The Patel College of Global Sustainability encourages its graduate students to conduct their field internships in other countries, although if an interesting opportunity arises domestically we are also supported to work in the U.S.. So for the second part of summer, I chose a hybrid: my goal was to intern in or for Indian Country which is comprised of sovereign nations nested within this larger nation. I was lucky to spend a month at Ecotrust, an organization located in Portland, Oregon, which collaborates with tribes of the Pacific Northwest on many initiatives.
The project I helped with was the Native American Economic Sovereignty Initiative. Ecotrust and its partner, The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, are doing a one-year feasibility study for developing a fellowship program which trains and equips a cohort of emerging Native leaders with the tools, expertise and relationships needed to respond to the social demands of their communities. My month-long assignment was two-fold: to research similar existing fellowship opportunities and models and make recommendations for our own program, and to enter the data gathered from in-depth surveys completed by the tribes of the region.
I enjoyed this quiet time at the desk thoroughly, which surprised me, because I’ve always been a field worker- the more remote and rugged, the better. I think the positive experience can be attributed to the interesting content, but also to my awesome supervisors and to the organizational culture as a whole. At Ecotrust, regardless of how administrative or clerical a task might seem, one comes away feeling like even a nearly ephemeral contribution such as mine (four weeks fly by) is a meaningful thread in the larger tapestry of the universe. Everyone gets the big picture. That being said, this type of computer work doesn’t make for a very interesting picture, so below are related events I was blessed to participate in.
The highlight of the summer (and maybe of my life) was to witness the repatriation of Indian land. See, Ecotrust is in the business of restructuring the economy to serve the interests of the Earth (and its people), so it bought a very special 3,000-acre piece of land from a third party a long time ago and recently sold it back to its original owner/ steward: the Coquille Tribe. This entire process, which took many years, just happened to culminate in the weeks I was there (!!!!!!) and so pretty much the entire organization went down to the Sek-Wet-Se for a two-day celebration including a forest tour, blessing, and potlatch dinner. I am still a bit at a loss for words to describe how special the event was. I am so grateful to both Ecotrust and the Coquille Tribe for opening their doors and hearts to an intern from another world. I learned many things, especially that conservation is about managing relationships, with nature and each other, more so than resources.
The process of selecting and arranging a global internship is not easy. We have excellent support from the College, but the possibilities are endless, the world is big, and there are many worthy sustainability projects! Because I have two little boys, the practicality and potential impact of going back home to Colombia, where I have a support system and good connections, tempted me. But what if I could go anywhere? Back in my undergraduate days I read the book A River Lost and since then the U.S. Pacific Northwest region has always fascinated me. Magically, I was able to align (and afford!) related internships at both destinations- and that’s how I went from Colombia (South America) to the Columbia (as in the epic river that divides Washington and Oregon).
Colombia and the Pacific Northwest share some surprising common characteristics, like a high concentration of indigenous nations, low ecological footprints, dramatic topography, an abundance of rivers and coastline, place-based pride, and lush rainforests (tropical or temperate). However, the two cities where I was/am based out of within these regions are very different. Though both Cartagena and Portland thrive with vitality, scream independence, and enjoy robust (yet unique) alternative transportation systems, there are many lessons the American city can offer its third-world sister -and the rest of the globe. Portland is progressive, smart, sustainable and authentic. I think all sustainability students would benefit from and find inspiration in this place.
More parallels (and perpendiculars)
One of my advisors was wondering how the two internships overlap. Here it is (Dr. Dorsey, this one’s for you): the concept I am interested in is the economic development of indigenous nations as a conservation strategy. In my work through FundaHerencia with the Itti Take people in Colombia, the idea is straightforward and proposes compensating this rural community for the ecosystem services its forest provides. In contrast, in Oregon I am assisting Ecotrust and its partner, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, with the Native American Economic Sovereignty Initiative (NAESI) which shares this element of investing in Tribal capacity but through a very different channel, and only with the hope -not the requirement- of restoring nature as an outcome. The idea here is to create a fellowship program which trains and equips a cohort of emerging Native leaders with the tools, expertise and relationships needed to respond to the social demands of their Tribes and communities. Whereas the Ecotrust project focuses on Community-based Economic Development (CED) as a precursor to potential conservation, FundaHerencia’s approach bets on investing in Community-based- Conservation (CBC) first, with the hopes that under this framework a local self-sustaining economy can flourish. Alleviating poverty and protecting nature’s life-sustaining capabilities are both means and ends for the two projects I am involved in.
