Nov 23, 2012

Green and Lean

Here at EcoLogic we have water projects, we have reforestation projects, we have carbon projects. But guess what? I’m going to go ahead and let you know that I have a favorite. That’s right. Out of all of our programs – agroforestry is my favorite.

Why? Glad you asked. It’s because I’m cheap. Wait, let me explain.

For starters, it’s because our agroforestry program tackles so many issues simultaneously – soil quality, forest cover, food security, and climate change. But the real reason that gets me is – and I’ll have to reveal a little secret – is that it just makes economic sense. And that’s extremely important if you want to get farmers to actually make changes to the status quo. The secret I mentioned is that I’m one of those environmentalists that’s into conservation primarily for economic reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I like animals, beautiful landscapes, and I understand the critical importance of healthy ecosystems in keeping us all healthy, but I really love it when doing something “green” also impacts my bottom line. For example, using less energy means paying a smaller bill. Riding your bike to work means not buying a monthly subway pass. I drive a car than runs on used vegetable oil for Pete’s sake! Yeah, my fuel is “green,” but it’s also free!

The left side of this farmer's plot is using agforestry – the other side is not.

When you add trees to farmland, you activate natural processes which help the corn and other food plants grow better. Adding the right type of trees in the right quantity and in the right places makes soil moister and more nutrient-rich. This ends up producing a more abundant crop. Bigger, healthier crops – just from adding trees! And no need to buy chemical fertilizers and herbicides. EcoLogic works with farmers so that they can test out alley-cropping – one type of agroforestry – on their own land. So many farmers in Central America understand that slash-and-burn agriculture – at least the widespread practice of it – is not only environmentally damaging, but also a poor way to get a decent crop harvest.

Jose Domingo Caal, an EcoLogic técnico, giving a maintenance demonstration of the Inga tree.

Agroforestry answers the timeless question of “what’s in it for me?” EcoLogic doesn't have to go to a farmer and say “Hey, the way you’re farming is bad for the environment, so stop.” No, my friend, we flip it. We say “Hey, we can help you adopt this farming technique that can make your corn bigger and healthier for less money and labor. Oh, and by the way, its way better for the environment, too.”

Yeah, I know that a full-on economic lens toward the environment is a slippery slope, and knowing that, I’m able to keep it in check. The thing is, at the end of the day, I love working for EcoLogic because we show people how conservation doesn't have to be a sacrifice. And it’s not people or the environment. It can be transformative, life-changing, and liberating. Our agroforestry program is a great example of how we do that.

- Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic
Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer writing grant proposals and project reports, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development.

Nov 21, 2012

Thank you from EcoLogic

We are so grateful to have the commitment of people like you to help us continue our mission and protect the health of the planet and its people.

On behalf of all of us at EcoLogic and the rural communities we serve in Mexico and Central America, we wish you a happy and healthy holiday.

Nov 7, 2012

Cojolita Conversations

Hola Eco-enthusiasts!

I recently returned from Mexico and have some updates for you about our REDD+ project.

Nature at its finest in Chiapas.

You might remember that back in April, Dr. Bryan Foster, CarbonPlus Director, and I took our first trip to Chiapas and began to develop relationships with key REDD+ actors at the state level and with communities where we work. To get the project set up we are mainly collaborating with the communities of the Sierra Cojolita Communal Reserve and the local NGO, Na Bolom, however there are a whole host of other folks that we need to work with to make our initiative a success. There are a variety of different ongoing initiatives within Chiapas that all fall under the REDD+ umbrella, meaning they contribute to the same end goal of reducing carbon emissions from degradation and deforestation for the state of Chiapas. Some efforts, for example, just focus on collecting data, while others are focused on developing a state framework for keeping track of carbon emissions from forest loss. But it’s important that all the different actors stay in touch so that we can help each other, and ensure we are maximizing time and resources.

For example, we met with two key Mexican federal government agencies—the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) and the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP). Because REDD+ initiatives can be pretty complicated beasts that require careful policy decisions and monitoring not only at the project scale, but also at the state and federal level, it’s important that we stay on top of the developing government policies for REDD+. We also had several fruitful conversations with the Chiapas Secretary of the Environment and Natural History (SEMAHN). We are very grateful for how supportive the women and men at these agencies have been of the REDD+ Cojolita Project and recognize how it could truly benefit the local people and help protect the remaining forest. These meetings made it clear that the federal government not only embraces our efforts in the Lacandón Rainforests, but also sees the initiative as playing an active role in a larger rural development strategy for the region.

On the open road through the Sierra Cojolita 

During this trip, it was very positive to confirm that our relationships with these people had continued to flourish while we were away. We’ve also started to assemble a local team that brings a variety of skills and areas of expertise including anthropology, forestry, and governance. And with the help of our partner, Na Bolom, we have slowly carved EcoLogic a meaningful seat at Chiapa's REDD+ table where we can have an impact on how REDD+ is implemented in the state. EcoLogic and Na Bolom also participated in the Governor’s Climate and Forest Taskforce (GCF) Annual Meeting that took place San Cristobal de las Casas along with 6 community leaders who traveled from Cojolita to attend.

The GCF is a unique multi-jurisdictional collaborative effort between 19 states and provinces from Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Spain, and the U.S. focused on developing comprehensive REDD+ programs. The Annual Meeting is an opportunity for information exchange between many types of actors involved with the GCF low emission development effort. The convening in Chiapas brought together a number of different perspectives on REDD+ including representatives from Brazil, who have relatively advanced REDD+ initiatives. There were also voices that questioned aspects of REDD+ —expressing concerns, for example, about the implications of these projects on the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. We value and appreciate these perspectives. To be sure, all approaches have their pros and cons, and REDD+ is not a tool to be used under all circumstances; like any instrument it is more effective in some situations than others. However, if it is properly, carefully, and ethically applied, we believe REDD+ can play an important role in making a significant and lasting positive impact on the well-being of the forest and natural ecosystem as well as on the peoples who live there.

While all of these perspectives encouraged EcoLogic and Na Bolom to reflect on the approach in the Cojolita, we left the conference feeling confident in our process for community engagement, and of the benefits the Cojolita project could bring to local communities, and the Lacandón Rainforest.

