Amazon Women on the Move
What is the level of understanding of the native people that you work with about the crucial role of the Amazon rainforest in biodiversity and global warming? Has their perspective changed since you first arrived there? — Sue Kaufman, Portland, Ore.
I think that when I arrived many of the people had an excellent view of the importance of the Amazon. The local radio stations in the Amazon are quite effective at promoting the idea that the Amazon rainforests are the “lungs” of the earth and many of the Kallari artisans and farmers are aware of this fact. I have also questioned people about the future of the region if the forests are decimated, and the response I received was, “If we continue to fell our trees at this rate, it will rain less, the crops will not produce, the rivers will dry up, we will probably have to move somewhere else, and it might be like that desert in Africa that gets bigger each year.”
I do think that it is hard for them to grasp the incredible biological diversity of the area, in comparison with other ecosystems — more biodiversity located within 12 square miles than most of the continental U.S. It is even hard for a biologist like myself to grasp, never mind a person who has only been exposed to a region of mega-diversity. We try to promote field trips to other areas and include biological comparisons in the handcraft workshops. Our goal is to help Kallari members see how “sterile” other ecosystems appear in comparison with the wealth of wildlife found in the Amazon rainforests — so they will value their natural resources even more than they currently do.
You talk about measuring your success in terms of income/work for the community in which you work. This is clearly a key measure. I am wondering if you also have measures related to preserving habitat or preventing extinctions of endemic species. Do you have any results or victories in this domain resulting from the work of the Kallari Association? — Sue Kaufman, Portland, Ore. (Yes, again.)
Initially, we are trying to establish management plans in the Kallari communities, to be certain that handcraft production is not causing a negative effect on the local biodiversity. Additionally, we monitor the number of plant species used to make Kallari handcrafts, and promote that the artisans use a) as many species as possible and b) small amounts of species that are not domesticated or cultivated. Currently, Kallari artisans use over 200 plant species in their handcrafts, which represent nearly 10 percent of the botanical diversity in the region. Our goal is to reach nearly 25 percent, meaning that a market would exist for over 500 plant species and thus reduce the pressure on any single species.
Do you think that what you are doing is a model for habitat and species preservation in the developing world? If so, how can the word be spread? — Sue Kaufman, Portland, Ore. (Look, she’s on our board, OK?)
I think that as conservationists we must accept that mere land purchase has not solved the problem of biodiversity loss. We must seek new alternatives and find ways to work together with rural people to find answers to their economic problems without obliterating their natural resources. Kallari is less than a decade old, has had little international funding, and has grown to include members who manage over 75,000 acres of rainforests and farms. Considering the total amount of international funding and donations that Kallari has received so far, it comes to a cost of less than five dollars per acre to establish the handcraft market system. It may take another 10 years of small grants for Kallari to become completely independent and self-sufficient, but even at a cost of $10 or $20 per acre, is it a fraction of the cost of land purchase, does not require separating rural people from their land, and is self-sustainable — needing no funds to cover wages for park guards, land taxes, and reserve-management expenses.
There are many avenues for helping to spread the ideas and principles that have proven successful for Kallari to other regions. I think that Peace Corps, funding organizations, church missions, and international NGOs can play an important role in spreading the word. However, I am considering publishing a book that summarizes the valuable lessons we have learned and making it available to people who want to consider volunteering internationally. I think that unattached volunteers on a person-to-person basis have the most freedom and opportunities to work with rural communities.
I have found that nonprofit organizations in developing countries are much more efficient than the large international partners passing out the funds. For example, within Ecuador it appears that The Nature Conservancy, WWF, and Conservation International monopolize conservation projects. In some cases, an international partner will share only half of the costs of a project with the partner NGO that actually carries out the ground work and keep the lion’s share for their own administrative costs.
However, I truthfully feel that small community organizations are even more efficient than home-country NGOs. It requires a great deal more effort and time, but I think that long-term tropical conservation will not be possible until the active players are the landowners themselves. I believe that in the case of Kallari our actual success has not been due to myself or the NGO that helped form a community organization. Kallari exists because of the desire of the community leaders to fulfill the needs of their members and provide opportunities for future generations.
What is your assessment of the craft cooperative in comparison to other sustainable economic models like ecotourism? — Henry Adzuki, Dove Creek, Colo.