About my new bold organization
Ecotrust was started by Spencer Beebe in the 90’s after he launched The Nature Conservancy’s International program and founded Conservation International. Individuals like him are few and far between, and I strongly recommend reading his book Cache to grasp the significance of this man’s work and find inspiration and courage to change the world. The organization currently has a staff of about 50 professionals working on multiple initiatives like farm-to-school programs, forest banks and the built environment.
My job this week was big. Too big for me to handle, I thought, but I didn’t share this with my supervisor. So I left my temporary home in Santa Marta, Colombia at 5:00 a.m. and hopped on a four-hour bus ride headed south. To my left was the grandiose Sierra Nevada range, the highest coastal mountain in the world; to the right a string of remote towns including Aracataca, the birthplace of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and inspiration for “Macondo”- the setting of his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. As captured in the author’s book, this region is truly the land of magical realism. Even more magical is the fact that I can travel through it, because just a few years ago this was a red zone, a hotspot of terror and armed conflict between right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerillas.
The assignment was to visit the Indigenous Itti Taake (Chimila) reservation with a two-fold purpose: to develop a closeness to the community and to conduct a preliminary ecological and social characterization of the area. FundaHerencia, my host organization, wanted to determine if the Itti Taake people were interested in participating in the pilot project of BanCO2, a compensation system of payment for ecosystem services, and to assess if the conditions of their settlement were suitable for the project. Jose, the former elected official for the community in question, was waiting for me at the bus stop for the municipality of El Copey. We got acquainted quickly since I had to hug him around the waist as we rode around in a rented motorcycle through bumpy, dusty roads collecting the goods we were to carry up to his people. Gifting is a customary first step to establish a relationship with a community and a universal sign of goodwill. Once all the coffee, rice, oil, lentils, tobacco, sugar and artisan cookies were secured, we headed up the Sierra mountain, still on motorcycle, for another couple of hours, climbing off to walk through the rocky spots and steep slopes. (As a mother of two small children, I adamantly avoid this mode of transportation, especially if helmets are amiss, but alas, there was no way around it.) Along the way we negotiated rides and picked up family members, all of whom were needed to help carry the supplies since word got out that their only mule had gone missing.
When the road was no more, we began our vertical hike on foot, crossing streams and chatting and eating wild mangos and starfruit until I realized I was blacking out. But every time we stopped to rest, Jose would encourage me by saying we were a 10-minute walkaway from our destination, and that’s how he strung me along for several more hours. Very smart. Anyway, I didn’t realize it then and failed to take notes, but it was during these stops that I collected the most valuable information. Maybe because they saw my vulnerability (laying down on the dirt floor with leaf-cutting ants marching over my pale face) their guards came down and they shared important parts of their personal and communal history. When we finally made it to the first hut I felt reenergized and ready for additional introductions- especially meeting the children!
Circle time with about 12 heads of household lasted over two hours. Usually I get along better with men but in this case the women really popped for me. They were generous, receptive, insightful. Every person, but especially a couple of council members, had excellent questions about the project, like who conducts the initial census and subsequent ecological monitoring in the conservation area? Can it be done with the help of locals and become a source of income? I couldn’t answer all questions but the dialogue was fruitful. Deliberations amongst themselves happened in their language and there was a lot of back and forth. I was impressed by their knowledge of current events, especially in the social and environmental arenas.
Probably the most interesting part of this gathering was at the end when Jose’s handsome brother Bienvenido, the current elected “Cabildo”, arrived from a trip and came storming in (so to speak, because the meeting was held outside), clearly unhappy to have an organization interacting with his community in his absence. A debate ensued and it was obvious there was a deep-running tension between these two sibling leaders who had very different visions of a sustainable future. Whereas Jose, the younger brother who was educated in the city, is extremely proactive and passionately believes in the need to partner with non-profits and governmental organizations, Bienvenido, who was raised within the traditional culture and retains its warrior spirit, is skeptical of outside entities and fiercely guards his right to welcome them (or not) into the community.
I heard out Bienvenido, and although some of his cabinet members were appalled by his rudeness and told him so, I thought his concerns were valid, and I learned a lot from his perspective. He conceded that BanCO2 could be the lifeline that secures the continuity of his extremely marginalized people. Though he liked that the project offers a fixed salary in exchange for setting aside a part of the forest for conservation, it is one that nonetheless needs to be evaluated by the entire community for all costs and benefits.
