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