Thursday, December 28, 2006

Year in Review

This was the first year of Finca Project. We have accomplished a lot, and we want to thank all of you who helped make this year such a success through your generous donations, hard work, and creative ideas. I just want to take this blog to review what has been going on.


-Eliot and Brendan return from Egypt .
-Eliot, Brendan and Jeff have a two-day long brainstorming session in Santa Cruz with help from some of our parents to strategize how this next year would work.
-We had a fundraising party in Austin raising $1,800 two days before Brendan and Eliot flew down to Costa Rica. Wow, have we come a long way from that party when we could only speak vaguely about what we planned on doing!

Eliot and Brendan at the Fundraiser in Austin last January.

-Started reconstruction of our farmhouse.
-Worked with a CAN intern, Nicole, on her project of methane-biogas conversion to electricity.
-Aided Dr Catherine Lindell to net and tag migratory birds.

The house before....

-Finished farmhouse reconstruction and moved onto the farm.
-Took first trip to rainforest (Las Alturas) to collect seeds, collecting over 10,000.
-Met with the coffee cooperative, CoopePueblos, to plan our first joint reforestation project.
-Brendan flew back to the US.

After... (Those are boxers drying not Tibetan prayer flags.)

This is the rainforest where we collect our seeds.

-Started our seedling nursery.
-Jeff and Robin's baby girl, Ayla, is born.
-Eliot visits Nicaraguan coffee farmers with members of CoopePueblos to learn about the differences between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

A School in La Corona Nicaragua.

The beginnings of our nursery.

-Our first volunteers, Mikael Dooha and Takashi Iwahashi, live and work with us.
-We take second trip to Las Alturas to collect more seeds.
-Expand our seedling nursery.

Eliot takes the volunteers on a tour of our farm.

-Eliot returns to US.
-We hire our neighbor, Harold, to continue collecting seeds and expanding the nursery.

Our neighbor Harlod, and his family. In the next year we plan to hire Harold full-time, if we have enough funding.

-Eliot returns to Costa Rica.
-Starts English classes with Peace Corps volunteers, Jacob and Trina.
-Starts collecting oak seeds (acorns) for the nursery.
-Begins organic vegetable garden.
-Works with Evergreen intern, Natasha, on charcoal composting methods.

Eliot teaching English.

-Eliot is invited to judge an English competition at the local high school.
-Brendan returns to Costa Rica, Eliot to the US.
-Brendan continues English Classes.
-Works with Santa Cruz intern, Dan, on earthworm compost.
-Brendan begins reforestation projects at local elementary school.

Brendan planting trees with the local elementary school.

Dan conducting research on our seedlings.

-Brendan visits Panama to learn about Panamanian reforestation projects.
-Eliot returns to Costa Rica.
-We start working with the local high school, the Association of Development, and CoopePueblos to create an ecological student group - "Jovenes Ecologicos".
-Continue with English classes.
-Planted over 300 trees at Aguabuena High School.

Students brainstorming the steps involved
in a reforestation project.

-We take "Jovenes Ecologicos" on many field trips.
-Met with the Association of Development, CoopePueblos, and some governmental agencies to solidly our first reforestation project along the Rio Salto.
-Expanded English classes
-Eliot and Brendan return to US for Finca Tour 2006.

Field trip to the Rio Salto.

-Eliot guests lectures at a few high schools in Austin.
-Brendan screens Birdsong and Coffee (a documentary) in Illinois.
-We networked with universities to create internship programs, Princeton asks us to reserve two spots for their students every year.

-Finca Tour 2006 raises over $5000.
-We screened Birdsong and Coffee in Austin with the help Bob and Burgess of the Travis Audubon Society to a very receptive crowd.
-Brendan returns to Costa Rica.

Brendan at our Berkeley Fundraiser on December 2nd.

Next year.....

We are starting our High School Cultural Exchange Program where students from around the world will work together on our reforestation project in the Rio Salto. Between January and March (the dry season), we will be planning the project, working with high school students, college interns and community members to strategize around the difficulties we face. We will begin planting in May. Stay tuned for more....we are going to start a Video Blog to keep you more entertained.

