With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I arrived in Ecuador in 1997 and throughout the past seven years have visited and worked with more than 600 rural families to encourage them to establish the Kallari Association, a small farmers’ and artisans’ organization dedicated to sustainable organic production of a diverse array of products, made up of 24 Amazon indigenous and mestizo communities, totaling 1,700 members. The farmers and artisans who make up Kallari are dedicated to meeting their basic economic needs without sacrificing Amazon rainforests, historical ethnobotanical knowledge, or cultural traditions.
I am considered the founder of Kallari, but my current position deals much more with development. In the past two years I have managed to turn over the majority of the administrative responsibility to Kallari’s democratically elected directive board.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
When the Kallari Association’s artisans and farmers are earning an annual income of no less than $2,500 per year per family. Compare this to when I arrived in the region, when a farm family earned little more than $500 per year and the main cash-crop markets available consisted of coffee, cocoa, corn, and timber.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Every day is very different and it is a little difficult to portray the scattered activities I am involved in.
In a given year I spend 10 months in Ecuador — roughly half of that time is in the Amazon, and the other half in Quito. For the past two years I have traveled a couple of months in the U.S. promoting Kallari and trying to sow a global conscience. My favorite activities when I am in the Amazon are to hike through rainforest trails and cross Amazon tributaries to visit the farms of the Kallari members to see old friends, learn about more species of plants used for craft production, review cocoa trees, buy fruit and hardwood-tree seed, deliver checks, letters, or invitations, and enjoy Amazon foods. About half of my time in the Amazon I teach rainforest ecology courses.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I am from Kansas and spent most of my childhood in a farming village, where most families derived at least half of their income from farming. In high school and college, I had the opportunity to work at The Land Institute, an excellent nonprofit organization established to research sustainable agriculture. From there I received a scholarship to attend Beloit College in Wisconsin, where I earned a B.S. in environmental biology and Spanish.
I had several biological-research, conservation, and habitat-restoration positions, but although I enjoyed the challenges of biological field research, it left me with a sense of failure. As researchers we could study the decline of species diversity or attempt to find the most intact ecosystems and promote land purchase or easements to prevent them from becoming strip malls or suburban neighborhoods. However, we could not solve the underlying problems of economic progress fueling the destruction of natural resources.
I felt that instead of land purchase and reserve management, grassroots work with rural people was the more urgent necessity within conservation work. I dedicated my career to countering rainforest destruction, but more with tenacity for creating sustainable markets than biological expertise. If international markets are the leading cause of tropical deforestation, than as members of the international community it is our responsibility to create and develop markets that reinforce rainforest conservation, while promoting the preservation of cultural traditions.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
I have more than 350 right now, but I try to keep it at less than 100. Unfortunately I spend much of June and July in the Amazon without internet access so I am still trying to catch up.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Extractive industries (specifically logging, oil, and gold mining in Ecuador) that use their power to manipulate local government, contaminate the landscape, and completely override labor and human-rights policies.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
I have been amazed by the Ecuadorian people’s willingness to share the little they have — the shop owner a block from our apartment in Quito will gladly lend me food for a week or two, until I have the money to repay him for my staples.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Wichita, Kan., in the U.S. Tena or Quito, in Ecuador.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
Although my parents were incredible examples of environmental stewardship, I rejected their frugal lifestyle until meeting my high school biology teacher, John Craft. He took the time to answer our probing questions about his life decisions and by doing so helped us realize that each of our actions have social, environmental, and economic impacts in other parts of the world. My general life goals and vocation were completely solidified by the time I was 16 years old and they have changed very little in the past 15 years.
What’s on your desk right now?
I have been invited to accompany the Kallari board members to promote their cocoa at the Slow Food Salone de Gusto in Italy, the Terra Madre agricultural event, and the Eurochocolate Festival, all sponsored by Slow Food, for 11 days in October. I am concerned about preparing all of our presentation materials and handling the logistics of traveling with people who are not experienced backpackers.
