This year, in conjunction with our allies in the Mashpi Nature Reserve (Reserva Mashpi-Shungo, Pambiliño, Chontaloma, and Yakunina), we are pleased to introduce the SdV Field Lab Program for students as a complement to the university classroom laboratory. In response to the most recent forecasts on climate change, we have carefully tailored our program specifically for students and young professionals who will be faced with new and difficult challenges to existing paradigms, economic systems, and social structures in the very near future. 

Introduction 

Fast on the heels of the most recent IPCC report to the United Nations on climate change, Global Environmental Facility Chairperson, Naoko Ishii called for “unprecedented transformation” needed if civilization is going to forge ahead as the effects of climate change escalate. Indeed, an impending crisis of this magnitude calls for a trifecta of educational, corporate, and government players sending forth their boldest and brightest to find solutions before the window of time we have left narrows even more. But this monumental effort demands more than ideas, policies, and legislation. It also needs people grounded in direct experience and practical application of alternatives to outdated and environmentally damaging modalities. 

Providing this crucial experience “on the ground” is where the SdV Field Lab plays a key part. 

The focused fieldwork experience we offer also gives students a critical edge when it comes to getting on the career path they want in the expanding field of Sustainability.

Kristen is passionate about food production and self-sufficiency and loves to share her knowledge. Juan is relaxed and knows a lot about building. If you want to build, grow food, and get more insights on how to live of the grid, we strongly recommend learning from them.
Madeleine and Guillaume, co-founders, The Green Escape Eco-Building Project, Canoa ECUADOR


Program Mission and Scope 

Our mission is to equip students who are learning to think critically in universities with the tools to act constructively in the field, the initiative to create solutions, and the confidence to make solutions happen. 

This intensive program includes (but is not limited to):

  • presentation and discussion of key alternative methodologies and solutions to environmental problems

  • hands-on field work in land regeneration; planting diversified species and using organic methods to care for established target cultivars 

  • harvesting and processing crops for consumption and/or added value production

  • building with natural, local, and repurposed materials 

  • immersion in low-impact living within a fragile ecosystem.

With crisis on the horizon, we believe that “exposure” to different ways of farming or living, while valuable, is not enough to prepare young people for what is now acknowledged as an inevitably much warmer world as early as 2030. The college students of today will be rising consultants, scientists, and policy makers by 2030. They are the vanguard who will have to wrest opportunity from crisis if humanity is to avoid the impending social and economic upheavals of climate catastrophe.

The methods of land regeneration and low-impact living that we (and many other sustainability centers) have initiated and/or adopted could very well be key ways to avert crisis and move toward a healthier world ecosystem. Conserving and planting forests, building soil, crop diversification, and the production of value-added goods (to give some examples), are observably effective ways to capture carbon emissions, increase food production, decrease dependency on long distribution chains, and increase community resiliency. 

Effective as these practices are, we appreciate the difficulty for students in a new and different place to make the crucial connections between their experience in the micro-sphere of a South American cloud forest and the experience that will continue to inform their future sustainability career paths.

Our unique program explicitly address how to make these connections through:

  • Relevance to the current environmental, economic, and social problems that most urgently call for solutions. We frame our presentations in the context of the most recent consensus on climate change and the latest reports on food supply and distribution issues, green building initiatives, consumption problems, and assistance for vulnerable populations.

  • Emphasis on relatability to the students’ areas of study and career paths. How does an aspiring agriculture specialist relate planting a nitrogen-fixing legume in Ecuador to complex food-production problems in India, or North Dakota? How does building a hut in the forest with vernacular techniques help the future green architect design net-zero office buildings in cities?  We engage with students to find the crucial connecting threads.

  • An opportunity to gain knowledge and experience at the SDV Reserve AND four more ecological regeneration projects, all working in cooperation, but each with their own emphasis. This rich itinerary enables students to see and interact with projects who work together to build diversity and community resiliency.

  • Continuation. All students are invited to stay on at SDV after the course as volunteers or to return in the future as apprentices or future course mentors.  

  • Access to an online forum we have created especially for the alumni of the SdV Applied Sustainability Studies Program.  The forum will serve as a “meet-up” where our alumni can share about their experience with our program and others. As they move into more specialized areas of study, they can post graduate programs and trainings. Upon entry into the job market, the forum can serve as a professional network listing jobs sought, opportunities, and ratings. Each year, as the number of alumni grows, the content will grow, organically creating a valuable resource for young sustainability professionals.  