The gang's all here. That's me on the left next to Juan, a community leader from Lacanjá and Omar, a community leader from Nueva Palestina.

We returned from the trip with tons of information to digest, and lots of thoughts on how to move forward in partnering with the communities of the Sierra Cojolita Communal Reserve. I feel really lucky to be able to meet so many smart and passionate people all working hard towards the same goal, even when our paths towards that goal are slightly different.

- Andrea Savage, CarbonPlus Associate
Andrea supports EcoLogic's CarbonPlus program in project development and fundraising, and has a particular interest in Mexico’s land tenure system and the social impacts of payment for ecosystem services. She recently completed her Master's in sustainable international development at Brandeis University.  

Sep 14, 2012

A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Conserving natural resources is one of the most important things to do and advocate for in life. However, when one wishes to balance the conservation of nature and the needs of a community ’s livelihood, the solutions may not be simple and the approach cannot be uncompromising — especially when there is no alternative source of income for most of the poor coastal communities other than that derived from available natural resources. EcoLogic’s work in the trans-boundary area of Sarstun and Amatique Bay is in some ways a typical situation, but it is even more challenging because there are two communities with distinct social, cultural, and political identities, in this case Belizeans and Guatemalans.

A busy sea 

It was a typical maritime trip across the Belizean and Guatemalan border, sailing on a boat rented from a local fisherman known as Wicho. Wicho is a Guatemalan national but grew up on the Belizean Coast, and so he is fluent in English and Spanish.

The sun was setting, but the sea was getting busier. Many men and boys from the lower Sarstun River down to the San Juan village, often in teams of 2 or 3, were tending their nets. “Nowadays a family may need to have more than one net to supply their basic needs since the catch is not as good as before,” explained Wicho.

As the day winds down, the fishing speeds up.

The tides weren’t as high as they normally are when we travel in the afternoons. As we got closer to the Barra Sarstun community, two young children (about 7 years old) came out sailing on a little pirogue – a kind of small canoe – on their own without any adult. I was amazed and asked Wicho how parents can allow their children to sail on deep water like this without any adult with them or life jackets in case of emergency? Wicho explained that this is their home, their road, and play ground. They are already used to it.

Children sailing their pirogue in their backyard. 

This statement sounded exaggerated but it also seemed to be true when we learned that, the many people in Sarstun community don’t have land. Most of their houses are built right above the water. Some homes may be 30 feet off the edge of the river, because all the lands beyond that line are private properties. The people who reside here depend almost entirely on fishing and have no other livelihood alternative. This has caused marine resources in the region to deplete at an alarming rate.

The mission of EcoLogic here is to promote sustainable fisheries management, so there will be healthy fisheries for generations to come. As a way to build trust with the communities and a follow up to our ongoing technical assistance, EcoLogic staff participate regularly in the meetings of Fisherfolk Committee. 

Aquaculture initiatives allow for fisherfolk to sustainably harvest bluegill fish.

What is a “Fisherfolk Committee”? 

Also known as “Comite de Pescadores” in Spanish, the Fisherfolk Committee is a community association of fishermen who decided to come together to solve conflicts and form a body that represents the community before the local authorities and other stakeholders. In a general sense, fisherfolks are looked at as either people or a group whose lives depend on fishing. Whether you are on the Belizean or Guatemalan side, fisherfolks present quite different features:

Sarstun-Guatemala: the Sarstun region was traditionally populated by native indigenous people; however, land scarcity has pushed many other ethnic groups to migrate towards these coasts in search of livelihood opportunities, making this area a mix of Maya Keq’chi, indigenous and Ladinos. According to the “Comite de Pescadores,” their fish stock has declined to almost five times less than what used to be their catch per unit effort in the nineties. As the human population increases, the fish stock decreases. This pushes many of the fisherfolk to cross the border and fish in the Belizean waters, which triggers ecological concerns and resentment from the Belizean side.

Barranco-Belize: traditionally known as the major fishing community in southern Belize, Barranco fisherfolk are people of African origin known as “Garifunas”. Fisherfolk here are mainly descendents of the Garifuna who relied mainly on fishing for their subsistence. But since the fishing stock declined, most of the youth left the country to look for jobs in the United States, while others try to cope by combining fishing and farming. 

A look down the Sarstun River showing just how close the two sides can be at certain points 

The fisherfolk’s issues 

Over the last decade, there have been tensions between the two communities of Barranco and Sarstun. The first accuse the second of crossing the border illegally and depleting their resources. Not only fish are concerned here, but also the illegal extraction of timber and non-timber products in the Sarstoon Temash National Park, a Belizean protected area designated a Ramsar site due to the critical importance of the wetlands and their resources. The Sarstun fisherfolk on the other hand, find it nearly impossible to avoid fishing in Belizean waters since the stock in their shores can no longer suffice to feed their fast growing population. “If we don’t cross the border, how will we feed our kids?” explained one of the fisherfolk in Barra Sarstun.

What are we doing at this “hot spot”? 

EcoLogic has been working together with local communities and non-governmental organizations to conserve these precious natural resources while helping them solve their disputes through dialogue. Given the socioeconomic and political context, EcoLogic has recently reviewed its strategy to combine conservation tools with finding alternative, ecologically friendly livelihoods for the concerned communities.

Phew - that's the project in nutshell! We are ready to tackle this project head on and so are the communities.

- Jean Claude Mbazumutima, Coordinator of the Belize-Guatemala Binational Project
As coordinator, Jean-Claude oversees EcoLogic's efforts to promote sustainable ecosystem management and cooperation for a binational project spanning the Guatemalan and Belizean communities on either side of the international border along the Sarstun River.

Sep 6, 2012

Adventures in Agroforestry, Part 2

Since early June 2012, two recent Harvard University graduates, Julian Moll-Rocek and Janie D’Ambrosia, have been visiting EcoLogic’s agroforestry plots in Guatemala to observe, gather data, and provide “tips and tricks” to our EcoLogic field technicians and community farmers on ways to measure and track the progress of their agroforestry efforts. 

