Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

10 June, 2011

'Deep Ecology' at Sea

Results of a 'deep ecology' student activity describing how the view at sea made the group FEEL.

Our feeling is free, but scared
Connected with the vastness and solitude of Nature
Exposed, small & insignificant, going where it takes us
Alone in another world full of life

Courtesy of the 'Foundations of Sustainability' class, Maymester 2011 Semester at Sea

01 June, 2011

Biodigester at El Yue

At El Yue agro-ecological farm, nothing was wasted. Any item bought wasn’t put into the trash; it was either reused or recycled. Most of the food was eaten from the garden and anything left over was composted. The medicinal plants grown on the farm were used to heal injuries. Even the animals waste was used as energy source and a fertilizer. The methane produced from the manure was collected as an alternative energy source with the help of a biodigester. In the photograph, Rosa Amalia is feeding the pigs with banana leaves and other plants that she grows on the farm. Any leftover pieces that aren’t eaten are cleaned up and put into the compost. The compost decomposes the waste material and the resulting material is used as a fertilizer for all the plants. Once the waste has been produced by the pigs, the hose that you can see on the far right of the picture is turned on to flush out the manure with water in the form of a sludge mixture. She assured us that no mixing was needed, that all the solids are washed down the tube and will eventually breakdown naturally with the help of bacteria.

The first step of the energy generating process would be the feeding of the two pigs shown in the image so they produce manure. Other animal waste can also be used, such as cows. However, because their manure is more fibrous due to the grass they eat, cows require a greater amount of water in order to be used as part of the biodigester. Cows require 5 gallons of water to 1 gallon of manure while, with pigs, the ratio is 1:1. Also, the more animals that produce waste, the greater amount of gas produced. The two pigs’ manure produced enough methane to power the kitchen on the farm. They also were almost done constructing a sauna that will be run entirely from the biogas. At Rosa Amalia’s home, she has 20 pigs and they have more than enough energy needed for two households. There is a wide tube in the far back corner of the pigsty where the manure is washed into the pipe that enters the plastic tank. The manure is naturally water-soluble so the buildup of solid material doesn’t occur. Once the manure sludge is run into the plastic tank, it takes about a month for the anaerobic digestion by the bacteria to produce enough methane gas for use.

The photograph shows the biodigester not fully inflated with the methane gas. This is because only 2 days before a tree fell on the pipe for the exiting gas and released all of the methane gas. In normal cases, the sack would be blown up like balloon. The methane gas that is collected in the tank is around 20 times more potent of a greenhouse gas then carbon dioxide. Therefore, this process allows for this gas that would normally be released into the atmosphere and causing global warming to be used directly as cooking fuel or for electrical energy in a home. This simple farm-scale energy produced is a cheap alternative for more traditional countries to provide cooking fuel and lighting to their home in a sustainable way. A negative of using to using a biodigester is that the bacteria responsible for the digestion require warmer temperatures to survive making it is not as feasible in colder climates. However, the gas produced can be used to warm the tank in order to keep the bacteria alive. Another issue with this energy source is that it requires daily maintenance. Each day, manure and water need to be added to the tank and the resulting effluent needs to be emptied.

In this image, Rosa Amalia is showing the pressure release safety system of the biodigester. If too much methane gas is produced and the pressure in the tubes is enough to force the gas upward through the water in the jar, then excess gas will be released into the air to reduce the pressure. This ensures that the bag won’t explode under pressure when the methane being produced is at a higher rate than it is being used. Just slightly to the left of the pressure release system is where the pipe had to be fixed due to the tree that fell on it. The tube to right in the picture connects to the top of the tank of the biodigester and the tube to the left is the beginning of a long tube that allows the methane to reach all the way to the house. It is also connected to the future sauna they are creating. The burned biogas still produces carbon dioxide, but it is essentially a carbon neutral system if the plants that are used to feed the animals are continuously grown. The methane gas being directly produced on site is both cheaper for the resident and simultaneously reduces the amount of energy needed for the transportation of other energy sources.

The two effluents produced in the biodigester tank are the biogas used for energy and a nutrient rich liquid that can be used as a fertilizer. This picture shows this liquid that is produced at the end of the bag opposite where the manure sludge comes in. Rosa Amalia says she collects it with a ladle and pours on her plants. The bacteria in the biodigester break down and sterilize the waste put in, resulting in a remaining liquid that is a safe and highly effective fertilizer. When there is a lot of methane being generated, the liquid needs to be collected every day. Instead of using the chemical, toxic fertilizers produced in an industrial plant, this organic digester liquor can be used instead. With both this biodigester waste liquid and compost pile, enormous amounts of energy and money can be saved by not consuming the industrial fertilizers which use large amounts of energy and resources to produce and transport. Also, using untreated manure as a fertilizer is bad for the environment because of the diseases it can produce. This process is regenerative and environmentally sustainable. The plants used to feed the pigs are fertilized by the effluent and compost, the food waste that the pigs don’t eat is composted and the manure eventually turns in the fertilizer.

This diagram illustrates the entire process of a biodigester. The manure and water comes in on the left, the bacteria breakdowns the solid material into methane gas which rises to the top where the biogas outlet is. The biogas meter is the same as the pressure release container filled with water. The effluent outlet is the liquid organic fertilizer. The entire process is free of any external energy source; it is just taking advantage of a natural occurring process. While many rural biodigesters use animal waste as an input, in reality any organic material can be used to produce biogas, such as food waste, grass, paper, and sewage. In fact, Chiquita Fruit Company has created biodigester in Costa Rica using their solid food waste and water as the input. Their hope is that the methane produced will eventually yield enough energy to operate the plant where it is located. The benefits of using a biodigester are the replacement of depletable fossil fuels as an energy source, reducing the amount of waste and the energy used to treat the waste, drastically lowering the methane released into the atmosphere, eliminating the need for industrial fertilizers, and also reducing the runoff into water systems from animal’s pens. These are significant benefits that can help the environment with such a simple process. For farms or households that can manage the daily care of the biodigester and utilize large amount of fertilizer, a biodigester is a feasible sustainable energy solution.
Diagram Source:

AUTHOR: Jessica Hekl

El Yue Agro-Ecological Farm

Recycling Program
El Yue Agro-ecological farm does not simply have an agricultural basis. Rather, it is an organization committed to sustainable practices in all aspects of life. One of their projects is a recycling program that has been influential within their entire community. In the photo, one of my classmates is looking at some of the products made out of recycled goods, including one of the bags made out of plastic. They have spread awareness about the need to recycle. However, the farm itself has gone above and beyond simply recycling and having their goods shipped off. Rosa, one of the founders of the organization, believes in living simply with minimal waste. Consequently, this lifestyle choice was applied to El Yue. Each product is not seen as an end in itself, but rather something that can be molded. It becomes a means to a new end. With creativity, Rosa, and the other seven families involved in the organization (a total of twenty two people), transform some products into table mats, plastic bags into elaborate purses, bottle tops into clasps on bags, and so forth. The ideas and range of products seem endless and there is demand for the products within the community, as well as from tourists and the local pulperia (convenience store). The original goal of this project was not economic though. Instead, the founding women wanted to decrease the waste the organization produced. They wanted to decrease their ecological impact and have managed to truly achieve this goal by using the excess goods that would have been buried or burned. Thus, El Yue has been reducing their carbon footprint through this wonderful and sustainable waste management program. This alternative of reusing the goods has further contributed to the increased well-being of those members of the group. Many of the women involved in the organization are single with children. So, this recycling program helps the women to earn enough money to support themselves, their families, and even send their kids to school. It has helped the development of the community as a whole, while also addressing gender inequity. The program gives the women in the community the opportunity to break free from the feeling of reliance on the men in the community and make a living for themselves adequately.

