Jul 30, 2013

Some Gifts Don't Come Wrapped

Last spring, 15-year-old Rebecca Grossman went to Guatemala with her father, Dan. There, they joined Gabriela “Gaby” Gonzalez, EcoLogic’s Regional Program Director, and Daniel Hererra, EcoLogic’s former Program Officer for the country, on a four day tour of EcoLogic’s work at our Indigenous Peoples for Thriving Ecosystems site in northern Guatemala. Dan was kind enough to donate his skills as a multimedia audio and video producer for documenting the trip.. Here are some of Rebecca’s observations from this, her first time visiting a country in Latin America. 

“Why would you want to go to Guatemala?,” a classmate asked as we picked up our things and filed out of the humid classroom and on to our next class. I contemplated the question for a minute, before realizing that I didn’t really have a reason. My dad was the one to decide it would be a good experience for me to join him. I didn’t even know if I really wanted to go.

The next morning, I was awakened by my mom at 4 A.M. for the early flight. Groggy and grumpy, I got my things together and went out to the car. Why did I go along with this? A lump started to form in my throat. I felt overwhelmed and scared. My mom looked at me in the rear-view mirror, as tears starting to fill my eyes. “You’re going to learn so much, and you’ll have lots of fun,” she offered. This was supposed to be my birthday trip—I didn’t want it to be a learning experience! “I want a new birthday present,” I mumbled with tears rolling down my face. “OK, we can get you something when you get back, if that’s what you want,” my mom said calmly. I crossed my arms and sniffled.

This is Yovany Diaz, Gaby Gonzalez, myself, and our tour guide in Lagunas.

The flight was long but when we finally landed we played tourist for a day and went horseback riding. Then we met up with Gaby Gonzalez, the regional director of EcoLogic. Early the next morning we packed our things and piled into a pick-up truck and were on our way. Little did I know that I’d be spending much of the next week in that truck! Gaby made me feel right at home as soon as we started the drive and I started to feel less anxious and more excited about what was coming!

As we got further into the mountains the paved highways turned into rocky roads. I was jolted left and right, up and down, over and over. I knew we were going to visit rural towns, but I could never have imagined how far away and separated from the cities these towns were. We finally arrived at a tree nursery. It had rows of trees of various sizes and varieties in bags. After a short stop at the nursery for some photos and videos, it was time to continue on.

The nursery was filled with these small trees that will be planted to reforest damaged areas of the forest.

Next we stopped at a small restaurant for lunch. The table was lively and full of chatter until a small, scruffy man hobbled in and came over to our table. He stood at one end and begged for food. I had never seen someone beg like this before. In Boston, I’d seen people asking for spare change on the streets. But I’d never seen anyone be so persistent. After a while the woman who owned the restaurant walked over to the man and told him to leave. When he refused, she pushed him forcefully in the direction of the door. After he left, we all quietly returned to eating. The rest of the meal was silent.

My mind went back to what I had said in the car on the way to the airport: “I want a new birthday present.” The more I thought about it, the more embarrassed I felt. While I was worrying about getting a better birthday present, the people here were worrying about whether they were going to find enough food to feed themselves. I couldn’t believe how self-centered I had been; more than anything, I wanted to take those words back.

This mother and her child let us into their home to check out their fuel-efficient stove.

After lunch we were driven to a small community so that my dad could interview a family about a new fuel-efficient wood-burning stove they had been given by EcoLogic. I stood next to my dad’s camera equipment and passed him different lenses and tools as needed. As Dad took pictures and interviewed the family, the children and elders showed interest in my blond hair. They had probably rarely, or never, seen blond hair in person. So it was exiting for them. They all took turns feeling it. As you can imagine, this was very amusing for me.

A farmer took a minute to take a picture in the middle of his agroforestry plot.

The rest of the week, we visited other communities, and in particular, observed, recorded, and photographed the destruction of the Guatemalan forests that seems to be happening almost everywhere we went. Farmers often cut down forests for more farmland. It’s called “slash and burn” agriculture in English because the farmers cut down the trees and vegetation that they can with a machete and then light everything on fire. We also got to see some of the areas where EcoLogic was helping to plant new forest patches, and also helping farmers plant a tree called inga, or “guama” in Spanish. This tree rejuvenates the soil through its roots and the leaves that fall, so farmers don’t need to do “slash and burn” anymore.

