Wrapping Up

There were many ups and downs throughout the trip, many of which I have discussed in my previous blogposts. Most of the challenges I faced during the trip were in unexpected moments – moments which had been left unplanned, unstructured or “un-discussed”. Although this could be seen as a flaw of the course structure, I’m glad for this flaw because it was such moments of flaws which provoked me, caused ideological conflicts and led to critical thinking. Overall this trip has been an enlightening, rewarding and inspiring experience for me.


Understanding a problem in all its complexity – looking at all dimensions
In the Fall semester, we recognized that the mining conflict had many layers to it and represented fundamental differences in notions of development and wellbeing. We spent almost the entire semester trying to understand the complexity of the anti-mining struggle. In that process, I was nearly convinced that the state was the enemy. However, as I discussed in the last post, that conviction was diluted during my time in Quito. Even though we had recognized the problem as complex, we failed to see it in all dimensions. We had a thorough view of just one aspect of it.

Personal characteristics I’d like to work on
Because of the emphasis placed on daily reflection and the blogs, I was able to know my own behaviour in unfamiliar situations. I had periods of frustration and disagreement with my team and our work, which stemmed from differing priorities and principles. There was enough structure in the course to help me figure out how I can handle these differences better in the future.
• The personal relationships formed with my teammates
At the beginning of the trip, I felt like I was in “The Breakfast Club”. Our team was so diverse; it was very unlikely that I would have interacted with them if not for this class. As the trip wore on, we discovered that although we were so different on the surface, we did have some fundamental common ground. Our shared experiences helped us bond as individuals and as a group. By the end, I did see them all as my friends!

• Interacting with professors in a far more meaningful way than possible in traditional classes
I’m very thankful for the wonderful course leadership we have had. We shared many meals and laid-back experiences in informal settings. We also shared conversations that ranged from life philosophy to disagreements/discussions on our perspectives of the fieldtrip. Just the time, access and freedom we had with our professors was incredible.

• Experiencing another culture, embracing their manners, knowing the food

This trip has opened up all of South America for me. So far, I’ve known little about the continent, its history and culture. I’m grateful to have seen Ecuador (its forests, rural areas, small town culture and big city culture), lived with Ecuadorians and learnt their way of interaction, eaten at Ecuadorian homes and restaurants. As Martín said, hopefully this trip is the beginning of a long relationship with this beautiful continent.

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Shades of Grey

Written on 17th January

I have been in Quito for a few days now. I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality of public transportation, the cleanliness of the city and the environment friendly messages from the government. I also saw many art and history exhibits on the streets; it is an attempt to bring the rich history and culture of Quito from the museums to people’s lives. If I had only visited Quito, I would have thought that the Ecuadorian government is progressive.

Ecuador is the only country in the world whose constitution recognizes the rights of nature. The governmental structure includes a citizens’ committee along with the executive, judiciary and legislative bodies. The government has embraced the notions of “Buenvivir” (“good living”) and seems to have adopted the tagline “Ama la Vida” (“Love Life”). This government is clearly more than just about defence, economy and quality of life indices.

However, throughout last semester and our first two weeks in Ecuador, we have only seen the government as a malicious, anti-environment actor in the mining struggle in Intag. This progressive and green government is the same one that doesn’t recognize the ecological richness of the Intag region. It may be that the government is just manipulative and successfully maintains a progressive image despite contrasting actions. But that seems like a stretch to me.

I think that the current Ecuadorian government truly does care about its natural resources, ecological richness and wellness of its people. But at the same time, it has twenty five million people to govern using its limited resources. Before branding the government as the enemy, it would help to understand the trade-offs a government faces. If you had to make these complex, macro level decisions which necessitate compromise, how would you go about it?

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Written on 14th January

We spent the last couple of days in ecotourism cabins in Junín. We had electricity, but no wifi or phone service. I chose not to do the optional activities, so I had a lot of downtime, which I needed after a colorful week in El Rosal. It gave me a lot of time to reflect on my experience so far, the challenges I’ve faced and what I’ve learnt from it.

