Stories from Latin America

In-depth (based on site visits with extensive interviews)

  1. HondurasThe Monte Verde Story: Community Eradication of Aedes aegypti (the mosquito responsible for Zika, dengue, and chikungunya) – A humble community uses biological control to free itself from the mosquito and the diseases.
  2. Mexico – Oaxaca – Community Reforestation in the Mixteca Region – The Center for Integrated Farmer Development recently won the Goldman prize for reforesting highly eroded lands and rescuing the traditional sustainable agriculture of the region.
  3. Mexico – Quintana Roo – The Vigía Chico Fishing Cooperative – A remote fishing village devises community management to protect its lobster fishery and ensure a high quality of life for everyone
  4. Mexico – Quintana Roo – Sustainable Agro-forestry in the Zona Maya – Mayan communities augmented their ecological security with a cooperative

Capsule (shorter pieces which appear below)

  1. Brazil – Curitiba – Planned “Eco-City” – A participatory master plan makes fast-growing Curitiba a model city.
  2. Brazil – Icapui – ‘Microcredit’ Schemes – “Microcredit schemes” serve as alternatives to lobster overharvesting by struggling fishers.
  3. Costa Rica – Talamanca – The Talamanca Initiative – A multi-faceted community initiative simultaneously promotes the local economy and ecosystem conservation.
  4. CubaRural Solar Power – Solar power brings numerous benefits to off-the-grid rural areas.
  5. CubaOrganic and Urban Agriculture – Economic crisis leads to rapid development of food self-sufficiency.
  6. Dominican RepublicSolar Based Rural Electrification – Small-scale enterprises for rural electrification with solar panels begin in the Dominican Republic and spread through Latin America and other parts of the world.
  7. EcuadorThe Battle Against Chevron Texaco – An unprecedented community-driven legal battle fights for justice after what has been called one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history.
  8. Mexico – Sonora – Seri’s Sustainable Fisheries – The Seri Indians made full use of their traditional territorial rights in the Gulf of California to develop sustainable fisheries and scallop harvesting.
  9. Mexico – Jalisco – Ayuquila River Restoration – Communities in the Ayuquila River Basin confronted deforestation and river pollution to set the watershed on a course of ecological health.
  10. Mexico – Michoacán – The Patsari Stove – The Interdisciplinary Group for Appropriate Rural Technologies designed and distributed a low-pollution wood stove.
  11. Mexico – Veracruz and Tabasco – Chinampa System – An ancient cultivation system is revived to provide sustainable wetland agriculture for landless farmers.
  12. Mexico – Michoacán – Forest Reserve – A forest reserve famed for Monarch butterflies enlists active participation from local residents formerly skeptical of conservation projects.
  13. PeruMicro-Hydro Power – Isolated communities on the eastern slopes of the Andes achieve electrification with small hydroelectric generators in rivers and streams.
  14. Peru – Amazon – Forest Product Farming – Raising poison dart frogs provides an economic incentive to preserve threatened rainforests.

Brazil – Curitiba – Planned “Eco-City”

This city gets cited often in the media as a model for the developing world for its various initiatives on waste, design, greenery, social programs and especially transportation. It proved that, with anticipatory planning, a city could undergo rapid growth while retaining quality of life and pre-empt some of the major problems characteristic of other exploding urban centers in the South.

In the 1950s, the population of Curitiba was 150,000; today it is a major city of nearly 1.6 million. In the 1960s, a group of young architects saw that the city was on the verge of exponential growth. They wanted to see something other than the kind of development that was happening in other Latin American cities. This development was fueled by the beginnings of the lending spree that later led to the debt crisis of the 1980s. It favored costly infrastructure such as highways, skyscrapers, shopping malls, and other splashy projects. Luckily, the people at the top were open to some of their ideas on human needs and the environment, and when this group of designers approached the mayor with their case, he sponsored a contest for a Master Plan of the city. The best entries were circulated, opened up to public debate, and the results were turned back to the architects, who developed and implemented a final plan.

Among other things, this master plan was to provide economic support for urban development by creating industrial zones, and encourage local self-sufficiency by providing all city districts with adequate education, health care, recreation and park areas. To do this, traffic management had to be integrated with land-use planning, as they were inherently inseparable by design. Flexibility in regulation was allowed for various future scenarios.

The design layout’s centerpiece was its transportation system. As efficient as a subway system at a fraction of the cost, it was organized in five major arteries radiating outward from the city center, where various kinds of buses (express, local) traveled in exclusive bus lanes, crisscrossed by concentric routes radiating from the center like a spider web. Some of the express buses are triple compartment and carry 300 passengers. Each bus stop is a tube-shaped station where people pay to enter at one end and exit at another, eliminating on-board payment systems (increasing efficiency and reducing idling time), protecting people from weather, and providing access for disabled. The system is a subsidy-free collaboration between the public and private sector, in an attempt to make use of the advantages of both. With this system in place, densification of development happened naturally along the bus routes. People spend about 10% of their income on transport, and the per capita gasoline use is low compared to other cities in Brazil.

In 1971, the then-military government of Brazil appointed one of the visionary architects, Jaime Lerner, mayor of Curitiba. His various accomplishments include:

  1. Providing 1.5 million tree seedlings to neighborhood people to plant and care for.
  2. Solving the city’s flood problems by diverting water from the lowlands into lakes in the 17 new parks, and teenagers were hired to keep the parks and bike paths clean.
  3. Creating a pedestrian zone in the city center. At first, the plan met with opposition by shopkeepers, but they agreed to a 30-day trial which was so successful that shopkeepers outside the district asked to be included. One of these streets, Rua das Flores, is lined with gardens that are tended by street kids.
  4. Arranging with shops or institutions to adopt a few orphaned or abandoned kids (a major problem in all of Brazil’s urban centers) to give them a daily meal or small wage in exchange for simple maintenance gardening or office jobs.

Waste is separated into two categories: organic and inorganic. In the squatter settlements outside the collection service routes, people can bring bags of trash to neighborhood centers and exchange them for bus tickets or food items grown on farms in outlying areas. Waste goes to a plant (itself made of recycled materials) that employs new immigrants, disabled or other disadvantaged people to separate cans, bottles, plastics, and recoverable materials, some of which are sold to various industries. For example, styrofoam is shredded and used to stuff quilts for poor residents. The program is the same price as a landfill but keeps the city cleaner, provides more jobs, supports farmers, and is environmentally responsible, because two-thirds of its garbage is recycled, one of the highest rates in the world. The city attracts attention from architects, urban planners and environmentalists from around the world and has won various awards including the UNESCO prize for urban development.