Here is Gaby poses for a photo with a group of women who volunteer as forest guardians. The forest guardians monitor the forest to prevent illegal logging and help prevent forest fires.

All in all, going on this trip gave me a deeper understanding of culture and poverty. Things are not always black and white and are so much more complex than what I imagined. It was an amazing experience for me to see all those different communities where people use their own indigenous languages, farm for their food, and live so far away from cities I think maybe the next time if my father asks if I want to go on a trip with him to somewhere new, I’ll say, “yes!”

All photos courtesy Dan Grossman

Jun 20, 2013

Welcome to the neighborhood!

Meet Alvin Loredo, fisherman, contractor, tour guide, and common laborer – a jack of many trades. Earlier this year, Alvin worked with EcoLogic to help install fuel-efficient stoves in two communities in the buffer zone of the Sarstoon-Temash National Park in Belize as part of EcoLogic’s binational work between Guatemala and Belize. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Alvin on the phone to hear first hand how the work went, and why he is so committed to his community.

Alvin giving the lay of the land after a boat ride up the Sarstoon River.

Alvin explains that he first heard of EcoLogic about 10 years ago when he served as a board member to EcoLogic’s partner in Belize, the Sarstoon Temash Institute for Indigenous Management (SATIIM). He accompanied EcoLogic on a learning exchange to Honduras to see projects we were implementing, including the installation of fuel-efficient stoves, and learn directly from community participants in the area. Alvin said when he first walked into the home of family with an EcoLogic stove he was blown away by how clean the inside of the kitchen was, which he described as “white”. In a region where, dirt floors and open-pit fires are the norm he could not believe his eyes.

“I was like, wow, where do you people cook? The pots were shining and I wondered where the smoke was and then I said to myself: the people of Barranco need something like that, too. Since that trip to Honduras, it has always been my dream to get the stoves to Barranco and Belize so that people can see that there are techniques to help us live a little longer.”

So, almost 10 years later when EcoLogic called for his help, Alvin jumped at the chance.

Alvin presenting at a press conference to denounce oil exploration in the Sarstoon Temash National Park.

Alvin was raised and lives in a fishing village on the coast of Belize called Barranco. The population here is roughly 160 inhabitants and it is the coastal gateway to the Sarstoon Temash National Park which is threatened by oil exploration and drilling. Full-time employment is hard to come by in this remote coastal village, but Alvin gets by. He supports his family of three daughters and one boy, through daily labor and fishing the coastal waters. “I know them [the communities] from my heart and would be willing to assist them however I can,” said Alvin.

Installing the fuel-efficient stoves took Alvin about one month. First, he would visit each family in the evening to make plans for the following day’s labor building stoves.

“At around 6 in the morning I would wake, share a cup of good, strong coffee with the stove technician and then go to the first home.” They would then assess the levelness of the area where the stove was to be installed. The “family helper” would begin mixing the sand and cement for laying the blocks and wait for it to set. At that point they would go to the next house to set the foundation. At about midday Alvin would return to the first house to fill the area with mud and red clay, soak the bricks, stomp it down, and make another mix of clay to fill the hole. After that the team would place the outer bricks and plaster the outside to make the stove smooth. This stove design uses about 90 bricks and takes a full day’s work.

“The women could hardly wait to use it, but we told them they must wait 40 days for the bricks to cure. If they use the stove before that, the bricks will crack.”

Here is a recently installed stove in Belize, much like the ones Alvin was helping construct.

Alvin expressed his heartfelt thanks for the work EcoLogic has started in the area he also said it is his hope that it will continue. “There are many more stoves that these communities need. We need to spread the love to as many families as we can.”

Alvin’s island-style charisma, loyalty, and love for his land have made him a leader in his community. He fishes where his grandfather fished, he farms where his grandfather farmed and he does his best to protect the natural resources that the people of Barranco and the next generation depend on.

