A forest path out of poverty
In Ecuador, a program helps the Amazon's indigenous people make a living without cutting trees.
ILA YAKU, ECUADOR — David Andi, his wife, and four children live in a bamboo hut in the Amazon rainforest, several hours' hike from the nearest dirt road. They grow corn and cocoa, scraping a living out of a tiny field cleared in the jungle. Ecuador's economic crisis in the late 1990s eroded the family's income to less than $500 per year, while prices for necessities tripled.
Until recently, Mr. Andi, one of the Quechua people, knew of only two ways to escape this poverty, and he liked neither: He could log the rain forest, which would leave landscapes of infertile soil; or he could trade with warring factions from neighboring Colombia and thereby abet the Colombian civil war's spread south into Ecuador.
Now he has an alternative. Seven months ago, he joined the Callari Project, a marketing cooperative spanning 15 towns and villages in Ecuador's Napo province. Callari, whose name means "ancient" in the Quechua language, aims to help indigenous people make a living without destroying their forest or getting involved in the Colombian conflict.
Since the cooperative formed two years ago, 700 artisans and 300 farmers have increased their incomes 30 percent by improving the quality of the cocoa and coffee they grow, relearning indigenous methods for producing useful items from jungle materials, and marketing their products abroad. Together they have made some $200,000 in extra income that goes to buy schoolbooks, build better houses, or provide emergency funds.
"My family's situation has improved a great deal," Andi says, while he weaves a mesh of strong fibers that he pulled out of the long leaves of a pita plant. "Now, we can buy school clothes and books for my children. They never could have those things before." Outside the capital, Quito, education is not free beyond elementary school. It costs $300 per year to send a child to high school.
But the effects of this project go beyond education. Thalia Flores, editor of the national newspaper Hoy,says Callari could provide a new economic model in the Amazon. "We desperately need economic alternatives like this in the Amazon region," she says. "This is the key to protecting Ecuador from the Colombian conflict. When people are so poor they have nothing left to lose, they will do anything to make money, even dangerous things. The Callari cooperative won't solve everything over night, but it can improve the security situation and provide a model for sustainable development."
Bartolo Tapui, a former policeman in Andi's village, says that before the Callari cooperative expanded to Ila Yaku, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group in Colombia, was gaining a foothold in the area. But as soon as the villagers organized, the guerrillas went elsewhere. "The FARC uses people who are desperate and weak," Mr. Tapui says. "Now that people here can make money doing honest work, they won't have anything to do with the guerrillas."
The cooperative was not formed to resist the Colombian combatants, however. It was initiated by a Kansan named Judy Logback, who came to Ecuador to do environmental education in 1997. She got to know indigenous communities and tried to persuade them to stop cutting down their trees for sale.
"One family explained to me that for the price of a hardwood tree, they could send one of their children to school," Ms. Logback says. "They know that it is damaging to cut down the trees, but when it is between a child's education and a tree, their choice is clear. A local teacher said to me, 'If you want to save the rainforest, help us find a way to make a living without destroying it.' "
She started by selling seeds the villagers collected to reforestation programs. That way, they could make just as much money from a living tree in a year, as they could by cutting it down. Logback also noticed the beautiful baskets, bowls, canoes, weavings, jewelry, and even toothbrushes that the indigenous people made from the forest's natural, biodegradable materials. By 1999, Logback was selling some of these crafts to tourists. The artisans, who were used to intermediaries who bought their necklaces for $1 and later sold them for a high profit, were amazed when Logback gave them the full $5 or 6 she was paid for the crafts. "Immediately everyone wanted to make 10 more," Logback says. "So, we had a problem. We needed a marketing strategy."
Logback, who received a degree in microbiology from Beloit College in Wisconsin, knew little about marketing, but her enthusiasm made up for it. Within two years she had developed a network of shops, museums, and friends in 10 countries that agreed to sell Callari crafts. Last year, the project received a grant of $240,000 from the US government rural aid program known as PL480, and the Canadian International Development Agency. The funds helped to broaden marketing efforts and hire community elders as teachers to improve on the quality of the crafts and farm produce. Last month, Logback was awarded the New York-based Bay and Paul foundations' Biodiversity Leadership award, which comes with a $180,000 grant.
Callari has quickly gained a reputation in Ecuador for doing the most with the least amount of money. "The small amount of money we gave the Callari project was only meant to test the idea," says Luis Sanchez, Ecuador director of PL480. "We did not expect any concrete results yet, and we were pleasantly surprised. This project has the highest results per dollar spent."
In the past three months alone, it has doubled the price to 50 cents per pound that farmers can get for their cocoa. The cooperative organized farmers to pool their money to rent a truck that would take their produce to seaports for sale, bypassing dishonest middlemen.
Logback says she hopes that the project will spread to other parts of Ecuador. She plans to make Callari a brand name with strict quality control. "I figure, if Coca-Cola can spread to the ends of the earth, so can Callari," she declares, as she sends off a shipment of crafts to Germany.