For more information visit In Context.

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Brazil – Icapui – ‘Microcredit’ Schemes

Icapui, Brazil, is a farming and fishing village of 17,000 on Brazil’s northeast coast. Both farming and fishing have suffered due to prolonged droughts and declining lobster catches. Across the region, small businesspeople are ineligible for bank loans, farmers and fishers are struggling, and young people are fleeing to cities to chase the myth that urban centers offer a better life.

One day during a public meeting, lobster fishers were informed of a new national policy that lobsters could only be caught by traps and that nets were banned. This angered the fishers, 95% of whom used nets, because traps meant reduced hauls. While fishers knew it was only a matter of time before net fishing would dry up lobster hauls completely, they had families to feed and long-term sustainability was secondary to more immediate priorities.

Locals believed the most obvious – -and only – -choice for boosting the local economy was to attract a multinational operation to the area, despite the fact that this would probably not only not solve the problem but also bring in other unanticipated economic, environmental and social costs.

However, a community leader named Francisco de Oliveira Repoucas Neto developed the idea of combining “microcredit” with business management training to make entrepreneurs out of local residents. In 1996, Neto launched a program called Orgape, which is a Portuguese acronym for “the organization to support small enterprises.” Orgape combines four types of services:

  • flexible, local microcredit loans
  • training for small business managers
  • helping microenterprise expand and bridge supply-demand gaps
  • educating youth as future entrepreneurs

Borrowers pay 3% interest. This is insufficient to reimburse all Orgape’s operating expenses, and so to make up the difference, municipalities make in-kind donations of office space and pay salaries of two credit agents (1 agent can handle 150 borrowers), all of whom were born in town. Municipalities are cooperative, as they stand to benefit from a healthy small business community and this is less than what they usually invest in economic development.

Orgape operates in eight towns (each of which has a population of 10-50 thousand) and its loan default rate of 2.4% is the lowest in all of Brazil. If clients do default, they are given extensions and business counseling, and have subsequently been able to make repayments. Orgape has assisted 1,335 families in Ceara, one of the poorest states in Brazil, and 75% of its clients have boosted household income by 42%.

The project has helped to steer some fishers away from fishing into various businesses such as sheep farming, turning an old beer stand into a guest house, a beauty salon, and extensions to existing businesses such as restaurants. The loans have also helped to encourage businesses to add value locally to products; for example a rice farmer bought a rice huller which enabled him to sell rice locally instead of shipping it to the city, and allowed him to earn additional income renting it to other rice farmers. The scheme is creating links among borrowers by word of mouth, enabling them to deal directly with each other to create a local supply and distribution routes. The profits made by small producers are sustainable because they meet local needs, provide goods and services at prices that the market will bear and then get reinvested into microenterprises so they can develop diversified offerings.

The program has helped to boost not only financial but political independence in communities jaded for years by corrupt local governments dependent on the political practice of buying votes for food parcels. It has also reduced the vulnerability of residents to “invasion” by multinational operations.

* Regarding the term “microcredit”: Like so many other buzzwords (such as “fair trade” and “organic”), “microcredit” or “microfinancing” has been so overused and manipulated by vested interests, development circles, or international financial institutions, it tends to evoke confusion and skepticism. To make this more clear, the intention of microcredit as a path to grassroots development is:

  • to help poor families help themselves as contrasted by conventional charity donor-donee dependent relationships
  • based on trust, not legal procedures
  • a challenge to conventional banking which traditionally rejects the poor as unworthy of credit
  • an alternative for poor communities who have lost traditional resource bases other than attracting outside investment by multinationals

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Costa Rica – Talamanca – The Talamanca Initiative

With a population of some 35,000 people, the 3,000-square-kilometer region of Talamanca lies along the southeast Carribbean coast of Costa Rica on the border of Panama. While economically and socially poor, the area is rich in biodiversity and tropical forests, with many species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else in the world. It is also here where the UNESCO World Heritage Site, La Amistad International Park, straddles the Costa Rica – Panama border.

Costa Rica’s rates of deforestation are among the highest in the world. In the Talamanca region, cacao was the main source of income, but the method of growing it in monocultures left it vulnerable to pests. In 1979 a fungal disease spread like wildfire through the crop and practically wiped out the cacao farming overnight. Former farmers instead began clearing land for timber production, cattle raising, and intensive, short-cycle cash crops to replace the income lost from cacao production, which accelerated the deterioration of the local environment.

A local non-governmental organization, concerned about the destruction of the region’s assets, began to revive traditional agricultural techniques and developed ecotourism as a way out of the unsustainable cycle of increasing degradation. The organization, Asociacion ANAI (later joined by two other organizations, APPTA, the Association of Small Producers of Talamanca, and the Talamanca Caribbean Biological Corridor, CBTC) developed a program called the “Talamanca Initiative” which simultaneously promoted the local economy and conservation. The initiative was based on some core principles:

  • negating the perceived conservation/economic conflict
  • the value of locals in environmental stewardship
  • the need for immediate action to save the tropical areas
  • the high value of the natural assets
  • the need to integrate environmental, social, economic and organizational needs

These core principles became the driving forces behind the practical work that followed. Among some of the steps taken:

  1. Finding alternatives to cacao. While farmers knew diversity was better for them in the long term, they needed support and training to make the switch. From 1980, ANAI helped to build up agroforestry systems which would mimic the natural forest, and helped farmers to set up tree nurseries in the villages. They managed to plant over 150 species of fruits, nuts, spices and medicinal plants. These nurseries brought communities together to cooperate and share information. Between 1985 and 1990, over two million cash/food crops, and trees for timber were planted on family farms in the region, which dramatically increased the diversity of the resource base. By mimicking the natural forests, this has helped to sustain insect life and preserve the health of the nearby forests.
  2. Creation of markets. In order for the increase in biodiversity to be economically viable, APPTA helped to create some local processing facilities (to add value to products) and secure markets. This was done by applying for and receiving certification for fair trade, organic, and sustainably logged wood products. The success of this approach has led to over 1,000 farmers establishing organic “agro-ecosystems” which combine cash crops with subsistence needs. APPTA is now the largest volume producer and exporter of organic products in Central America, with an annual income of US$500,000, much of which is injected into the local economy through a large number of family farmers. Demand for organic cacao has surpassed supply, and the program has been expanded to neighboring countries.
  3. Creation and expansion of grassroots networks. Other grassroots organizations began to form as a result of ANAI’s work meeting weekly with farmers and representatives from each community. Some of the grassroots groups include APPTA (see above), a regional trade center, village microcredit and savings programs. Now there are some 20 organizations involved, as well as 1,500 families and the national Ministry of Environment and Energy. Participation includes both sexes and various ethnic groups (Afro-Caribbean, indigenous and “mestizo” peoples). The regional training center was set up by people in the Talamanca Indigenous Reserve, and its board of directors and executive are local. The center provides some 2,000 people per year with training, workshops and education on health, agriculture, conservation, environmental education for children, and appropriate technology. This has created a high level of environmental awareness among the Talamancan people.
  4. Ecotourism. Since its growth in 1985, tourism has been, as one report says, a “double-edged sword.” Still, the emphasis has been on local control of tourism, and the creation of ecotourist facilities (lodges) was able to set some standards for other businesses. In 1998, nearly 20 associations and businesses joined in a network to coordinate the growth of tourist facilities and related businesses. At the moment there are five ecotourism lodges, all of which are owned by community organizations. The earnings from these go directly to families in the community who have set up small family businesses. Recently, a conservation fund was established by the Talamanca Network, where members will contribute a percentage of ecotourist income. When the Gandoca Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge was set up in 1985, local people were opposed, because it would prevent them from clearing their part of the forest which was their sole source of income. Today, almost all the inhabitants are committed defenders of the refuge because their improved livelihoods revolve around nature tourism in the area.

The project’s success earned it a UN Equator Inititiative Award, and there are continuing plans to strengthen the gains made and to expand the program, for example to build the Talamanca-Caribbean Biological Corridor, as well as sharing their experiences and lessons with other areas.

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Cuba – Rural Solar Power

There seems to be no “environmental tipping point,” but this is a good example of energy for rural areas out of reach of the national grid, and how appropriate technology can become one of many alternative models for development.

As with other rural areas, extending the power grid to rural areas in Cuba is often too expensive. Photovoltaic cells are expensive to make because they are pure silicon, and manufacturing them requires high levels of energy. But they can be imported to Cuba in bulk from Germany or Spain, and then assembled completely in Cuba.

The non-governmental organization Cubasolar has won some international recognition for its efforts to bring solar power to rural regions. Their focus is to provide solutions to social problems through providing an energy supply, and so they concentrate on bringing this supply to two sectors: health and education.

Las Tumbas is a small coffee-growing village of one hundred people, located in Cuba’s mountainous interior, 140 km west of Havana. Before the village had power, people just went to bed early, but now they are able to study or do other activities after dark. First, the school was connected, and two new technologies were introduced: (1) A computer, which has potential not only through internet access but to a variety of other teaching materials and tools made available to teachers and students; (2) A television, which of course brings mixed benefits, but people are better informed about current events and one channel in Cuba is dedicated to education. Video equipment also gives the opportunity to watch documentaries.

All homes have their own panels, which accumulate enough energy in the batteries for 4-5 hours of lighting after dark, and to play a small radio. In the local clinic, some important vaccines and medications can now be refrigerated, so families don’t have to travel to the nearest city for vaccines. There is also a transmitting radio, so that in an emergency, the local doctor can communicate with the nearest hospital. Also, the clinic can stay open at night, so medical attention can be given to people who can’t come during the day because of work.

The success of this project and others has motivated the Cuban government to invest in renewable energy in other parts of the country out of reach of the national power grid.

Benefits/services: Educational opportunities, access to information, improved access to medical care, increased range of freedom and opportunities with household electrification after dark.

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Cuba – Organic and Urban Agriculture

Cuba was once dependent on imports from the Soviet Union for a large percentage of staple goods as well as fertilizers, pesticides, animal feed and petroleum. The farms were large, high-input industrial farms, many of which grew cash crops in monocultures for export.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba was plunged into a severe economic crisis, where imports of food and other basic necessities, including pesticides and chemical fertilizers, fell overnight. Within a year the country lost over 80% of its foreign trade, which, compounded by ongoing US embargos, triggered widespread hunger and malnutrition in what was known as Cuba’s “special period.” Without infrastructure or fuel to transport goods from rural to urban areas, the cities had no way of feeding themselves.

This crisis spurred the government into action, mobilizing resources and putting urban wastelands into use as farms and orchards. It distributed vacant lots for free to anyone who wanted to cultivate them, and switched from the export of cash crops to growing food crops for domestic consumption. The government offered incentives to encourage people to move back to rural areas to work on the land. In 1993, it changed state farms to “UBPC” (or basic units of co-operative production), a form of worker-owned enterprise or cooperative, where 80% of farmland once held by the state, including sugarcane plantations, was turned over to workers.

Havana became a priority for the National Food Program, and in 1991, the government began establishing research gardens and public gardens using cooperative labor and serving markets around Cuba. Customers and farmers came from the same community, and ugly, useless areas created a supply of employment, source of food, and greener neighborhoods. The Ministry of Agriculture set up an urban agriculture department to support the new farmers. Seed shops in every municipality supplied seeds, tools, natural fertilizers and advice and consulting for farmers. Organic farming was specifically emphasized, and all over Cuba, production was converted from high-input agriculture to low-input, self-reliant farming using a mix of old techniques and new organic farming practices, for example:

  • composting and vermicomposting
  • intercropping
  • replacing synthetic with natural fertilizers
  • integrating grazing animals
  • rotating crops
  • cover cropping to suppress weeds
  • increasing diversity of crops grown
  • encouraging natural predators of pests
  • soil and water conservation

The national ox herd was built up to provide animal labor in place of tractors (for lack of fuel, tires, and spare parts). Research institutes were set up to develop more sophisticated techniques such as worm composting, soil innoculates and bioformulations. As well, over 200 bio-pesticide and bio-control production centers were set up, run by university graduates, and by 1996, by-laws in Havana allowed only organic methods of food production.