- Gina Rindfleisch, Program Officer for EcoLogic
Gina manages EcoLogic's fundraising activities targeting individual donations. Prior to joining EcoLogic she served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua working in environmental education and holds a BA in environmental studies from Long Island University. 

May 30, 2013

You have the right to remain informed

¡Hola readers!

This past February and March, EcoLogic began its FPIC process in the three land-holding Mayan communities in La Sierra Cojolita Communal Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico. Workshops and information sessions designed to inform the communities about REDD+ were held in the communities of Frontera Corozal, Nueva Palestina, and Lacanhá Chansayab. As the new human rights research intern at EcoLogic, it has been a whirlwind of activity as I learn a ton about the project area, about REDD+, and about the ins-and-outs of working in a non-profit. If you'd like a brush-up on REDD+, David Kramer, Senior Program Officer, has written an excellent post about the mechanism. But wait, you may be saying, what exactly is FPIC and why is it important? Let me take a moment to unpack this term and its importance for both REDD+ and for the EcoLogic project.

Cattle gather in Nueva Palestina, one of the three communities EcoLogic is working with in Chipas. The pressure of ever expanding cattle ranches is one of the principal threats to the Lacándon forest and its natural resources.

FPIC stands for “Free Prior, and Informed Consent,” and is a rights-based approach that puts the emphasis on the rights of local communities to make decisions about the use and management of their land and natural resources. It was codified in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples over five years ago. For REDD+, FPIC is especially important because forest-dwelling communities are often disenfranchised and historically marginalized groups. FPIC is an approach that is central to empowering communities to make informed decisions about their futures.

EcoLogic is making the FPIC process in La Sierra Cojolita Communal Reserve a central part to the project planning stage. As I mentioned, there were a series of workshops in February and March that had the goal of giving the communities information about REDD+ and of completing a participatory factor analysis in each community.

Participants in the workshop prioritize community concerns.

EcoLogic spent three days with each of the three communities, working to address the specific issues and concerns of each, depending on the community context. While this FPIC process has been, and continues to be, a lot of work for EcoLogic, we are committed to ensuring that the communities are empowered to make a truly informed decision about whether or not they want to take part in a REDD+ project. It’s important to stress that the communities will make the decision, and that EcoLogic's role is that of a facilitator and mediator. Our aim is to inform communities about their options.

In the workshops, there was an overarching agenda that was open to change and adaptation depending on the needs of the individual communities. Generally speaking, the first day was devoted to providing introductory information to all community members about EcoLogic, climate change, and REDD+. At the end of the first day, 20 to 30 people were selected by the community to participate in the second part of the workshop, which was the community analysis of factors that impact the possibility of implementing REDD+.

Andrea Savage (center), EcoLogic’s Carbon+ program manager, meets with community members to assess their interest in the project.

Now that the first steps in the FPIC process have been taken, it will be exciting to see how the conversation with the communities continues to evolve and bring to light new information. The experience has been amazing and educational so far, and I'm excited to be learning about a new and still-evolving development tool under the mentorship of EcoLogic, an organization that is doing so much hard work to “do REDD+ right.”

- Anneliese Abney, CarbonPlus Community Engagement Intern
Anneliese works closely with EcoLogic’s CarbonPlus team on project execution and community involvement. She will be graduating from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management in 2014.

May 8, 2013

Lulo, Landscapes, and Lotsa Learning

I hadn’t been to Colombia alone before since 2001. My first time there was in the late 90’s, and that trip was pretty much a blind leap into adventure and the unknown -- this time was certainly going to be different. I now know the country and what to expect, so I did what I always do when I go there: I drank my body weight in lulo juice. Lulo is a unique fruit found only in the northern Andes. It’s green through and through. Even a tiny glass of the stuff is loaded with impact beyond anything you’d expect: a tart flavor, bubbling over with antioxidants, and smile-inducing. In fact, lulo juice reminds me a lot of EcoLogic.

My typical afternoon meal with two wonderful glasses of lulo juice.