Overview of Program Content

Finally there is a growing consensus that the stubbornly entrenched machine of industrialization is not only broken, but steering the world off the deep end of crisis. The question is, what alternatives and solutions are known but not in wide usage? And furthermore, how can these alternatives be implemented in significant ways over the next decade? 

To address these questions, we have organized the program content the into six main topics outlined below. 

How do we transform:

  • Agro-industry to Agro-ecology

  • Input-intensive Building to Productive Bioconstruction 

  • Commons Depletion/Pollution to Commons Conservation

  • Long-chain Distribution to Local Diversification

  • Raw Material Export to Extra Added Value

  • Finite Gains to Future Growth 

Within each topic we will:

  • Identify clearly the main problems of predominating methods and paradigms

  • Introduce known and effective alternatives, their benefits, and challenges to availability or ability to implement

  • Stimulate thought and discussion of other possible alternatives and solutions to availability/implementation challenges 

  • Guide students through FieldLab exercises and actvities designed to empower them with skills and knowledge that can be used in multiple contexts

Program Hosts and Teachers

Host Facility: Reserva Sueño de Vida

We are honored to include guest lecturers and guides from our friends in ecological regeneration:

Reserva Mashpi-Shungo

Reserva Pambiliño

Reserva Chontaloma

Reserva Yakunina

Daily Itinerary 

Day 1: Arrival

  • Pick up at Quito Mariscal Sucre airport by SDV transport

  • Travel to Sueño de Vida Reserve with stop for breakfast or lunch

  • Arrive at the reserve, settle in

  • Student introductions, Program Orientation

  • Tour of the SDV grounds and facilities

  • Evening meal/dialogue

Day 2: Transforming Agro-Industry to Agro-Ecology (Part 1)

  • Morning yoga class/focus session

  • Breakfast/Kitchen clean up

  • Morning FieldLab: Guided observation walk through 5 categories of agricultural land: cow pasture, regenerating (formerly chemically treated) cacao farm, naturally regenerating pasture (no intervention), 1 yr planned regeneration of pasture (pioneer phase), and 3 yr planned regeneration of pasture, polyculture fruit, nut, spice, and timber tree forest (target phase). Observe and examine soil quality, ground moisture retention, ambient temperature, humidity, and types of wildlife present in each category

  • Lunch/Kitchen clean-up

  • Presentation: History of Agro-Forestry in Tropical/Sub-tropical Regions and how it builds soil, protects biodiversity, and maintains local knowledge. History of Agro-Industry in Tropical/Sub-tropical regions (Green Revolution) and the costs of continued expansion of the agricultural frontier 

  • Afternoon FieldLab: Divide into two teams and debate the statement: “ You can't feed the world with agro-ecology.” What are the arguments/justification for this statement? What are the arguements against? What do future food and agriculture scientists need to do to show that agro-ecology systems are not only more ecologically sustainable than chemically dependent monicultures, but as or even more productive? 

  • Relaxation/Light evening meal

Day 2: Transforming Agro-Industry to Agro-Ecology (Part 1)

  • Morning yoga class/focus session

  • Breakfast/Kitchen clean up

  • Morning FieldLab: Guided observation walk through 5 categories of agricultural land: cow pasture, regenerating (formerly chemically treated) cacao farm, naturally regenerating pasture (no intervention), 1 yr planned regeneration of pasture (pioneer phase), and 3 yr planned regeneration of pasture, polyculture fruit, nut, spice, and timber tree forest (target phase). Observe and examine soil quality, ground moisture retention, ambient temperature, humidity, and types of wildlife present in each category

  • Lunch/Kitchen clean-up

  • Presentation: History of Agro-Forestry in Tropical/Sub-tropical Regions and how it builds soil, protects biodiversity, and maintains local knowledge. History of Agro-Industry in Tropical/Sub-tropical regions (Green Revolution) and the costs of continued expansion of the agricultural frontier 

  • Afternoon FieldLab: Divide into two teams and debate the statement: “ You can't feed the world with agro-ecology.” What are the arguments/justification for this statement? What are the arguements against? What do future food and agriculture scientists need to do to show that agro-ecology systems are not only more ecologically sustainable than chemically dependent monicultures, but as or even more productive? 

  • Relaxation/Light evening meal

Day 3: Transforming Agro-Industry to Agro-Ecology (Part 2)

  • Morning yoga class/focus session

  • Breakfast/Kitchen clean-up

  • Morning FieldLab: Re-visit the 3-year planned regeneration plot for closer observation. While in the field, learn the basics of bio-mimicry, or designing a crop system based on analogs from a natural ecosystem. Identify the layers of an agro-ecology system and understand the functions of each layer respective to the whole. 