Each collective had to produce a certain quota in key crops to ensure adequate supply for the whole country (including local schools, hospitals, nursing homes). Collectives could sell surplus on the open market, and in 1994 there was a reform involving price incentives to discourage selling on the black market.

By 1995, the food shortage had been overcome, and in 1996-7, Cuba recorded the highest-ever production levels for 10 of 13 basic food items in the Cuban diet. Gardens now occupy approximately 3-4% of urban land (8% in Havana) tended by 18,000 people, which means more than 35,000 hectares of urban land is dedicated to intensive production of fresh fruit, vegetables, and spices.

In 2002, Cuba produced 3.2 million tons of food in urban farms and gardens, providing fresh organic produce to the population and improving the diet of Cubans. Gardens attached to schools are more common as local food production, and ecological issues are a required part of the curriculum. Most rural homes produce their own staple foods, including beans and traditional root/tuber crops. Interest in sustainable energy and appropriate technology has led to demonstration and experimentation centers, traveling libraries, and extension schools opening around the island.

However, future challenges are predictably arising from market forces, which stand to undermine this system: urban farm space will compete for land for development of tourism (which brings in more foreign currency) and trade concessions may force Cuba open to trade with the US and other countries, which could make Cuba once again dependent on food imports.

This case shares some elements with the New York City gardens, except that it is an industrializing country at a critical stage of having the opportunity to choose to leapfrog some stages of the Western model of “development.” It simultaneously addresses unemployment, food security, environment, urban migration, community, recycling, and a cleaner environment and quality of life so absent from many developing world urban centers. It also shows how Cuba managed to turn a crisis into an asset.

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Dominican Republic – Solar Based Rural Electrification

In 1984 American engineer Richard Hansen installed solar panels on a friend’s house in a small off-the-grid village in the Dominican Republic. The Martinez family paid him back in monthly installments equivalent to their usually expenses for batteries and kerosene, with which they had previously powered appliances and lit their home. The system provided them with clean, safe, reliable electricity and neighbors immediately began asking about how to install their own system.

Noting that most grant-based projects suffered from a lack of local know-how, poor technical assistance and no sense of ownership over the project, Hansen, through his non-profit Enersol, devised a market driven electrification strategy based on micro-enterprises that came to be known as the SO-BASEC (Solar Based Electrification Concept) strategy.

It consists of identifying talented locals, and training them as certified photovoltaic (PV) systems technicians. Upon completion of the course, individuals install a system for a neighbor to showcase the technology in their communities. Technicians are encouraged to start their own business and are also offered follow up assistance not just with technical issues, but with business development skills such as marketing and accounting. These individuals are urged to join a professional network to further pursue common interests.

Their clients obtain loans to purchase the photovoltaic system from local NGOs that are already established and trusted by the community, and the PV system itself acts as collateral. These NGOs in turn are able to obtain credits from banks using Enersol grant monies as collateral.

The project was so successful that by 1990 over a thousand PV systems had been installed in homes, businesses, churches, schools and clinics throughout the Dominican Republic. In 1991 Enersol expanded its operations into Honduras, where the thousand installation milestone was reached in only three years.

In 1993 Hansen realized that there were profits to be made in this emerging field, and founded Soluz, Inc. Though Enersol continued to function as a non-profit organization encouraging locals to form their own rural electrification micro-enterprises, Soluz further evolved the core strategy by eliminating the need to obtain bank loans. Instead of owning their PV system, Soluz customers rent it. They pay a monthly fee which covers installation and maintenance. By the mid-1990s Hansen was doing consulting work for similar projects around the world, and in 1996 he founded Global Transitions Consulting, whose clients include the World Bank, and USAID.

Meanwhile, the non-profit Enersol continued to expand its own operations. In 1995 it launched its AGUASOL project which allows communities to acquire solar-powered potable water systems. At least 17 such systems have now been installed. And in 2000 it inaugurated its EDUSOL program which offers solar-powered computer systems to rural schools. Nearly thirty schools have benefited so far.  Other projects include solar-based communications networks for national parks.

In all their projects Hansen and his team have insisted on local partnerships with non-profit organizations and businesses alike, and make sure that women are involved at all stages. This undoubtedly is a major reason for their remarkable success, and is also a reason why their model has been replicated from Bolivia to India. In recognition of their efforts Hansen and Soluz were recognized as Technology Pioneers in the World Economic Forum of 2003.

Further details at:

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Ecuador – The Battle Against Chevron Texaco

  • Author: Adapted from the Goldman website (with permission)
  • Posted: July 2008

Fighting for justice after what has been called one of the most catastrophic environmental disasters in history, Luis Yanza and Pablo Fajardo are leading an unprecedented community-driven legal battle against a global oil giant. According to the plaintiffs, beginning in 1964 and through 1990, Texaco dumped nearly 17 million gallons of crude oil and 20 billion gallons of drilling wastewater directly into the Ecuadorian Amazon. Allegedly suffering from the health effects of the pollution, the region’s inhabitants are demanding a complete cleanup in potentially the largest environmental lawsuit ever filed in the world. Yanza co-founded the Amazon Defense Front to organize 30,000 inhabitants of the northern Ecuadorian Amazon in a class-action lawsuit against Texaco, which was acquired by Chevron in 2001. The lead lawyer, Pablo Fajardo, a resident of one of the affected communities, has become the public voice of the plaintiffs.

Unprecedented Petroleum Pollution

The Ecuadorian Amazon contains five percent of all the world’s plant and animal species and is one of the most biodiverse places in the Amazon and on Earth. As the region’s primary oil investor in the 1970s and 1980s, Texaco built much of Ecuador’s oil infrastructure but chose not to re-inject back into the ground the wastewater and sludge brought up by the drilling process, called formation waters. Instead, according to the plaintiffs, billions of gallons were dumped into the region’s waterways, or left in more than 1,000 unlined, open pits scattered throughout the area. By the company’s own estimates, it spilled nearly 17 million gallons of oil into soils and waterways, and another 20 billion gallons of formation waters. By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spilled just over 10 million gallons of oil. In 1992, Texaco left Ecuador, leaving behind what experts and inhabitants call a monumental environmental disaster.