Hi again,

It's Janie this time. The last time we wrote Julian and I had just arrived in Ak'Tenamit, a vocational boarding school composed largely of students from the Q'eqchi Mayan communities of the Sarstun region of Guatemala. We received an incredibly warm welcome from APROSARSTUN, an NGO located on the Ak'Tenamit campus and EcoLogic's partner on the ground, and we were finally able to meet the two students with whom we would be working for the next two months. The students, Roland and Matteo, are both in their sixth and final year at Ak'tenamit, and working with us is how they will complete their "practica" -- a two month long field project required to graduate.

This was our private home for a few, magical weeks!

We rented one of the bungalows on campus for the week as we prepared for our 4-6 week trip to the field. Originally, we thought three days would be more than enough to finalize our field methodologies, plan our route, and pick up supplies. As much as we had prepared, our first chat with Rolando and Matteo revealed just how much we still had to learn, including community structure and dynamics, cultural norms and taboos. As biology majors in college, we felt comfortable taking soil samples and measuring tree diameters and soil cover, but evaluating project impact through interviews and community activities was a new experience for us.

During our first one-on-one interview, it became apparent that farmers do not keep reliable track of crop yield, so there was no easy way to quantify the benefits of agroforestry in terms of production. We had to think on our feet and developed a mini-workshop on important numbers for farmers to keep track of during different plot stages. During the coppicing (trimming) of the trees, they can measure how much wood is produced. During harvest, how many ears of corn are harvested. During fruit harvesting , how much fruit is collected. We created a “cheat sheet” to distribute to the farmers with important dates relating to the plot (planting, coppicing, harvest) and the important productivity measures related to each.

This is an agroforestry plot. Those stumps are what the Inga looks like after pruning and the leaves are scattered on the ground to eventually turn into a source of organic fertilizer.  

By far the most important part of our work here has been speaking with agroforestry farmers about why they participated in the project, and finding out what problems they have had related to their plots, and about the help they've received from Ecologic and APROSARSTUN. Their answers are as interesting as they are diverse, ranging in subject matter from community politics to group dynamics to land tenure issues. Overall, the project participants and communities have received us with great warmth and openness. Discussions are often lively and insightful and never so serious that there isn't time for a good laugh and playful banter.

 When we aren't in plots or interviewing project participants or doing community-based work, Julian and I are enjoying the beauty of the small villages, learning how to cook Q'echi-style, and, most importantly, taking an occasional break! After our last meeting in Cerro Blanco, we invited the community to a ukulele jam session (Julian and I both play) as a thank you for their hospitality.

A delicious meal shared with friends.

The evening of ukele strumming was wonderful. A whole mélange of people showed up-- men straight from the field, women and children taking a break from household chores, and young people who wanted to learn chords. By the end of the night, we had young boys singing "Drop, baby, drop" (a Hawaiian favorite)  , and translated "Eight Days A Week" for a sing-along. One of my favorite moments was when a farmer asked, "So what talk do we have to listen to?" We were able to say "No talk, just music and a bit of fun. We hope!" It seemed the least we could do in light of the kindness we'd been shown by the entire community.

 Now we're off to our next community -- Sarstun Creek. The adventure continues!


Julian Moll-Rocek has done research in the Amazonian rainforests of Madre de Dios, Peru and Janie D’Ambrosia has previously worked on a national reserve in Southwest Kenya. Both Julian and Janie have degrees in organismic and evolutionary biology, a field that looks at the function, evolution and interaction of organisms—or in this instance, how crops and trees can work together and integrate beneficially into the broader natural ecosystem. They are also showing our field staff techniques to use new technology (such as GPS) to create more accurate maps and georeference the agroforestry plots of the farmers we work with.

Aug 23, 2012

Adventures in Agroforestry

Since early June 2012, two recent Harvard University graduates, Julian Moll-Rocek and Janie D’Ambrosia, have been visiting EcoLogic’s agroforestry plots in Guatemala to observe, gather data, and provide “tips and tricks” to our EcoLogic field technicians and community farmers on ways to measure and track the progress of their agroforestry efforts. 

Hi all!

Janie and I arrived in Guatemala City on June 13th and headed to EcoLogic’s regional headquarters in Quetzaltenango (affectionately known as Xela, by its Mayan name). While crashing on the floor of an extra room in the EcoLogic office, we spent about a week and a half re-familiarizing ourselves with the work EcoLogic is doing in agroforestry—which involves planting trees with corn, I’ll get to the details further down the page.

Home Sweet Home - at least for a few days.

We became interested in EcoLogic when we wrote a case study on the organization for a class on climate change and the global food system. We worked closely with Senior Program Officer David Kramer and to gained an understanding and appreciation of EcoLogic’s mission, goals, and projects. We are particularly interested in helping establish an effective monitoring and evaluation (M/E) system for EcoLogic’s agroforestry project. In essence, we’ll be keeping track of progress, measuring success (or failure), and trying to get a sense of what should be changed. So now we’re here in Guatemala for three months speaking to people in the fields—quite literally—and coming up with a set of recommendations for project modifications.

That's Don Augustín to the left, the greenhouse manager in Totonicapán with técnico Fernando Recancoj and Janie showing off some saplings in a newly constructed greenhouse.

The agroforestry system that EcoLogic promotes is based on the research of the Inga Foundation, which employs a nitrogen fixing tree, Inga edulis, planted in alleys between rows of corn (known as alley-cropping). This technique provides farmers with several advantages: shade from the trees reduces the amount of herbicides they need to kill weeds, the dead leaves from the trees decompose to provide a rich layer of nutrient-rich humus or compost, and finally before the corn is planted, the trees have their branches cut which is often used for firewood, reducing the need to take fuel wood from neighboring forests.

A farmer standing proudly by her agroforestry plot in Guatemala.

After our stay in Xela we headed up to Ixcán, about an hour south of the Mexican border, to see this agroforestry system firsthand. After 9 hours crammed into a minivan, we finally arrived in the town of Playa Grande, where we were welcomed by EcoLogic’s técnico, Antonio Chipel. Nursing our bruised knees and aching backs, we plunged right into work the next day. Bumping around in the back of a pick-up truck, we drove out to a community called Santa Maria Dolores. There, we spoke to farmers who have started working with Inga, visited plots of different ages, and tried out some of the measurements we had come up with to get a better idea of how things were going in the plots. Everyone we met was incredibly warm and open. Even though everyday left us drenched in sweat and dead tired. 