Reforestation Projects
Deforestation is a significant issue with effects that are felt globally. However, for the women and families at El Yue reforestation efforts are extremely important. The farm itself is located in a biological corridor. A biological corridor is an area that needs to be preserved because it is recognized as important to protect certain species. The concept is to provide more habitats for the species, yet it is not completely protected. Rather, there are regulations put in place, such as banning hunting in the corridor and so forth. This particular Costa Rican biological corridor starts along the coast and spreads to the mountains. El Yue is one of several places that is a bridge between completely protected areas. For this reason, the members of the organization decided to pay special attention to the issue of deforestation. Ecological preservation and conservation is very important to the organization. In conjunction with preserving their property as part of the biological corridor, they also have a nursery on the property where they participate in reforestation efforts. While our Semester at Sea class visited, we got the opportunity to assist in planting these native species to help provide food and habitat for the animals living within the corridor. The trees also offset emissions, and thus decrease pollution. So, while this farm in particular does not emit many pollutants, they are offsetting the pollution of the community as a whole, benefiting and preserving the natural capital of the land surrounding the farm.

Medicinal Plant Garden Project
Dedicated to organic farming and sustainability, El Yue Agro-ecological farm began a new project of a medicinal plant garden in 2001. In the photo, one of the organization's founders is telling my class about the farm. El Yue was originally dedicated solely to organic agriculture, focusing mainly on growing fruits, herbs, and vegetables at the local farmers markets. However, they also used many of the products themselves. For example, the products they gathered from their on-site organic banana plantation and vegetable gardens were fed to the animals and were used for their own consumption. In an attempt to increase the farm’s plant diversity and their production of advantageous goods, they spearheaded a new project, a medicinal plant garden. At the beginning, this garden was solely for the members’ own consumption. From the plants, they made numerous teas. That same year, 2001, a volunteer at the farm gave them the idea of trying to bring ecotourism to the farm. Originally, the farm had only focused on the organic agriculture because most of the products the community had access to were all loaded with chemicals from traditional agriculture and shipped in from other places. For health reasons, they wanted to become independent of corporations and big business by growing locally. By adding to their harvests and growing medicinal plants, they not only increased their production of beneficial and healthy products for their consumption, but also created a draw for tourists. So, not only had the farm become a sustainable business economically, but they also increased the diversity of plants. They found yet another way to use their land effectively, as well as create a draw for sustainable tourism.

While sustainable tourism was not the main source of profits originally, it became a major source of income in recent years. The restaurant was built when the women at El Yue realized the numbers of tourists and locals interested in what they were doing was increasing each year. The restaurant was built to increase the organizations economic prosperity. Along with giving El Yue additional income, the restaurant was another way to utilize all of the organization’s left over resources. The additional food that was not sold or consumed by families within the group could be sold and fed to tourists and volunteers, for example. Furthermore, it became a sustainable business. The foods were grown organically, as well as locally. Subsequently, the organization does not contribute to degradation of the environment in the sense that it does not use traditional, environmentally damaging farming practices for growth and production of its foods. The restaurant is sustainable within itself and increases incentive to travel to the farm as it slowly becomes all inclusive. Right from the start, the ladies who founded El Yue wanted to develop the organization and farm so that their resources and necessities could be obtained from local sources. Many of the products they consumed were from outside sources, so the difficulty of accessing them increased along with the cost, including hidden, indirect costs. Much of the cooking at the restaurant was done using the methane gas from the bio-digester. The pig manure was fed into the bio-digester and the methane byproduct increased the business’ ability to be sustainable. The restaurant at El Yue was not only sustainable within itself as a business that was advantageous economically, but it also had its ecological benefits reducing the farm’s waste and carbon footprint.

When the organization was founded, they never planned on turning their farm into a sustainable business that even tourists were drawn to. They operated on borrowed land for three years. However, then the owner wanted the land back. It created disincentive for the women in the organization. Combined with social pressure from their husbands to stay home and be housewives, they dropped out. The organization switched locations after a friend from Spain won money from a music contest and donated it to the organization. With the donation, they bought half of their current land. They grew sustainable, organic foods and with their profits bought the rest of the property. From the success of their sustainable agriculture practices their organization and business grew. In 2003, four cabins were built on-site, funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Small Donations Project. Although the cabins were originally built for the volunteers and members that needed to stay at the farm, they soon became the housing for tourists who wanted to see the sustainable business that had grown out of this woman-initiated organization. Currently, tourist groups and volunteers come from all over the world, throughout the year, to work with the community, reforestation projects, watershed protection, and other projects of El Yue. Each year there are approximately three hundred visitors per year not including volunteers.

The library was also not in the original plan for El Yue. Rather, it was built when a volunteer decided to donate and give back to El Yue upon completion of their volunteer work. After departure from the farm, the volunteer took part in a marathon. However, it was not solely a marathon; rather, the reason it was held was particularly to fund the building of the library. The farm is not just a location to gather in or a place to go for information. It is somewhere that exemplifies the community as a whole and their priorities, as well as aspirations. When we visited, we learned the history of El Yue and the challenges it faced. Not only was it a small, organic farm in the midst of numerous traditional, industrial farms, but also a women founded and run organization with limited funds and resources. However, the group was able to overcome the gender inequality despite social pressure. Also, they were able to become sustainable and independent, helping improve the environmental health and conditions, increase diversity, and even improve social conditions and education. Much of what the library represents is the education to raise awareness about sustainability and ecological issues society faces. Inside the library numerous posters are hanging, many of which have been drawn by children. These posters are both pictures and diagrams representative of issues we need to keep in mind, such as watersheds, recycling, and so forth. Education of current generations along with future generations is extremely important to improving society as a whole. Therefore, this library has implications of the impact El Yue has had on lives of people such as the volunteer whose generous donations made its construction possible and furthermore, the various children and tourists who go within its doors and have been impacted by the knowledge they acquire from within. The library has both social and ecological significance within and outside of the community.

Author: Madeleine Fahnley

Reforestation at El Yüe

During the inaugural short-term “Maymester” 2011 voyage of the Semester at Sea study abroad program, the Foundations of Sustainability class, led by Dr. Miguel Karian, visited El Yüe. We, the students, learned about the farm community and the sustainable practices of the community members. The community also had a Peace Corps volunteer there to assist in cultivating a sustainable Eco-agricultural community.
El Yüe is a farm and forest where farmed and wild plants and animals grow in harmony. The women owners work and live in the Carbón 1 community growing crops and medicinal plants in an organically in order to conserve natural resources. They also help the environment by guarding the forest from deforestation and illegal hunting, through environmental education, and by reforesting. Many of the trees are endangered and the property borders the Carbón River.

Students and the professor lined up to pick up saplings to plant from a tree nursery. The nursery is a box of soil where tree seeds are planted temporarily to help them grow into saplings. We were assisted by Rosa, who works in the community and was one of the founding members. Then we made our way deeper into the forest, seeing a variety of native flora and fauna. We stopped walking at an embankment beside a river as a light drizzle began to fall. This is where we would plant our saplings. We chose this area because, hopefully, as the trees grow, their roots will hold firm in the soil to prevent erosion of the land into the river. Trees are an integral part of the ecosystem for many reasons. Like other plants, their roots hold the soil together to prevent erosion. Erosion can be problematic when land breaks and gets into the water, and whatever was in the soil can end up effecting water quality. Pesticides from crop fields (such as the nearby Chiquita banana plantation) can end up poisoning the water for plants, animals, and humans dependent on the Rio Carbón (Carbon River). Fertilizers can also get in the water, causing a process called eutrophication to occur. Eutrophication is a process where chemicals from the fertilizer get in the water, causing an algael bloom. When there is too much algae, it can drown out other life. The coral reefs for which Costa Rica is known have been suffering because of this.