One of the challenges I’ve faced has to do with time. We had a rough sketch of an itinerary before we got here, so much of the details of our daily activities were left to be figured out later. This is not for lack of planning, but because it’s impossible to make exact plans here. Time is not viewed as rigidly as we do in college – 7am means anytime between 7am-8am or so. Entonces, our daily schedule was also full of uncertainty and most of the time. Plans beyond the next few hours were not to be taken too seriously. Having been master of my own time in college, where I plan my days down to the hour, I was frustrated with this uncertainty about time and being on someone else’s schedule. Halfway through the trip, my only source of time – my phone’s clock – went cuckoo; it randomly reports the wrong time. Since then, I’ve been learning to let go of time.

The other challenge has been more profound. It was easy to have definite opinions on notions of development, the mining conflict in Intag, etc when I was at Cornell. But in practical life, things are not as black and white as I’d imagined them to be. It’s not that my opinion has changed, but that I have unanswered questions which cast my strongly held beliefs into doubt. Unfortunately, the way our field trip is structured, I haven’t found the environment to discuss these questions with our instructors. However, I have been able to have some conversations with classmates which sometimes helped me resolve my doubt and other times reassured me it’s normal to go through this period of doubt. It’s easy to form an opinion based on what some knowledgeable people say, but to truly believe in something, I have to find my own answers.

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The Small Business Magic

I have been staying with a family in El Rosal and also been working with the women who run the natural products/community tourism business. In the last few days, I’ve been observing more and more about this community that breaks the stereotypes which Lenore Cavallero presented to us about “campo culture” in her lecture on Ecuador. While some of my observations may be so different because Ecuadorian society is changing at a faster pace than one person can keep up with, the extent of the difference suggests that there’s something else at play. I think it is because of El Rosal’s natural products and community tourism business. Here are some effects of the business –

1) Independent, confident women
The women we have interacted with have strong opinions and they are not afraid to share it. They make their own decisions for the business and are confident about approaching clients in business settings.

2) Community Stewardship
The women’s confidence in business extends to their society. They have bold visions for their community and are acting on realizing them. Wall paintings and signs in the area attempt to teach cleanliness and appreciation for nature to the kids. There is a sense of ownership of the space, community and their shared future.

3) Greater exposure to the outside world
El Rosal’s business office has wifi; there have been a few German volunteers here; the women interact with businesses in Quito and beyond. For a village so remote, its people are fairly aware of the world beyond.

4) A unique place of its kind
There are probably several communities in Intag with the size and composition of El Rosal. But the small business in El Rosal makes it different and interesting to outsiders.

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Being a Feminist

Feminism can take many forms. In the western world, feminism is often only associated with career-oriented, independent women. Marches by feminists often include women who claim their right to dress as they want. The women who wear hijabs or abayas are considered oppressed by rigid schools of feminism. Even for more moderate feminists, it is very unlikely that a family and tradition oriented woman may be considered progressive.

A few days ago, a female classmate/friend and I were discussing the ways in which some cultures discriminate between daughters and sons. We talked about the ways in which our parents let us cross traditional gender boundaries. Somewhere in this conversation, she mentioned that when she hangs out with friends, there is always some girl who offers to make food. My friend was happy to declare that she wasn’t like that.

In the past, this used to be my view of a progressive woman too. A progressive woman doesn’t spend her time in the kitchen. She values her career as much as she values her family. She is bold and loves to break boundaries. She shouldn’t go out of her way to be nurturing. But in the past few months, my idea of a strong, progressive woman has become more inclusive. A progressive woman values education. She is able to take care of herself – including being able to make/acquire nutritious meals atleast for herself. If she chooses to have a family, she is be able to nurture it. She picks her battles carefully instead of being rebellious for the sake of it. And when she strongly believes in a cause, she is not afraid to stand for it. As I understand feminism, it doesn’t stand for women being able to do everything that men do. It stands for women being able to do what they consider right, even if men don’t.