Now, we've arrived in Livingston, Izabal where we will try to use what we learned from Antonio and the farmers in Santa Maria Dolores, Ixcán, to come up with a straight forward set of measurements and questions to keep track of how agroforestry systems are working here.

The food here is unbelievable!

I have to make a brief mention of the food here: it is absolutely UNREAL—fresh corn tortillas mixed with beans and cream and perfectly cooked scrambled eggs for breakfast; a hearty vegetable stew for lunch with corn tamales; maybe a cheese and chicharron filled pupusa for dinner. Everything prepared fresh as you watch!

- Julian

Julian Moll-Rocek has done research in the Amazonian rainforests of Madre de Dios, Peru and Janie D’Ambrosia has previously worked on a national reserve in Southwest Kenya. Both Julian and Janie have degrees in organismic and evolutionary biology, a field that looks at the function, evolution and interaction of organisms—or in this instance, how crops and trees can work together and integrate beneficially into the broader natural ecosystem. They are also showing our field staff techniques to use new technology (such as GPS) to create more accurate maps and georeference the agroforestry plots of the farmers we work with.

Aug 8, 2012

Taking Care of (monkey) Business

I grew up in Venezuela and I understand personally how important it is to help rural communities that are usually neglected by governments and the private sector. I joined EcoLogic as a Communications intern nearly five months ago, because I can see how EcoLogic’s work creates opportunities for people and places that are usually overlooked because of a history of exclusion and political turmoil.

Before joining EcoLogic, my experience in environmental conservation projects was very limited. I did a summer internship at an environmental organization based in Washington D.C that focused solely on ocean conservation through research and advocacy. It was an eye-opening experience and my interest in environmental causes started to grow. I started gaining an understanding of how environmental policies are intertwined with economic and social ones.

A howler monkey in Honduras. This picture was taken by a staff member on a trip in January. Pictures like this are what has made working on the biodiversity catalog so fun!

The first project assigned to me at EcoLogic was to build a biodiversity catalog. My job was to research and compile a list of the threatened and vulnerable species in our project sites. Although I did not have any experience with this subject before, I thoroughly enjoyed this project! I learned, for example, about the important role that spider monkeys play in spreading seeds of trees through jungles, how the temperature of the sand where leatherback turtles nest determines the sex of the turtle hatchlings so climate change is dangerous for them, and how many species of frogs in Central America are dying and threatened with extinction because of a fungus introduced to their habitats by humans. I have been introduced to many species that are found in Venezuela as well, and yet before I started working here I did not have a clue about their existence.

The flower of the guiana chestnut tree, looking like a beautiful firework! 
Peaceful water flowers with a backdrop of a mangrove forest on the Sarstún River.

This last month I have been working on the creation of EcoLogic’s brand new website. It has been a team effort among staff members, interns and collaborators. I am one of two interns responsible for the content for the Spanish version of the site. The process has been fun, exciting and overall very instructive. I encourage you to keep track of the launch of the new website. I think it is going to be great!

- Daniela Guerrero, EcoLogic Intern
Daniela recently graduated Northeastern University with a Masters in Public Administration and has an undergraduate degree in Journalism from Universidad Monteavila in Venezuela. This fall she will begin work at ACCION, an international non-profit organization specializing in microfinance.

Jul 27, 2012

Técnico speaking

Who are these guys, or gals as the case may be?

They are the links that turn EcoLogic agreements with partners and communities into reality. A “técnico” — field technician in English — is an EcoLogic team member that works most closely with the communities executing our projects.

Jose Domingo Caal, EcoLogic's Guatemala técnico in Honduras

When EcoLogic begins a relationship with a local partner based on the social and environmental needs of the area, two steps are critical: a community consultation and the development of a project design agreement. After the initial step of community consultation, this is when the técnico becomes the driver of the commitments. They are the team members who keep the momentum generated during the community consultations moving forward and lead partners in the day-to-day work of the project. They are the human face of this support and bear the EcoLogic "banner" in community interactions. They also relay the project’s needs, progress, successes and setbacks to EcoLogic staff and local partners.

Técnico Reina Cruz, on the left, talking to AJAASSPIB members in Honduras.

Besides working with the communities directly, the técnicos also draft the project profile, a tool that is incredibly important and used for data collection and evaluation by the EcoLogic team. It covers science, finance, mapping, and photography. The técnico has to know something about everything. 

From what I have seen, what really drives the técnicos is a strong sense of community support. This support is what makes it more than just a job to them. They leave much of their lives unscheduled in order to be flexible and best serve the needs of communities, whenever they may arise. They work nights, Sundays, holidays; they travel by motorcycle, car, boat, or on foot for hours on end no matter the rain or struggles. If there is something to do, they do it.

When I've been with them in the communities, I realize how much I can learn from them.

Thank you for reading and regards, wherever you are!

- Rodrigo Morales, Regional Project Officer for EcoLogic
Rodrigo is conservation biologist with particular expertise in protected areas monitoring and management. He works closely with EcoLogic country program officers identifying potential project sites and monitoring existing projects. Rodrigo works out of our Regional Office in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.  

Jul 18, 2012

Rio, Bravo!

I'm back from Rio and have almost recovered from the whirlwind of activities going on there. A good whirlwind, don't get me wrong. I had an excellent time and learned a ton.

No, that's not airport security - that's the entrance to the conference.

I was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the better part of six days attending the Rio+20 Earth Summit, a United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Each day had at least 50 panels I could attend on topics including land rights, climate smart agriculture, community forestry, payment for ecosystems services, integrated water resource management, you name it. Let's just say I attended a lot. Panels and smaller side events were great places to learn about others' work and various issues, as well as to meet representatives from other NGOs. Thanks to friends at the Equator Initiative, I was able to stay at an apartment only a 3 minute walk from the conference center. Without getting into details, I'll just say that most conference-goers did not have this luxury and had long, traffic-laden trips to the conference center (well, I think the heads of state took helicopters so they probably avoided the traffic, too). Anyways, because of my close proximity I was able to take full advantage of everything that was going on.