Muchas gracias a todos.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A word on organics (gone bananas)

I am back in Austin getting ready for our holiday fundraisers. Today was a beautiful day and I rode my bike around town. I stopped by the Bicycle Sports Shop and while I was waiting for my bike to be fixed I went to check out their smoothie stand. I noticed a sign that said "Everything is Organic (excluding the bananas)". I thought it was kind of weird, so I asked the woman working the blender why they don't have organic bananas.

She replied, "The skin is so thick, it doesn't really matter."

She is referring to the idea that since the skin is thick, pesticides wont penetrate to the fruit, therefore the fruit is rendered harmless.

This idea really bothers me. The organic movement should not just be a privilege of wealthy north americans to decide how much pesticides they will introduce to their digestive system. It is about the health of our planet, our water supply, the health of farmers and their families, and the longevity and sustainability of agricultural land and ecosystems. Usually I argue against the corporatizing of Organics because it is becoming virtually meaningless, but today I found myself arguing for Organics.

I told her that I grow organic bananas and not only is it not very hard, but organic bananas aren't very expensive. (As opposed to organic tomatoes). I tried to convince her that a pesticide-soaked banana peel sitting in the fridge is just as "bad" as a non-organic strawberry. I tried to explain to her that in banana-growing countries, there are pesticides that have been out-lawed since the 1960s in the US. I really dislike this puritanical idea that organics is about our own choice of what we put in our body not about what we dump into our earth ecosystem.

The US has created foreign policy on bananas. We have gone to war over bananas. We have installed military dictators who have started genocidal regimes over bananas. We cant just shrug them of "because they have thick skin".

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

No a TLC - Protesting in the Lowlands

Yesterday we drove down the mountain to the low lands to march in protest against TLC (Tratado Libre Comercial), known in the US as CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement). For the last two days there has been a nation-wide strike of students, farmers, and governmental employees. Costa Rica is the last of the Central American countries and Dominican Republic to ratify the treaty. Ironically, it was the first to push for it.

Julietta, Jenny, Leslie, Brendan, and I all crammed into to Jenny’s little sedan to drive down the bumpy road to Ciudad Neilly and over to Rio Claro where the marchers from Neilly and Golfito were to converge. It was foggy on top of the mountain, but as we dropped below the clouds, we saw the coastal plains open up and caught a glimpse or two of the ocean. Leslie is an intern from Nebraska. She had never been down to the lowlands. As we were driving down the mountain, I started to explain to her the irony of going to a strike against free trade in what used to be a United Fruit Company town. Now the area is all palm-oil plantations; now mostly privately owned by small-scale farmers after La Frutera disbanded.

As we rolled into Neilly, the marchers were gearing up to march to Rio Claro via the Panamericana. We ended up at the front of the line, along with the rice farmers’ union and all their tractors. It was hot. We pushed to the front of the line mostly to get some air flowing. We ended up ahead of the protest waiting with the ICE (Costa Rica’s government-run energy and telecommunications company) for the rice farmers and university students to meet them.

This is what we have learned is at stake in TLC (pronounced TAY EL-AY SAY):

The idea is to create a free-trade zone in Central American and the Dominican Republic.

This would lead to the privatization of many governmental agencies such as ICE. Talking to a representative from ICE, he told me that the fear is that the prices would skyrocket as there is would be no governmental subsidies. The “northamerican” idea would be that once the market was “liberated”, competition would lower the prices (maybe not as low as ICE), but to what is a “reasonable” market value. The problem I mentioned to the representative with ICE is that they are backlogged, flooded with work. Many people in our neighborhood have been soliciting phone lines for months. He thinks that free trade is not the answer because the people of Costa Rica are too poor to afford the increase in price.

It would bring jobs to Costa Rican including weapons manufacturing plants. Many Costa Ricans feel that this goes against the peaceful culture of a country that abolished its army in 1948. The current president, Oscar Arias, was also president during the 80s and won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating between the US-backed Nicaraguan Contra (Counterrevolutionary) army and the socialist Sandanista Party. Oscar Arias (as well as Costa Rica) is considered the diplomat of Central America. Currently he is aiding in negotiations in Colombia between the FLN (Frente de Liberacion Nacional – a U.S.-labeled terrorist organization) and the Colombian government. Many Costa Ricans are now calling him a hypocrite for supporting a treaty that would bring a weapons manufacturing plant to the country.