Before coming to El Rosal, a remote area in rural Ecuador with a population of five families, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the women we were going to work with here. In a lecture on Ecuadorian culture, we had been told that in most farming communities, the women cook, take care of their family and probably hope that any young woman will get married soon and be settled down soon.

But the mother of the family I’m staying with in El Rosal surprises me as she embodies several of the ideals I mentioned in my progressive woman. I’m not sure how educated she herself is, but she is making sure that her 18 year old daughter will be well educated. She and her husband proudly told me how their daughter was selected for an exchange program and will be going to Germany for a year. The mother started a small business in natural cosmetics which contributes a considerable amount of money to the household. Despite this, she is a nurturing wife and mother. She cooks healthy meals using produce from her farm for her entire family. She values her family and tradition. What kind of feminism can say she is not progressive?

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What is the Good Life?

It’s the question philosophers have been trying to answer for centuries. The mining conflict in Intag also has its roots in differing answers to that question. To the residents, farmers and landholders of Intag, the good life seems to consist of family and community relations, sovereignty over land, somewhat self-reliant livelihood, living in a natural environment, and ecosystem services like clean air and water that come along with it. Money barely plays into the equation. On the other hand, to most decision makers, the good life is defined by parameters such as per capita income, education level, access to healthcare and other infrastructure. Nature and community life don’t figure into this answer.

At the beginning of this class, I may have argued that the modern lifestyle is very materialistic and we need to instil greater valuation of nature. But having been in Intag, Ecuador for the past couple of days, I have begun to re-evaluate my own answer.

We stayed in the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve for the last three nights. The reserve is a 45 minute hike away from the main road. We were well into the cloud forest and there was no cell phone reception. Our accommodations were rustic. There was no electricity and we used candles and flashlights after sunset. Running water was limited, there were composting toilets and solar powered showers which provided warm water when the sun was at its highest. The air was as fresh as I’d ever breathed it; the food was delicious; the environment was serene. The first night, I slept around 9PM and woke up at 5AM to the birds’ dawn chorus. We went on a walk in the forest to see the Andean Cock of the Rock. It was a beautiful experience!

However, just by the second day, I was missing the services that I took for granted in regular life – electricity, convenient bathrooms, warm showers, connectivity to the rest of the world. I was surprised that the nearest neighbours lived half an hour away; the nearest town was a 1.5 hour hike through the forest and walking was the only option. Many children had to hike an hour or so to reach their school. I don’t know where the nearest clinic or hospital was. The experience reminded me of how simple life could be. But it also reminded me of how much I’m dependent on the parameters that states use to measure quality of life. It may be materialistic, but it also seems extreme to give it all up.

A life of consumerism is unsustainable, but that doesn’t mean one must reject all infrastructure that makes life easier. Now I aim for moderation – a lifestyle in which I will have access to the services I consider basic, but in which my consumption is also thoughtful.

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First Impressions in Ecuador

As soon as we arrived in Quito, Ecuador, we drove to a small town called Otavalo. It is one and a half hours away from Quito and draws a large number of tourists to its handicrafts market. It is also an important site for domestic trade and business. You can walk along the perimeter of the entire town in about an hour. Given its small size and tourist oriented economy, it comes across as a safe and welcoming environment for newbies like us. We stayed there for about three days.

31st December
• Arrived in Otavalo around 2:00AM
• Met with the entire group at breakfast at 9:00AM
• Visited the local marketIMG_20151231_113546
• Lunch at a local restaurant 1:00PM
I had a vegetarian ceviche. With its onions, lemon and spiciness, the dish reminded me of some Indian street food!
• On our way back from lunch, we picked up an effigy to burn for New Year celebration later that night (It’s part of the Ecuadorian New Year tradition).

• Team meeting with professors to discuss the status of our projects
• Dinner at a local restaurant
• Walked through the city to see pre-new year’s celebrations. Every street corner had music, effigies staged as political satire, and young men dressed as widows of the old year and mourning the old year.


A streetcorner party of men dressed as widows of the old year. Very provocative widows, huh?

