How do we fix the way we fix things?

The study of science, no doubt, is of utmost importance. An understanding of the body of laws that govern our natural world, biological processes and ecological principles, in my opinion, is some of the foremost valuable knowledge that one can possess, and we must continue to develop this cognizance. When it comes to protecting human wellbeing from the irrefutable ills that we have caused ourselves and this planet however, which I will categorize under the catchall of climate change, at what point can we all agree that there is ample scientific evidence to catalyze tangible action? Or is it something more than that, a fear to face the problems of our future head on, an inability to see that such endeavors are now in pretty much everyone’s own self interest, or simply bystanders along for the ride at any rate? Perhaps it is an unwillingness to give up some petty comforts? Let me tell ya’ folks, things are about to become a whole lot less comfortable.

More and more frequently, one need not look any further than their own front porch to see, and feel, what the future will hold. As one example, temperatures near my home town reached a record breaking 117 degree F this past week as smoke from a wildfire choked the sky, months before the ‘historical’ fire season. For these reasons, among many others, I decided on environmental policy as my path in life. Furthermore, I have hope that developing countries will seize the opportunity to learn from the development mistakes of wealthy nations and the problems we’ve collectively caused the world, say “NO MAS”, and leapfrog us to a path that better coexists with this planet we call home. This is the reason I chose the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, and the reason I am spending my summer in rural Colombia.

I’ve been reminded frequently of these environmental musings as I’ve trudged on hands and knees at times through swampy sediment, piles of plastic, and sometimes sewage, to reach the next randomly generated carbon sampling coordinate point. This project, Manglar de mi Corazon, or in English, Mangrove of my heart, is based on the FAO methodology “income for coastal communities for mangrove protection” upon recommendations from the Center for Global Development for performance payments to slow climate change.  A noble cause, sure, but I can’t help but wonder now, what the heck is the point of this, do we really need to prove so painstakingly that this is worth protecting? Then, through complex algebraic equations, is it actually important that we calculate how much CO2 each mangrove tree sequesters, and exactly how much CO2 the soil holds within a 5 meter radius of each sample site? In short, the answer is yes, but couldn’t this energy be better spent elsewhere?  I know it is important to know what we’re working with (read: often important for wealthy, suspiciously funded organizations to know where to throw their money), but it almost seems like a barrier to entry, especially for a sustenance focused, low-education community such as Rincon Del Mar.

The scene every Sunday. Sadly the waste remains when the crowds go home.

More and more, I am of the opinion that all conservation efforts must begin locally. To paint a quick picture of the local scenario here, a brief history: Rincon Del Mar is an Afro-Colombian community on the rural Caribbean coast. Freed from slavery some 150 years ago, most Afro-Colombians communities since emancipation have “become invisible” due to what many people here consider a gift of autonomy. That is to say, the government has done very little to support them. They make their own plans through small, and from what I hear corrupt councils called ´Consejo Comunitarios´, and there are very few regulations or enforcement mechanisms in place. Rincon benefits from the fact that it situated on a massive mangrove forest (the reason they get any environmental attention at all right now), and is also reachable by car. For many other artisanal fishing villages along the coast, this is not the case, and it is my understanding that environmental and social situations are even worse in many of these places (I’ll be walking the 3+ miles north to Chinchiman this weekend to see for myself). Granted, from here it is still 10 miles down a rocky dirt road to reach a highway at the small inland village of San Onofre, and around 50 miles to the closest city of Sincelejo where any modern services exist (hospital, etc.). For the last 40 years, about as long as Rincon has been introduced to modern developments such as plastic and non-biodegradable waste, the people here have been dumping their trash in the mangroves. Several waste management and recycling initiatives have evolved over the past decade, and I am working on more, yet there has been little success in protecting the mangrove forest from the waste of those (the majority) who still can’t afford the collection services, let alone success in restoring it. To this day, nearly all the human waste i.e. poop, sewage, and grey water is still flushed into the forest or beachfront, causing major damage to what is undoubtedly their most important natural resource. The final point, which is still hard for me to fathom, is that only 10 years ago there were paramilitary and guerilla armies slaying people in the street here as a form of instilling fear and control. Thankfully, that has ended, but since then the population has boomed, putting an even greater strain on ecosystem services, and only serving to compound the problem of clean water caused by human waste.

Anyways, where was I? Oh yeah, Carbon sequestration. Most of the real fieldwork is finished for now, and I have written a few grants already, with more on the way. I am skeptical of their pending success, however. Without local behavior change, and the ability to demonstrate improvability, was playing in the swamp all for naught? Education may be the key, but what and where is the lock? I believe it lay in major systemic change – fixing the way we fix things, and to come full circle, foundational and comprehensive policy that prioritizes environmental and social integrity, and of course reinforces initial conservation efforts locally. For now, that is the best answer I have. I don’t think anyone truly wants to trash the environment, especially not in their hometown, but when it comes down to short term needs versus long term goals, the short term needs will always prevail in the interest of immediate self-preservation. It is simply our deeply ingrained instincts at work. Therefore, the people of Rincon, and nearly every other community on this planet, will choose cheap 300ml bags of clean water (the most littered item here) over risking serious illness like cholera. They will kill the small, premature fish instead of going hungry. And they will cut down carbon sequestering mangrove trees if it means having a roof over their family’s head. Difficult situations indeed, what would you do?

For these reasons, I have offered to teach English classes that are rapidly gaining popularity here, and have proven extremely rewarding to me. Not because I think the youth here need to know the language, but because it gives me the stage to work with the miners of the next generation, a generation that should prove to be painfully pivotal. I have been teaching them in an environmental context whenever I can while we work to establish the actual educational curriculum, ‘Amigos del Manglar’, with the local library… I’ll let the kids go to work on their parents.

Straws…somewhere to start

It´s official, I´m a professor


I guess I wanted to see first hand what I´ve assumed for a while, and to say that I’ve learned valuable lessons over the past month, academic and otherwise, would be an understatement. Thanks again for tuning in and reading my sometimes-scattered ramblings and rants, less than 40 more days here to learn and help however I can. Meanwhile, the tides of time continue to rise. Keep fighting the righteous fight my friends.

Inequality exists everywhere, but the sea level does not discriminate against hut or house. Not too long ago, I´ve learned, that high water line you see was 30+ feet back! 😮

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