Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Journal: October 21, 2007
Español, cocoa and globalization in Ecuador
" . . . when each day is the same as the next, it's because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives each day that the sun rises." - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
Having acquired enough Spanish to get off the ground through my lessons in Quito, I decided to take my last week and a half in Ecuador to explore and follow up on a few contacts. I started to feel like I was getting more into the spirit of the Fellowship in Quito, feeling a bit out of my comfort zone, and thus learning to take small challenges and victories day by day. At first it was a challenge to get used to waking up in the morning and speaking Spanish, but I have started to learn that the benefit of getting to know people who speak a different language makes it all very much worth it. One of my most memorable nights in Quito was going out on the town with my host sisters Paty and Coco and Coco's husband Luis. We spoke Spanish the entire night and I even got a salsa and meringue dance lesson from Luis! It is great to have been able to build up confidence to speak Spanish between my language classes and my daily interactions with a very loving and supportive family here. These past two weeks in particular have taught me that there is really no reason that I ever need to feel lonely this year because it only takes a little effort to find loving people to share laughter and love with anywhere that my travels may take me.
Through the non-profit organization Architecture For Humanity (AFH), one of my initial contacts for the Fellowship, I found an opportunity to get out to the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle and learn about indigenous architecture in that area. AFH has recently started an online design forum called the Open Architecture Network, which they use to promote projects and competitions in which they are involved to the global design community. It just so happened that they are hosting a design competition for an association of Amazonian communities in Ecuador called Kallari that is working to develop a sustainable source of income from cocoa products and needs a factory to expand their production and sales capabilities. My mom was at the West Coast Green conference in California and got into a conversation of the director for AFH, Cameron Sinclair, who recommended that I get in touch with them and plan a visit to the Kallari headquarters in Quito (it really is a small world, at least in green building circles). Wandering into the Kallari Café in Quito lead to a series of fortunate events, including the discovery of the best cup of coffee I found in Ecuador, a traditional Amazonian meal with the Manna Project group, and a hosted visit out to the project site in Ecuador's jungle region to take photos for the competition.
When I was on the bus headed to the city of Tena, an Ecuadorian "gateway to the Amazon," I started thinking about the Kallari project and the potential implications that it will have on the communities involved. I was just starting to feel immersed in the jungle culture, with waterfalls cascading down cliff sides covered in vegetation, Latin music and conversations in Spanish blaring across the aisles, and local women hoping on and off the bus selling questionable traditional food to riders, when all of a sudden Ace of Base started pumping through the speakers and I saw a small girl with a Barbie backpack walking along the road ahead of us. The effects of globalization were upon us in full glory. I heard later when I arrived in Peru that a few weeks ago an oil company scanning for potential drilling locations discovered what is most likely one of the last truly remote communities in the Amazon and they will soon be moving into the formerly isolated village to set up shop.
So I began to think about the project proposal for the Kallari Association. The program calls for a factory to produce chocolate, administrative offices, a tourism center for promoting Kallari and Fair Trade practices, and three technology hubs to be located in the participating communities. Kallari has been awarded funding through the 50x15 "digital inclusion" project hosted by AMD (Advanced Micro Devices, Inc), which proposes the expansion of internet technology into 50 percent of the world's population by 2015. What tripped me up at this moment was that the proposal states that the availability of internet through the technology hubs will not only enable the Kallari communities to have access to an international sales market, but will enable local artisans to research international trends and become more marketable themselves. I am wrong or does that seem like an end for the local artisans? It seemed that the cultural strength of these artisans would only be worn away by the globalizing force of the World Wide Web. On the other hand, access to technology can lead to many improvements in quality of life for these people, the sustainable chocolate industry being only one example. Who is anyone to decide whether or not these people can have access to something which we have come to rely upon so heavily in our daily lives? Still, I could not help but fear that the next time I found myself in Tena and its surrounding communities that I might be greeted by a Starbucks, United Colors of Benetton and the construction site of the new Disneyland Amazon Adventure. In the end, the fact is that this is the future. Part of the challenge we face as future designers is to make this global growth something that can be sustained and sustains important social, cultural, and environmental factors that add real quality to life.
In Tena, I stayed with Carlos Pozo, the director and one of the founding members of the Kallari Association. It began six years ago when Carlos and some friends formed a social organization to try to improve economic opportunities for their communities that did not involve harvesting non-renewable resources like exotic hardwoods and petroleum. Two years ago, Kallari began to consolidate its efforts and focus on the sustainable production of chocolate. Despite a long history of tribal wars among Amazon communities, members of 22 communities have been able to successfully work together as the Kallari Association, and once they have the ability to expand their production and sales market, quality of life will begin to improve for the members of these communities, which hold the traditional Quechua values of happiness, health and security above all else and live with a strong tie to their natural environment. I had the opportunity to visit one of the Kallari communities, Serena with a man who grew up there and is one of the founding Kallari members, Francisco. He showed me how the people from his community traditionally lived and built, and how much they relied upon the natural world around them for survival, from building materials to medicinal propertied of native plants. I even learned how to use the blow dart device they traditionally used to hunt! Apparently I am a natural hunter, as I killed the target mango my second try! Sustainability comes fairly naturally to these communities, and they have asked that the facilities meet the standards presented by the US Green Building Council's LEED Gold building certification. I have spent some time since thinking about the design for this facility and I am interested to see what they end up constructing.
As usual, I have had to leave a country behind full of places I still had to visit and people I would have liked to meet, so I have promised a trip back at some point. Aside from my host family, which truly provided for me a home away from home, there are several other cities I would like to visit throughout Ecuador, particularly Cuenca, recommended to me repeatedly for its architecture. Also, I have been in contact with a Vanderbilt alum who is currently in the process of constructing an off-the-grid home on the Galapagos Islands that I would love to see, the Kallari project to follow up on, and the potential to work with Manna Project to get involved with community architectural projects and sustainable living education. It was really inspiring to get to know the members of the Manna Project team over the past few weeks, even though I did not get a chance to see their programs with the local community in action yet. I admire their passion and commitment to spend a year working to improve opportunities for kids in their new Ecuadorian community. My experiences so far in South America have really inspired me to get involved with social work in sustainable design in developing countries in the future.
I head off to Argentina tomorrow, so an update of the past two weeks in Peru is in order, so you will all be getting another update soon!
For more on the Open Architecture Network and Kallari project challenge: http://www.openarchitecturenetwork.org/challenge/south_america