Additionally, trees absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. So, as more trees are cut down, less carbon dioxide is absorbed, contributing to climate change. As the climate changes, weather becomes more unpredictable, harming the ecosystem, and the cycle continues. This is problematic for both the environment and people. In this area of Costa Rica, for example, it used to rain during the entire month of May, as our host explained. The weather used to be much more predictable and rain more prevalent, helping the plant and wildlife grow. Because of the lack of rain, the ground dries, and when it finally does rain the community can experience landslides and flooding. They believe that this weather issue is caused by climate change, as many areas across the globe are suffering from unpredictable and extreme weather. This area has also historically suffered from a lot of deforestation, which contributes to erosion and negatively effects water quality.

The students had arrived via a ship, on which their Semester at Sea program was located. The ship is LEED certified and goes to many lengths to conserve water, fuel, and other resources. However, it still has a significant carbon footprint (wake?) and each student had impacted the environment by coming on the ship, as the floating campus goes around to many countries in Central America. Dr. Karian had worked out an equation using averages to determine how long it would take for the trees to off-set our carbon impact from traveling. If the trees are to absorb the same amount of carbon over the next several years that is the average for a tree over its lifetime, it will take 3-4 years for the trees to off-set our impact from the trip. The professor gave each student a piece of 100% post-consumer recycled paper to write on. Each of us was to write our hopes for a sustainable future, and to plant it with the saplings. As the trees grow, our hopes will grow up with them. The group shoveled out holes evenly spaced along the side of a river for the saplings that they had selected earlier.

For many students this was their first time in Costa Rica, and only a handful of us spoke the Spanish language that is commonly spoke by the rural community members. Still, we were able to start to understand both the positive and negative effects of differing agricultural practices in Costa Rica. We learned about the struggles and history of the rural agro-ecological community and their relationship to their economy, environment, equity and education. We fought off surprisingly fierce ants that came up out of the ground like zombies. We had the rare opportunity to get first-hand experience, and to give a little service back. It might seem like planting a sapling that will take years to offset our carbon impact for this brief trip is a drop in the bucket. In its own way, this appearance makes it even better suited to represent the movement towards sustainability. The road towards a greener world is constantly daunting because of human capacity for destruction. For example, globally more trees were cut down in the time it takes to read this post than the 19 or so trees that we planted. El Yüe is tiny by comparison to other farms, but the property is an important sustainable alternative for the local community. If we are to get anywhere to move towards a more sustainable future, we must continue to take whatever steps we can. Even if the first one is just to plant a single tree.

AUTHOR: Kristin Hugo

30 May, 2011

Achiote: Community Coffee & Environment Association

The coffee processing facility shown in this picture belongs to the members of the Asociacion Comunidad Cafe y Ambiente (Community Coffee & Environment Association). This blog will discuss the ways in which this coffee processing plant and the group of people who operate it form a system that is economically feasible and socially desirable. This association is an example of a sustainable business that demonstrates sustainable agriculture and land use, and contributes to community development. The group has lost many of its members because people have decided to work independently, but the remaining members continue to benefit themselves and help their community by working cooperatively.

The Foundations of a Sustainable Business
The founding of this program was economically feasible because the group worked as a team to build the facility. As shown in the pictures, adults and children worked along with a member of the Peace Corps to construct the building we visited. Because they worked together as a community, the group saved money on constructing that facility. Also, the building is lit through windows on all sides so there is no need for electrical lighting. The open windows allow ventilation so air conditioning is not needed, either. These sustainable building techniques save money for the organization.

Economic Development as a Team
Working together as a group makes for a more economically viable and sustainable business for the members of the association. All of the coffee farmers need access to a pilandora (processing machine) to separate the coffee beans from the shells. By sharing this pilandora, each member of the group can use it for much cheaper than it would cost to use the private one down the road. Also, by selling as a group, the members can get a higher price for their coffee than they would if they sold individually. The members share knowledge on farming sustainability which helps them better their own farming and harvesting techniques and gain more from their work. The entire coffee farming process becomes more efficient thanks to the partnership these people have formed.

Community Development
Education is the means of furthering sustainable development, because it is necessary for the implementation of sustainable methods. This group works together to gain knowledge. Aside from educating themselves and each other, the members of the group contribute to the development of the outside community by providing education and support. Children can visit the site in order to learn about the group's sustainable methods of coffee bean production. This provides a base of knowledge in the community for sustainable development. The members also explained that they can provide support for adults in the community who need work by getting them started as coffee farmers. If the town was in trouble economically, the group could help provide resources for the creation of jobs. By spreading knowledge, the group is contributing to the sustainable development of their community.

Sustainable Agriculture and Land Use
The Asociacion Comunida Cafe y Ambiente practices sustainable agriculture and land use so that they will be able to continue making profits off the land for years to come. One way in which they act sustainably is by using an improved coffee plant that produces bigger beans and is more resistant to pests and disease. They plant in the shade, where coffee grows best, instead of in open fields. Another way in which the group preserves and works in harmony with the land is that they reuse the coffee seed shells. This picture shows the area behind the building where the shells from the piladora are deposited. The peels fall on the ground where they serve as both chicken food and fertilizer. This technique saves money for the group in addition to being environmentally sustainable. The group is working towards earning an organic certification, but it is expensive and difficult to obtain.

Furthering Community and Economic Development
The Asociacion Comunida Cafe y Ambiente is working to further their economic sustainability as a business. This photo shows a bag of ground coffee, a step that the organization does not yet have the capability to do themselves. In the future, the group is hoping to gain the facilities and equipment necessary for grinding the coffee. Right now they sell the whole coffee beans after removing the peels and the coffee is ground by their buyers. If the group is able to complete one more step of the coffee making process before selling their product, they will be able to absorb more of the profit from the coffee sales into the group.  This is the concept of 'value-added' products.  In addition, the group could benefit from obtaining fair trade certification, which would allow them to sell their coffee at a higher price.  However, it is difficult and expensive to get. In the future, I think the Asociacion Comunida Cafe y Ambiente will continue to develop economically and within their community.

Author: Kendra Williamson

Achiote: Organic Shade-Tree Coffee Farming

Arabica and Robusta Coffee
This picture shows the coffee beans that are not native to the lands which we were in. In Panama, and specifically this family- owned coffee farm, the normal Panamanian coffee beans were small in size. Upon realizing that with the large size of the bean having more flavor and caffeine content, hence, ’robust,’ and the possibility to make more money, they began importing ‘Robusta Beans’ (as shown in the photo) of larger size. “The robusta plant has a greater crop yield than that of Coffea Arabica [even]. As it is less susceptible to pests and disease, robusta needs much less herbicide and pesticide than Arabica” (wiki). Robusta beans are native to lands in Africa and other places with a wet climate such as this area of Panama. There are several differences in leaf size, flavor, and way of growing between the Arabica and Robusta coffee plants. For example, “the Arabica coffee plant is self-pollinating, whereas the Robusta coffee plant depends on cross pollination” ( As our guide was saying, the Robusta plants need certain forms of cross pollination to re-pollinate. While we were here, he pointed out a specific bird that is the main ‘cross- pollinator’ for these plants. By sitting on the plants and taking pollen and nectar from the sweet smelling white flowers the plants produce early in the season and flying around to other plants, these birds naturally pollinate the other plants. Insects of course also serve the same purpose in cross- pollinating. Because this is a shade coffee farm, the idea of the protective canopy of trees offers not only protection of the plants, but also can serve as a home to many animals such as insects and butterflies that will pollinate these coffee plants. Focusing solely on birds, shade coffee fields shelter up to two-thirds of the bird species found in natural pristine forests in the same geographic areas (

This picture shows coffee beans from a plant that was not able to be harvested. The normal harvesting season for coffee beans in Panama is between October and December. However, these beans came from a tree that was infested with ants. Pests are always a problem for many farmers, and when it comes to organic farming, the use of unnatural pesticides is not practiced. With small scale farms, these families need all of the trees and plants they can get, showing that there is a need for ways to protect pests. With the continuance of environmental perturbations natural remedies have been found to keep away these pests. As our tour guide was telling us, the natural remedies they use for these problems come from another plant that they had growing near the trees. It was a type of lemony- smelling plant that repelled ants in other forms. It could not simply be planted next to a coffee tree to keep it free of ants and pests however. It first had to be boiled with water and made into a liquid. After this it could then be directly applied to the coffee plant as a natural repellent. This had to be done the year prior to harvesting the particular plant.

