What work do you do?
I am the president of EARTH University, a private, not-for-profit, international institution.
What does your organization do?
Our mission is to promote sustainable development in the tropics through the creation of professionals with strong values, solid technical and scientific skills, entrepreneurial spirit, and social and environmental consciousness. When EARTH opened in 1990, we made a commitment to reach out to the poor in rural communities throughout Latin America. We believe that if we offer them the right education, instill values and ethics in a pluralistic environment, provide entrepreneurial training with a strong social and environmental focus, and return them to their countries and communities as agents of change, we can make a difference in the world.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I travel a lot and meet with people inside and outside EARTH, trying to spread the mission of our institution.
EARTH is dedicated to providing educational opportunities to the most economically disadvantaged in Latin America and provides full or partial scholarships to 80 percent of our students. As a result, we are actively fund-raising year round.
I am currently working on my speech for our 11th graduation, in December. Another 89 professionals will join the 987 graduates who are already creating change and contributing to the sustainable development of their communities in 20 countries in Latin America.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I was born in Costa Rica to parents of Lebanese descent. In 1965, when I was 17 years old, I decided to spend a year in Lebanon to study and experience Lebanese culture. By the end of that first year, I had decided to enroll in the American University of Beirut where I completed my Bachelor of Science in agricultural economics and a master’s in animal science. At the University of Florida, I completed another master’s in food science and human nutrition and a doctorate in meat and muscle biology.
I returned to Costa Rica and held a faculty post as a food-science professor at Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica and later became the vice president of research and extension. I also served as the head of the Animal Production Department at the Centro Agrícola Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza in Costa Rica, an international center for tropical research and the oldest postgraduate school of agriculture in Latin America.
In 1989, I became the first president of EARTH University, leading the design of the campus and the establishment of the university’s academic programs, values, and mission.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in San Ramon, Costa Rica. I currently live on the EARTH University campus in the rural Caribbean lowlands in northeast Costa Rica.
What’s been the best moment in your professional life to date?
The day we handed the degrees to our first EARTH graduates. We refer to that group of graduates as “pioneers” because truly they had put their trust, hope, and dreams in a model that had not been proven or done before. In that moment, we saw the tangible result of all of our efforts, and we saw a group of individuals before us — most from very humble backgrounds — who were full of unlimited promise. Since that day, I have seen how this group has transformed communities, influenced governments, and become guides and leaders for sustainable development.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I feel powerless when I see trucks with huge logs that are clearly from virgin forests.
What is your environmental nightmare?
I’m very concerned with the widely held belief that our environment will auto-correct. A lot of the environmental degradation occurring now is irreversible, and there will be consequences for those actions or our inaction in the future. My nightmare is the end result of treating the environment as we are.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
I love my mom’s traditional Lebanese recipe with green and red beans.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Plant a tree on the campus of EARTH University.
Down to EARTH
Can you give us some examples of how EARTH University graduates have promoted sustainability in their home countries? — Tom Yuill, Madison, Wis.
With nearly 1,000 graduates to date, the success stories are numerous and inspiring. Graduates are implementing innovative and sustainable agriculture techniques, founding companies, creating jobs, and improving the quality of life for those around them. Remember that the majority of our students come from marginalized, poor, rural areas, and that our scholarship program is the only way they could ever obtain a first-class education. As a result, we see them transforming lives and communities where such change is most urgently needed. And it surprises many people that 94 percent of graduates continue to live in Latin America, most of them back in their own countries and communities.
Is EARTH an acronym? — Name not provided
Yes, EARTH is an acronym for Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda, or School of Agriculture for the Humid Tropical Region.
Have people on other continents become interested in what you are doing? — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
During the last several years, many institutions in Asia and Africa have expressed interest in our program. Encouraged by many of our supporters, EARTH University conducted a series of conferences around the world to share the EARTH “model” for sustainable, tropical-agriculture education. As a result of the SEMCIT (Sustainability, Education, and the Management of Change in the Tropics) program, some changes are already occurring in universities in Africa and Asia. Also, we are seeing results through student and faculty exchanges; we now have students from Mozambique, Uganda, Indonesia, and Spain.
EARTH was also mentioned earlier this year in the United Nations Millennium Project report as a model for higher education that could help alleviate poverty in rural areas of marginalized societies throughout Africa and Asia.
What types of classes do you offer? — Name not provided
Our graduates hold a degree in Agronomy and Natural Resource Management. Students must complete about 200 credit hours through a rigorous four-year program — closer to the U.S. equivalent of a master’s degree.
Our curriculum is unique because it is experiential and participatory. We emphasize learning rather than teaching, and the students are essential participants in the process. The curriculum is an integrated one, not segregated into departments, and a crucial component is the fact that we — students, faculty, administrators — all live on campus. This allows for a very intense and rigorous program but one in which skills, values, and ethics can be transmitted by example as we all live together.
Do you sponsor field trips for U.S. citizens during school vacations? — Beverly Teach Wiegler, Goffstown, N.H.
Since we are a nonprofit, we do not sponsor field trips per se; however, we sometimes accommodate American students either as part of an exchange or as a part of their educational experience. Often, groups include a visit on our campus as part of a trip to Costa Rica or Central America.
How many students do you have at EARTH? — Name not provided
Our students are selected in a very intentional manner, including in-person interviews by a member of our faculty in each country where we recruit. Of the roughly 1,300 qualified applicants we review each year, we eventually select about 110 to enter the university. Currently, we have a total of 413 students from 23 countries. Our faculty of 40 represents 20 countries.
I cannot go to Costa Rica anytime soon, but would like to honor your request to plant a tree on campus. Is there a way to send funds specifically to plant a tree? — Scott Kender, Eureka, Calif.
Please email our U.S. support organization, EARTH University Foundation, and they will be glad to provide you with that information. EARTH’s “Plant a Tree” campaign helps provide scholarships for deserving students. Our U.S. foundation is our principal vehicle for raising the $4 million that we need each year to provide scholarship support to more than 80 percent of our students.
What effects have you noticed, positive or negative, from ecotourism in Costa Rica? — Name not provided
Generally, ecotourism has been very positive for Costa Rica. The country was early in creating protected areas and in restricting access even before the current boom in tourism. However, this activity has to be controlled carefully so that we can observe and admire nature without destroying it. I believe that we can be successful if we balance our need for economic benefit with the needs of the environment.
I try not to buy produce that has been shipped from outside my region, but I do buy organic bananas and shade-grown coffee with the thought that the money spent to grow these businesses will offset the oil and energy required to bring them to me. Is this a realistic view? — Jared Webb, Rocky Mount, Va.
I think this is a very realistic view. I would also add that by doing so, you are supporting rural farmers in largely marginalized communities, whose future lies in creating a global market for their crops. But I would also like to encourage the large companies who are buyers of these products to give more profit-sharing opportunities to producers by involving them in the distribution or commercialization of their crops.
It is unforgivable that you did not give us your mom’s Lebanese recipe for green and red beans. We need all the specifics! — Cesar Benalcazar, Melbourne, Australia
My mother says that her recipe is a deep secret! However, she told me that if you visit her in San Ramón, she will be glad to prepare it for you.