Another major fear of TLC is the entrance of agricultural corporate giants such as Monsanto. This would increase the price of seeds and fertilizers. It might require local farmers to adhere strictly to Monsanto’s regulations and recommendations. There is also the fear of the introduction of genetically-modified plants and the contamination of the local genetic pool especially in the production of corn. The rice farmers repeatedly said throughout the protest, “Diga no a arroz gringo” (Say no to Gringo Rice).

Costa Rica is the only country in the agreement that hasn’t ratified the treaty. It is almost inevitable that they will within the next few weeks.

Eliot’s Beliefs about TLC

I believe that Free Trade is a beautiful philosophy created a long time ago in a country far away (England I’m pretty sure). Opening free markets does and has helped many people in this world. But the enforcement of it has also brought many wars, genocides, and other horrible atrocities (Vietnam, Guatemala, Chile, Iraq…). With the advances of technology (like the internet especially) free trade is inevitable. For example, you can buy coffee over the internet directly from farmers here in Aguabuena. That is Free Trade in its essence. And currently it verges on illegal, because it is just sliding under the scope of governmental export taxes. In this way opening up free markets DOES help.

BUT, it is hard for a small country to benefit from a free trade agreement with huge countries with trillions of dollars waiting to pour into the country via socially irresponsible corporations such as Monsanto. I don’t say NO to TLC, I say HOW can make it fair, environmentally and socially? This is the task of 21st century. I hope it turns out better than the last one.

The protest ended up blocking the Panamerican Highway.

Jenny put a sign in the back of her car to protest.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Field Trip #2

This last weekend we took the Jovenes Ecologicos on a grewling 15 km hike up to the top of Las Brumas mountains to gain a better sense of the region and to pick trash that had been dumped in the forest. We woke up early and hiked up and up. We passed this huge Ceiba tree, as we climbed to the top of the ridge. The weather surprisingly held up, and even though it was foggy on top of the mountain, the clouds cleared for a second so we could see the ocean.

We talked alot about rainforest ecology, teaching the names of trees and how a forest works. We drank from a clean spring on top of the mountain. Many of the kids were surprised that clean water even existed. We picked up trash that had been dumped next to a quarry on top of the mountain. The kids were really into it and took initiative to figure out how to lift the trash out of the steep ditch it was in.

The trip lasted 8 hours, and by the time we got back to Copabuena everyone was ready to fall asleep. The kids are excited for the next field trip. They said they are going to miss us when we go home next week.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Harvest Time

The coffee berries are getting ripe, but the Cooperative still doesnt have a functional beneficio. The beneficio is supposed to start processing the coffee next week, but there is still a lot of coffee to be processed in the mean time.

Coffee has to be processed within 24 hours of harvesting. This makes coffee a difficult crop to deal with as it adds a great deal of transportation costs. Every day the ripe beans have to picked and taken to the local beneficio (processing plant). The beneficio washes and removes the skins of the beans so they can be dried and stored for roasting at a later date.

Since the Coopabuena beneficio closed down two years ago, the new cooperative (Coopepueblos) has been without a beneficio, taking the raw berries to be processed by the nearest beneficio in Sabalito (13 km away). This added alot of costs to last years harvest. This year UCSC researchers, Karen Holl and Rebecca Cole, loaned the cooperative $6000 of the $10,000 needed to buy a micro-beneficio. It arrived a few weeks ago, and the cooperative has been hard at work getting it ready for this years harvest. It should be up and running by next week.

Este beneficio es puro columbiano!

Monday, October 16, 2006

Rainy season is here

Up until yesterday, it seemed like the rainy season would never come. This is our first rainy season to spend down here, so we dont know what it is like. It is supposed to start at the beginning of October and last until December, but for the last two weeks it has hardly rained at all (only like every other day). All the farmers we talk to mention how dry it has been. Flor said it has been dry because of El Niño.

