The following article written by Janis was published in the Shelburne Falls Independent. It offers a summary of our research in Haiti and Costa Rica.
From Hilltown ridges to Caribbean reefs: part 2
On April 27th, our family left Salem harbor, Massachusetts aboard our research vessel Llyr, a 53′ sailing ketch, on the first leg of a ridge-to-reef expedition. The “ridge” component of this expedition references our farm in Heath where, for the past 14 years, we have been building and operating Berkshire Sweet Gold maple farm as a family-scale, direct-market agroforestry. The farm has grown into a successful business, and yet we are well aware that our forest is changing and our ecosystem faces new threats. Combining our experience as farmers with our social science training, we are drawn to the growing field of social entrepreneurs who develop new market models that seek innovative solutions to pressing social and environmental problems. Over the years the farm has come to function with a simple overriding mission: to design direct market structures for harvesters, processors and consumers of foods from wild, perennial zones which are better insulated from destructive commodity markets-of-scale and more able to stabilize or build biocultural diversity.
The “reef” component of this expedition concerns our interest in working on behalf of tropical coastal communities and coral reef regions. Coral reefs are arguably the most biodiverse habitats on the planet, similar to rainforests. Among the many aesthetic, scientific, and economic benefits they provide, they are considered nurseries for much of the ocean’s fisheries thereby feeding millions of people worldwide. However, coral reefs and our oceans at large face many threats. In the past 35 years, an estimated 85% of coral reefs in the Caribbean have died. Because many of the world’s reefs are located in poor countries, all too often environmental protection and alleviation of poverty are posed as dichotomous interests. This false dichotomy is exactly where we seek to target our work and research.
Fewer Fish, Smaller Fish
Our voyage has taken us from Salem, to Bermuda, Dominican Republic, Haiti, the offshore islands of Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica. Throughout this journey, we have been exploring common threads of economic pressures on biocultural diversity. Following our certification as Reef Check Trainers in the Dominican Republic with marine biologist Dr. Ruben Torres, we sailed on to Haiti where we volunteered Llyr, crew and dive services to work with Reef Check surveying the southern coastline. Reef Check (RC) is a non-profit working in 90 countries measuring reef health and supporting conservation efforts. Working with Dr Greg Hodgson, RC’s executive director, and two of his associates, we were investigating the coastal reefs of Haiti for the potential establishment of marine protected areas. Readers will be familiar with many of the tragedies that the people of Haiti are dealing with. You may be less aware that a significant percentage of the population depends upon fish for food and income, and yet fish stocks are seriously depleted and a typical fisher’s catch is now much reduced and consists of undersize, juvenile fish. Scientific research has proven that marine protected areas help revitalize fish populations; however around the world, many MPAs have failed to thrive because they have not been established in participation with local communities, have ignored local knowledge, and have offered no alternative means of livelihood.
Ile A Vache, Haiti
On Ile a Vache, a small, hill-covered island off the southern coast of Haiti, dozens of small communities subsist on fisheries and the sale of mangoes to the nearby city of Les Cayes. Ile a Vache is surrounded by reefs and our surveys discovered that many of them still have some vitality. There are a couple of small “resorts” that cater mostly to wealthy Haitians and workers with non-profits and UN personnel who need a break. There is no public electricity on the island, no cars and no roads.
Ile a Vache is also home to L’Oeuvre Saint Francois, an orphanage and school run by Sister Flora Blanchette, a French Canadian who has spent the last 35 years on the island. Some people who have met Sister Flora and learned of her works compare her to Mother Theresa. She radiates passion and pragmatism, with an eye towards what is necessary for her community to grow and flourish. We brought school supplies, powdered milk, and our youngest son contributed a collection of Legos. Sister Flora sat down with us to tell us of the challenges that she and the island communities face.
Our visit took place on a rainy day after a long dry spell. We walked several miles along the coastline and through the hills on slick, mud-heavy paths to reach the orphanage. We met many villagers along the way as it was market day on the island. People were selling their produce, livestock, fish-traps, and supplies like candies and toiletries brought from the mainland. At the orphanage, Sister Flora was glad for the rain to fill the water cisterns, but concerned because cholera thrives in rain and the cooler temperatures it brings. In December, she lost 6 children to cholera.
The orphanage and school receive little help from the government. Sister Flora is grateful for charitable contributions she receives to continue with her mission, but she is less in favor of charity as a way to help the communities of Ile a Vache and Haiti overall. It comes down to economics, she stressed. People need to earn their living in meaningful and sustainable ways and she is well aware that the fisheries are in trouble. While Sister Flora’s hands are full with her operations, she spoke of her vision of bringing pistachio farming to the area, a crop with strong intrinsic artisanal value that keeps and transports well. She was in full agreement with us that innovative, locally-based, and socially and environmentally responsible markets are necessary for the region and are the only way that the community could work collaboratively with the creation of a marine protected area where fishing would be off-limits.
