. Traditionally, Ecuadorians have a more intimate connection with nature, in which Pachamama and Pachaalpa (traditional depictions of nature within Kichwa mythology) dictates planting, harvesting, socialization, and much more. Thus, such sustainable agricultural businesses are not as difficult to imagine. There are multitudes of people that are eager to start their own businesses that coincide with local beliefs and traditional respect towards nature. 

These are the first signs of expansion within sustainability in Ecuador, and hopefully the coming years will give us more entrepreneurs with bright ideas.  

Microbead, Macro Problem

by Lila Meretzky

    Even if you didn’t know they had a name, it’s probably safe to assume that we’ve all encountered microbeads before.  These tiny plastic spheres have risen in popularity for their use as exfoliants in toiletries and as aids in laboratories, where they can help model substance flow. Microbeads are everywhere, in our toothpaste, our hand sanitizer, our shampoo, our face wash.  In fact, microbeads have become so ubiquitous that currently they are piling up at the bottom of The Great Lakes, coursing down rivers, and sitting in fields.  Here’s the basic overview of what microbeads are, why they’re harmful, and what we can do to prevent more of them from entering our hydrosphere.

What is a microbead?

    A microbead is a type of microplastic.  Microplastics are small, roughly 5mm in diameter, usually created by the breakdown of larger plastics from exposure to UV rays.  Microbeads are intentionally made at such a small size.  Typically microbeads are made from polyethylene.  They are common in beauty products for their use as an exfoliant, their addition to the consistency of a product, and added visual appeal.  Don’t try and tell me you’ve never marveled at the tiny spheres suspended in a bottle of goopy, scented hand sanitizer.

What’s the damage?

    There are two paths a microbead can follow on its journey to a watershed.  Microbeads are too small to be filtered out of wastewater in treatment plants, so they either flow directly from the plant into lakes and rivers or become lodged in sludge (the byproduct of treatment plants).  This sludge is then used as fertilizer for crops.  Microbeads are then washed away off fields and again into our streams and rivers.  Adding insult to injury, microbeads can become saturated with existing toxins from chemical dumping.  Fish and other marine life can mistake microbeads for eggs, and ingest them.  We then ingest these toxin-carrying microbeads when we eat contaminated fish.  A recent article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimates there are about 800 trillion microbeads spread across our oceans, lakes, and rivers.  

How can we combat microbeads?

    Though it seems almost impossible to remove the existing microbeads from our water, there are ways you can help prevent further damage from being done.  This begins with the boycott of products that contain microbeads.  On the website of Beat the Microbead, a campaign protesting the pollutants, you can find lists of products to avoid (http://beatthemicrobead.org/images/pdf/RED%20UNITED%20STATES.pdf), companies that are phasing out the use of microbeads (http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/images/pdf/ORANGE%20UNITED%20STATES.pdf), and products which contain none at all (http://www.beatthemicrobead.org/images/pdf/greenUK.pdf).  If you still want a super-scrubby soap or face wash, opt for products that use natural exfoliants such as ground up nut shells, sugar, and salt.  You can also take it one step further.  Download the Beat the Microbead app, write a letter to state legislators, share articles about microbeads. 

    International progress has already been made to combat microbeads.  Companies like Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, Colgate, The Body Shop, and Procter & Gamble have announced plans to phase out microbeads from their products.  The state of California has enacted a law banning the sale of microbead products, hoping to completely stop their usage by 2020.  Let’s get involved!

Further reading:

NPR

Progress in New York

EurekaAlert!

Environmental Science and Technology

Beat the Microbead

TIME

Green is the New Black

by Lila Meretzky

 Models present dresses made with recycled office files at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover March 2, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

Models present dresses made with recycled office files at the CeBIT computer fair in Hanover March 2, 2010. REUTERS/Christian Charisius

Each September as Fashion Week sends New York City into a street-style photo taking frenzy, we may sometimes get an overwhelming urge to revamp our closets.  Lincoln Center crawls with the New York fashion elite, models, designers, and photographers alike.  LaG’s proximity to these high fashion events and our inherent creativity and boldness make us a very stylish school.  Before embarking on a bout of back-to-school shopping for cute sweaters, socks and jeans, take a look at the following ways we can be environmentally conscious without sacrificing style.

  • When cleaning out a closet, there are a number of things we can do to save resources, and make a little spending money at the same time!

    • Bring clothes that are too small or tattered to wear to fabric recycling!  According to the non-profit sustainability organization GrowNYC, New Yorkers throw out almost 200,000 tons of textiles every year, all of which can be recycled and repurposed.  GrowNYC holds fabric recycling drives in green markets and parks all over the city each summer and fall.  For a list of recycling events near you, check out their collection schedules at www.grownyc.org/clothing.

    • Donate, donate, donate!  For wearable items that have gone unused for years  The Salvation Army and Goodwill are both trusted places for clothing donation.  See if any schools in your neighborhood are having coat drives this winter.

    • Sell, sell, sell!  Our LaG Buying and Selling group on Facebook is an excellent resource where you can give away, sell, or trade your old clothing to other appreciative students looking for a good deal.  If your clothing is high end and you want a high price for it, scope out local consignment shops and get an estimate.

  • Here are a number of ways you can make shopping for new clothing environmentally friendly:

    • Bring your own shopping bag.  It’s easy to come home from a shopping spree with five different plastic bags from the five different stores you visited, but opt for bringing a canvas bag from home.  

    • Shop at thrift stores.  LaG students love consignment shops and thrift stores for their funky clothes and low prices, so encourage your friends to patronize them too.  

    • If you have a hankering for new, fresh off the rack styles, look for brands and clothes that sell items made from recycled materials.  There are a number of exclusively environmentally stores scattered around NYC, but if you’re looking for something a little more mainstream and economical, try stores like H&M and Brooklyn Industries, both of which have environmentally friendly lines.

A New Chapter

by Lila Meretzky

  (‘World’ in studio. in progress. 2010. ©  Susan Stockwell )

(‘World’ in studio. in progress. 2010. © Susan Stockwell)

As most of us LaGuardians are probably aware, the efforts to recycle at our school are nothing short of abysmal.  Recycling bins and trash cans have become nearly indistinguishable, both filled with a mixture of food, wrappers, and old homework.  It is easy to try and blame administrators, teachers and custodians for not speaking up and enforcing recycling.  In reality, it is the responsibility of the students to use the right receptacle for our trash.  This means we, the student body, are the only ones who can bring about change in our recycling system.

It would be unrealistic to expect a radical shift in our attitudes overnight, but that doesn’t we shouldn’t make every effort to leave LaGuardia a cleaner, greener school than the one we first arrived at.  It is the mission of this column to raise awareness about environmental issues and progress.  Global warming is one of the most pressing issues facing our generation, holding consequences for every human, plant and animal on the planet.  It is difficult to sit by and watch our student body neglect to acknowledge our duty as members of a generation that will inherit the planet to keep it clean and use our resources wisely.  

    This is a call to arms for all LaGuardians!  Let’s keep up the fight for a recycling system that is better enforced, and go beyond the walls of LaG to make our individual lives a little greener.  In this section of LagMag you’ll find tips, articles, illustrations, guidance for tactfully discussing global warming, and a host of all things climate-change related.  By following the advice in this column, reading the linked articles, submitting artwork and eco-tips, writing letters to school administrators, creating conversations about climate change at home and in your own artistic communities, we can bring about tangible change, inside and outside LaG.  One could easily sit on the couch moping about, dreading rising sea levels and growing trash piles, but as we are told, (not to be cliche), “be the change you wish to see in the world” (Ghandi).  

 

Conciously,

A hopeful senior