It was precisely for this lulo juice, I mean, love of EcoLogic’s work that I made my pilgrimage back to Colombia. I was attending a conference on capacity building in conservation. I wanted to learn about new ways that project evaluation can be streamlined and communication improved between project teams and communities. This conference was a chance to think long-term and get ahead of the curve. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the conference itself (conferences can be hit or miss), but I knew I’d be able to gain inspiration from other attendees, not to mention the gorgeous colonial town of Villa de Leyva, Colombia, which lies about four hours from Bogotá.

Once I settled into my hostel (called Renacer, or “Rebirth” in English, and operated by Oscar, a biologist and birding guide), I trekked each day to and from the conference site on a dirt path. I passed smiling families, kids playing outside, and the ubiquitous Colombian military outpost blasting cheerful vallenato music from portable radios before their morning drills.

The conference presented a nice mix of leadership tips and management advice along with presentations about technical experiences in the field, and it delved into cases related to landscape-level conservation, and protected areas management. The “productive landscape” approach is very much in line with EcoLogic’s; this bolstered my confidence that we’re on the right path. It gave me plenty to chew on (like bad-boy chef and novelist Anthony Bourdain said about his recent trip to Colombia) in terms of how we might tweak our projects, better coordinate with our talented international staff and partners, and continue to elevate the role of rural communities in leading collaborative conservation and restoration efforts.

The whole conference crew!

EcoLogic has an awesome opportunity to parlay its years of experience and relationships in Mesoamerica into a landscape-level approach to forest and resource conservation. Our focus on treating the whole landscape is vital for countering threats and capitalizing on the energy and grassroots leadership we have helped build at the community level over the past 20 years.

Landscape-level conservation is about protecting and restoring natural systems across various types of land use including in and around protected areas. EcoLogic’s strategy is to promote sustainable landscape management by focusing on three inter-related areas: (1) Improving rural community well-being, (2) Conserving and managing at-risk areas, and (3) Facilitating coalitions at the landscape level. These focus areas ensure we keep an eye on people and nature and make decisions based on data driven analysis and results -- good and bad.

The beautiful home I saw during one of my morning walks.

At the end of the last morning in Colombia, I felt supremely confident that EcoLogic is a model of what could be if more organizations listened closely to and valued the opinions, knowledge, and vision(s) of local people. We don’t swoop in and jump out on our own terms -- our long haul approach provides stability and certainty, a kind of scaffolding for building a future that simply takes time to “set.” I see greater value than ever in EcoLogic’s work and holistic approach, recognizing that most conservation challenges are, in fact, human issues and can only be solved by committed leadership and those willing to go out on a limb, take risks, and lean into the unknown to obtain the fruits of their labor. No matter what we do -- and no matter how important it is -- it will always begin with people, families, and communities. Sometimes, it comes down to a white board, papier mache, and a tin roofed community center, bringing people together to take the first steps toward making sustainable change and conserving invaluable landscapes for generations to come.

Just don't forget the lulo!

- David Kramer, Senior Program Officer for EcoLogic
David researches and authors EcoLogic's proposals and reports to institutional funders. He also helps coordinate staff and partners in EcoLogic's participatory project design and evaluation.

Apr 16, 2013

Common Commute

The purpose of our trip was simple: Demarcate the watershed found at the Quebrada Barro Colorado in southern Panama. The trip itself was much more complicated.

The Quebrada Barro Colorado is located in Punta Patiño Nature Reserve deep in the Darién, Panama. This reserve is remote, private, and administered by the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON), a private nonprofit organization founded in Panama. I was headed there with Eric Lorenzo and Humberto Tamayo of ANCON.

That's me on the left and my travelling companions Eric and Humberto.

Our journey started in Panama City, where we took a three hour car ride to the city of Metetí. There we changed routes and hopped over to Puerto Quimba along the coast, about 12 miles west. We boarded a boat and prepared for travel through the estuary that would eventually bring us to the community of Mogué. The entire trip was scheduled around high tide in order to get out of the mouth of the estuary. We timed it right and the entire boat ride took about an hour and a half. The sights from the boat were overwhelming in their beauty. You have mangroves on either side of you, seabirds flying overhead and, if you’re lucky, a group of dolphins might escort you for part of the way. The ride filled me with that sense of freedom that only nature can bring.