To this day, the region’s 30,000 inhabitants primarily drink water that has been deemed contaminated by experts involved in the case. According to the plaintiffs, many of the waste pits continue to pollute the rivers, streams and groundwater. In some areas, all water sources are contaminated and few fish survive in the rivers. The plaintiffs claim that prolonged exposure to toxic substances has led to a serious health crisis, and caused people living in such proximity to pollution to suffer dramatically increased incidences of skin disease, respiratory ailments, reproductive disorders and a cancer rate seven times higher than the rest of the country’s population. They also claim that the regional devastation includes more than two million acres of deforestation. Chevron, however, claims the region’s environmental and health problems are not a result of the pollution left behind by Texaco, and that they are no longer responsible.

Leading the Community to Seek Justice

In 1993, Yanza, working with a team of US-based lawyers, filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco. Plaintiffs included a coalition of residents brought together by Yanza’s organization, including 80 villages and five different indigenous peoples. The initial case against Texaco (acquired by Chevron in 2001) was filed in 1993 in a New York district court, near Texaco’s headquarters. In 1996, a superior court judge dismissed the case, but the plaintiffs filed an appeal and won a reversal of the decision. In 2002, the US Court of Appeals agreed with Chevron’s request to send the case to Ecuador. However, the court warned Chevron that US courts would intervene if the company tried to avoid a judgment imposed by the Ecuadorian courts.

In May 2003, the 30,000 plaintiffs, led by Fajardo’s legal team, filed a lawsuit in Ecuador’s northern Amazon, demanding that Chevron pay for a complete cleanup, including removal of all formation waters, debris and equipment; remediation of all contaminated water bodies and lands; recuperation of fauna, flora and aqueous life; and monitoring and improvement of the health of the inhabitants.

Chevron does not deny dumping formation waters or oil in the region, but says the resulting contamination has not harmed the inhabitants and it is not responsible for any cleanup. In March 2007, the plaintiffs, with the abundant evidence collected from 45 field inspections, had already proven the existence of extensive contamination, and that further delay was not necessary. The judge issued an order to begin an assessment of the damages, which was carried out by an independent expert, culminating in a report released in April 2008 citing $8.3 – $16 billion in damages. Fajardo and Yanza have been touring the country relentlessly, making the trial an issue of national dignity and sovereignty in anticipation of a final decision in 2008.

Long Term Impact

The impact of Yanza and Fajardo’s efforts on Ecuador’s oil industry is already far-reaching. They have publicized the long-term effects on the environment and people, leading the government of Ecuador to pass stronger environmental protection laws. Texaco and Chevron’s legacy in Ecuador is now part of the national collective consciousness. Fajardo and Yanza recently hosted the president of Ecuador on a tour of Texaco’s former operations, leading to a pledge by the government to relocate several contaminated communities.

Their work entails significant risk, as well. Yanza, Fajardo, their families and a number of their colleagues have become targets of death threats, harassment and intimidation. In December 2005, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States issued precautionary measures for Yanza and Fajardo in an effort to protect their lives. Fajardo’s brother was killed just months after he joined the legal team; no investigation has taken place and no one has been arrested for the homicide. Fajardo has been forced to vary his daily routine, often sleeping in a different place each night.

Yanza and Fajardo are recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. For more information see the Goldman Prize website.

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Mexico – Sonora – Seri’s Sustainable Fisheries

The Seri or Comcaac are an indigenous people that up to a few decades ago still practiced a semi-nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyle among the islands of the Gulf of California, in Northwest Mexico. Wars of extermination carried out first by Spaniards, and then by independent Mexico (hostilities did not end until the early 20th Century), took them to the brink of extinction and only about 600 remain today.

In the 1930s the federal government abandoned its extermination and relocation strategy and instead tried to settle the Seri in two villages within their territory, El Desemboque and Punta Chueca, by facilitating the creation of a fishing cooperative. The shark fishery was heavily promoted, particularly for the extraction and processing of livers to yield vitamins. But with the advent of synthetic vitamin production in the 1940s, the fishery collapsed and the Seri turned to hunting sea turtles, which in turn was banned by the 1980s. Meanwhile during the 1970s outsiders discovered a profitable scallop fishery just off-shore which fueled an influx of non-Seri fishermen into the region.

In an effort to correct past wrongs and help the Seri survive, the Mexican government granted the Seri collective ownership of a fraction of their historical range in 1975. This included Isla Tiburon (Shark Island) and the land across from it on the mainland, as well as exclusive fishing rights to the surrounding waters. Unfortunately, the exact limits of these waters were never properly established and a lack of vigilance from authorities has restricted the Seri Exclusive Fishing Zone to the channel between the Island and the Mainland, which is narrow enough to allow the community to control access.

Free from government interference in their affairs, the Seri community has developed a set of rules that has allowed catches within this small channel to remain stable over the past thirty years, while the productivity of much larger neighboring fisheries has collapsed by up to 90%. The successful management of their tiny fishery has now been recognized by their neighbors, and the lessons learned are being used to implement similar programs in neighboring communities.

Though several different species of fish, crustacean and mollusk are harvested in the channel, the scallop fishery offers us a good example of just how the Seri use cultural, social and biological knowledge to effectively manage their fisheries.

Though Seri do participate in the commercial scallop fishery, most are reluctant to dive and so most of the fishing is done by outside crews. To be granted access to the channel, outsiders must 1) pay an entrance fee, 2) hire a Seri as member of the crew at the same wages (not only does this increase employment, but it allows the Seri to monitor the outsiders), 3) avoid fishing in the sandbar areas which are restricted to subsistence fishing mentioned below, and 4) agree to a catch limits.

The subsistence scallop fishery is a traditional activity which takes place during the lowest tides of the year, in which shallow waters allow the scallops to be harvested by women and children, without diving. Historically it has been an important social & cultural event in Seri society, and also serves to monitor the overall health of the fishery. When these harvests are low, social repercussions can be harsh: women might humiliate the men in public for being careless with such a valued common resource, and the men in turn will blame the outsiders and cancel all access until tempers cool, stocks recover or economic necessity forces them to issue permits once again.