But yesterday it RAINED. The day started beautiful and sunny, but by noon it was sprinkling and by 1 it was pouring. Brendan and I were working on our plan for next year, typing on the computer, shouting over the pounding rain on the tin roof. At one point, we looked out the front door, and the bridge to our farm was flooded. We were stuck on our farm. This was the first flood that had reached over the bridge. We ran outside taking pictures. It was cold. The flood almost got to our seedlings, but they were safe luckily.

Right now it is raining again and the sky is a very strange orange. I think the rainy season has finally come.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Treking up the Rio Salto

On Friday, Eliot and I met with Jovenes Ecologicos to explore the Cuenca del Rio Salto (River Salto watershed). This ecological youth group was created to introduce youth to environmental issues through local field trips, eco-activities and group discussions. This was our first outing with the high schoolers and it was a great success. We treked 5 kilometers up stream, ending up at the 20 meter waterfall which feeds the river. It was a suprise to me that the majority of the kids had never seen this waterfall, or a monkey for that matter. At the waterfall we had a discussion about the importance of a forested watershed and how it filters and protects the water resource.

We then hiked up above the waterfall to have lunch under a shelter. We talked to the kids in English so they could practice their skills. We talked about this upcoming year, planning for our High School Cultural Exchange Program. They were excited to share experiences like this trip to the waterfall with kids from the US. When we asked them what else they would like to do...they came up with some crazy ideas like tug-of-wars in the mud and karaoke comptetions. I think next year will be a lot of fun.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Jovenes Ecologicos

Part of our new responsibility in the “Grupo Ambiente Saludable”, is creating a group of high school students called “Jovenes Ecologicos” (Ecological Youth). We are going to be facilitating projects that these students want to carry out to improve the environment. We will give them the power choose what kind of ecological projects they want to do, and we will be there to help them. The big idea of this “Ambiente Saludable” movement is to attract tourists to Aguabuea if the community can gain the “Bandera Azul” (Blue Flag) certification. The region of Coto Brus is one of the least popular destinations for tourists in Costa Rica, but this is probably going to change soon.

Today, we interviewed 23 “Jovenes Ecologicos” to pick 15 tourists guides that we will train to encourage ecological literacy. It was hard to choose. The students ranged from 8th-10th grade. We judged them on their use of English, their enthusiasm, and their knowledge of the area. Some of the students speak very well, and it was easy to pick them. Some of them were shy and quiet, and it was hard to figure out if they were just terrified by the inquisition-like questioning we inflicted upon them. We were a panel of judges (Eliot, Brendan, Jacob, Trina), and the students (one by one) sat across from our panel in an otherwise empty class room while we drilled them. We asked them: 1) Tell us about yourself. 2) Why do you want to be a guide? 3)What is your favorite place in Aguabuena?

After eating lunch in the cafeteria (beans, rice, eggs, cheese, salad, and a tortilla), we met with the principal and the secretary to announce the winners. All the potential guides were waiting outside the office for the announcement. We had a mix up between a girl named Adriana and one named Andreina. We had to retest them. Even though Andreina had a higher grade average, we chose Adriana. We were given all of the students grades and GPAs, although I made it clear to the principal that that was not a deciding fact for us.

Tomorrow we have our first meeting with the elected Guides.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ambiente Saludable

On Monday, we attended a meeting of Associacion Desarrollo Aguabuena (Association of Development) over making Aguanbuena “un Districto Ecologio”. These Ecological Districts are a certification for communities as a way to attract tourists. The meeting was the first of a series where we elected councils to address certain needs of the community. The needs were as far ranging as an ATM machine for the town to protection of watersheds. We were elected to the “Ambiente Saludable” (Healthy Environment) council to head the Reforestation committee.

We will be working with Carlos, the president of the Association; as well as Walter, manager of CoopePueblos; a representative from AYA, the national water company; the entire local police force, and our Peace Corps friends, Jacob and Trina. Our goals are to protect watersheds, create reforestation projects, and create trash clean-up and recycling programs.