Sure, it was all business, but there were also really cool exhibits from the United Nations like this one showing faces of children from all over the world.

I was in Rio for two reasons: the first is that just like 20 years ago during the first Earth Summit, the conference was addressing some of the founding principles of EcoLogic - that for long-term conservation strategies to be truly effective, rural peoples must be included and their contributions given priority. The other reason for my attendance was to support and honor our partner, AJAASSPIB, which was being recognized as one of the winners of the 2012 UNDP Equator Prize. It was amazing to spend time with the 25 winners who were from around the world, and it was quite valuable to learn about the various initiatives they represented. I encourage you to check out the work of the different winners here. On the last night of my trip, there was a sold-out award ceremony to recognize the winners. Special guests included, Mohammed Yunis, Helen Clark, Richard Branson, and Edward Norton. Also, because of her attendance at Rio+20, Zumilda Duarte, an AJAASSPIB leader who was representing her organization, was able to attend a side conference by the Avina Foundation, Skoll Foundation, Ashoka, and others. Zumilda was all over Rio talking about AJAASSPIB!

That's Zumilda on the left accepting the Equator Prize from a United Nations representative.

Another big part of the conference was what was called "Dialogue Days." These were long sessions where a panel of high-level experts discussed a major theme being covered at the conference. I attended the Dialogue Days on the themes of "Sustainable Development for Poverty Reduction," and "Water." The purpose of these dialogues was to choose language that would be presented to the country delegations at the conference. The panelists discussed the options and the audience - filled with civil society representatives - voted at the end.

That's Zumilda right in the middle. She's on stage accepting the AJAASSPIB's award with some of the other finalists.

Although there is a large sense of disappointment about the outcomes of the conference, I'm glad that EcoLogic had a voice in the process.

As hard as it is to do, that sums up my time in Rio in broad strokes. As you may have noticed, there's been a lot of talk in the media about the conference outcome. What people are referring to is the agreement that participating governments signed, which is supposed to hold governments accountable to the concepts of sustainable development. The problem is that the agreement that was signed is extremely weak and does not push hard enough to bring about change at the policy level. That said, for the smaller NGOs of the world, like EcoLogic, and for grassroots groups like AJAASSPIB, the conference was undeniably valuable. I was able to talk to many people about our work and establish and/or strengthen relationships with new and existing collaborators, allies, donors, and friends. And I learned so much that I will be able to use to help EcoLogic help our partners throughout Central America and Mexico!

- Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic
Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development.  

Jun 27, 2012

Mi vida en Totonicapán

On several occasions I have been asked how I came to work with EcoLogic. This is my story.
In 2007, there was a call for work in Totonicapán that caught my attention because it was where I had grown up and, well, it was time for me to return home. It was time for me to use my knowledge, experience, and support for innovative projects for people and families as part of my goal in life, which is to help others.

For several years I worked outside Totonicapán, now this was my big chance both to return and to help people who had been less fortunate in life.

That's me all the way on the right, with my friends Don Augustin, the Greenhouse Manager in Totonicapán and Técnico Fernando Recancoj.

In Totonicapán, among my first projects working for EcoLogic was training and consultation with the board of the 48 Cantones, an indigenous quasi-governmental structure that has helped govern local communities of Totonicapán for over 800 years. Working with the communities and the 48 Cantones, we were able to create a modern project that used a system of micro-irrigation (a watering system that maximizes water use) to produce more trees for reforestation with less work then had ever been done before in the area.

Greenhouse Manager  Don Augustin showing the rows of tree saplings that, when large enough will be reforested.

I also promoted EcoLogic’s fuel-efficient stoves. With these stoves we give families the hope of an improved quality of life.

A local family showing off their new stove.

Another project of particular significance was collecting and organizing the ancestral knowledge about natural resources, mountains, forests, and water from community elders. This was one of the projects with greatest impact on teachers, students, authorities and the general public.

EcoLogic's Traditional Memory project aims to preserve the values and traditions of the Totonicapán Quiché Maya by inspiring the next generation of leaders to learn, understand, and continue their customary system of forest management. Here, Quiché Maya offer prayers to the forest before reforestation begins.

Working with less fortunate people and families is one of my purposes in life, something that has brought me pleasure, happiness and personal joy. To be someone’s source of hope for a greater tomorrow, to take action to ensure availability of water for children and women, is priceless. Personally, this brings me immense satisfaction.

I was presented a banner by a local group of women and recent fuel-efficient stove recipients to show their appreciation for their new stoves.

With respect to the culture of Totonicapán, I understand that each day is like an experiment with the individual aspects of life, in my case I can say that I have total connection: of thought, culture, language, leadership, love of my neighbors. This connection is not just with the Quiché Maya village, but also with the Keqchi people, the Man, Chuj, and other indigenous communities which have a wealth of ancestral knowledge.

Aside from my work with EcoLogic, for two years now I have been a member of the Board of Directors for the 48 Cantones, as Mayor of my Paquí community. I coordinate volunteering services to the community and to the town of Totonicapán. Here the experience is enormous in regard to leadership, decision-making, management, politics, administration and more.

In Quiché the word chiwimequena means “over hot water”, in Spanish it is totonicapán which comes from the Náhuatl Atotonilco, totonilco means “the place of hot water.” And it’s true, in Totonicapán there are hot springs accessible to everyone. However, I feel like the communities of Totonicapán, and the families I call neighbors are not in hot water – but on the road to a very bright and sustainable future.

- Francisco Tzul, Program Officer for Guatemala
Francisco provides technical assistance to EcoLogic’s Guatemalan partner organizations. He is from the western highlands of Guatemala and has an agricultural engineering degree focused on systems of production. He enjoys working directly with people and looks forward to developing new ways to support EcoLogic’s partners in Guatemala. He speaks Spanish and Maya Quiché. 

Jun 20, 2012

Painting the town REDD

It was happening.

