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Rainforest Reflections

Written by Sarah Brylinsky '09
10/5/2007

I think it was the coffee that did it, but on a trip to South America, it might have been many things. The Andean region of Ecuador where we lodged and worked boasts two of the top five most biodiverse regions in the world, and the area surrounding the eco-lodge where we slept is home to more than 350 species of birds. To this day one can still find buried pathways used by the pre-Incan Yumbos tribe as they traveled between the highlands and the coast. But in spite of the many wonders the Andes had to offer, I maintain that it was the coffee that made me really fall in love with Ecuador.

When I went to Ecuador for the first time last year as part of the School of Business sustainable microenterprises summer program, I was no more than a curious explorer. Then, I was eager to experience a new place and learn more about sustainability. And learn I did. My trip left such a lasting impression on me that not only did I return, but David Saiia, the business professor hosting the program, asked me to travel with him again this year as a research assistant and project leader.

My plans for this trip included working with three other students to develop a study-abroad package for the Fundacion Maquipucuna, a cloud rainforest conservation organization that operates an eco-lodge, community outreach programs, and Kyoto-certified carbon sequestration on a protected reserve in the heart of the Andean rainforest.

Maquipucuna relies on help from the Peace Corps as well as other volunteers—including students—to provide services that benefit the organization while the volunteers learn about sustainability. We call this service learning. In addition to my study-abroad project, the Ithaca team’s goals included creating a prototype for a plastic thatch made from recyclable bottles that could be used to reduce roofing costs and save landfill space, and installing a biodiesel converter at the reserve’s lodge.

Sustainability is commonly associated with environmental protection, but that’s really only one part of a healthy future. Building a community with strong conservation values and creating businesses that support both environmental consciousness and a high quality of life are equally as important. Our projects, and the program as a whole, addressed all three by giving students the opportunity to learn from existing sustainability practices in Ecuador and also try to develop their own.

Right from the beginning, I knew that Professor Saiia and I shared a commitment to helping Maquipucuna and the preservation of the rainforest, and these mutual goals turned into a strong friendship. Ecuador has a funny way of doing that to you—showing you how important it is to see eye to eye in order to work together. I felt a similar relationship grow with fellow travelers Astrid Jirka, outreach coordinator for the Office of International Programs, and the other students on the trip. Three thousand miles from home, over a cup of morning coffee, we knew we could tackle whatever the day held—whether it was a 12-hour hike through the underbrush or reading old stories out loud by candlelight during a power outage—because we all shared the common goal of bringing social, economic, and environmental consciousness to our service-learning experience.

Why was it coffee that stood out? Working on projects kept me and the rest of our 13-student team busy with everything from interviewing the locals to building an actual biodiesel converter, so the best part of the day occurred within the first hour of waking. I would rise with the birds and stand on the bamboo deck outside my door, watching the sun come up. The sounds of the open-air kitchen blended with smells from the same location: fried plantains, sweet breads wrapped in leaves, homemade granola, and papaya so fresh you’d stuff it down though you were already full on fried eggs and jam. Sipping my coffee, concentrating on slowing my mind with each breath, I would watch the exquisite beauty of the rainforest come to life as the sun rose. By the last drop, I would be focused, awake, and ready to work.

Though other moments of joy gave me clarity—dancing with the locals, yoga with Astrid, bathing in a waterfall, and making my own chocolate—this simple morning ritual showed me that the opportunity to breathe warm, sweet air, careen through precipitous mountain roads, and watch cutter ants wind their way down the same dirt paths we walked was exactly what we were trying to preserve. The beauty of a rainforest morning. A fresh organic breakfast. A welcoming culture. The chance to learn and create.

By the time our team left Ecuador we had created a prototype for the plastic thatch and hired a contractor to build a mechanized system for producing it, installed a biodiesel station, and completed a major portion of our study-abroad project. Ours was a small contribution, but in the end it would become something socially, economically, and environmentally worthy—bringing revenue into Maquipucuna, which would in turn help build community businesses and perhaps allow them to preserve the local biodiversity.

Sustainability is a complicated subject—approaching it from a microenterprise point of view is just another way to ensure a resourceful future for distant generations. It was like that with the coffee, too. What started out as coffee beans turned into a unique way for me to realize that my contributions as a student traveler could be both sacred to me and beneficial to others. Learning to appreciate the culture and ecology of Ecuador along the way was yet another component. It is not just the earth itself but how we live with it and with each other that are everlastingly important.



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