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Excited for Agriculture (Biocentinela + Rio Hondo Day 6)

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

We started our trip out to the Rio Hondo community in the early afternoon.  Unfortunately, the tide was so low at this point, that we weren’t even able to make it to the half-way landing point and had to turn back.  This reinforced our earlier concern that the remoteness of the village would be a challenge to overcome if it were to be a tourist destination.  We made our second attempt a few hours later, after the tide had risen.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to contact the community to let them know of our delayed arrival, so when we did make it, a few of the folks who had shown up had already left, including the community president.  While we were disappointed she wasn’t present, we found it to be a blessing in disguise.  In our previous meeting she acted as a primary point of contact and, in her absence, we found others more willing to speak up and offer their opinions.

In our previous meeting, the community president thanked God for our presence as a sign of hope, so we chose to open the meeting with a short spiritual opening.  Following, Dana introduced BGI as an instituto de negocios ambiente y social, as well as an introduction of each of our team members with their profession in Spanish.  Knowing that many of the community members wouldn’t be able to read what we had written, we also included a caricature of each of us, so they could have a reference for our names.

 

Following the introduction, Jason lead the group through an overview of the project timeline, being careful to set expectations around both time and scale of the project.  We wanted to ensure that we didn’t build up too much hope too soon, so as to avoid the disappointment if the project wasn’t funded.  However, we needed to get as much information as possible and needed to explore a variety of options if we were to make recommendations for a project that would benefit the community long term and would fit their needs and culture.

 

We also brought a system drawing of what a potential eco-tourism lodge could bring to the community, which we walked through step-by-step.  We illustrated the idea that this facility could attract tourists and foreign money, which would then be transferred to the community members through jobs, as well as tourist activities that could generate additional revenue.  In exchange for the monetary benefits, they in turn provide tranquility, experience and culture to their potential customers.  Because the facility would be owned and operated by the local community, they’d be responsible for working to help ensure it’s success.  If it was successful, they could slowly grow the operation over time which could bring capacity building, security and opportunity back to the community.

As we walked through this diagram, there were a number of questions and comments that gave us the impression that they understood the overall concept, thought it was a good idea, and would be interested in taking part in something like this.

As we moved into our information gathering section, we uncovered much more than we could have hoped for!  Our goal for this session was to find out as much about their lives as we possibly could, so we could see how/if a project of this nature could fit into their lives without causing too much harm or change.  We decided that the best way we could do this would be to put up a calendar and ask for when different activities take place throughout the year.  This definitely raised the energy level in the room!

A lively dialogue ensued between the community members as they discussed different types of crops, and disagreed about when growth and harvest times were ideal, depending on when the rain would come.  As we dove further into the agricultural calendar, we surfaced an excitement that wasn’t present before.  The community was passionate about growing things, and they wanted to grow more.  Unfortunately, they were only able to grow crops during the three-month rainy season, from January through March.  Without enough fresh water the rest of the year, they were unable to turn their passion into a scalable, sustainable livelihood.

Tamara led us through a pleasant and thankful closing in which we asked them what other ideas they had.  After the previous experience, they were excited to engage us with their own suggestions.  A number of opportunities were surfaced.  The first was that they grow cucumbers, but only for one month of the rainy season.  They could replant and grow a second or third harvest, but choose not to because they don’t have a secure market to sell them.  Another option is chickens; they now raise about 100 chickens a year, but given a secure market could increase production, especially if they found  a way to increase feed-stock production.  A few times they mentioned that the land they live on is very fertile, but without enough rain throughout the year, they don’t have the water to support scaled agriculture.

We left this meeting feeling like our hearts and our minds were starting to split.  On one hand, we had the request of our client to build an eco-tourism lodge/facility and, on the other hand, a growing realization that the community’s needs and passions were elsewhere.

BGI Social Web for Social Change Blog Round-Up

November 20, 2011 Leave a comment

When it comes to Design Solutions that Empower People to Radiate Joy, I am constantly impressed, inspired and intrigued by the thoughts from my fellow Bainbridge Graduate Institute students!

Here is a quick round-up of blogs from others in my Social Web for Social Change course that I’d highly recommend:

Blog Action Day: A Solution for Food Deserts

October 16, 2011 3 comments

Smiling Kid

It’s commonly known that food can affect our emotional state.  I’m sure we all can think back to a moment, perhaps in our childhood… perhaps just yesterday, when we took the first bite of some delectable treat and couldn’t help but smile as the flavors swirled around our tongue.  If you happened to be in the company of a friend, you probably even passed some over while exclaiming “you HAVE to try this,” although you secretly wanted them to take as small a bite as possible.