The fishermen’s deep knowledge of the fishery itself also enhances its sustainability. By capturing only the largest scallops, they increase the likelihood that any animal caught has already reproduced. And by abstaining from diving in seasonal seagrass beds, where the work is harder and one is more likely to step on stingrays and crabs, they ensure that over 10% of the channel is off-limits for at least 8 months a year. Finally, the Seri are well tuned to both the abundance and size of their catch, and rotate fishing grounds regularly, with some sites being visited several times a year, and others only once every few years.

Their success has allowed them to begin sending their children to university, and in 1998 for the first time the younger generation won local elections and a college graduate was elected as their leader. With these changes the Seri have begun cooperating with NGOs and universities, who are trying to replicate their model in other communities. They have become certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, and branched out into other ventures, such as a Women Artisans Cooperative that sells arts and crafts to tourists; and a Sea Turtle Conservation program that has won international awards.

It is obvious that one of Mexico’s smallest minorities has a lot to teach the rest of us.

For further information see Comunidad y Biodiversidad.

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Mexico – Jalisco – Ayuquila River Restoration

The Ayuquila River in Western Central Mexico flows through a remarkably diverse landscape that includes mountain peaks and coastal plains, and more species than France, Canada or the British Isles. It is home to over 100 different mammals, and over 300 species of birds, with vegetation that includes mangrove, tropical jungle, and evergreen pine forests.

Modern times arrived in the Ayuquila River watershed in the 1950s with the construction of dams and irrigation channels to support the expansion of the water-intensive (and profitable) sugarcane crop around the upstream communities of Autlán and El Grullo which, fueled by the sugar industry, quickly developed as local centers of industry and commerce. Currently about 80% of the population of the watershed lives in this “upstream” region. The remaining 20% lives downstream from this concentration of agriculture and industry. As the upstream communities thrived, those downstream dwindled, threatened by a lower river flow, loss of fish and crustacean species and severe water pollution.

In the early 1980s the region received international attention from the scientific community when a perennial relative of maize was discovered in the region by University of Guadalajara researchers. This discovery prompted the State of Jalisco to purchase over 1,000 hectares in the mountainous area known as the Sierra de Manantlán in 1984, and donate the land to the University for the development of a research laboratory facility. From the beginning, the University’s strategy included strong social outreach and environmental education programs to complement the basic science research. It stepped in and implemented a variety of innovative strategies to begin to address watershed issues, including the establishment of an Advisory Council embracing municipal, state and federal authorities, academia and non-profit organizations, as well as disenfranchised ethnic and social groups.  

The University quickly achieved results by working with local communities. For example, a network of River Defense Committees from each community affected by pollution. Though a sugar mill was blamed for most of the pollution, regular water quality monitoring soon revealed sewage and improper solid waste disposal from the cities of Autlán and El Grullo to play a significant role as well. Successful waste separation, recycling and composting programs were implemented. Meanwhile, under pressure from the University and its many partners, the federal government began building regional sewage treatment plants.

However, the sugar mill refused to cooperate. Many species of fish and crustaceans would disappear from long stretches of river during the months when the mill was working, with damage was so severe that the river could not recover during the off-season.  After a disastrous molasses spill in 1998 which was exhaustively documented by the University’s water-monitoring team, the Sugarcane Workers Union switched sides and joined the conservationist forces in their long-standing dispute with the sugar mill. Soon after the University invited Cuban specialists to evaluate the mill’s pollution problem and offer their counsel, which included such basic measures as using some wastewater to irrigate nearby cane fields. Left without allies or excuses, the sugar mill was finally forced to comply and implement a comprehensive pollution control program that immediately improved the health of the river, to everyone’s benefit.

The same social participation strategy has been successful in other ways, such as establishment of the Sierra de Manantlán Biosphere Reserve in 1987, which put a halt to illegal logging, addressed conflicts with mining interests, and halved the number of forest fires within the Reserve. Though many problems remain in the region, the restoration of the Ayuquila River has been so successful that it has become a case study for international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

For further information see Ayuquila River.

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Mexico – Michoacán – The Patsari Stove

Can a wood-burning stove be environmentally friendly?

Readers used to cooking on gas or electric stoves may find it hard to believe, but approximately half the world’s population still relies on solid fuels (wood, dung, coal) as their primary fuel source. Not only does the wide use of firewood contribute to local deforestation, but the regular use of open fires in the home is linked to acute respiratory infections in children & chronic respiratory illness (including tuberculosis and cancer) in adults. Regular exposure to indoor smoke has also been linked to other ailments, including ear infections, cataracts and unsuccessful pregnancies. It is responsible for over a million and a half premature deaths each year, disproportionately among women and children.

So, given all the environmental and public health concerns that surround the burning of firewood, how can a wood burning stove be good for the environment? By reducing the amount of wood used relative to traditional open fires and significantly improving both household air quality and family health. The Patsari stove does all these things.

It was developed in Mexico, where approximately one quarter of the population- or 28 million- still rely on open fires for cooking and/or heating. The Interdisciplinary Group for Appropriate Rural Technologies (GIRA), based in the central Mexican state of Michoacán, used a participatory approach in which input was provided by actual users from indigenous Purhépecha communities, to design a simple yet effective stove which rural households are now actively embracing instead of the traditional open fires.

It consists of a closed, boxlike combustion chamber which cuts fuel use in half, and a chimney to channel smoke out of the home, which results in a 70% reduction in indoor air pollution. Hot plates on the top surface, over the fire, provide the cooking surface.

Despite the promise of improved efficiency and cleaner air, families were initially reluctant to change the way they’ve cooked for thousands of years. The tipping point came rather unexpectedly, when women realized that kitchens with the Patsari stove were both cleaner and easier to keep clean. As of 2006, over 3,500 hundred families and 70 small businesses had installed Patsari stoves. Microcredits and discounts to businesses have been made available to facilitate the widespread adoption of the Patsari stove.

By purchasing the pre-made parts (such as the chimney) from local providers and training local residents in the construction and promotion of Patsari stoves, the project becomes self-sustaining. Local governments and NGOs often provide the raw materials (which are obtained locally), so that customers need only pay the stove-builder’s labor. Over 100 individuals have been trained as stove-builders, who in turn train families on proper operation and maintenance. Builders conduct at least three follow-up visits to check the stoves and correct any deficiencies.