Picture time while traveling through the estuary.

Eventually we docked our boat and had a short 10-minute walk along a beautiful trail which cut through the comarca of the Embera and Wounaan peoples. It is a beautiful land dotted with Embera and Wounaan dairy farms, and traditional houses built on stilts. We passed several young women in brightly colored parumas, or traditional clothing.

Embera and Wounaan community members taking a rest during the day.

Upon arrival it was important to contact the traditional authority of the community. We explained to him the purpose of our visit, in this case ours was simply taking a shortcut through their lands to get to Quebrada Barro Colorado. The meeting was pleasant and quick and then we were on our way.

For generations, the Quebrada Barro Colorado has been the source of water for communities in Punta Alegre. It is important to demarcate the land to ensure the watershed is protected. The people hope to eventually build an aqueduct—running about 8 miles—that will continue to provide water to communities. 

We decided to take a quick break at "Rosita," a small store. It was there that we met up with a guide Lucio, who was to be our guide the rest of the way. He kindly offered to put us up at the worker’s house on his ranch where we could spend the night. ¡Que bueno!

Nothing like a sip of natural, cold water.

To get to the small ranch home it was a long, but pleasant two mile hike through lush rainforest full of large
trees and small streams. We arrived at Lucio’s ranch house at sunset. The small house was perfect – and so was the nearby lake where we caught our dinner. We cooked our fresh catch over a small campfire.

The late night sky gave us a breathtaking star show. We shared stories throughout the evening, enjoying the meal and each other’s company, and eventually went to sleep. Some of us slept in hammocks, some slept on the floor inside the ranch house.

We were all up bright and early, made some very strong coffee and ate a few yuccas. We walked an hour on narrower trails where at one point we saw titi monkeys playing in a high tree and at another we watched a beautiful, majestic eagle land on a Cuipo tree. The tree had been full of small birds that quickly scattered leaving the eagle alone as the mistress of her tree.

Let's recap: Panama City, to Metei, to Puerto Quimba, over to Mogue and finally down to
La Reserva Natural de Punta Patiño.

From the dense, thick jungle we finally arrived at the Quebrada Barado CoIorado water source. We had made it. Now, it was time to get to work demarcating the water source.

So, how did you get to work today?

- Yaira Allois Pino, Program Officer for Panama
Yaira is from Santiago de Veraguas, Panama and works on EcoLogic's projects with our partner organizations in that country.

Mar 20, 2013

Under the Weather in Upper Guatemala

¡Buenos días!

Every morning I wake up in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, to the blue mountains of the Cuchumatanes that rise more than 2 miles above sea level. This morning, the temperature in the city is around 5 ° C (40°F). Here, January is typically the coldest month of the year and yet I am travelling from Huehuetenango to the upper parts of the Cuchumatanes Mountains, where nighttime and early morning temperatures can dip even lower, often below freezing.

Passing through the towns of San Juan Ixcoy, Soloma, Santa Eulalia, and San Mateo Ixtatán along the way I pass through fog, heavy rain, and then a little drizzle. Eventually, I arrive at the city of Barillas where it is no drier. In fact, it rains here about 11 months out of the year.

A local villager is all smiles in the early morning fog.
The weather here in northern Guatemala is predictably unpredictable. Sometimes, on days without a cloud in the sky, I’ll  suddenly be in the middle of a heavy downpour. Other times, there will be sunshine day after day and only a light rain at night. It can make travel plans and deciding what to wear pretty difficult.
For example, one day I visited the Maxbal lagoon in Barillas and decided not to pack rubber boots. When it was time for us to hike – since we couldn’t go any further in our truck, I realized just how big a mistake that was. Trail conditions were a mess since it had rained heavily the night before, but I needed to continue on to the lagoon, and so I hiked. I fell more times than I care to admit, but I learned my lesson. Wherever, whenever, and no matter what, you should always bring rubber boots. 

Muddy conditions after a rainstorm.
Another time, last year, I was participating in a community training in the middle of the village of Xapper at a tin-roofed community meeting house. The day was beautiful and bright, and then, around noon, a shower came down so intensely we had to suspend the training since no one could hear anything over the relentless pounding of the rain on the roof! We had to wait nearly an hour until the rain had subsided enough to continue the training. 