So, in thinking about Blog Action Day 2011′s topic of food, I thought it aligned quite well with the “radiate joy” part of this blog’s mission.  Of course, it’s also commonly known that our world faces an uncertain future when it comes to food security.  Just within the past week, I’ve heard a couple of stories in main stream news regarding changes we can and should make now to ensure that in the future we can support the food needs of 9 to 10 billion people on our planet.   The question remains: what are the design solutions that will empower people around food so they can continue to radiate in joyous situations like the one above?

American Food DesertsPerhaps the most important thing we can do is ensure that everyone has access to healthy, affordable food. In our country alone, it is estimated that roughly 13.5 million people live in a “food desert,” which means that they do not have easy access to healthy, affordable food in biking or walking distance from their home.  for more information about the problems of food desserts, check out the Fast Com. Design Blog post: The “Food Deserts” That Keep Americans Fat.

One step towards addressing the needs of those living in food deserts is currently in pilot testing by a team of Bainbridge Graduate Institute students here in Seattle and is so far receiving a lot of praise: Stockbox Grocers!

Stockbox Grocers

(c) Patrick Robinson / West Seattle Herald

Stockbox Grocers responds to this need with a miniature grocery that’s tucked inside a reclaimed shipping container and placed into the parking lot of an existing business. We innovate on the espresso stand model to build stores throughout urban communities, and provide fresh produce and grocery staples to those who currently without access to good food, where they live.

I am hopeful that this innovation will start to make a sizable dent in our food desert problem here at home and can’t wait until they begin to scale.  If you’re interested in learning more about Stockbox, just drop by for a visit to the their Delridge store if you’re in the Seattle area.  Otherwise, follow them on Facebook and Twitter

Film Reflection: Life + Debt

February 28, 2010 1 comment

Life + Debt was a great film; especially when followed by a lecture from Fran Korten on the trouble of lending through the International Monetary Fund.

As with the other videos in the Social Justice course, I learned something new that I was completely unaware of… another way that developed nations like the U.S. take advantage of poorer nations through the International Monetary Fund and other international organizations.

I didn’t realize what a negative toll globalization has had on poorer nations.  When richer nations subsidize and sell goods on a massive scale to other nations, especially products like food, they deteriorate the local markets by selling goods at lower prices.  I had no idea that the United States was flooding the Jamaican market with produce, meat, milk powder and various other items at prices less than what they even cost to produce.

As one farmer in the film put it:

“When it’s ready for harvesting, you see imported potato, right in front of your home, being sold… It’s an insult to our dignity… not being able to produce and sell in your own market at home.”

The film explained the link between lower cost imports, and the requirements put on the Jamaican government by the IMF to open up to this type of international trade.  It is really unfortunate that the IMF provides loans not to help countries build and improve their infrastructure, but only to keep them indebted. Debt is a powerful mechanism that keeps not just individuals, but entire nations in a cycle of perpetual serfdom.  In order to pay off their debt, they must continue to borrow.  However, in order to continue to borrow, they must be open to outside trade which continues to deteriorate their economy, as local businesses shut down, unable to compete with lower cost foreign goods.

Not surprisingly, the United States came up with another “improvement plan” for Jamaica, promised to provide hundreds of individuals with employment opportunities — as they were, of course, no longer able to work in fields, dairies, farms, or other agricultural positions.

This idea, instituted in the 1980′s was known as the “Free Zone”  It was described in the film as follows:

“The Free Zone operates in a theoretical thing that is not even part of Jamaica.  It is a separate entity so the goods come in in a container and go through guarded gates. After it leaves the Free Zone, it goes back onto the ship, never, in effect, having touched the shores of Jamaica. So those factories are not liable to local controls. They’re not liable to things like income tax or certain duties, taxes, anything like that. The Free Zone is to give the opportunity for people to operate without the controls or the laws or the systems that normally govern a country’s operation.”

This zone was created, in essence, as a place to take advantage of cheap labor on a large scale.  With few other options, many Jamaicans went to work in these factories creating goods to be shipped back to the United States and Europe.  However, as time went on, the factories began to exploit the worker’s rights, requiring more work in less time.  Without any local oversight to protect the workers, they were at the mercy of the company in order to secure their paycheck… yet another example of modern-day serfdom.  If the employees had anywhere else to go, they would.  But with a declining economy, fewer jobs and less money, they had little choice.

And, because the “Free Zones” were provided to Jamaica as a “service,” they incurred a large amount of debt to provide these jobs to their citizens.  All the while, the corporations and countries that were operating in the Free Zone basically operated for free.  The low wages that they paid to the workers was far less than the amount of money that the Jamaican government is paying back at high interest rates.