• Before midnight, we went to the town plaza and joined in the celebrations. We burnt our own effigy as well. With effigies being burnt nearly everywhere, the town seemed to be on fire.
• A popular New Year’s tradition is to eat 12 grapes in the 12 seconds leading upto the new year and make a wish for each grape. I ate 12 grapes before midnight. But neither could I manage to eat one every second, nor did I have 12 wishes to make.

1st January
• Breakfast at 9:00AM
• I was exhausted from the previous night and the 40 hours of travel to get to Otavalo.
• Students were interested in 2 day trips – one to the town of Cotacachi and the other to the Laguna de Mojanda. I was too exhausted to endure the travel. So I opted out of it, along with two of my teammates – Amy and Noah.
• I did my laundry – washing my all clothes by hand for the first time. It was a mini-workout.
• Went to lunch with one of our professors, Amy and Noah.

Simon Bolivar - Graffiti in Otavalo

Simon Bolivar – Graffiti in Otavalo

• Amy, Noah and I set out to do some market research – we found out prices of some natural shampoos, soaps and creams in Otavalo’s cosmetics stores and pharmacies.
• When the others came back from their day trip, we had a fruit sampling session. There were so many tropical fruits I had never seen or heard of! We had a fun time tasting the different fruits.
• I took a short nap. Then we went out to dinner at a local restaurant which had live music. The musicians were indigenous Ecuadorian people, who were playing nueva andina music. The music was great and so was the food.

2nd January
• On Saturdays, Otavalo has its special handicrafts market which extends across several streets, in addition to the usual Poncho Plaza. I bought a bag from the market before 8:00AM
• We had breakfast at 8am
• Our team set out to buy the tools and materials our community partners had requested. We spent about 2 hours walking around the city, and found about half the things on the list. We had walked about 4 miles that morning.


The streets of otavlo

The streets of otavalo

• At 11am, we had a presentation on intercultural competence by Lenore Cavalero, an American lady who has been living in Ecuador for a few decades and has worked with several study abroad programs over the years. It was an enlightening talk!
• We had lunch in Otavalo and then set out to Intag.
• After a 90 minute drive and a 45 minute walk up a mountain, we reached ICFR – Intag Cloud Forest Reserve.

In the first two days, everything about Otavalo – the warmth of the people and the city were impressive. The people around us were extremely willing to help; they spoke sweetly and politely; the shopkeepers seemed genuinely interested in knowing about us; they welcomed us into their shops and asked a lot of questions. On New Year’s eve, Otavaleños seemed glad to include us in their celebrations. Their sense of community, and willingness to let us step into that community briefly, was very impressive.

Then Lenore Cavalero’s lecture came as a reality check to me. She explained to us the hierarchy of Ecuadorian society and exactly how and where we fit into it as foreigners. My pleasant memories of Otavalo gained a tint of cynicism. Perhaps the shopkeepers were so friendly only because we were naïve foreigners who would overpay for their touristy products. Perhaps Otavaleños were eager to include us in their celebrations because we were amusing and provided them entertainment.

What exacerbated my cynicism was the shopping list we received from our community partners in El Rosal. One of the projects we are working on is a botanical garden. It’s meant to be a tourist attraction and an aesthetic space with flowers and other flora. From Otavalo, we called our community partners and asked them if there was anything we needed to buy for the project. The list we received consisted of tools like saws, shovels, a clipping tool, machetes, water pipes, a sprinkler and fencing material to put around the garden. It also had a list of plants whose seeds we would plant in the garden: lettuce, broccoli and such.

I wondered why the tourist oriented botanical garden would contain lettuce and broccoli. Also, in a community of farmers, did they not already have gardening tools? While the fencing material was a reasonable item, it costs $400 for the length they mentioned. I began to feel that we were being taken advantage of. It seemed like we were just buying anything our community partners wanted, and not what they really needed for the project. Despite my conflicting feelings, we bought the things we could find and afford. To our partners, are we more than “rich” foreigners who will buy whatever they want for them?