The purpose of BanCO2is to fight climate change and poverty by compensating people for setting aside nature conservation zones that produce ecosystem services. With this in mind, the creators of the original project, in the Antioquia region of Colombia, have developed specific criteria for considering families as a potential recipients of BanCO2 payments.
I will advocate for the Itti Taake as the perfect beneficiary community for the pilot project for the region of El Cesar, not just because they captured my heart (which is dangerous because these decisions should be made objectively, and that’s not easy), but because the Itti Taake, who don’t exactly meet the criteria but can produce equal environmental and social benefits, give the BanCO2 model the opportunity to show its adaptability.
1. Ecologic Criteria
Remnant forests of great biologic or ecologic value
Forests with some protection designation at the municipal or regional level
Natural forests located in watersheds that serve urban water managements systems
The Itti Taake (Chimila) Indigenous community that I visited (there are others) is comprised of about 18 families settled in a 190-hectare parcel located at about 800 meters of altitude (2600 ft).Though the area does not enjoy any protection designation and I did not observe any remnant forest, there are several small tributaries to the Rio Iriguani which itself feeds a system that provides water for some municipalities. It is along the tributaries that canopy cover is densest, mostly with secondary forest, but otherwise the area is a mix of wild orchards, small agricultural plots, abandoned pasture land, and hut settlements.
The low percentage of forest presence was a concern for FundaHerencia. However, the community itself recognizes and expresses that there can be no talk of conservation until reforestation is tackled. Reductions of carbon emissions through reforestation is as effective as conservation because growing forests capture carbon at a faster rate than steady-state ecosystems. The scientific director of the foundation agreed this is a way in which the BanCO2 model can be adapted to produce best results.
2. Social Criteria
beneficiaries must have possession or ownership of land and must live on it to guarantee the care of the areas of compensation
originally designed for peasant families of the lowest economic standing
The poverty measure for Unsatisfied Basic Necessities, or UBN (NBI in Spanish) is self reported as 100% in this community. There were so many indicators of this when I was there that I won’t get into now. The Itti Taake is not considered a “campesino” or peasant community, but there is great interest by the sponsor bank and all regional institutions to engage indigenous communities in this model. The other point in which the BanCO2 has shown signs of adaptability is in the requirement that families present documents of legal ownership of the parcel. This is beneficial to the Itti Taake community since this is a group of internally displaced victims of the armed conflict era, and have only been in this settlement since the early 1990s, waiting for the official “reservation” status.
Hence, from the ecologic and social perspectives, the vulnerable, resilient, proactive and eco-savvy Itti Taake (Chimila) people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta should be considered as beneficiaries for the pilot project phase of the BanCO2 project of compensation for ecosystem services for the region of Cesar for their potential cultural and environmental contributions to the country and the world. It is a fabulous opportunity to assist this area in decisively transitioning from blood red to forest green.
After a couple of weeks in Colombia, I officially began my internship with the Environmental Heritage Foundation of the Caribbean, or “FundaHerencia,” in Santa Marta, Magdalena. My research topic is the economic empowerment of indigenous communities as a conservation strategy, specifically in the form of payments for ecosystem services. I am spending a couple of days in the office just prepping and setting up some field visits. In that short time I have learned (unintentionally) about the importance of an organization’s culture. The leadership here has created a pleasant, transparent, energizing atmosphere, based on values of resourcefulness, collaboration, and respect, among others. I think having this well-defined backbone of identity has everything to do with FundaHerencia’s success as a regional player in environmental conservation.
Values in Action
1. RESOURCEFULNESS- is a huge part of the country’s culture at large, mostly for survival purposes (literally), and FundaHerencia has internalized this trait as well. For example, this organization finally moved into a permanent home this year, but throughout the last decade, with or without adequate office space, they have been prolific at conducting research and publishing an astounding amount of studies. This is a humble organization that gets big things done with little resources. They make it work.
2. RESPECT- for everything and everyone- and I mean everyone. As construction of the new headquarters was finally under way, relics of the Tairona civilization started popping up from the ground. The crew also discovered the thousand-year-old body of a medicine man! Construction was immediately stopped and would not start again until a spiritual authority from the Wintukwa (Arhuaco) tribe came down from the Sierra Nevada to conduct a proper ceremony for his ancestor. A special ground burial was created and the processed remains were left exactly where they were originally found.
3. COLLABORATION- is a core value at FundaHerencia. It’s like a default first step at the beginning of any project, to look around and see who’s in on this with them. What’s more, the non-profit sees itself as a facilitator between regional authorities and smaller organizations, strengthening the role of government entities and highlighting the work of their partners. They insist on keeping a low profile and rather give, than get, credit for the positive outcomes of their work. Honestly, I’ve never seen this before.