However, as globalization continued and labor began a commodity to be sold at the lowest price, factories began closing down as cheaper labor was found in Mexica and Asia.  Now being shut out of the factories, many Jamaicans have nowhere to go for work.  Foreign companies continue to sell products cheaper than they can make locally, and now pull out of places like the Free Zones leaving them with little to no employment opportunities.

Michael Manly, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica states the problem quite clearly in how it relates to the country’s debt and its relationship to the IMF:

“Private capital is not going to come in and help you with your infrastructure. To help you develop an adequate education system. To help you develop a good health system. Private capital is not going to come and take a chance in developing your agriculture so that you can really do  a lot of the feeding of yourself. It is understandably only interested in how it can make a quick buck.”

Poor nations have no choice but to borrow from the IMF, because private lenders are only interested in making profits.  Unfortunately, this borrowing only leads to further globalization, more imports of foreign goods, and further degradation of what little economy they have.

“Look at every IMF country today and tell me which has a really good hospital service, which has a good education system, which has anything… All of them are trapped in that old colonial crisis of finance.”

The worst part about this is that most citizens of developed countries don’t even know that their nation is taking advantage of those less fortunate.  We continue to donate to non-profit organizations that are doing good work in poorer nations so that we feel we are doing something positive, yet wonder why it is never enough.  That all the aid and money we send doesn’t end up having any lasting effect.  The reason is that developed nations continue to collect unimaginable amounts of money in the form of loans and interest that basically negate any amount of money that we could ever hope to spend in aid or charity work.

We must come up with a better solution that gets to the root of the problem. Rather than continue to perpetuate a cycle of national serfdom, we must eliminate high interest rates on international borrowing and support programs that allow poorer nations to build their education systems and improve their own economies by allowing them the ability to provide their own goods and services without being undersold by subsidizes imports.

Film Reflection: The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

This film was a great example of how the power of community thinking can lead to a number of solutions when a country is in crisis.

http://current.com/e/89990938/en_US

Starting off with a history of what Peak Oil is, there was an interesting graph showing the three highest uses of oil, in barrels per person in the U.S., per year. It turns out that food (through production and distribution) actually requires more oil at ten barrels per person, than do cars at nine barrels and houses at seven barrels. This was followed up by a statement that was a little surprising to me. The film stated that we (the world) are consuming five barrels of oil for every one that is discovered. While I knew that we were using more than we were finding, I didn’t realize that the difference was this high. It makes me more concerned about our ability to implement other energy solutions fast enough.

The film focused a lot on how things were actually accomplished, for example their farming techniques and how the government divided up land to farmers. One of the things that was lacking, in my opinion, was more of a focus on how the community was involved, especially given the title off the film. I felt that the film expressed that local communities were important, and that they helped support the movement to agriculture, but didn’t really get beyond just stating that fact. There was no analysis into how exactly the community got involved, no real examples of specific communities and how they handled “The Special Period,” and no analysis of how an integrated community made the outcome any different than it might have been otherwise. It seems like the message of the film was less about community, and more about the process of changing the way people think; how the government made smart choices and gave people the freedom and land they needed to develop their own food sources.

There were, however, some great mentions of the process of societal change, and how it came about.  One of the biggest examples  of this was that they realized that not everyone knew how to farm.  They took knowledgeable, experienced farmers and led local workshops with everyone in the community to provide the skills needed for a mass of people to be able to successfully run their own miniature farms and gardens.  This level of community interaction of free education and sharing of trades was an integral piece of their success in my mind.  They taught the rule that “you hire nature to work for you; you don’t work against nature.”

“It was necessary, and result of a change of mind, a change of scale.  And it was a big effort.  But how much money they saved… you have to realize, they did it because they had to, but from a few years point of view, there were so many benefits.”

My favorite quote of the whole film, comes very near to the end.  Roberto Perez, of the Foundation for Nature and Humanity states:

There are infinite small solutions… you fix one little problem here, one little problem there, and life gets better. You think globally, you act locally. This is very important.”

I would recommend this film, as a short documentary that can show the outcome when a society chooses to change.  However, I think what is missing is a deeper look into how communities were such an integral part of this change.  It does provide a sense of hope that change is possible, but given that a majority of the change was made possible by the government allowing people to use land free of charge, and free of taxes, I am doubtful that such a solution would ever be possible in an industrialized nation such as our own, where corporations and other other entities would never let such an opportunity to make money pass by for free, even when faced with no other options.

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