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.
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.