  • Lunch/Kitchen clean-up

  • Presentation/Exercise: Learn how to design a productive self-sustaining agro-ecology system with an understanding of timing (pioneer/supporting, target, and mature phases), multi-functionality, and long-term growth. 

  • Afternoon FieldLab: Putting knowledge into action. Return to a one-year natural regeneration and begin to prepare the land for pioneer edible species (cassava and banana). While clearing, learn how to use cut vegetation to create “biomass webs” to fertilize soil and retain ground moisture. 

  • Light Evening Meal/Relaxation 

Day 4: A Bird’s Eye View. Agro-ecology, Bioconstruction, Commons Conservation, Diversification, Extra Value Production, and Future Growth in the Mashpi Nature Reserve

  • Breakfast/Kitchen clean-up. Transport to Mashpi Nature Reserve 30 min away.

  • Guided Tour of the Mashpi Artesanal Chocolate Farm with co-founder Alejandro Solano. Experience a mature agro-ecology system and “farm of the future” where a small, dedicated team has successfully regenerated a degraded pasture to a highly productive and diverse heirloom cacao farm. Follow the entire “bean to bar” process from organic cultivation to award-winning fair-trade chocolate all contained within a small area on conserved forest land. Gain insight into how farmers can add value to their products even with minimal infrastructure. 

  • Guided tour of the “Pie Montaño” trail with biologist Arturo Falchi of the Chontaloma Reserve (Part 1, Mashpi-Shungo to Pambiliño). Walk through a mature natural regeneration (secondary forest) resulting from commons conservation. Observe soil quality, ambient temperature, humidity, ground moisture, plant diversity, and wildlife present. Discover a diverse array of useful plants that provide medicine, mulch, building material, and wildlife habitat. 

  • Lunch at Pambiliño Reserve. Be nourished on a meal of diverse foods native to the cloud forest harvested directly from the reserve farm, also a mature agro-ecology system.

  • Guided tour of Pambiliño Bosque Escuela, nursery, and composting station with co-founder Mare and Oliver.

  • Presentation by Mare on the importance of local diversity vs long-chain distribution and the preservation of local knowledge of forest cultivation methods.

  • Guided tour of the ¨Pie Montano¨trail by biologist Arturo Falchi (Part 2 Pambiliño to Chontaloma. Chontaloma to Yakunina). Learn about water testing and conservation, ways the Mashpi community is working to conserve their commons, more about the unique wildlife species endemic to the cloud forest, and the three year regeneration projects at Chontaloma and Yakunina Reserves.

  • Presentation at Yakunina Reserve by founders Miguel and Paulina. Learn how they converted an agro-industral heart-of-palm plantation (one of Ecuador´s biggest monocultures) to organic agro-forestry management and created their own added-value product. Also, Miguel will guide stdents through the various bioconstruction projects at Yakunina and explain sustainable water-purification, waste-treatment, and power-producing systems.

  • Return transport to SDV Reserve. Light Evening meal/Dialogue about the day.

Day 5: Transforming Input-Intensive Building to Productive Bioconstruction



Program Content (sample)

A. Predominant Method: Agro-industry

Problems:

  • Monoculture crops degrade and destroy ecosystems, displace wildlife, endanger food supplies, and are much more dependent on intensive use of chemical herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers.

  • Repeated and intensive use of herbicides destroys soil structure, leaches fertility, and kills off soil microbes, making chemical fungicides and fertilizers necessary

  • Dependence on chemical fertilizers weakens plant root systems, making them less resilient to disease, drought and heavy rains.

  • The cycle is then precarious: a single crop dependent on chemical interventions. If the chemicals are not available or a resistant disease invades, the entire crop can be destroyed, adversely affecting the food supply and income to the farmer.

  • Degraded soils cannot sequester carbon and even contribute to greenhouse gasses by emitting carbon spumes

Alternative: Agro-ecology (agro-forestry, analog forestry)*

Benefits:

  • Polyculture crops and supporting plants build and enrich ecosystems, provide habitat for wildlife, secure food supplies, and create a healthy circular flow requiring fewer inputs and less intervention over time.

  • Has a long and established history of providing food while preserving ecosystems, especially those with fragile soils.

  • Mimics a healthy self-sustaining ecosystem, such as a forest, where a broad diversity of plants perform different functions to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. To iterate only a few examples: Tall deep-rooted trees mine minerals from soil, fertilize with leaf-fall, provide perches for predator birds that keep so-called “pest” populations in check, and shade and protect other species. Mid-sized trees provide more leaf fall and host their own set of wildlife. Low plants and groundcovers hold delicate topsoils, retain moisture in the ground during drought, and siphon excess water during wet seasons. In the soil, insects and microbes digest leaf litter, adding organic matter to soil. 