A view from the village center, with a tin-roofed meeting house and expansive mountains in the distance.
The weather in this area is much more than just an unpredictable inconvenience, though. The land itself is very hilly and mountainous with large areas that have been completely deforested due to illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. Without trees and vegetation the heavy rains wash away soil and frequent landslides occur that can destroy remaining trees, cause water contamination and harm people and buildings as well. Additionally, the landslides often spread across highways and streets, restricting reliable transportation access, emergency evacuation routes, and communication with rural communities.
From desert to jungle, from chilly to oppressive heat, Guatemala is a land of diverse climates, in part thanks to our expansive and majestic mountains. The climate is unpredictable, but the work EcoLogic does, and our commitments to communities and to conserving the land are consistent and unwavering. 

Daniel Herrera, Program Officer for Guatemala
Daniel first joined EcoLogic in 2010 as a field technician, and in 2012 became a Program Officer, overseeing all EcoLogic's projects in Guatemala and providing technical assistance to our local partners.

Mar 4, 2013

Mighty Mexican Mangroves

Hola Friends!

I recently visited the Papaloapan River Wetlands with Pronatura Veracruz, a regional nonprofit in Mexico that partners with EcoLogic. We were meeting to discuss mangrove conservation. Mangroves can refer to salt-water wetlands or to the types of salt-hardy tree species that live there. Mangroves protect coastlines from erosion by wind and waves. They are also home to hundreds of species of fish, crabs, shrimp, and other shellfish (some of which are very tasty!). It was an enriching day and full of surprises.

Prior to the visit, I had the pleasure of talking to some fishermen on the Papaloapan River in Tlacotalpan, Veracruz and got their perspective on the changes that the river has suffered over the years and how it has affected them.

One said ... "it seems as if it’s a completely different river, and now you can’t fish it like before, but as long as God wills it, we are still managing to feed ourselves from it.” This brought to mind discussions with environmentalists and conservationists about “the exploitation of natural resources." However, when watching the fishermen it was clear that they had their "art" and only kept fish of a certain size, returning the smallest back to the river, and respecting the cycle of life.

A mangrove tree stands tall along the Papaloapan River in Mexico.
In that moment I realized that "conservation by the people," was not something that we had to teach or implement, it was something we had to assess and enhance. Fishermen already believe they need to protect what they have.

During the tour of the river, I saw many of the different types of threats to mangroves including cattle ranching and sugar cane cultivation, and I especially saw the impact they have on the species that live there. I was also astonished by the large amount of fish to be found swimming around the large mangrove roots. A tour the Papaloapan River to see the extent mangroves.

A tour of the Papaloapan River to see the extent of the mangroves.
Our friends at Pronatura explained that the success rate for efforts to reforest mangrove trees is actually very low. This is because government led mangrove reforestation projects while well intentioned, have often been undertaken in locations that did not have the best ecological characteristics to ensure the success of such efforts.

Pronatura saw the situation and a few years ago they decided to establish a pilot plot to identify techniques to increase the success rate of mangrove reforestation projects. In just a short time Pronatura has achieved impressive results, with the successful establishment and spread of mangroves at the pilot site.

But for EcoLogic the success of any restoration project is not just about planting a certain number of trees and then saying "we’re done." We believe a project must go further and integrate communities into this process. So in this final stage of the mangrove restoration pilot project, we are working with Pronatura to raise community awareness of the importance of the mangroves, and to involve the local people actively in the process of conserving the mangroves.

With that in mind we are producing a documentary called "Reflections on Water" which will explain about mangroves and their importance, and we will invite people from the communities in the area to watch the video.

There is still a lot of work to do and challenges ahead, but I know that if we work together with partners like Pronatura and local communities, we can advance the preservation of this fragile ecosystem on the Papaloapan River.

-Marco Acevedo, Program Officer for Mexico
Marco works on EcoLogic's projects in Mexico and has direct experience in preparation, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of environmental conservation and rural development projects in Mexico.