Critical choices for Haiti’s future
Haiti has been characterized as the republic of NGOs. There is no question that Haiti is in a real mess and a lot needs to change; sadly, there are a plethora of projects introduced by NGOs that lie strewn about the country with broken parts, abandoned goals, and people still suffering from a lack of basic provisions . Means of subsistence are most sustainable if they come with long term vision that supports biocultural diversity. An example of just the opposite is occurring in the northern Haitian town of Caracol. There, in a region formerly slated for a marine protected area, the government, in concert with USAID, has opted to remove local farmers from the land and build a massive compound of factories for sale to offshore businesses. Promising tax free business, cheap labor ($3.25 a day!) and weak environmental regulation, the development is being marketed to Haitians as a tremendous opportunity. But already, there is plenty of social and biological evidence that this commodity of scale action has little sustainable development to offer Haiti and Haitians in the long run. The United States is putting 25% of its aid to Haiti into this unfortunate project.
Creating Responsible Fisheries in Costa Rica
Further on in our expedition and in a very different setting, we had the opportunity to visit with an artisanal fisheries project that is working actively to build responsible and sustainable practices for their community. Tarcoles is a small fishing town located on the central Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Costa Rica enjoys a reputation as a premier eco-tourism destination and as a safe and pleasant place to retire. They have an extensive national park system and have successfully promoted their green image abroad. In fact, marine conservation is a fairly recent concern in Costa Rica, and published research has shown that the established MPAs are not achieving their goals. Local communities report that they have not been consulted in project development, have no co-management opportunities and see no economic benefit coming their way.
CoopeTarcoles is the last remaining fisheries cooperative in Costa Rica that is pursuing an integrated model that supports both biological and cultural sustainability. Seeking consultative and technological support from a professional organization called Coopesolidar that aims to empower these types of community projects throughout Costa Rica, the town has developed a dynamic model. The government granted them an experimental protected fisheries zone from which industrial shrimp trawlers were excluded and which stipulates subzones for specific artisanal fishing methods (eg long lines, nets, diving). The cooperative has allowed the community to cut out the middle men and secure a better price for their catch; they have found innovation and greater resilience in managing their resources and understanding how different practices improve or hinder their long term interests. They have built a modest and compelling fisheries-tourism model which offers visitors valuable knowledge about the processes and activities of bringing fish to the table.
Direct-markets for the public good
CoopeTarcoles is a great example of small-scale and locally-based economic development. Our visit was both educational and inspiring. We discussed with members of the cooperative where their next steps might lie. We observed that they had not yet made the conceptual and practical leap to move themselves more fully into a direct market model that would help protect them from commodities-of-scale that are never favorable to artisanal harvesters and their habitats. At this point, they continue to sell their fish at the same wholesale rates as the industrial producers. While they have improved their pricepoint by eliminating the middlemen, they are not yet securing a better price for the fish which should reflect their more sustainable practices.
Around the world, commodity markets have lengthened food chains, obscuring relationships between production and consumption. When consumers think of food more as product than process, their understanding of food as relating to particular communities and cultures, histories, economies and ecosystems is lost. Establishing a different pricepoint for their fish would reflect their efforts to rebuild and stabilize biocultural diversity in the Tarcoles region as a public good for all Costa Ricans.
Next month, CoopeTarcoles and its protected zones come before the Costa Rican government for review. There are powerful forces operating to remove the protected fisheries zone and allow the shrimp trawlers back in.
Biocultural Diversity & Social Entrepreneurs
Direct-market models will not solve the world’s problems, nor are commodities-of-scale about to defer to small-scale production. But increasingly, we hear stories of people around the world who recognize that both biological and cultural diversity must be built into our market prices wherever and whenever possible. The hidden costs of our industrial systems end up being paid by us all in the health of our communities and environment.
Berkshire Sweet Gold Maple & Marine is committed to this interlinked project from Ridge-to-Reef. Many people ask us how we can afford to undertake this activity. We are fortunate to have started with perennial forest farmland as a family resource, and from that we have been able to build a successful family-scale agriculture (EDIT) that is now capable of supporting, through leveraged debt, the early phases of this expansion of our work and research. Like many Americans today, we have no retirement savings, no educational funds for our children, and our full share of indebtedness. In the near future, we must begin to see new ways to recover some of the costs of this pursuit or fail. Jumping in before insuring we are well and fully resourced is part of our commitment to the larger goals, and part of what defines this as a social entrepreneurial effort.
Social entrepreneurs are growing in numbers worldwide such that they are now generally recognized as sharing several characteristics. In their book, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World, (Harvard Business School Press, 2008), authors John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan’s list includes the following:
- Identify and apply practical solutions to problems, combining innovation, resourcefulness and opportunity.
- Focus first and foremost on social value creation and, in that spirit, are willing to share their innovations and insights for others to replicate.
- Jump in before ensuring that they are fully resourced (See above!)
- Have an unwavering belief in everyone’s innate capacity, often regardless of education, to contribute meaningfully to economic and social development.
- Show a dogged determination that pushes them to take risks that others wouldn’t dare.
We are inspired by countless examples of people worldwide and we hope to contribute in our small ways to supporting realistic and visionary efforts to preserve and enhance biocultural diversity. To learn more about these projects, ways that you can become involved or trained, and the expedition’s blog, please visit www.berkshiresweetgold.com and let us know what you think