Saturday, November 23, 2013

On Education and Making a Living

Tell me about being truly educated.
What does that mean to you? Is it those childhood years of classrooms and recesses? Is it tax funded, or home-style? Is education a science lab, and a spelling bee, with standardised tests? Is it knowing facts about art and history, and being able to solve mathematical equations? Is it being able to read and write? Is it a 4-year-long dissertation, and graduating with a degree showing paper credentials?
Is it formal or informal, contained or lifelong?
Did education teach how you to live?

Education to me is not a event anymore. It was at one point, being contained by rooms and teachers, tests and papers. It was once a subject like science, art, language or mathematics. Then later it was measured by how rooted those same subjects were in my head, and how well I could recite them. Later, it was a bit more complicated, such as how well I could synthesize facts into logical arguments, or carry out calculated experiments. In some small ways it was about the discovery, and the "world" outside of myself. But on the whole it was mostly about facts, books, and words. I can sum a lot of my learning through expressions of language - discussions, presentations, reports, essays, research projects, and a thesis. Words.

My generation, in my part of the world (Canada) has been told, "get a good education, and get a good job for a good living", and this has been buffeted by the sexy logic that education = skill = fame or fortune.

But I can say, that even after 23 years of formal education... that of classrooms, recesses, degrees, theses and field reports... that I now know specifics about topics and concepts, and about thinking and synthesizing, but very little about how to truly live.

I do sense that besides those skills of writing, reading and comprehension.... And that besides those aspects of my liberal degrees in humanized skills like ethnoecology, conflict resolution and leadership for sustainability... that I have is a broad, vaguely specialized tool kit for finding a job and for making a living to earn money.
I do know that this is also a good thing to know for the kind of society I was brought up in.

But, the point of all those years was never about how to live.

I can not say I know all right from wrong, nor can I say I know how to really face life-problems. From all my education, I know little more about how to survive and thrive, and be happy.

And truly, if left alone in the rainforest, I would most likely wither and die. First from uselessness, then from hunger.

Because Education that teaches *how* to live is place-based, contextual and more often than not, informal. It is rarely from processes and earned degrees from institutions that sat removed of what subject was being studied.

I want to introduce you to Marquez.
He is 45, from Camarones, has 6 children and works at the reserve. Marquez is nearly illiterate: he can barely read or write. And while written words do not mean so much to him, I do believe that he truly knows a lot. More than many could know from books. Marquez is educated.

This man knows how to read the landscape, and therefore knows so much about the jungle that it has taught him how to live. Yesterday, I went on a walk with him to search for wood. He could scan the understory of the forest, look to the sky and know exactly where to find what he was looking for. One prized log he found was hidden and buried under leaves. He simply could tell by the lay of the land that it was there. He knows the plants and how to use them. He can find food or medicine, and provision tools or building materials with just the map in his head, and a machete. And it´s precision machete work, too -- he moves like a ninja! Deftly swinging and hitting at the right places, he jumps gracefully at the right moment. He hears sounds, knows footprints, and can tell you who it is, and where it was going. He saw my barefoot prints and asked me the day after I went, how was the swimming?

His patience and style to teach, how to use the body and mind to live here, coupled with his jokes and humility wrap it all up for me... he knows how to live. He has years of an education I can only dream of. I just wish he was not so embarrassed that he can not read. Reading can be learned fast enough. But to know the landscape, and how to survive and thrive and be happy there... this takes years.

Marquez often sings a song walking on the path. He sings humbly and quietly, not really for the benefit of anyone else: "enseñame, yo no sé, enseñame. Maestro estoy escuchado. enseñame". (Teach me, I do not know. Teach me. Master I am listening. Teach Me).
It's a song similar to one I started singing a couple years ago, after I realized the scope of my formal education had provisioned me with a skill set ill-equipped for knowing what I need to know to live well. I feel humbler now, but my sense of incompetence is justifiably higher. There is just so much I do not know.

In someways I feel I am trying to unlearn aspects of what I have learned in school, because so much hinders me from learning more. For example, I feel burdened by needing books and facts to know. And from this I feel incompetent to learn by watching or listening alone. I may be great with my mind in that I can think and write, but I lack grace and precision in my body. Furthermore, I can find almost anything on the internet, but can hardly find food in the forest, let alone find myself.

I do not know if learning can be described as an evolutionary force that bends us to adapt to new situations, so that we might be apt to continue ourselves as a species. But I do sense there is an eager and genuine capacity inside me to learn. It is like a spark of energy.

Do not get me wrong here: I do not want to say that my education thus far has been bad. In fact I really value what I have learned. But I do want to say that I know it is, on a whole, wholly incomplete. It lacks basically, and I mean beyond sets of information like ABCs and 123s. It lacks something, a primal something, like a stronger capacity internally to navigate life knowledgeably, but also deftly, flexibly, intuitively and gracefully.

May my education continue on, and may we live.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

On Skinny Cows and Growing Miracles

Last Saturday I had the chance to go to Pedernales. Pedernales is the closest large town to the Jama-Coaque reserve where I am living, and it has some of the productions of civilization - bulk foods, markets, imports, restaurants, internet, hostels, and construction material, but luckily not much crime. It has around 100.000 people, and is a gateway between the andean highlands and the coast of Ecuador. Normally, tourists don't stop in Pedernales. Those foreigners who actually do are subject to a friendly, though thouroughly intense curiosity. Ecuadorians are very friendly and polite. The reserve where I am staying has made several relationships in town with locals. For example there is the coconut-icecream man who sells tasty treats from his cart, the construction shop people who don't rip us off for our foreignness, the hostel where we sleep and keep our stuff while we're in town, and of course the flete-drivers, who load the back of their pickups with 6 to 12 people (and their wears), and drive us towards our villages as we sit in the back like sardines. The village below the reserve is called Camarones. It has about 30 households, with many children and youth, and by flete truck it is a 35 km journey from Pedernales to the turn off, and another 4km to arrive at the Camarones. It is 3km more to get to the reserve. From the highway, the 7km to the reserve is dirt track: you need to walk if you don't have a motorcycle or a donkey (though many old-timers have donkeys!). The road becomes an impassible mud slip-and-slide in the rainy season (December to April), and almost all transport from the highway is by foot, or horse/donkey. Some 4X4 cars can pass. The clean river fed by the cloud forest rises a lot then, and with all the mud, those 7km can take 2 hours extra. Normally the journey from our bamboo hut to Pedernales, 42km, takes at least 2 hours in the dry season. 