I think that ecotourism works well on a small scale, but unfortunately of the 100-plus communities that have mentioned to me that they hope to work with ecotourism, I know of only two communities in Ecuador’s Napo Province that have semi-successful ecotourism programs. I think that handcrafts as well have their limited market, which is why Kallari is constantly researching new products. Our newest line includes belts and natural soaps, and we are in the beginning stages of reviewing potential home furnishings to complement our previous line.
I think ecotourism also requires a much greater cultural adjustment than handcraft creation or working to provide value-added products from agricultural produce. Several projects working with small micro-enterprises tend to be more successful than ecotourism, because the initial investment is less, and it is a product that can be easily marketed to the local population.
What are the requirements of membership in your association? Or do you attempt to work with any and all interested artisans in your area? — Name not provided
The Kallari Association allows members to join on a community basis. Once a community decides to join Kallari, the majority of its members must participate in the craft workshops and be willing to pursue organic certification for their crops and stand up to the oil companies. Although individual families have the option of joining Kallari, most of the members are first members of a community that is part of Kallari. For any community that joins the association, all of its members older than 10 years of age are allowed to be full members.
Has anyone ever given you trouble for what you’ve been doing with the Kallari Association, say, oil-company thugs or crooked government officials? — Name not provided
To me it has been more disheartening to see the oil companies pay off a number of indigenous leaders of the federations in the area. Although Kallari communities stood up to the oil companies, there have been no serious threats so far. We do receive mild warnings from time to time from commercial intermediaries, but have had no robberies or assaults. They are concerned by our efforts to help the communities overcome the low prices available in local markets for coffee and cocoa. When the Kallari communities export their organic produce directly, they are eliminating the livlihood of various intermediaries.
I have received words of caution numerous times, and narrowly missed the assault of a biological station by a band of armed men hired by Ecuador’s largest wood exporter, but have not felt my life in danger yet.
What would be the likely impact on the Kallari cooperative if the bill you mentioned making genetic material property of the state actually passes? — Beverly Griser, Punxsutawney, Pa.
For the moment I think it may have little impact, but I fear that it will completely obliterate the market potential for the traditional medicinal remedies used by the Kichwa people. If foreign pharmaceutical companies can purchase the plant material used to make the remedies from the Ecuadorian government, isolate the active compounds and synthetically reproduce them, before a community organization like Kallari has a chance to bring their own holistic healing products to market, Kichwa people will lose various potential markets. If rainforest people have cures for several types of cancer, arthritis, epilepsy, asthma, and other chronic illnesses, but the pharmaceutical companies can get a product to market first, what market will remain for a remedy from a small rainforest cooperative?
I remember watching a documentary about indigenous tribes of the Amazon rainforest when I was in school. I was fascinated to learn about whole societies that had never seen modern man and knew nothing of modern conveniences such as electricity and running water. Have you encountered any of these groups? Do they even still exist? — Name not provided
The Huaorani indigenous group of the Ecuadorian Amazon had a small number of families that divided off about 15 years ago. They continue to live with no contact from outsiders and have requested that the other Huaorani and outsiders respect their wishes. Unfortunately, the Ecuadorian government is going ahead with their plans to extract oil from this region of the Yasuni National Park. The Tagaere and a few other small clans are thought to be the only groups in the world that have not had contact with “modern” societies.
The Kallari members are mostly of the Kichwa indigenous group, and have been exposed to Spanish influence for several centuries. However, most the Kallari communities do not have running water or electricity, and their lifestyle varies little from that of their ancestors.
Your organization seems to be propagating the “good kind” of globalization, as in, sustainably made goods being sold on the global market at a fair price to consumers around the world. Do you think that “good” globalization will eventually prevail over the destructive, race-to-the-bottom, exploitative kind? — Trevor Fredanza, Yreka, Calif.
I think the true test will be in the education of the next two generations. Even if “good” globalization is prevalent, it is necessary for organizations like Kallari to have a dependable client base, and if we do not have the promotional budget like large corporations, how can we contact our potential clients and inform them of our products? I hope that there is a turnaround, and think that Europe is a sign that it is possible. I see it as inevitable, but am curious how many decades it may take to occur.
Who do you find are the most frequent buyers of your wares? To whom do you regularly market the crafts? — Name not provided
Kallari items appeal to a wide range of consumers, so it is difficult to say that a specific type of person is our main buyer. I would have to say that the only difference I have noted is overall familiarity with the origin of the crafts. Regardless of a person’s background, once they understand what Kallari is, they are excited about purchasing the merchandise and often tell their friends.