After paying my dues for over a year as an intern for EcoLogic, reading stacks of reports and articles about the Lacandón Rainforest and the three Mayan communities that own it, and being just days away from finishing my grad program on sustainable international development, it was actually happening. I was finally getting the opportunity to meet the communities and the forest I had read so much about first hand. This past April, EcoLogic’s very own forest carbon ninja, Bryan Foster (aka CarbonPlus Director), and I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico to collect data for EcoLogic’s Sierra Cojolita REDD+ project.

A landscape view of the Selva Lacandona.

Because you’re all dedicated EcoBlogic readers, I’m sure you remember Dave’s excellent description of REDD+ -- a type of project that reduces the amount of carbon dioxide that’s produced when trees are chopped and/or burned down by working with communities to prevents deforestation. Over the next week, I quickly discover that reading dozens of academic articles and reports does not compare to experiencing the Lacandón Rainforest first hand.
That's me on the left taking notes during our meeting.

We arrived in the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez on a Wednesday, and spent two days meeting with other REDD+ folks, who, like Bryan and I, are crazy enough to dive head first into the complex and at times overwhelming world of carbon.  It was exciting to meet our Chiapas brethren who were a fountain of information about all things REDD+ and Lacandón. But I was itching to get to our final destination, the actual rainforest, which still involved a nine-hour drive along the Guatemalan border.

Enrique Chankin showing off some taro root from his garden.
We met Ricardo Hernández, Lacandón expert and Director of our partner organization -- Na’Bolom, in San Cristobal de las Casas, and began our drive with chilly morning temps and plenty of chatter.  But as the hours went by and the jeep cruised down to lower altitudes, the heat and humidity climbed. We drove through town after town for about 5 or 6 hours until we reached what was supposed to be the edge of the Lacandón Rainforest. Instead, I slowly opened my eyes to scorched trees and oil palm plantations. We were in Marqués de Comillas, a section of the rainforest, which has been settled by farmers who migrated from the center of the country. Oil palm plantations aren’t just bad because rainforests are cleared to plant them and reduce natural biodiversity and critical habitat; the oil palm also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions because of its immense need for petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

A couple hours later, we crossed the Lacantún River, and the landscape completely changed. The midday heat had subsided, and we were closer to the Cojolita communities. In this area the forest actually reaches the edge of the road instead of being lost to slash and burn. But this doesn’t mean this section of the rainforest isn’t threatened. Two of the three Mayan communities that own this land are struggling to meet their farming needs with the land they already have, and would like to clear more of the forest.
Enrique Chankin giving us a tour of the rainforest near his eco-lodge, Top Che.
All three communities reside and carry out their farming around the base of the Cojolita mountain range, and the forest on the Cojolita is part of a 35,000 hectare communally owned reserve.  However, the reserve is a source of conflict for the communities. The Lacandones were given authority over the territory by the government over thirty years ago, and they will not grant the Tzetlales and Choles access to the land in the reserve. The Lacandones fear that the other communities will clear too much of the forest in the reserve for farming. The communities show no signs of settling their differences, which, could be detrimental for the rainforest in the Cojolita Reserve. The REDD+ project seeks to help the communities recognize and achieve the economic reward from leaving the rainforest intact as opposed to the current income generating practices such as cattle ranching that require the forest be cut down.
Tzetlal land that was cleared for cattle pasture. Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the background.

Driving through Marqués de Comillas provided a frightening peek into what could be the future of the Sierra Cojolita that I would never have seen from my desk in Cambridge. The experience helped me thoroughly understand the critical importance of Na’Bolom and EcoLogic’s role in working with these communities to identify and pursue livelihood alternatives, like REDD+, to help minimize their need to deforest, and allow them to achieve the development goals they are so determined to attain.

A waterfall we came across while touring the area.
We spent the following days meeting with leaders from the Chol and Lacandón communities, two of the three communities that will be managing and financially benefitting from the REDD+ project.  During these meetings we interviewed community members about their land use practices. My prior REDD+ experience took place in Papua New Guinea, possibly the least developed country in the world with the most isolated communities. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of our Mayan interviewees was a social anthropologist and another spoke perfect English.  Unlike their Papua New Guinean counterparts, these rainforest communities are on a well-paved road headed straight for development. This reality check reinforced one of the many lessons I learned in graduate school – there is no such thing as “one size fits all” conservation. Despite the many top-down guidelines that exist for implementing REDD+, EcoLogic and Na’Bolom will have to design a project that is carefully tailored to fit the needs of these unique Mayan communities.

On Monday, as we drove back to the city along Chol territory at the edge of the Cojolita mountain range, Bryan and I saw a plume of smoke drifting over the trees in the reserve – a sign that slash and burn may already be underway. It is clear that Na’Bolom and EcoLogic have an important and challenging road ahead.

-Andrea Savage, CarbonPlus Associate
Andrea works for EcoLogic's CarbonPlus program by writing grant proposals and project reports, and following trends land tenure right throughout Mexico. She recently completed her Master's in sustainable international development at Brandeis University. 

Jun 13, 2012

I'm on my way...


Quite the equation. Wait, it needs to equal something. How about: Rio+20+Chris = EcoLogic to the zillionth degree!

Okay, let me break the math down (yeah, I called that math). In 2 days I’ll be representing EcoLogic in Rio de Janeiro at Rio+20, aka the Earth Summit, aka the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (another equation: Lots of aka’s = lots of importance). Rio+20 is the most relevant and widely attended gathering of sustainable development practitioners, policy-makers, funders, and thinkers in the world. Why “+20?” Twenty years ago, the UN hosted the first Earth Summit in Rio. Out of that conference emerged the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (which Mexico and all seven Central American countries have ratified) and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. At the conference, I’ll have access to hundreds of workshops, presentations, and policy strategy sessions, interacting with representatives from thousands of organizations from all across the world.

That's me looking very pensive. I was visiting a local farmer in Honduras and listening to his presentation on how  he is working with EcoLogic to incorporate agroforestry onto this farm land.