I don't mind the journey- it's interesting to meet the locals, and ask what they're doing. It's also a chance to feel the wind and try to ID plants on the side of the road (a challenging feat for me, since I am not from the tropics). But despite the journey, it's nothing like the sound-filled , fresh-aired, green reserve, with a view of the jungle from a house made of bamboo and tagwa leaves. 

I am here in the rarest of the rare valleys: a single valley of 200 hectares, that was spared from the catastrophic rate of deforestion that has lead coastal Ecuador to lose 98% of its coastal forest cover to make room for the pasture of cattle, intensive monocrops (like miles of bananas or diseased palms), and the shrimp farms. This part of Ecuador is a biological hotspot of the world, where geography, ocean currents, ecuatorial sun and cultural diversity created one of the most diverse areas know to Earth. But it's now nearly a desert. The wet season, which 50 years ago lasted 8 months, now is only 4 months long. The Third Millennium Alliance reserve is an oasis in the middle of a landscape that has carved out the forest for meager economic gains. Strangely, due to complex historical contexts, this has left Ecuador more impoverish than before. It's one of those bizarre human paradoxes that doesn't seem to have a remedy on either side of the false dichotomy of the "nature-versus-economy" debate. And it's one of those intense human dramas that keeps playing on in other parts of the world, leaving few victors. All of it seems to me as one of the saddest socio-ecological realities Ecuador faces.

Cattle do not live well here: they look famished, but this way of farming is what many local people have come to know. 

Another force of deforestation, that I can personally relate to living here, is that while the forest is very bio-diverse and ecologically important, it is hard to make a modern life here. Trees don't grow clothes or useful things - at least not without knowledge about how to make them. To cut down the forest and make money, one can then buy what is needed. Or, Ecuadorians clear the forest to grow crops, which continues degradation of the land. Even while there are alternatives to slash and burn (we are using agroforestry principals at the reserve), it is hard to grow food in the middle of the forest! Leaf cutter ants eat most crops, saw-cutting beetles girdle fruit-trees, and those plants who do make it are often crippled by disease.

But, the agroforestry system does crop, for example with many types of fruits. However, first you need patience (5 to 10 years) and a knowledge of how to live with the forest well. It is a knowledge I am getting in touch with as I spend time with the locals here. They show me medicinal plants, edible treats and how to make a ladder or roof with only bamboo and a machete... but it is also an endangered knowledge, and like this forest, it is almost forgotten, being left to pasture, mining and imports. 

Do you blame the forest for giving so much life, yet being hard to live in? Do you blame the comforts of modernity, and forgetting the centuries old knowledge of how to thrive here?

Do you blame the people for being afraid of the forest, or trying to tame a small income on the back of skinny-cow economics and deforestation?

Do you blame me for thinking reforestation and polycrop agro-eco-forestry is an important development in this area? A way that simultaneously slows cycles of erosion and species loss while providing an long term economic return through poly-crop rotations and succession based forestry? 

Do you blame me that after I saw the magnitude of loss here, and sensed the mass effort it would take to reforest, that I think it is a pipe-dream to reforest the landscape and prevent catastrophic species loss? It will take lifetimes to realize.

Do you blame me for hoping it's not impossible, but a truly viable possibility that can foster ecological and economic prosperity for humans?

Environmental and economic cyclces are deeply related. All economic systems a subset of earth systems. But to shift away from ecological and economic poverty, people need to see examples of viable projects in action : ones that provide for human needs while fully addressing the primary ecological degradation that has been systematically undermining the capacity to meet those same needs in the first place. 

Ecuador is a mainly subsistence country, heavily dependent on a resource economy (as opposed to service economy), and here it is for me more obvious that ecology and economy are the same thing. Where many people literally live hand-to- mouth, environment affects everything about how you can live.

I believe that to work ecology and economy together is key for humanity. And it is not a new thought either- both words come from the root word "Oikos", meaning "house" in Greek.

The way to see it through needs a different kind of thinking and action, and something beyond the monocrops which have led us here.

That all said, I don't yet know how to get the ball moving faster - resources seem very limited here. Though, the organization I have been working with here is moving in this direction, and has been since 2006 when it made several strategic land purchases - one purchase of degraded land, and one of land with primary or secondary forest. They have been showing examples of succession-based agro-forestry reforestation projects. It is inspiring and we are not alone.

From right now though, it still seems a miniscule drop out of the bucket still being filled by the logic of skinny-cow economics. It literally takes time to see the fruits of planned agro-ecoforestry, and not many are jumping in until it's proven for their region. There can
be risks. 

It's why I say that I might not live to see what my work has helpd to change, or how... but it is important that I do start.

I leave with one thought,
after reading a quote from a Shaur man (a tribe in the amazon basin), who was asked by a journalist, "how do you cope with the mosquitos?"
To which the Shaur replied with a grin, "They´re part of our culture".

So, I ask you ¿what is Hell?
¿which is paradise?

After all, mindscapes create landscapes and vice versa.

I choose to foster a different landscape.
and my mind is changing to grow a miracle.