Health studies have since shown Patsari households to suffer from 30% less respiratory infections and 50% less eye infections, adding further incentive to switch. These health benefits could be even larger once neighboring households also adopt the Patsari stove.

For all these reasons, GIRA won an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy in 2006.

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Mexico – Veracruz and Tabasco – Chinampa System

Archeological evidence shows pre-Cambrian use of this wetland cultivation system in what is now Mexico, Bolivia and Suriname. However, it was the Aztecs who developed and practiced the system most intensively. Derived from the Nauhatl words “chinamitl” which means “reed” and “basket,” and “pan” which means “upon,” it was said to be a system which grew out of conditions of alternating floods, out of which arose the need for agriculture which did not depend on rain. Basically, they are raised farm beds where corn, beans, squash, chillies and flowers are grown in the middle of the lakes found all over the Basin of Mexico. They are rectangular fields about 2-4 meters wide and 20-40 meters long. They were built with layers of mud harvested from the bottom of the lakes, and vegetation, creating a porous base for water to flow through. Lake mud was applied before the planting. Willow trees are planted around the edges to provide shade and windbreaks, prevent erosion, attract beneficial birds and insects, and provide firewood and construction materials.

The intricate maze of canals between the farm beds could be navigated by canoe, and provided fish, crustaceans, and salamanders as protein food sources. To save space, seed beds were used, which used the land efficiently, as almost half the chillies growth period took place here, a place where less than 2% of the land was needed to harvest. Harvest times and transplanting of seedlings were timed to ensure a constant supply of farm produce, and there were 2-3 harvests per year. The system was an efficient way to use land (which explains why the Aztecs could maintain such a dense population), and the remaining ones today have yields which rival even today’s standards.

The system began to collapse with the arrival of the Spanish, whose background of farming was quite different, and who did not appreciate the water management required for the chinampas. The lakes were eventually drained, and urbanization in the last century has reduced the area of chinampas to about 2,300 hectares, only half of which has been farmed. In 1988, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage Site, which has helped push the Mexican government towards rescuing them, and they continue to attract interest as a “living textbook” on how to adapt these successful high-yield/low-impact systems to other areas. It’s estimated that if the existing chinampas were used to potential, they could satisfy a quarter of Mexico’s demand for fresh vegetables.

Botanist Arturo Gomez Pompa became involved 20 years ago through a Mexican research institute, and thought that while the system had been adapted to the climate and soils of Mexico’s temparate highlands, he wanted to modify and transfer the system to marginal areas in the tropical lowlands (where archeological evidence showed similar systems existed).

In an experiment, chinampas farmers were brought to two areas, Veracruz and the marshlands of Tabasco, to help build test plots in coastal swamps and lagoons. The purpose was not only to increase self-sufficiency in food, but to provide the landless with jobs, and develop alternatives to increase productivity of swampland. In the case of Tabasco state, many of the trial-and-error tests failed and plots were abandoned because techniques failed to replicate the chinampas properly, and the management organization and crops grown were not familiar to the indigenous Chontales. Nevertheless, some in Tabasco did manage to take hold, and are attracting outside interest. The most successful project is a modification of the chinampas technique to the Mayan forest garden system known as “pet kot,” a small mixed-use plot of fruit trees and other food crops, with aquatic plants used as fertilizer. This shows that while the techniques which adapted to quite different conditions can’t be expected to be blindly replicated anywhere, they are a model for reclaiming and using marginal sites.

Services/benefits: poverty alleviation, efficient use of land, high-yield/low-impact food production, food security

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Mexico – Michoacán – Forest Reserve

This is a good example of the failure of “top down” conservation, and how, even if local people ultimately understand its importance to their well-being and future, may not participate willingly for various reasons such as poverty or resentment at being left out of the process, and how efforts by a local non-governmental organization (NGO) could reconcile between conservation and the needs of the campesinos (peasant farmers who are descendants of indigenous peoples).

The mountainous forests east of Michoacan State were declared a special biosphere reserve in 1986 to protect the monarch butterflies, who would migrate here from the US and Canada in the winter season, attracting an increasing number of tourists and trekkers. But the 200,000 campesinos who lived in and around the forests were not consulted about the creation of the reserve, and authorities had trouble enforcing its protection. The campesinos live without access to basic services, and high unemployment rates have created dependence on illegal logging of the reserve. Also, they harvest wood for building materials and fuel as they have always done, except now various pressures on the forests have made this practice unsustainable.

When Alternare, a Mexican NGO run by two biologists, arrived on the scene in 1998, they realized conservation needed a base in a certain level of security to the farmers in order for them to have motivation to protect the nearby forests. Alternare decided the only way to gain their participation in this goal was to assess their needs and try to find ways to harmonize them with conservation.

There were meetings with some eight villages, where Alternare gave the villagers the lead in deciding what they needed. The villagers were not against the reserve itself; in fact, they overwhelmingly understood their dependence on a healthy forest, so they identified current obstacles to those needs, to which the government had been insensitive when creating the reserve.

After finding out their needs and developing a strategy with them, Alternare made a long-term commitment to the people living near the most degraded areas of the forests, and got funds from various donors to offer support and training workshops on various initiatives:

  1. Diversifying both the farming methods and farming produce (increasing vegetables; until then, they had lived on a diet of beans and corn). Some villagers also branched out into keeping bees for honey production and growing medicinal plants. Some five training manuals on ecological agriculture techniques have been produced. All of these projects made use of local knowledge of farming methods and the forests.
  2. Building 30,000 square meters of ditches and terraces to make better use of soil and water.
  3. Introducing composting to improve fertility of soil and manage waste better (organic waste which would have otherwise been burned).
  4. Introduction of more fuel-efficient stoves to reduce dependence on forests.
  5. Reintroduction of adobe houses, which was a traditional material that had fallen into disuse. This took pressure off the forests as houses were being built out of wood.
  6. Creation of tree nurseries and reforestation of indigenous species. The goal is to plant 2,000 trees/year.
  7. Building fences to prevent chickens or other farm animals from escaping.

Since the start of this young program, some farmers are acting as trainers to disseminate the practices in their communities, and villagers in general are more supportive of conservation, and even working with authorities who once excluded them. For example, some are helping to police illegal logging.