We market our products to a diverse span of clients, from middle-school students to retired adults. We have received positive responses from everyone from rural residents to downtown shoppers, college students to Rotary members. Although I assumed that the market share would be from environmentalists, they are often more cautious about their purchases and many people who would not consider themselves “green” appreciate finding products that make them feel good about their purchase, instead of guilty.
How does the lifestyle you’ve chosen and your career affect your family? Are you married? Do you have kids? If you have a family or plan to start one, do they/would they live with you in the rainforest? What is life like for a displaced Kansas farm girl in the middle of the Ecuadorian jungle? — Name not provided
I decided at a young age that the typical idealistic dream of marriage and family life was not for me. I am single, enjoy living in several different worlds at once, and am not willing to sacrifice any of my freedom. I do not think I could raise children as well as my parents did and still be such an important player in tropical conservation issues.
Are there opportunities to volunteer with your organization? Where would you recommend looking to find volunteer opportunities with environmental organizations in Latin America? — Michelle Blank, Boise, Idaho
Kallari depends upon international volunteers for most of our product and market development. We require that volunteers contribute at least three months of their time, but other than that are very flexible. The majority of our volunteers find us through internet links for volunteer organizations, or by doing general searches. Ecuador Explorer posts some volunteer opportunities in Ecuador and Green Volunteers is one of several books that include lists of volunteer positions worldwide.
How does someone without a background in environmental work switch careers to do something similar to what you are doing? What opportunities are there for volunteers in the Amazon? — Joanna Daly, Lake Peekskill, N.Y.
I really suggest that you try volunteering initially and use the experiences and contacts to build your resume, because the field of environmental work is very competitive in the U.S.
I began volunteering with the Jatun Sacha Foundation, but there are scores of environmental projects with volunteer programs just within Ecuador. The easiest way to find opportunities is to do a search on the internet and begin to get in touch with different programs that may offer the type of volunteer work you prefer to do. Kallari also offers volunteer positions, but we require a three-month commitment, nearly three times the minimum time commitment requested by other organizations.
See above for more information on how to research volunteer positions worldwide.
I’ve been trying to break into the nonprofit world for about a year now. I’ve been told my resume is great and my interview skills are good, but I’ve had no bites. Any advice you have on getting into the environmental field here in the states would be greatly appreciated! — Michelle Corey Brown, Spotsylvania, Va.
I think the easiest way to get a job at a nonprofit organization is to begin volunteering and create a position for yourself. If you volunteer for a short amount of time and the organization recognizes how valuable your work ethic, skills, contacts, or experience are, they will find a way to keep you.
Another way is to simply keep yourself posted on part-time openings and try to get your foot in the door by taking a small position and letting them know how much more you could do for them in a full-time post.
I was fortunate to have quite a bit of field experience, which opened doors to research positions. However, I think that currently anyone with skills in development, i.e., writing grants or managing campaigns to aquire private donations, is in big demand. You can go to the Foundation Center website and find their small information centers in large city libraries, or go to a course to find out more about this field. If you learn how to write grants or prepare projects, there are few nonprofit organizations that will not offer you a job.
I have a café in Cuenca, Ecuador, and would love to promote and serve fair-trade coffee there. What’s your contact information in Ecuador? — Paul Murtha, Cold Brook, N.Y.
Our Quito coffee shop is located at Wilson and Juan Leon Mera, in the Mariscal sector (2-236-009). The Tena office of Kallari is at the corner of the Feria Libre, only two blocks east of the bus terminal (062-870-009).
I export a rainforest food called ramon, or capomo, from Mexico to the U.S. The Latin name of the tree it grows on is Brosimum alicastrum. This tree grows as far south as northern South America. Does it grow in Ecuador? If so, can I make some arrangement with you to create a collective to gather it for export? — Don Strachan, Middletown, Calif.
This species looks familiar and I think it is available in Ecuador, but am not sure about the availability of a quantity large enough to be shipped by freight. Please feel free to email me at the Kallari address: email@example.com.
Can you recommend any books or internet resources with good information about the Amazon rainforest, its inhabitants, and its survival? — Name not provided
Savages, Neotropical Companion, Tropical Nature, and a collection of essays titled Tropical Rainforests. There are several more books available, which are probably more up-to-date; I simply don’t have access to a great library in Ecuador.