Shade Coffee Environment
This photo shows the environment of the coffee plants. The use of land is very important to most local farmers. Shade grown coffee must be produced under a canopy of trees for it to yield its most beans to harvest. By being in the right location, this small- scale organic shade coffee farm is in the perfect, natural, already existing habitat. The environment for this area is also rainy, which it actually started to rain a little while we were there. Although their normal harvest season is from October to December, if it has been really rainy they may even harvest some plants as late as January. As our guide said, this area is the rainiest in the whole country. Although this can be seen as an environmental perturbation, these farmers work with the environment to produce sustainable crops. However, the reason that they chose to have a shade coffee farm may be for this very reason. The canopies of trees in which shade coffee farms are located help protect the trees from sun and more importantly, rain. As we also have seen, this shared as a home for their horses as well. Along with being a natural forest, creating a perfect habitat for the coffee plants, it was also the home for some of their livestock. “Among the many benefits of using shade-grown coffee production methods, in contrast to sun-grown coffee, are that it provides food and shelter for songbirds, as well as habitat for numerous other species of animals and plants” (

Small- Scale Processing Plant

After harvesting and drying the coffee beans, they are able to be taken to this small processing plant. There, the beans are put into this machine that shells them and empties them into a bucket. When relating to ecological footprints, the tool for measuring and analyzing human natural resource consumption, this coffee plant puts out close to what it puts in. After the coffee beans are shelled, the waste is separated by a blast of air from a fan that sends the shells through a several foot long piece of PVC piping directly back to the environment outside.  It is then used as feed for the chickens and livestock that live in the back. The chickens then create environmentally friendly compost that can be used for growing soil for the coffee plants on the farm. The ecology of this small- scale farm is indefinitely ecologically circular, meaning that what all of the products in the production can be re-used and renewed to make more of the same thing. The natural compost thrives in the natural shade environment of the coffee plants.

Right next to the small house on this coffee farm is a slab of concrete with pieces of rebar sticking out of the ground. Asking if this was actually used for something, we received an explanation of another ecologically sustainable component of the farm. We learned that this place is used to set up a greenhouse for production. After the coffee beans are harvested, they must then somehow be dried. Instead of using forms of electricity, these people use the natural heat and energy from the sun, and the technology of the greenhouse to dry out the newly harvested coffee beans. It was interesting to see that the only source of electricity I saw on this Faculty Directed Practicum was for the small scale processing plant to power the small machine used to shell the beans. When comparing this ecologically friendly system to large scale processing plants in respect to electricity, this farm that we had visited has much less of an ecological footprint. Along these lines, I asked our guide if they have ever considered s type of solar power to dry out the beans because maybe they could do more at once, which could increase the production and human capital. He told me that in the future that could become a possible opportunity for this farm and many others around it, especially if they could collaborate with other farmers as part of this organization has already. It would be very interesting to re- visit this site and see their progress down the road in a few years.

Cafe Seedlings
This photo shows the small coffee, ‘café,’ plants that are growing the shade forest as well. This farm uses their own seeds and seedlings from existing trees to plant these new ones in this small nursery area and then transplant to the farm in the future. It takes 3 to 4 years for these Robusta beans to yield beans, depending on the size of the plant. This reduces the costs and shipping associated with importing more plants, like they had done with the original Robusta coffee plants. I was interested in how you actually grow, or start a coffee plant and what it takes for this to happen. I asked our guide on the way back to the bus and he told me a few things that you need. First, he said that the soil must be moist, but cannot be too wet. This, as stated before can become a problem in this area because it is the rainiest area in Panama. It takes a lot of care for a seed to sprout into a seedling. After about 4 months, the seedling will begin producing leaves. Then, after about 5 months after, the seedling will begin to look like an actual coffee plant. But as we stated earlier, it takes about about 3 to 4 years for it to actually begin yielding beans. They are then replanted from this small area.

AUTHOR: Amanda Galioto
Semester at Sea, Maymester 2011

Achiote: Los Rapaces Ecotourism Group

Community development
The name of the restaurant “Los Repaces” is inspired by a kind of raptor (eagle or predator), which is known to take full advantage of its environment. The restaurant owners and locals believe that communities can survive and thrive off of what’s given to them by nature. People are very proud of their own land, diversity of birds, and natural surroundings that are filled with rich resources. We have witnessed that they truly built a sustainable community with their own hands, rely on the immediately available resources and their belief in communal interest. Rather than merely chasing after the artificial, global and commercial, they are more developed than the rest of the world by returning to what’s truly natural, local and original. As shown in the picture, most of the restaurant workers are female. The restaurant business creates jobs for the women from the town, who traditionally were expected to stay at home to raise the children. Men are viewed as the breadwinner of the household and owner of the property and land. This kind of cultural arrangement prevents women from accessing social and economic power. They are often not given education and training from youth, never expected to compete, gain independence or succeed in the marketplace growing up. As a result, women are more vulnerable to unemployment than men. While men can leave home to work in the city, women and children are left behind, which creates potential problems for the family and community. Vast lands are abandoned or exploited for commercial uses, which leaves abundant natural resources and habitats uncared for.

The restaurant conveniently awards the women a stable source of income with skills that they already have without taking them away from their nourishing and supportive roles at home and in the community. Moreover, it minimizes the negative psychological and socioeconomic impact of the unequal cultural arrangement by empowering women economically and promoting interdependence socially. It allows women to fulfill the female role of nourishing their children and homeland, while gaining revenue and contributing to the society as ecotourism professionals. The women feel proud about their business and contribution to local prosperity, are happier to stay close to their families and home, and build a harmonious community. It solves the problem of unemployment and uneven distribution of wealth. Potentially, it will generate locally-sustainable economic profit and establish their land as the world famous bird watcher paradise by providing convenience and authentic service for tourists.

International Assistance
The local sustainable development group CEASPA was started in 2003, which spearheaded the initiatives of community development and the idea of women empowerment. They encouraged the restaurant owner and many locals to come up with self-sustaining business ideas, and offered them necessary funds and community support. Many international efforts are also behind the financing, construction, and development of the ecotourism restaurant. For example, the Peace Corp volunteer came up with the idea and stayed for a year to help the group to build the restaurant and support the women in 2005. A Spanish organization helped them build the protector around and over the well in case that clean water could not reach the community. As a community, they are guaranteed access to clean water for all seasons. Colorado State University professor and students from U.S.A came to visit and built the museum coffee house, where they can educate visitors about their organic coffee farm, original and modern production site, and manufacturing process. The U.S also provided the wood and materials already in place to construct the restaurant so that the locals do not have to cut the trees around. Therefore, although it started with individual will and community conscience, the restaurant by the community, for the community, and of the community, is a collective effort of an international community.