It’s an awesome feeling of how we are becoming more connected to the community here. This was the first meeting we attended where they addressed our project, “Finca Proyecto”, during the meeting. Carlos and Walter were really excited to work with us, and we were patting each other on the back saying “Ambiente Saludable” as if it were some secret society or fraternity that we are now apart of.

The first official “Ambiente Saludable” meeting is next Tuesday, at 3pm.

Monday, September 18, 2006

el murciélago

Since we moved in to the house,
we have not been alone. We have had a bat, un murciélago, that has been living in the back room (the bat room). He has pooped (or guanoed) all over the bat room and walls throughout the house. It has been a constant struggle, cleaning up bat guano, fearing the flapping over our heads as we fall asleep, and the possiblility that he could be a chupesangre (blood sucker). Last Friday, we caught him.

I (Eliot) was in the living room. It had just gotten dark. The front door was open. Suddenly the bat flew through the front door, in to the house, straight to the back room. I shouted to Brendan. The bat was flying like crazy, bumping in to the walls. It flew into the bathroom. I grabbed a towel and threw it at Brendan.

"What do you want me to do with this?"

"Catch him."

Brendan threw the towel on top of the bat. And that was that. We caught the bat.

Since we moved in to the house, we have tried so many things to get rid of the bat like hanging garlic from the ceilings. Supposedly bats hate garlic and the color red. Everyone in town told us we should poison it or just find someway to kill it. We didn´t want to kill it though. We had never thought of catching it.

So we decided to build a house for it. We feed it platanos and it hangs from two coffee branches (upsidedown of course). We dont know what we are going to do with it. We have thought about letting it go somewhere, but they say that "the bat comes back...the very next day". For right now, its our pet. Although it kinda freaks me out.

Pura Vida

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Environmental Responsibility

A few days ago I visited the elememtry school in Agua Buena to talk with the students about environmental responsibility. Our friends Jacob and Trina (who work with the Peace Coprs) invited Eliot and I to participate in the values program they have been teaching in the schools. Among the values were responsibility. Since Eliot had to return to the US for a bit, I gave a talk about the importance of environmental stewardship. The kids were excited and had a real interest in learning more. Most of the kids have already been exposed to more environmental education than elementry students in the States.

Once the discussion was over, I split the kids into groups, and we went outside to plant trees in the back of the school. The kids were energized as the older students (6th graders) helped the younger students (1st graders) clear a spot and dig the hole. We planted 6 trees in total. Some of the kids put rocks incircling the trees to protect them. They even realized that the most important part of reforesting is protecting the tree from being cut down or harmed. It was really touching to see them caring for the trees. And to top it off, the kids who finished first went around the school yard and collected all the basura (garbage) they could find.

Many school sites in the surrounding community have land in need of reforestation. We have talked with several principals (directores)about supplying saplings and planting trees with the kids. These meetings have led us to consider schools as another area where we would like to focus our reforestation efforts. It you think about it, there are lots of similarities between an erroding riverbank and a barren schoolyard. In one instatnce you have nutrient-rich top soil being washed away, increased flooding, and degrading water quality. On the other hand you have kids learning in a place that does not refelct a healthy environment which increases the chance of environmental irresponsibility and ultimatly the quailty of education. Yes it may be cheezy, but i believe that the kids of today are the topsoil of tomorrow. We all must restore the quailty of environmetal education throughout the world while simultaneously restoring our ecosystems.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

An insightful trip to Pamama

I just returned from an amazing trip to Panama. Dan and I visited Panama City for three days. We took the midnight bus from David and arrived in Panama City early in the morning, just in time to see a "Panamax" cargo ship cruz through the locks at Mira Flores. This is the name given to ships that are built to the maximum width and length of the canal. There is little clearance on either side of the boat. The canal opperates 24 hrs a day, 365 days a year non-stop. The experience enabled me to better imaginge the amount of consumption that exists in the global North, especially the United States of America. On top of this, the Panamanian government has a "Master Plan" to increase the size of the canal, to detour competition from springing up, among other things.