  • Soil rich in organic matter is a huge carbon sink. Forests and regenerated land are key to mitigating global warming.

  • As the system matures, fewer inputs and less intervention/labor  is needed. 

  • Diversity in crops provides more food and income security and continued propagation of more varied species.

Challenges to implement:

  • Initially requires more time and labor to set a system of agro-ecology in motion. 

  • With an emphasis on perennial crops, it will also take more time to realize the first yields. Annual crops can fill the gap if one understands the analog system.

  • Knowledge of the analog system is not prevalent. Universities, responsible corporations, governments, and private foundations must work together to educate food producers and quantify results.

  • Entrenched agro-industrial companies will not want to relinquish market share and will actively fight competition with recourses to legal suits and political lobbies.

  • “You can't feed the world with food forests,” the argument goes. Perhaps that arguememt would be better phrased as “You can't feed the world as we know it….” Feeding the world is less a problem of food production than an uneven and complex distribution system. We also will explore the distribution problem in this program.

Field Lab:

  • Guide students through tours of several categories of land: a degraded pasture, an herbicide intensive monoculture farm, naturally regenerating land, a one year planned regeneration (SdV), 3 year planned regenerations (SdV, Chontaloma, Yakunina), mature 10 year planned regenerations (Mashpi-Shungo, Pambiliño), and a protected cloud forest (Mashpi Reserve). Students will be able to observe and compare soil quality, ambient temperature, humidity, and diversity of plants and wildlife within each category.

  • Observe and compare a mature regeneration project to a conserved area of forest. How are they similar? Identify the “layers” from canopy to ground and describe the functions of each layer. Identify pioneer species, target species, and supporting plants. 

  • Get hands-on experience the regenerating land in the early stages by planting pioneer species and understanding their vital functions. 

*related careers: Food and Agriculture Scientist, Environmental Scientist, Water and Soil Scientist, Sustainability Consultant

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B. Predominant Method: Input-Intensive Building

Problems: 

  • The building sector currently contributes an estimated 30-40% of carbon emissions.

  • Cement, the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gases, is used in huge amounts and often unnecessary ways, especially in developing countries. 

  • The vast majority of commercial and residential structures are “boxes”; Everything vital to the occupants (food, water, power, heat, cooling) must be brought in, and all waste must be taken out.

  • Within the small number of buildings that produce something, food in a rooftop garden, for example, they lack the integrated infrastructure to make full use of it. 

Alternative: Productive Bioconstruction* 

Benefits:

  • Utilizes low-impact alternatives to cement such as hydraulic lime, clays, and volcanic ash 

  • Uses natural, inexpensive materials such as strawbales, plant fibers, and rammed earth to build insulating structures and superabobe/earthbags to withstand earthquakes and floods.

  • Innovates design to take advantage of natural landscape features such as slope, sunlight, shade, etc. to provide water, light, stable temperature, etc. 

  • Integrates renewable energies, rooftop or vertical gardens, and recycled water in holistic ways that sustain the building occupants while reducing dependency on external inputs

Challenges to implement:

  • Building codes must be updated and made more flexible to allow for innovation. 

  • Lack of knowledge. Natural alternatives like strawbale and superabobe must be mainstreamed, especially in the developing world where cement is fast and cheap. 

  • Convention. Methods and designs termed “innovative” or “revolutionary” must become the norm. With green building, the techniques and know-how to make a real difference in carbon emissions is there. How do we make green building all building? 

  • Like agro-ecology systems, green buildings take more investment to build, but cost less to maintain over time. How do we overcome the initial investment hurdle for poorer populations?

FieldLab:  

  • Tour the SdV grounds and observe how natural features like slope, contour, shade, and location relative to a water supply influenced the plan and layout of the facility.

  • Tour the SdV, Pambiliño, and Yakunina facilities and listen to explanations of the different  materials and Bioconstruction methods used to build: native bamboo, superabobe, clay & fiber, earth plasters and mortars, hydraulic lime, and repurposed materials. 

  • Learn the techniques and build an earthquake resistant superabobe wall and an insulated cool-storage closet with clay and natural fibers. 

*related careers: Green Building Professional (designers, architects, contractors, builders), Environmental Engineer, Urban Planner, Research & Development technician, Renewable Energy technician, Federal, state, and local legislators

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