Economic development
Even though organic farms provide high quality food, and local ecotourism services enhanced experiences for customers, the farmers and workers are not reaping what they truly deserve. In the current economic system, comparing to the rest of the supply chain, the farmers provide the raw material such as coffee beans, staples, and vegetables that are not nearly rewarded as much as the commercial activities of distribution, promotion, packaging, and marketing by large corporations. The product’s added value is not recognized for its production, which has essential impact on its quality.  Rather, the profit flows unevenly to the far end—to reward the large global distribution networks (energy consumption monsters), marketing communication/advertisement (psychological manipulation), as well as in-store and shelf display (artificial aesthetics). The questions we must persist to ask are: what is the genuine value that customers eventually receive? Who contributes the most along the way? By calling question and doubts to the existing system in search of fair trade, we can come closer to envisioning an alternative model and reward system that will take consideration and care of all.

As the world acknowledged best bird watching spot, the community takes pride in its abundant natural resources. On one hand, the community establishes a close tie with the rest of the world; on the other hand, the world demands economic exchanges and a share of their resources. There is profit and danger in unchained development. In a global context, although they have embraced modern economy by welcoming visitors, they do not merely extract resources and use it for economic profit exclusively because they understand profit in a holistic and complete sense. For example, the owner told us that she does not distribute the restaurant’s profit, but rather the group bundles up the money every month and distributes it by the effort that members have put into the business. The restaurant also provides employment opportunities and provides support for women with no income. They never lose sight of the value in people that they love, planet that they live in, and plants that they rely on, in face of desirable economic profit and expansion opportunities.The locals seem to have recognized that like biodiversity, community activities needs to be diverse and serve different functions. It is hard to imagine the local economy, environment and community relationship if every family opens a restaurant. For future business ideas, people should think from a larger picture of the community needs, capability and capacity, not just from individual economic profit goal; because everybody can and should be able to contribute to the health and diversity of the community. So far there is still only one restaurant in the community, and people continue to come up with sustainable and profitable farming and trade activities inspired by local or neighboring community and organizations in Panama.

The ecotourism development goes hand in hand with community conscientiousness of sustainable development and business opportunities. The owner started the business by using seed money received from CEASPA (the Panamanian Center for Social Action) to invest and sell locally-made coconut bread and tamales. With the support of tourists and its community, it has grown from a small entrepreneurial venture to a sustainable restaurant business. It is an empowering idea that, without micro financing projects from large international financing and support, but with the help of local groups such as CEASPA and their own hands, the locals built and improved the community by forming organic farming groups and keeping promises they made to consumers. The locals maintained relatively low levels of extraction by reducing resource consumption and making full use of waste. The locals help protect the ecosystem & spread the word to others, which is essential in providing aesthetic services (birds, biodiversity and landscape), and provisional service (food, water, and energy, etc) to sustain and support family and create a prosperous community. In fact, the people requested that the restaurant stay open longer to serve the community, not just for tourist groups. Now it has become a business that can serve both internal and external demands, almost equally.

Obviously, the idea of the community has also been enlarged because of the economic activities of the restaurant. It becomes a chain of benefit in ecotourism, employment, community development, and economy. Based on economic theory, any exchange should provide value for trade partners so that they can focus on what they are good at and take advantage of what they have most effectively.  Hence, business relations should be established in order to share with others what we each have to offer for the betterment of the community and environment.

Energy cost and hidden costs
The restaurant uses butane gas and wood as its primary source to cook food. The wood is directly cut down from nearby trees, and is used sparingly for additional fuel to supplement the butane gas, which is bought from the nearest city. It is important to recognize that despite the local’s effort to provide ecotourism while preserve the environment, any human or business activities inevitably places energy and resource demand on the local environment. Butane is used commonly by campers as fuel.  However, it does have negative effects on the environment and human health. Butane burns to form water vapor and carbon dioxide, which contributes to greenhouse gases. Furthermore, inhalations of butane can cause health concerns such as euphoria, drowsiness, narcosis, asphyxia, cardiac arrthymia, and frostbite. In fact, the paper “Emission of nitrogen dioxide from butane gas heaters and stove indoors,” from the American Journal of Applied Sciences, indicated that that burning butane gas can create nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas, and therefore represents a human health hazard. Nevertheless, the restaurant’s only alternative to burning wood is using butane, which is a highly flammable gas.

What’s available and prevalent in the energy market and in their natural environment determines the extent of impact and amount of waste that we can make. Technology for renewable and clean energy faces tremendous inertia in reaching down to the common people because of its high cost and limited availability. Given available energy resources, the best individuals can do is to minimize energy consumption and resource extraction. The restaurant buys the 100 pound gas tank that lasts for 20 days for $62 dollars: Thus consuming 5 lbs. of butane costing approximately $1.61 per day. Using only 5 pounds per day represents the restaurant’s understanding to use as little butane as possible while creating healthy and delicious meals to its customers. Moreover, the wood the restaurant uses is mostly wood that is picked up from trees that had previously fallen. The restaurant uses cutting down trees as a last resort, and when the one does cut down a tree for the restaurant, all parts of the bark is used for fuel.

Traditional Food and Waste Treatment
During an interview, the owner identified one of the major differences between her restaurants and others, especially those in the cities. She claimed that her group promotes a circular system, where the locals benefit. The food in the picture is one of the main dishes served at the restaurant. It contains rice, chicken, beans, lettuce, tomato, and bean paste. The restaurant buys the materials needed for creating this delicious and rich plate by buying them from the local community that sells various vegetables, fruits, and meat. The restaurant also hires people to cook for them, which in turn provide an income for the cooks, who can invest money into sustaining their crops, vegetables, fruits, and meat, which they would sell to the restaurant for food. This type of circular system is only possible because of the local community, and is far different from the linear system one tends to see in the United States, or in many bigger corporations and restaurants, which solely rely on externalizing and reducing costs for a bigger profit margin. Instead, the restaurant focuses not only on its annual revenue, but the wellbeing of its community that surrounds it. This is a display of true community consciousness and responsibility. The restaurant is fulfilling its obligation to operate in the greater interest of the greater society.  That is: Providing jobs, wages, and buying food from locals, while pursuing their mission of creating economic value for the owner.

In the rare occasion that the food is not finished (because the food tastes amazing), the restaurant does not act irresponsibly like the bigger city restaurants and catering services, which simply throw away their leftover food along with other inorganic wastes. Instead, the owner collects all the leftover food each day as a primary source of food for her pigs she has at her home. The waste returns to become nourishment for animals and decompose in nature—human waste can integrate naturally into the circular system of the ecosystem gain. Indeed, the food itself is not wasted at all, and as the ecotourism group’s name suggests, the restaurant owner uses all possible resources to their maximum potential.

Owner Interview and Additional Thoughts
The owner confidently stated in the end that the restaurant and the group is a replicable, and in fact she started her business within one year. She was able to create a sustainable restaurant with the help of the land, its resources, the community, and international help to accomplish this significant step in true sustainable development, instead of solely economic growth. This is not one success story of a talented or lucky individual. As the owner said: "any women from the village could do it".  However, it should not be mere replication of the same restaurant business model, but rather a sustainable community mindset, ethic, and effort.  At the same time, whether building similar restaurants that would end up as success is questionable. While there is no doubt that her circular system should be replicated and adapted to fit different communities, there is only an extent to which restaurants should be built. While the restaurant may not be the best initiative to replicate, the inspiration and ideas behind the restaurant are certainly a display of social responsibility and sustainability. Whether it is preserving the environment while taking full advantage of what it gives the people, creating bonds and trust in the community, providing jobs and wages for cooks, educating about women’s rights, or minimizing and efficiently using waste to provide other means, the existence of this restaurant and ecotourism group creating this sustainable community and environmental is nothing short of miraculous. The group has managed to persuade the community to work and trust each other to develop sustainably in ecological, social, and economical means.  This local sustainable development effort is simple but not easy. It requires substantial and persistent amount of individual dedication, natural resource, family support, community participation, as well as international assistance. Furthermore, many intangible values pave the foundation of their success, the local’s traditional belief of self-sustaining and respect for nature, value simple attitude of joy and contentment from family, and nourish the sense of community and solidarity.