Also coming out of the first Earth Summit in 1992 was a little NGO-that-could called EcoLogic Development Fund. EcoLogic was founded on the principle, promoted by so many rural and indigenous people at the Earth Summit, that truly effective and long-term conservation strategies demanded the inclusion and prioritization of rural voices – their needs, concerns, and ideas. So we’ve got two good reasons for me to be at Rio this year: 1) it’s an important conference for our work, and 2) it is deeply rooted in EcoLogic’s history and legacy.

But there’s an amazing 3rd reason why I’m going, and probably the reason that personally excites me the most. One of EcoLogic’s partners, AJAASSPIB, a local water council in rural Honduras, was named one of 25 winners of the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Prize. The way I’ve explained the Equator Prize to others is that it’s the Grammys of the community-based sustainable development world. And AJAASSPIB is Radiohead (got to shout out the world’s greatest band whenever possible). Well, that means that AJAASSPIB gets to send a representative, Doña Zumilda Duarte, to Rio to participate in conference activities, multiple trainings, and an award ceremony. Since EcoLogic nominated AJAASSPIB for this award, I’m able to join Zumilda and representatives of the other 24 winners at some of these events. I truly cannot wait to hear what these rural leaders have to say. What they’ve learned and what they still struggle with. What they need and, just as important, what they don’t need.

Doña Zumilda Duarte , community leader and former AJAASSPIB President will be at Rio to accept the Equator Prize. 
So now you see why Rio+20+Chris = EcoLogic to the zillionth degree. It’s an amazing opportunity for us to join AJAASSPIB on this momentous opportunity, engage with peers, promote our work, and learn new insight to bring back to our network of grassroots partners. On top of all that, it offers a unique opportunity for us to reflect, build upon our roots, and reinvigorate our resolve to create a world where both people and nature can thrive.

I’ll keep you posted on how things go. As you can tell, I’m going to be busy. I’ll be tweeting throughout the conference next week so follow us on Twitter @ecologicdevfund and I’ll give you a full wrap up when I return.

Até logo!

- Chris Patterson, Program Officer for EcoLogic
Chris collaborates closely with the senior program officer by writing grant proposals and project reports, and following trends in philanthropy, conservation, and international development. He is also on his way to Rio+20!  

May 23, 2012

Ambassador's Choice

Have you ever seen a mangrove forest?

A mangrove in the Gulf of San Miguel, Panama.

Mangroves have a cool tangle of roots that reach from above the water down into the sand below and provide a safe home for finfish and shrimp, and other vital species. I always wonder how they stay rooted given the ebb and flow of the tides. They look like they are out of movie. But they are real, they are amazing, and their health in the Gulf of San Miguel, Panama is not only crucial for the health of the ecosystem but it is also intimately tied to the health of the communities around them.

Eric Pinto, a fisherman in the Gulf of San Miguel, relies on the health of the mangroves to support his livelihood.

EcoLogic is committed to working with these communities to preserve the mangrove forests that provide a livelihood source for most of the villagers. But we can’t do it alone. Enter Ambassadors – a group of dedicated and creative EcoLogic supporters that each pledge to raise a certain amount of money within a calendar year. Now, that’s commitment.

As an Ambassador you get exclusive and intimate access to project updates through a weekly email called “The Ambassador Corner.” Since EcoLogic has such a breadth of projects spanning five countries, we let Ambassadors choose an initiative or region on which they would like to focus each year. This year, the majority of Ambassadors voted to focus on our work in the Darien Province of Panama.

I can probably guess why they chose to hear more about Panama. The Gulf of San Miguel is an extremely lush and richly diverse, yet particularly remote area (ever heard of the Darien Gap?). Because of this, many NGOs and governmental organizations choose not to work there – but not EcoLogic. We have been working with the communities of San Miguel for three years now, helping them care for their watersheds and get access to clean water, working to get the mangroves declared as a protected area, and providing educational workshops on sustainable fishing techniques for local fisherfolk associations..

In reality, all of us working for EcoLogic get to do amazing things because of the inspiring communities we work with in Central America and Mexico. But, I also get to work closely with a special group of creative, thoughtful, and impactful donors that can truly be called Ambassadors of EcoLogic’s work.

- Katie O'Gara, Program Officer for EcoLogic
Katie works with the individuals fundraising team and coordinates EcoLogic's Ambassador program. Katie will be attending the University of Michigan this fall in the graduate program, Natural Resources and Environment. 

May 18, 2012

Illustrating History

The children from 48 Cantones arrive early at the Riecken Library in Xolsacmalja. Running, sweating, pushing and shoving, they ask for the ball to get a few minutes of play in before the creativity workshop starts, three times per week.

They are punctual and responsible. And rarely ever absent. In those cases when a child doesn’t show up, someone from his or her household diligently brings me a handwritten note from the family explaining the child’s absence: “He had to plant in the cornfield today.”

The purpose of the workshop series is to publish a book that collects the stories from the oral tradition in the community, illustrated by children. The stories told are about the Maya Ki’che’ people, the Ajaw of the mountain and the water, and some old rules to save the forest, such as “Pixab”, “Pixan”, “Toj” and “Repuj”. All of these are concepts that direct us as human beings to relate to nature: the mountains, the forest, the water, and the animals.

To collect these stories, we go to the “Plxab” (Council of Elders). Every Thursday we walk down the narrow dirt paths to the house of somebody’s grandfather. The children sit and listen. Usually, they are speaking Ki’che’. So I sit with my notebook, the page blank, until Evelyn comes and translates the story into Spanish for me.

For the illustrations, we are experimenting with different techniques and visual mediums such as painting, drawing, collage, photography and photo montages. We will also go to the forest to listen to the sound of the pines, smell them, touch them, and of course, draw them.

Mr. Urbano, the teacher at the library, also taught us the kirigami technique, cutting paper to make airy and light forms, something that the children enjoy very much. We plan to paint a mural inspired by these simple forms for Reforestation Day in May.

The idea is that we can experience and appreciate the forest, and that all of its stories – which will be represented in the illustrations, can be heard in due time, enjoying the journey and along the way discovering some new perceptions that come from old stories. Because ancestral wisdom is passed down from generation to generation, and we don’t want it to stop with us.