While the canal was grand, it was less helpful than the Biblioteca (library) at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Here I found three floors of books, many of which contained insightful information. I could have spent all day in the building; but they closed at noon, and we still had much of the city to see. We also visited the Jardín Botánico de Gamboa (Botanical Garden) where we met the Chief of Environmental Education, who later invited us to stay at his apartment for the rest of our time in Panama City.

We left the city and headed toward the highlands. From David we went north toward Boquete, a romantic mountain town with coffee-coverd slopes, lies at the base of Volcan Baru. Here we visited a well-maintained garden, where I collected seed of species that would attract butterflies and bees. This town is known for thier abundence of flowers amongst the coffee trees. Boquete was a nice break from the heat of the lowlands.

Returning back to Agua Buena, Dan is preparing for his deparute back to the states and I am waiting on Eliot's arrival.

From the farm,
Pura Vida

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Caca De Vaca

Yesterday, Dan (our intern) and I went up to the "company" farm on the north side of our finca. Sometimes Eliot and I would find ourselves here to watch the sunset or view the valley to the south, but this time it was for other reasons. As Dan and I climbed to the top of the farm, we crossed over the barbed wire into the pasture. We were surounded by vacas (cows), and...well, we had come to collect their feces. As we passed up cow pie after cow pie, Dan exclaimed, "why are we passing up all these piles? you sure are picky about your cow shit." He was right, I was in search of the freshest cow shit I could find. When I found the piles still warm from the metabolic processes recently incurred upon it, I exclaimed "we got freshies", and we proceeded to scoop, bag and move on. We were collecting caca for our biodigestor, which contains excriment of various animals and captures the methane that is released when the organic compounds breakdown. This is a low-tech system that has been in practice for centuries. As the gas accumulates in the plastic bag above the tank, it becomes pressurised and is piped to the outdoor kitchen. Here it is connected to the stove and we are able to cook for hours.
The only problem with our system is that we dont have enough excrement for the system to properly function. After we collected two coffee sacks worth of caca de vaca we proceded to drag the oozing bags home and fill the intake tube to the biodigester. In about 1 hour we collected 50 pounds of cow feces, and we accomplished the mission without angering the bulls.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Kids excited about Reforestation

One day Eliot met some of the local kids at the elementary school and invited them down to the finca to show them our seedling nursery. A month later the kids showed up wondering why we weren't at the farm that morning. I reminded them that that we had invited them a month ago, and things do happen sometimes. Since then the kids have become really excited about trees, and come over almost daily wanting to help us. Sometimes they even teach us a thing or two. When Greivin (10 yrs old) shows up with his brothers Luigi (7) and Jhonny (12..and thats how he spells his name), they almost always bring seeds. Some seeds are endangered species that we havent even found yet.

Being around the kids has reminded me of how, as we get older, we become estranged from our fundamental connection to mother earth. Showing the kids how tamarinds sprout or talking about the monkies and snakes that we've seen genuinely excites them. The excitement is contagious.

I believe that the youth still posses an inherent connection to the environment, born with a love for their environment, instead of a need to dominate it. If we can harbor and develop this passion among children, we are that much closer to reparing what our forefathers have squandered. Cheers to the YOUTH!!!

Pura Vida

Friday, August 25, 2006

Learning from the Masters: Farmers teach us how to make and mix suelo

The pictures below illustrate the process of mixing soil practiced by many local farmers. This soil recipe has traditionally been used for small coffee trees. This specific method was tought to us by our neighbor, Harold. This is what we use for our seedlings.

Step 1
Start with a base of 1 part topsoil from the farm, then from into a flat-top mound

Step 2
Add a thin layer of cascara de arroz (rice husks)untill it totally covers the topsoil

Step 3
Add a thin layter of Cal (Calcium) in the same manor as step 2

Step 4
Add 1 part brosa de café (composted coffee husks), and crumble by hand

Step 5
Repeat step 2 and 3

Step 6
Mix, making sure the moist brosa de cafe is fully broken down

Step 7
Fill the bags, give it the ol´ pound and shake to ensure a well-filled bag

Step 8
Transplant the seedling

This method has been practiced for generations and has ensured the health and nutrient demands of millions of coffee seedlings, (while they wait in the shade to be planted).