Author: Yangzi Jin and Tetsuro Miyatake
Foundation of Sustainability, Professor Karian
2011 Semester At Sea Short Term Voyage

San Lorenzo: Colonialism to Conservation

Protected Area
The San Lorenzo Protected Area is located at the northwestern entrance to the Panama Canal and is currently part of the Mesoamerican Corridor of protected areas extending from the Yucatan of Mexico to Panama. The Mesoamerican corridor is designed to join protected areas throughout Central America by ecological corridors, or land bridges, so that the habitat necessary for migration of the region’s wildlife can be protected. The protected area includes features such as Fort San Lorenzo, Fort Sherman, and about 12,000 Ha. of additional land for biodiversity. In addition, the area provides scenic views of the river. The Caribbean Sea, Limón Bay, and Chagres River are major nearby waterways. The Chagres is the largest river flowing through the San Lorenzo Protected Area, separating the area into a northeastern and southeastern portion. Our class got a taste of the vegetation and surrounding landscape while driving through the protected area to get to Fort San Lorenzo.

Fort San Lorenzo
In 1534, Philip II of Spain foresaw the need for a fort at the mouth of the Chagres River to protect Spain’s gold route over the isthmus. In 1597, the Spanish initiated a water level battery and later built a fort called San Lorenzo. Cannons were fitted in 1626. Some facts about the fort are that it was built 25 meters above sea level on a cliff overlooking the mouth of the Chagres River. Also, the walls on the landward side are surrounded by a 10 meter wide dry moat and drawbridge. Features within San Lorenzo are an interior parade ground and several enclosed cells designed for prisoners and the storage of equipment and supplies. In 1748, the Spanish abandoned the Chagres route over the isthmus, favoring travel around the tip of South America at Cape Horn. Therefore, during the 19th Century the fort was used as a prison. In 1980, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, declared Fort San Lorenzo and its surrounding 5 Ha. as a World Heritage site. Walking around you can sense the history and importance of the site. In addition, visitors who are not aware of its significance can read the narration boards that are abundant and give a quick easy description.

The San Lorenzo Protected Area has at least 81 species of mammals, or 35 percent of all the mammals found in Panama. Bats are the most common group with 41 species, followed by rodents with 17, and carnivores with 9. Some examples include Howler monkeys, Slaty-tailed trogon, Toucan, and Leaf Cutter Ants. Upon our arrival to Fort San Lorenzo we found a trail of Leaf Cutter Ants carrying leaves more than five times their size. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that watching them and the way the colony works together was fascinating. Panama has about 930 known species of birds of which 75 percent are residents and 14 percent are regular migrants. Reptile and amphibians are also abundant with 127 species of snakes, 81 lizards and iguanas, 15 marine and freshwater turtles, 3 worm lizards, a crocodile, and a caiman. With such a wide variety of organisms and biodiversity, this place has become attraction for ecotourism.

Ecotourism and Conservation
Environmentally speaking, previous activities including military activities, the impacts of canal operations on surrounding waters, the threat of inappropriate development, poaching, and the unauthorized use or exploitation of natural resources have taken a toll on the San Lorenzo Area. However, since these activities are no longer allowed because the land is protected, it has become a popular destination for ecotourism. Visitors enjoy the high faunal and floral biodiversity, activities such as hiking, kayaking, birdwatching, crocodile photographing safaris, game fishing, scuba diving, and snorkeling. There are future plans to use the grounds on Fort Sherman for an interpretative center highlighting its historical and cultural past. In addition, there are plans to develop a butterfly and botanical garden. My class enjoyed the scenic views of the river and exploring Fort San Lorenzo.

The San Lorenzo Protected Area has three ecological life zones: tropical moist forest, tropical wet forest and tropical premontane wet forest. This land also contains three life zones, 12 vegetation types, and at least 500 species of higher plants, about 5 percent of the total recorded for the country. The high diversity in the San Lorenzo Protected Area can partly be attributed to its variable topography, different vegetation types, and the proximity of large undisturbed tracts of forest to the west. Another critical factor is the relatively large size and limited human disturbance. The San Lorenzo Area is a important part of the inter-oceanic corridor across the isthmus, and of the Caribbean coastal corridor. Future research will add new species to the list and also help determine the impact of humans on its environment.


Starting in 1943, Fort Sherman was used as a training site for the Pacific Theater because of its rugged terrain, notably the Piña Range. In 1909, the U.S. Secretary of War requested plans for the defense of the Panama Canal. The plans included building and maintaining Fort Sherman, named in honor of General William Tecumseh Sherman, a renowned Civil War commander. The conservation of resources in the canal watershed involves several issues: damage and hazards from past military activities, the impact of canal operations on surrounding waters and shorelines, the protection of archaeological and historic sites, the threat of inappropriate development, and the unauthorized use of natural resources including lax law enforcement. Upon our visit to San Lorenzo Fort, it was obvious to see that it had military roots, especially because of the canons and trenches that were built along the exterior.

AUTHOR: Stacey Delgado

The San Lorenzo Protected Area: A Summary of Cultural and Natural Resources
     by: Peter L. Weaver  & Gerald P. Bauer
Panama’s Caribbean Treasure by Peter L. Weaver, Gerald p Bauer, and Belkys Jiménez

Achiote: CSU Alternative Spring Break

This small, colorful house marks the starting location of the path that leads to the Borbua family coffee farm. The coffee farm is one of twelve other farms in the small community located in Achiote, Panama. It helps contribute several different kinds of coffee beans to the local coffee processing plant that is located near the town. In 2007, a group of students from Colorado State University (CSU), in Fort Collins, Colorado, helped restore and repaint the house for the Borbua family. Through an excellent program known as Alternative Spring Break, a group of 18 students and two faculty members from CSU volunteer their time for a week to help the community with multiple projects around the town. The project in Panama is one of many, but it is the only one outside of the United States. For the past five years, different groups of students from Colorado have been traveling to Achiote to volunteer in the community for their spring break vacations, and another group is expected to spend their upcoming spring break there as well.

This picture shows the Sendero Ruta del Café, the pathway that leads from the Borbua Family coffee house to the coffee farm. The coffee farm has many different types of plants that produce various types of coffee beans ranging from small beans to large beans. The pathway is one of many other roads that were built by CSU student volunteer groups. The pathway helped to create a safe walkway that the family could travel on to get to the coffee plants to harvest. It also was created for tour groups that would come see the coffee farm in order to view the coffee bean plants and learn more about the sustainability of the environment. Ultimately, the pathway helps the economical, social, and ecological aspects of the family farm. The pathway is lined with large stones and is made out of gravel rocks that are loosely packed together. In 2007, this pathway and the house located on the Borbua family coffee farm were completed. Other Alternative Spring Break trips built other pathways and decks that are located in the community of Achiote.

In the house that is located on the Borbua family coffee farm is where some of the coffee is produced from the beans that are harvested from the coffee farm. First, the beans are picked from the coffee bean plants when it is the harvesting time of the year. Next, the shells are removed from the coffee beans. Local farmers demonstrated the traditional de-shelling process using a 'pilon' (wooden stand and hammers). An alternating hammering method between two people is used to extract the beans from the shells, as seen in this picture. The beans are then separated and ready to be roasted on a open fire pit, as the remaining shells are often used as fertilizers. The coffee beans can either be left in the roasted stage or put through a metal grinder that grinds the beans into coffee grounds. This 'pilon' was also built by the student volunteer groups, along with the gravel pathway and coffee house in order to improve the family’s social and economical environment in the community of Achiote.