Benefits/services restored: Better health (villagers eat a more varied diet and are suffering less effects from indoor air pollution due to fuel efficent stoves), improved soil, higher yields, improved waste management, more incentive to protect forests, more confidence and active involvement with improving their situation.

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Peru – Micro-Hydro Power

Although the Eastern slopes of the Andes offer some of the most beautiful scenery in Peru, it is also one of the least developed regions in the country. The difficulty of access to this mountainous zone has prevented its electrification, and the small, scattered population continues to dwindle as people leave their villages for opportunities in larger, more developed cities in other parts of the country.

Practical Action Peru (PAP), the Latin American branch of a UK non-profit organization founded in 1966, has been working to reverse these trends since 1985 by offering small mountain communities an alternative energy source that relies on the region’s abundant rivers and streams. By working with local villagers, Practical Action Peru has installed nearly 50 micro-hydroelectric turbine systems that have benefited over 30,000 people.

These systems require a controlled water flow which depends on a series of channels and chambers that divert a portion of the flow of streams and rivers toward the turbine. Though most of the parts are made by small factories in Peru (which makes the project more sustainable and facilitates its widespread adoption), some of the more advanced components are still imported. In addition, there are operating and maintenance costs to consider. It all adds up to a considerable investment.

Which is why PAP works closely with each community to determine a customized finance and management plan. In most cases, the PAP donates about 60% of the total costs, the community contributes about 15% in labor, and the remaining is borrowed from the Inter-American Development Bank. The loan is usually repaid in 3 to 6 years, and so far the repayment rate is above 90%.

Most communities own their micro-hydro system, while micro-businesses are subcontracted to oversee operation and maintenance. A community management group sets electricity prices, bills customers, pays this micro-business for operating and maintenance costs, and repays the loan. PAP trains both the management group and micro-business on all aspects of their micro-hydro system, and continues to offer assistance in solving larger problems that may arise.

The economic benefits of local electrification have been astounding. Sixty percent of villagers report that their income has increased since the arrival of electricity; 20% report an increase of 50% or more in their income. Roughly 1,000 businesses have either expanded or been started due to electrification. These include restaurants, bakeries, furniture makers, ice cream factories, welders and internet cafes.

In addition the population flight has been reversed, and villagers are returning from the cities. Several villages have even doubled in size. Ninety percent of the population growth since electrification in one such town was due to the return of former residents who brought their businesses with them.

Schools now have computers and photocopiers, and at home students can study under electric lights. Teachers are more likely to live in these villages and otherwise contribute to the community now that they can enjoy electricity.

Health clinics and laboratories can refrigerate medicines, vaccines and samples; sterilize equipment; keep computerized records; and communicate by radio with larger health facilities.

In the home, appliances such as refrigerators, blenders and TV are now available. Kerosene lamps have been replaced by electric lights, saving families up to 70% of their energy costs, and improving the health of women and children affected by the fumes of burning fuel.

The Peruvian Government now realizes that micro-hydroelectric systems are the best way to electrify and develop this part of the country, and has adopted a plan to install 50 more of these systems. In addition, PAP has partnered with Engineers Without Frontiers to offer courses and organize conferences to help spread the adoption of these technologies (and others) elsewhere around the world. Similar programs have been implemented in Bolivia, Guatemala, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

For further details, visit the Ashden Awards website

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Peru – Amazon – Forest Product Farming

This is a projection based on a successful pilot project of raising tree frogs in the Peruvian Amazon.

Peru is one of eight so-called “mega-biodiverse” countries which in total possess 70% of the world’s biodiversity. Yet logging, agriculture and infrastructure development are clearing away habitats of abundant species still yet to be discovered. Many conservation projects lack long-term funding, and so ecologist Rainer Shulte is creating a sustainable business out of conserving the habitat of the threatened poison dart frog.

The poison dart frog is important as an indicator of the overall health of its tropical rainforest habitat. It also helps in insect regulation, consuming various insects, including mosquitos, which are common vectors of disease. Its venom is being studied for its potential both for medicines and natural pesticides, and it is an important example for the study of the evolution and dispersal of species.

The frogs will be raised by local farmers (campesinos) in 250 production lots covering 3,000 hectares, most of which are located in buffer zones of national parks or reserves. Artificial breeding sites (plastic containers) are set up in the frog’s natural nesting grounds in generally highland tropical forests. The tadpoles are harvested from the bottles, put in cages, and transported overseas, where demand for these beautiful animals is high and can fetch 40 to 120 US dollars each. Because raising them in situ is contingent on an intact ecosystem, it is expected that the growth of this industry will provide both an economic incentive to preserve the forests, and will help to provide an additional source of income to struggling farmers. This will also provide a disincentive for the smuggling of frogs (the exotic pet trade is poorly regulated and has been blamed for endangering marketable species). Other benefits include:

  1. Raising the frogs creates “surplus” which is harvested so the “capital” (original population) remains the same. This surplus can also be used to repopulate areas where the frogs are disappearing.
  2. The method is low-cost, low-tech, and user-friendly.
  3. The project aims to create links with credible local ecotourism operators for tours of the project sites, which will diversify economic opportunities.
  4. Revenues from the project will be invested in full-time conservation specialists and forest rangers.

There are also longer-term plans, such as ecological education to increase awareness and strengthen the long-term benefits, and some agricultural training will be given to encourage campesinos to adopt lower-impact farming instead of “slash and burn” or other methods unsuited to local conditions (especially in the highlands, many farmers are immigrants from other areas and so unfamiliar with the terrain). While the well-being of the frogs can’t be guaranteed once sold, it is assumed the target market, hobbyists who pay a high enough price, will spend a lot of effort and time caring for them. In addition, they will know their purchase is supporting an activity that helps to preserve the rainforest. The project’s own website will feature links to the best websites of care and feeding of the frogs, and will also produce its own educational materials for buyers. Shipping methods will be such as to avoid stress or injury to the frogs. It should be noted that the proposal doesn’t address the possibility of the frog becoming invasive, which is something to investigate, since the exotic pet trade has been blamed for the invasion of certain kinds of fish and other species.

Benefits: Incentive to preserve habitat, poverty alleviation, education.

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