- Special Guest Blogger and ArtCorps Fellow Isabel Carrió. Youth Leaders in Conservation listen, feel, express their thoughts through images and share the ancestral wisdom of their Mayan community, under the guidance of Isabel as part of EcoLogic's ongoing work in Totonicapán, Guatemala. The blog is reproduced from its original posting on

May 10, 2012

Greenhouse Gases - REDD Solutions

One of the things I like most about working at EcoLogic and in the international conservation field is the daily learning. Of course, sometimes it feels like a fire hose is full-force spraying me with way more ideas than I can possibly absorb, but I love it.

Of all the topics that make my head spin, forest carbon ranks as one of the most challenging to understand. And using the potential of forests to capture and store carbon as a response to climate change is almost as tough a topic. It’s not just because the literature is chock full of jargon and language that few normal mortals use to communicate (ex ante, anthropogenic, jurisdictional nesting …).

So where to begin? EcoLogic develops forest carbon projects– which take advantage of the fact that standing forests and new forest growth absorb carbon dioxide, then lock up the carbon via photosynthesis. And you thought you would never need to care about photosynthesis after cramming for a high school biology exam!
La Cojolita Mountain Range in Chiapas, Mexico.

First, climate change brought on by global carbon emissions is a big deal and constant changing of land ownership is a huge part of the problem, but also a potential solution for sustainable, effective change.

It’s not just about energy and automobiles spewing those nasty gases anymore. It’s also about recognizing that good old nature can play a significant role in solving the problem and that we are part of nature.
One of the biggest solutions proposed has been – REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). So that’s where the second reason for EcoLogic’s involvement comes in. We believe REDD, which seeks to pay local people to keep forests standing – in other words not cut down trees and release the carbon from them – can achieve conservation on a landscape scale, farther than the eye can see across a sea of green!

We believe that it is vital to ensure local people can make informed decisions and understand what the heck it is they’re getting into and have their rights respected if they enter into contractual agreements to profit from the benefits of conserving their forests. Especially because the international climate policy “architecture” makes it necessary to interact with powerful state and federal governments that play a practical role in monitoring across large landscapes and national territories.

So the basic deal is that people who own or live near and care for a forest get money for agreeing not to cut stuff down, or trash the area under the forest canopy, because this keeps a ton of global warming-causing crud out of the atmosphere.

Bryan Foster, EcoLogic's CarbonPlus Director in the rainforest.
The money to pay them comes from a variety of sources such as international aid (sometimes ponying up aid money or agreeing to swap debt for nature initiatives) and markets like the one in California under its pioneering California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB-32). In the latter case, the dinero comes from a cap and trade compliance market, where companies reduce their smokestack (and other) emissions by becoming more efficient down to a certain point and then buy credits that others have to spare because of their emissions reductions or absorption awesomeness. California just happens to have gotten involved on the international scene, connecting Chiapas, Mexico, and Acre, Brazil to its AB-32 marketplace.

Sounds simple enough, right? Not exactly if it’s done right. EcoLogic works to help make it more accessible, but even our CarbonPlus director is on a steady diet of discovery and learning as he goes about his day-to-day (which today, has him deep in the jungle in Mexico, but more on that later).

To do REDD right and make it easier for local communities, we need to be legit. You can plant a tree or prevent the cutting of a forest and claim less greenhouse gases are reaching the atmosphere. Your claim would be basically true, but to be REDD certified, you have to meet three key stipulations. 1) You have to make sure the trees you protect are ones that would have been lost otherwise, in other words the trees actually need to be under threat of being cut down, and this new carbon credits incentive structure is keeping them from being cut down; 2) that there isn’t “leakage,” meaning people aren’t just moving their deforestation habits outside of the credited REDD project area; and 3) that there’s a reasonable assurance of permanence, in other words, the forest will stay standing for a long time after the official project has ended.

Xaté palm, which is frequently extracted from the rainforests to sell internationally.
Thankfully, groups like the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS) and the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC, a tri-national commission between Canada, the US, and Mexico) are into what we do. We’ve helped folks in Honduras gain VCS validation, and we’re working in Chiapas, Mexico with three Mayan communities to conserve a biodiverse jewel, the Lacandón Jungle.

So that’s our carbon work in a nutshell. Intense – I know!

What do you think about our carbon work and the REDD project in Mexico?

- 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 25, 2012

Connecting the Dots

Do you remember the childhood game of connect the dots? I used to play it all the time when I was a kid. There was something satisfying about drawing a line from one dot to the next to create a picture. Now, I love helping my 2-year old son do the same. The realization dawning on his face when that picture forms is priceless! It is a simple game and in the end, reveals so much. But why am I talking about a children’s game?

What does that have to do with EcoLogic?

Simply put what EcoLogic does is not that simple. It is complex. So in 2011 we started the campaign Connect the Dots in an effort to explain how building a fuel-efficient stove in Guatemala should matter to a lawyer in Boston, or why a composting latrine in Panama should be important to a student in San Francisco.

The message: we are all truly connected.

Last year I met Don Vicente Canales on his farm in northern Honduras. He spoke about
his recent successes incorporating agroforestry techniques into his farm land and how the
technical support provided by EcoLogic has helped.

Whether you are a farmer in remote village in Guatemala or a lobster fisherman off the shores of Cape Cod, water is the source of life— we are all connected. We all share the Earth – and we should all work as hard as we can to protect it. Our approach is holistic and the tools we use are diverse.

On the same trip as meeting Don Vincent Canales I met up with some local girls who took the hike up the hills to see their community water tank.

This campaign is about drawing lines from the tools we use to help illustrate the connections, not only between each EcoLogic project but between you, me, the villages we support, and the rest of the world.

EcoLogic wants all people in Central America and Mexico to have the motivation and the ability to protect the environment and provide for themselves in sustainable ways, so that they can improve their well-being and quality of life.
Doña Ovina Hurtado, a Community Leader in Punta Alegre smiling with her
 friend during a recent trip to the Gulf of San Miguel in Panama.

We hope that our efforts to Connect the Dots between the people and places where we work will hit home for you. So, stay tuned for our messaging about Connect the Dots. We would like you to read our words and imagine the picture that forms by connecting all the dots. And remember, you are an important "dot" that helps complete the picture.

- 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.