A group of 18 students and two facility members from Colorado State University would travel down to the small town Achiote in Panama for an Alternative Spring Break volunteer trip. This is a picture of the rooms in which the students would stay when they were visiting the community. However, most of their time was not spent in these rooms, but instead their time was spent in the local communities doing various volunteer work and projects around the community. Students from the university would apply to go on this Alternative Spring Break in order to get a great cultural experience while also volunteering in the community and helping people. Upon arrival to Panama, the group of 20 people would get a chance to first visit Panama City and see the nearby Indian village for two days. Then for the next four days the group would stay in the El Toucan Community and Visitors Center. While they were staying there, the group would be split up into two separate groups to work in the community. One group would work in the morning doing the various volunteer projects, while the other group was able to travel around the town and interact with the members of the community. The groups would then switch in order to get a chance to play as well as work.

While students from CSU were staying in the small town of Achiote they got a chance to leave one gift to the community. Not only do they help build and restore multiple buildings and pathways in the town, they also leave a lasting impression on the people in the community and improve the ways of life for several families. Each student that volunteered in the town was invited to create a painting on a piece of fabric that represents the time they spent in the community. As seen in this picture, a string of student-made paintings hangs in the local restaurant as a reminder of the support to the community that the students provided. These colorful decorations can be seen in other buildings, such as the house that was built on the Borbua family farm, where students helped. The colorful art work seen on the walls of buildings were also painted by the students from the university. Many drawings are of the activities that the students participated in and notes to the town in which they spent time in. The string of artwork shows the connections and bonds made by the community and students and how two different cultures can come together to help each other.

In the small community located in Achiote, Panama, a group of kids are seen playing in the street outside of their homes. The kids also play soccer and baseball together for fun. This is a community in which the families help and support each other in personal aspects as well as creating a safe work environment. They live off of the land as did their ancestors. The CSU group helped the community by building houses and pathways. But most of the students also ended up taking back more from the trip than they expected. After getting the chance to live in the community surrounded by close family ties, the students can see the differences between their own communities back home and the one seen in Achiote. The trip is often times a very motivational and eye opening experience to the students that get to visit the town, and many times students wish to return again and again in support of this great community.

AUTHOR: Kristie Wilson

12 April, 2011

Achieving Sustainable Development Through Women's Entrepreneurship: A Comparative Study of Social Microenterprises in Costa Rica and Nicaragua


Women around the world, especially in 'developing' countries, are key players in the management of natural resources and the development of healthy communities. As the primary caretakers of children and the family, they are responsible for nutrition, health and management of the household. As managers of the household, they also engage in environmental activities, often assuming the roles of food producer, animal tender, water and fuel collector. Furthermore, they represent approximately half of most countries’ population and therefore half of the potential labor force. Yet, despite their significant contributions to the well-being of society, their voices remain underrepresented at all levels of the decision-making processes on issues related to the environment and development.

In the last two decades, the voices of women are being increasingly heard. Their full equality, participation and leadership are being supported and promoted at the local, national and international level through countless programs. Microenterprise is one such program that has spread like wildfire across developing nations targeting rural women, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Hailed as a form of economic salvation, microenterprises have not only helped women generate income, but also overcome gender barriers,develop invaluable leadership skills, a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit and a strong sense of activism. In this sense, female-led microenterprises can have a positive impact on multiple levels—economic, environmental and social—which essentially reflects the goals of “sustainable development.” Limited research shows the impact of women entrepreneurs on sustainable development. Most studies tend to focus on economic growth and the market economy.

This comparative study examines the increasingly important role of female entrepreneurs in achieving sustainable development at the grassroots level. Drawing on five case studies conducted over a two month period in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the study shows the remarkable transformation of everyday rural housewives into social entrepreneurs leading microenterprises that benefit themselves, the community and the environment. It will also provide a brief overview and summary of the characteristics most common to these organizations including noteworthy successes and challenges.

The following are the woman-led microenterprises covered by the study (click on names to view individual posts):

1. Grupo Ecologico de Mujeres de Abanico (GEMA) – A medicinal plant cooperative that grows, processes and sells herbs in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. 

2. Colectivo Feminino Resclatando Nuestro Ecologia (COFERENE) – A community-wide recycling program in San Ramon, Costa Rica.

3. Asociacion de Mujeres Agroindustriales de San Luis de Grecia (ASOMAG) – An all-natural beauty product industry in Grecia, Costa Rica.

4. Asociacion de Mujeres de Reciclaje (AMURECI) – A recycled art and souvenir business in Santa Clara, Costa Rica.

5.  Genesis A cotton spinning cooperative in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua


    The concept of sustainability arose in 1983 with the United Nations creation of The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) led by Gro Harlem Bruntland, former Prime Minister of Norway. The Commission was formed to develop and implement ways environmental concerns could be addressed cooperatively among developing countries and result in the fulfillment of common goals that integrate ecological, social and economic issues.

    With the release of the world-reknowned Brundtland report in 1987 entitled “Our Common Future”, an official contemporary definition of “sustainable development” was established. Sustainable development is still widely regarded as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".  The Brundtland report was groundbreaking in that it integrated social justice in the environmental debate declaring that inequality and poverty were the fundamental causes of the environmental crisis. After all, a world in which poverty and gender inequity persists will always be prone to both ecological and economic disasters.

    At the heart of sustainability lies the concept of the three E's: Ecology/environment, economy/employment, and equity/equality.  Ideally any proposed initiative should consider the simultaneous interaction of these three elements. All Three Es require a long-term perspective and recognize the interdependence of all the “E’s.” Sustainability seeks to satisfy the needs and interests of all parties within the framework of concern for equity. This expanded focus offers the great possibility for broader changes to happen within a community and between communities (Edwards, 16-21).

    Within this holistic model of sustainability, we shall see how female entrepreneurs in Central America have naturally incorporated the Three Es into the mission of their microenterprises and made an incredible impact on their community.


    In the last 10-15 years, rural women across Costa Rica and
    Nicaragua have taken ownership of problems plaguing their
    community by organizing themselves and forming small
    productive organizations that promote personal economic
    growth, environmental conservation and social justice.  GEMA,
    a medicinal plant cooperative,and ASOMAG, a natural
    beauty product business emerged to combat the widespread
    use of toxic pesticides that resulted in chronic health problems
    among women and children, as well as the destruction of fertile
    lands. COFERENE, a community recycling program and AMURECI, a recycled art business began as a way to creatively
    reduce the level of trash suffocating their community while generating meaningful employment for women. Genesis,
    a cotton spinning cooperative, made up of mostly women from
    the second poorest city in the second poorest country in Latin
    America, organized to secure basic services and a stable income
    for their families. In sum, being most affected by the environmental degradation, pollution and/or lack of basic services, women have taken matters into their own hands and constructed microenterprises in the hopes of creating a better future for themselves and their family.

    Furthermore, rural women appear to be drawn to the idea of self-employment in microenterprises for a number of reasons: flexible hours, close proximity to the home, working with close friends and family members, combining income generation with domestic and reproductive tasks, freedom to make structural changes and connection to local markets.

    • Small to medium size; comprised of 5-18 workers
    • Led or dominated by women

      • Age: between 20 and 70
      • Marital status: mostly married but also includes single and divorced women
      • Number of children: 1-5
      • Education level: women above age 40 tend to possess a K-6 level education while others a K-12; very few have a university degree.
      • Socioeconomic status: marginalized, low-income communities
      • Current occupations: President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary, or member of an association or cooperative
      • Former occupations: housewife/homemaker and occasionally with small side jobs such as selling food drinks and handicrafts in the community.
      • Multifunctional role: perform multifunctional roles as homemaker and businesswoman combining the concern for the well-being of their family with the business activities.