Infusing the three values of resourcefulness, respect, and collaboration into every decision, from grave diggin’ to project development, defines FundaHerencia as a place where people work hard, treat each other with respect, and realize they are a part of a bigger movement. An organization’s culture can be the defining element that attracts talent and funds and generates results, and FundaHerencia got it right.
Calor means heat or warmth. That pretty much describes the city of Santa Marta, Magdalena, whose temperature hovers around 90 degrees Farenheit, and whose peoples are friendly and welcoming. Other words that come to mind are listed in the title of this post and featured in the images below, but it is hard to capture the spirit of this town with words or even images. There are many things I like about Santa Marta, but especially that it is a natural point of convergence for many cultures, specifically indigenous communities like the desert Wayuu and the different groups from the Sierra Nevada.
I made it here after a four-hour bus ride from Cartagena, a straight shot through some of the most extreme poverty and endangered ecosystems in the world, including dry tropical forests and the unique salt marshes of Salamanca preserve. Finally, I am getting closer to the headquarters of the organization where I will conduct my work on payment for ecosystem services. More on that soon!
Karina here reporting from Colombia. Before officially starting my internship next week, I visited Corales del Rosario National Park, which is only a 50-minute boat ride from the coastal city of Cartagena but feels like a world away. Cartagena, though declared by the United Nations as a World Heritage site for its stunning historic city section, is otherwise tragic. I’m not going to get much into this as to not hurt my people’s pride (I have deep roots here- there are streets named after my great great grandparents), but know this: it is an ecological and social disaster that serves as home to almost one million people. There are virtually no sidewalks, and the crumbling infrastructure sits next to enormous ultra modern buildings. Garbage and garbage smells are ubiquitous (because even trash cans get stolen here), and trees are scarce (they get chopped down so street vendors don’t post up under them). The city also has the highest income inequality rate in all of South America (except for some tiny area in Paraguay). Why it continues to have such touristic allure is beyond me. The breeze is nice and people are lively. Maybe that’s it.
It was hence a reprieve to visit the National Park archipelago, commonly known as the Rosario Islands. The park has increased in size from 18,000 hectares to 120,000 in the last forty years. However, as the protected areas continue to expand, the quality of the marine environment, which accounts for 20% of the country’s total reefs, continues to suffer. When I was growing up, we could jump off our dock (that area was still privately owned then), and swim beyond the sea grass beds into beautiful coral formations. On this trip, I could not spot one coral head from anywhere, not even from the boat. Bleaching and deterioration due to the usual suspects (increased water temperature, invasive species, sedimentation from channels, etc) has taken a serious toll.
On the bright side (pun intended), the “enchanted lagoons” that captured our imaginations as kids with their abundant bioluminescence have been meticulously preserved by park officials because of their importance in the life cycles of animals. Other ecosystems in the park which are closely monitored are mangroves, rocky littoral shores, dry tropical forests and sandy beaches. Currently, there are 167 species of fish and 60 species of birds present in the park, and dolphins are still common.
I stayed at the Oceanario Research and Education Center for two nights. This low-key yet iconic organization approaches sustainability projects from different angles. Its first mission is to educate and help people evolve culturally. They are also engaged in scientific exploration and innovative design. For example, resident biologists are spearheading a data collection initiative on the Atlantic Goliath Grouper, Epinephelus itajara, and its reproductive cycle. Since the species has been severely overfished in this region (and worldwide where it occurs), the idea is to apply this knowledge to design low-impact offshore fish farms with the artisan fishermen of the area. This project will act as a genetic bank for the species and as a source of sustainable income for the local community. Another active project is the breeding and raising of Elkhorn coral for reintroduction into depleted reefs. What I love the most though is the low impact and humane design of the Oceanario’s facilities. For example, dolphin tanks are just ocean plots encircled by a fence so low that “Turci” and his pod are virtually free to come and go.
I’m back in Cartagena now, but feeling more hopeful than I was before this outing. Though this city is endearing with its folklore and idiosyncrasy, it feels clueless when it comes to sustainability. The question is: will its blindness and unsustainable practices spread beyond the city limits and into the islands, or will the environmental literacy and progressive leadership from the islands reach Cartagena first? As it stands, Cartagena is the dark tunnel, and the Oceanario Research and Education Center is the light at the end of the archipelago.