Also, we are preparing to maximize the sale of Kallari crafts before the holiday shopping rush, as we have a diverse stock of crafts and only a few months to sell the majority of our merchandise. I have already received two or three orders this week, after a summer drought of marketing activity.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The Ecuadorian president (who seems to have funded his election campaign through support from the U.S.) has proposed and is in the process of passing a bill that makes all genetic material, except human, property of the state. This includes all ethnobiological applications and basically overrides former international policies to protect the intellectual property rights of the indigenous nations of Ecuador. Although it may not be a direct environmental offense, I foresee that the long-term environmental effects of completely stealing a people’s right to the intellectual use of their biological resources further threatens natural resources and obliterates their market potential.
Who is your environmental hero?
I recently had the honor of meeting Judith Kimerling, the woman who researched and documented environmental and social violations by the Texaco oil company in Ecuador. Her work led to the current lawsuit against Texaco and has been an incredible motivation for me during my time in Latin America.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Dick Cheney and his puppet, George W. Bush.
What’s your environmental vice?
I don’t have the space or time to cultivate my own organic grains, vegetables, and fruits. I do look forward to a time when I can find an empty lot nearby and rent it to spend at least an hour each day growing enough produce for at least the bulk of my own nutritional requirements.
I also rent a large apartment in Quito where friends, volunteers, and staff stay in a community-type atmosphere. It has electricity from the hydroelectric dams and hot water heated by natural gas. I would prefer to have the money to help Kallari restructure a building in Quito with solar-heated water and solar-energy collectors.
How do you get around?
I often take public buses to Tena and to project visits that are more than 30 miles from Quito; however, I attempt to ride my bicycle or walk whenever possible when I am in the city.
What are you reading these days?
Song of the Dodo, Beyond Backpacking, Cradle to Cradle, Good Stuff (Worldwatch Institute guide to consumer decisions), and I like to keep Dao de Jing with me to reflect on from time to time. I am awaiting the arrival of Stolen Harvest and recently finished Fast Food Nation and Savages.
What’s your favorite meal?
I’m always satisfied after eating odd fruits and nuts all day and sitting down to a typical rural meal in the Amazon. The average dinner includes beans, rice, boiled plantains, manioc with chili sauce, fresh fish (cooked in leaves), and sweetened lemongrass or cinnamon tea to wash it down.
Are you a news junkie?
I am so busy that when a strike paralyzed the nation of Ecuador and the president was overtaken by a coup, I barely noticed.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
My father paid me what I consider to be one of the greatest compliments when he said, “You are not only an environmental activist, but an active environmentalist.” I have not purchased a new piece of clothing in years, or a new pair of shoes in over a year. I use natural soaps and leftover shampoo bits from other housemates. I put little effort into my personal appearance, ride my bicycle almost everywhere possible, and try to invest much of my meager earnings back into my work with Kallari. My material goals in life include never owning a combustion-motor vehicle, a television, or a DVD player.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I have yet to find somewhere as impressive as the rainforests of the Andes foothills, at the beginning of the Amazon basin.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Most of my friends and staff call me one, and I think they are correct, since I dedicated my career to the environment when I was young. I also consider myself a humanist and realize that we will not prevent habitat destruction until we take into account the social and economic factors that lead to environmental devastation, seek alternatives, and make them easily available to the most isolated rural people (who are the true stewards of the majority of the world’s remaining private property of high biodiversity).
What’s your favorite movie?
The Trip to Bountiful is one of my all-time favorites.
Mac or PC?
We use both, but I prefer Mac because it has much less risk of virus infection, and our database is on a Mac because they are much more reliable and user-friendly.
What are you happy about right now?
Although my work can be stressful, I love the challenge and could not imagine a job that would fulfill me more and capitalize better on my talents, experience, background, and interests. Even though I don’t have children, I feel a tremendous responsibility and an honor that I have managed to find a career that not only helps the environment, but actually empowers people to protect their own rainforests.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Spend time with a child and make the effort to explain why it is important to live in modesty and learn to appreciate what you have. The incredible pressure on youth to purchase and consume needs to be balanced by discussion and a good example from their parents and other adults.