      There are striking similarities in the successes achieved and the key values practiced by the organizations that truly resonate with the concepts of sustainability.
      • Environmental Stewardship – All of organizations are committed to the sustainable use of natural resources. GEMA and ASOMAG grow the natural ingredients for their products on 100% organic farms. COFERENE and AMURECI are dedicated to the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. COFERENE collects, processes and sells recycled materials compiled in the community to local, national and international businesses. AMURECI’s products are 100% environmentally friendly and made from natural or recycled materials. Genesis believes in the clean, sustainable production of organic cotton.
      • Fair distribution – Women in the microenterprises have equal access to fair wages and professional growth. The businesses are owned and managed by the workers. As a “worker-owned” cooperative, Genesis lives and breathes fairness as each worker is entitled to a fair share and the business is based on the 1person/1vote principle.
      • Democratic participation- All workers have a voice and participate in the decision-making process. As mentioned Genesis was designed to guarantee the democratic participation of all cooperative workers.
      • Cultivation of women’s leadership – As female-oriented groups, they are dedicated to supporting the spiritual, economic and social growth of other women by facilitating women’s workshops, supporting local women’s initiatives and continually recruiting more women into their program. All the women have grown tremendously in their entrepreneurship roles. They have gained enormous self-confidence in a strong “macho” society and attained unimaginable levels of socio-economic independence from their husbands.
      • Inter-generational perspective- As mothers responsible for the well-being of the family, especially the children, they tend to think about the impact of their actions on future generations. Their long-term perspective motivates them to pass the valuable skills acquired through trial and error and formal trainings to their children. Many of the women plan to pass their business roles on to their daughters. Some of their children already participate in their businesses to a certain degree.
      • Interdependence – Participating in both domestic and agricultural work, these female entrepreneurs possess a natural understanding of the interconnectedness of the social, economic and environmental fields. They made a conscious decision to build a business that would benefit the entire community including the natural world. Generating income alone does not fully sustain families if they are being debilitated by widespread diseases from the consumption of contaminated local food and water.
      • Community development – The women are continually developing new ways to meet the changing and growing needs of society. The small size of their businesses allow the women to easily refocus their efforts on different areas of the community at any given time. AMURECI is predominantly concerned with recycled paper and artwork, but they also connect women to employment opportunities, provide them with leadership advice and support small local projects.
      • Education – Having minimal formal education, these women feel blessed to have completed a vast numbers of trainings virtually related to every sector in society: business management, leadership, gender, communication, conflict resolution, information technology, construction, art, beauty, farming, medicinal plants and the list goes on. Becoming educated in an array of fields has significantly raised their self-esteem and helped them perceive themselves as professional businesswomen. Some have continued their education on their own at local universities and received government-sponsored scholarships. Others have used their skills to start side businesses to supplement their income. Not only are they dedicated to educating themselves, but they become inspired and motivated to educate more women by organizing and facilitating workshops, sharing what they have learned others.
      • Multi-level partnerships – The success of all of these organizations can also be attributed to the resources leveraged from local, national and international institutions. The Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (INA), a national Costa Rican vocational training institute has been instrumental in imparting basic skills to women that are starting a new business. The Jubilee House Community Inc is an American NGO in Nicaragua that has worked vigorously to train cooperative workers of Genesis in all the nuts and bolts of business administration and management . In all of the microenterprises, women have worked with local schools, universities, private businesses, the municipality, the national government, other microenterprises and international organizations to secure funding, training opportunities, equipment and new markets for the products.
      • Optimism – No matter how great the odds, the women have managed to maintain a remarkably positive attitude. AMURECI is severely struggling with finances and also dealing with the constant lack of community support for their program. With their well-endowed creativity, they have generated new projects bring in additional income. Genesis was deceived $150,000 and have not been able to start work because of the fraud. Amazingly, however, all 18 members remain motivated, hopeful and strong. Like AMURECI, they have designed an alternative income generating project to focus on in the meantime.
      • Unity – Combined with their positive outlook, the women have grown and bonded tremendously together. They have supported each other through the organizations’ peaks and valleys. They have learned to work cooperatively together and also learned much from each other. It is impressive that a group as large as Genesis has continued to work together despite the magnitude of their challenges. COFERENE successfully maintains worker moral by organizing several family-oriented staff excursions a year, bringing the members closer together each time.


      • Tradition – Stands as one of the greatest to barriers for women’s participation in public processes. Women are still expected to dominate the domestic sphere. Their valid reasons for involvement are no match for the religious, cultural and other sociological influences that keep women at home. In the beginning stages of every microenterprise, there is always a large number of female participants. Over time, however, the numbers tend to drop by more than half. Lack of spousal support is cited as the number one reason for the lack of female participation in small business initiatives.
      • Dual roles – All the women juggled multiple responsibilities as the primary caretakers of the home and family, and as the income generators outside the house. Many times, women were permitted to participate under the condition that all responsibilities in the home remained in their hands and completely unchanged. This dual role puts immense pressure on women to combine household responsibilities with business activities and may limit their ability to reach their full potential as female entrepreneurs.
      • Lack of financial capital – Microenterprises are constantly finding themselves struggling to keep their goods and services afloat due the continued lack of funds. Even when financial stability is secured, the loans women receive are seldom large enough to enable the expansion of microenterprises.
      • Capacity building – All of the female entrepreneurs expressed their love and enthusiasm for learning through various capacitation workshops. Local, regional, national and international conferences that regularly bring these change-makers together would help reaffirm their efforts, inspire new ideas for growth and change, provide training in new skill sets, and facilitate the exchange of successes and challenges with like-minded individuals. Conferences also greatly increase the representation of women in the decision-making process at all levels, allowing them to voice their specific needs. A step further would also be pairing newly emerging entrepreneurs with veterans from at home and abroad that share similar experiences and expertise.
      • Volunteer support- Ecotourism or sustainable tourism is an increasingly popular trend among developed countries. In a country that attracts the largest number of tourists in Central America, organizations can recruit volunteers not only through national and international volunteer organizations, but also through tour agencies. They can market their programs in a way that catches the attention of tourists seeking authentic opportunities to interact with the locals in a meaningful way. Sending a flyer or brochure with their mission statement and the volunteer opportunities available could expand their volunteer base. While they may receive short term volunteers, they may also find those that come with the intention of staying for longer periods. Furthermore, a focus on long-term volunteers will also require that lodging options. Organizations can generate extra income by hosting volunteers and charging a reasonable fee. This way, they gain free labor, supplemental income and an enriching intercultural experience.
      • Marketing – All of these microenterprises offer goods and services that are highly beneficial to the community. Yet, most community members are uninformed about the noble work these entrepreneurs do. A comprehensive marketing strategy that targets government officials, local community members, national and international organizations would attract greater attention and lead to greater support in various forms (funds, in-kind, volunteer, etc) for their businesses.


      Women-led microenterprises can become an important vehicle of sustainable development from the bottom-up. As small-scale, low investment projects, they provide immediate personal fulfillment and stable employment, especially for uneducated or semi-educated women. Microenterprises empower women to be self-sufficient financially and emotionally, enabling them to make a meaningful difference in their lives. As this study shows, women are generating new concepts for entrepreneurship by leading microenterprises that, in the long run, produce far reaching economic, social and environmental impacts for the entire community.


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      Edwards, A.R. 2005 The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift. B.C.: New Society Publishers.

      GTZ. World Bank. Inter-American Development Bank. 2010. "Women’s Economic Opportunities in the Formal Private Sector in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Focus on Entrepreneurship."

      Portilla, Melania. 2007. “ The Growing Strength of Rural Micro-entrepreneurs in Latin America and the Caribbean.” COMUNIICA.

      Author: Joan Ngo