Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Planet, People, Peace conference at Earth University

For the past three days I have been at Earth University, or in Spanish Universidad Earth, for the Planet, People, Peace 3rd International conference on sustainable ecotourism, hosted by CANAECO - the Costa Rican Chamber for Ecotourism (see my colleague Paula Alvarado's post on the P3 conference for Treehugger). Earth is a 4-year university specifically to teach students about sustainable agricultural, forestry and natural resource management techniques. They recruit students from extremely rural, poor regions by going to different countries and talking to families and finding young people who will return to their areas as leaders in sustainable ag techniques and as eco-agro-entrepreneurial business leaders. Fifty percent of the students have 100% of their expenses paid for. The remaining half have at least a 50% scholarship, some more. A Foundation that funds the students called Earth University Foundation. The campus is beautiful! This is a sign near the coffee shop in the library - aka biblioteca.
This is another shot of the downstairs area of the library building, near the coffee shop. Which, by the way, I went to every day! Very good coffee! The university does not grow coffee as one of its crops, but one student - Jorge Quintanilla - did create a sustainable coffee co-op, and they have an Earth University coffee brand that they sell in their coffee shop and I believe at Whole Foods that is from this student's business.
This is near the front office. Everything is decorated with local tropical ornamentals. A walkway near the library. Since it rains frequently - this is the humid tropics after all - they have covered walkways between all the buildings. Nice! It is also much cooler during a hot day under the walkway.This is not the best shot, but it's the only one I got of the campus away from the walkway areas. Lots of palm trees and lawn. It's a large campus with many acres in forest and bananas and other crops, but this is the campus area. The students have an opposite program to many universities. They spend their first year immersed in each of the different ag programs, such as banana growing, forestry, waste management, and crop management. The second year they have to create a business plan that they will implement during the rest of their time here, and they develop and defend the plan before their professors. They get a loan to carry it out, which most of them repay through the business. Then during the final two years they have their classroom work, learning the biology, chemistry and other subject matter that they have already been immersed in from their field work. Some of their bananas get sold to Whole Foods and they also create banana paper from the waste stalks of the banana trees. They also research better ways to grow pineapples. Here's a Youtube vid on Earth's work with banana production. This isn't a great shot either but this is the view from my second-story dorm/hotel room - rooms they have for conference attendees, not student rooms (I'm not sure where students stay). It's cloudy because it was raining but if you look closely in the distance are tropical trees and mountains. In fact this morning I am pretty sure I heard howler monkeys in the distance! The second day of the conference I attended an agro-tourism workshop led by Stephen Brooks. After a slideshow and talk about permaculture & his educational ag tourism work, we drove to a demo area of Earth University. Brooks has done absolutely amazing things. He's an American who came here in 1995 and saw banana plantations spraying indigenous children with pesticides from crop-dusters and he was like, what the hell is going on here, all so I can have bananas in my cereal. He first started a tour company (Costa Rican Adventures - which he has since sold) and they did things differently. They not only showed all the beautiful areas, but also the deforestation, and the crop issues with bananas, in order to educate visitors to the realities. He also told people about solutions. He catered to student groups, thinking that's where he could make the most difference - by influencing the next generation. Next, in a storm, he stumbled on a beautiful piece of land known as Punta Mona or Monkey Point which he first started bringing groups to and then bought and created the Punta Mona Center for Sustainable Living & Education Center focusing on permaculture - the creation of locally adapated fruits, vegetables and useful plants. He lived there for many years, on an off-the-grid 85 or so acre plot of land that you can only reach by boat or by hiking or horseback riding in. You really gotta click that link! It's a serious contender for me to live, in my search for somewhere to go in the next couple years.

He and his wife recently created La Ecovilla, a sustainable development closer to San Jose that will be an intentional community designed around food/permaculture. He's selling plots of lands to families now; he is doing some revolutionary things. He's done some Planet Green TV stints and there's plenty of info about him online so check it out. I wish I had a chance to visit his place but alas I don't. Since his stuff is completely organic (not certified, but he doesn't use pesticides), he also has some issues with Earth U's bananas, which are "sustainable certified" but not organic. Earth U is researching better ways to grow bananas and they also have an organic plot funded by Whole Foods Markets, but that's all still in the works. Earth has definietly improved the way banana plantations operate - less waste, using biodigesters in some areas, improved worker conditions etc - but there's still a ways to go to avoid the fungus that attacks them. At any rate, we drove to part of the Earth University where they must do some education and there are many fruit trees and a demo area where he is talking to us about crops, trees, etcStephen found a cacao (from which chocolate is derived) and we all had some to eat. The fruits have a clear-white flesh and are sweet but inside is the seed, which makes the cacao nibs. It's actually bitter but you can still eat it if you want! Obviously they add a lot of sugar to chocolate!Next, he found a bunch of mangosteens under some trees right there. I think this stuff's juice is sold for like $100 a bottle. He was so excited - he's a pretty animated guy - he said a Jewish prayer of thanks to God for the abundance of the Earth and we each had a mangosteen. Mucho mangosteen!
Inside a mangosteen. Paula with a mangosteen! A greenhouse where they grow some crops. The veggies are not organic, but they do research various sustainable techniques. They do not use herbicides but pick weeds by hand, they use recycled/reused materials for their plots (you can see wood, bottles, tires) and other measures. Inside the greenhouse. We ate some "weeds" that Stephen showed us were edible, including purslane. This is just art made from an old tire on a fence. And another piece of tire art.
This says something about sowing for the future. Stephen talking to a group of us. Most of the audience of the conference are sustainable tour operators - either they own an ecolodge, or run a tour company, and are interested in improving or becoming even more sustainable. Costa Rica's government has a system to rank tour operators from 1-5 leafs for their efforts. Today and tomorrow we are going to stay at two different 5-lead certified ecolodges.A demo area. I like this tree! Some lettuces I think, showing how they use re-used plastic bottles to create the plot.Hydroponically grown eggplant.
Stephen showing us the starfruit tree. All in all it was a fun two days, and I'm excited to go to the rainforest proper again today. We are heading to Limon, on the Caribbean coast to look around, and then to Selva Bananito - the 5-leaf certified ecolodge in the jungle, where they offer a zipline, rappeling down a cliff and horseback riding. I have to admit I am a bit nervous about these things! I am sometimes not as adventurous as I seem, though I will try to overcome my fear!

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