It may be too early to judge since I haven’t even met our community partners yet. But everything is definitely not as rosy as I imagined it to be.

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Pre-departure Reflections

Reflect and comment on your expectations of your experience and the expectations and assumptions that you now hold of your community partner(s). Also, what expectations and/or assumptions do you think your community partner(s) have of you?

The semester is coming to a close – today was the last day of classes. Our field trip to Ecuador is less than four weeks away. So far, we have interacted with our community partners – a group of women in Intag who run a small scale, natural cosmetics and community tourism business. We are a team of six students working on the natural cosmetics aspect of their business. Over the semester, we have tried to communicate with our community partners, understand their needs and capacities, and prepare for the projects to be implemented during the trip. However, communication has been infrequent and difficult. So our project preparation has been like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without having all the pieces. While the projects are like consulting work, this trip entails personal relationships in addition to professional ones.

In our interactions with the women, one woman acted as representative. Everyone seemed polite and good natured. In addition, the team’s leader came across to me as a confident, bold and outspoken woman. Her strong personality pleasantly surprised me, but it does take someone like that to start a business from scratch. To contrast this image, our team leader who visited Intag in the summer told us an incident with the women. When she visited them in El Rosal, there was an older volunteer who had been there for a while. He insisted that being “campesino” women, our community partners would not know how to market a product in a modern way. This did not offend the women; instead, they agreed that they truly wouldn’t know how to do that and that’s why they needed external volunteers. It’s hard to imagine these strong women being undermined that way. I cannot tell if this is a symptom of the strongly patriarchal society they come from, or if these women who seem so smart and confident actually lack those skills. As I’m headed to Intag, I have more questions than well formed assumptions.

On the other hand, I’m completely in the dark about what they expect from us in a personal sense. Professionally, I’m worried that they might have grander expectations from us than what we can deliver. This is the first year we have collaborated with this particular group of women through this class. As a result, we did not have a trusted relationship or much information to start with. We might end up disappointing our community partners by not reaching tangible results of marketing/selling their product. But I think the most significant milestone our team can achieve is to build that relationship and foundation which next year’s students can benefit from.

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The Past and Future of Natural Dyes

The history of development has deep ties to the history of colonialism. The financial and labor capital of the colonized lands formed the backbone of the process of Western development. So looking back to colonial/developmental history, the textile industry was perhaps the most significant. First, European trading companies sought to trade in the textiles of South/Southeast Asia which were immensely popular in the European markets. Soon, the textile industry became amongst the first to be industrialized.

The colonized nations, which were once exporters of value added products – textiles, were reduced to suppliers of raw material. Cotton and dyes were perhaps the most important of those materials. Under British rule in India, farmers were forced to cultivate Indigo – a dye producing plant. It was the fight of oppressed Indigo farmers that Gandhi first championed in India, and became famous for.

From our readings this week, it appears that South America has also had a similar trajectory in colonial history. Since colonization of South America occurred much earlier than South Asia, we are in the pre-industrialization period. With textiles being a valued item of trade, natural dyes obtained in South American colonies were highly valued. The local techniques of dying, as described in the paper were read, were also ingenious! So European traders established dedicated plantations to growing plants that produced a certain colored dye, or plants on which certain dye producing insects fed. However, with developments in chemistry and synthetic chemical dyes which were cheaper to produce, natural dye production in South America lost its glory.

In modern times, with research establishing that synthetic dyes contain large amounts of carcinogens and thus pose a health risk for society, natural dyes are once again receiving some attention. Researchers are trying to collect and preserve information on the techniques historically used by south american natural textile workers, whose numbers have dwindled greatly.

But I think intensive natural dye production in modern times comes with as many disadvantages as advantages. Yes, natural dyes may be better for the end user. If done right, an organic dye industry can empower indigenous communities which perhaps still retain the knowledge and techniques used back in the day. In essence, it will give rise to an “organic dye”/”organic textile” industry.

However, from an environmental/ practical social perspective, I don’t think it’s necessarily better than producing synthetic dyes. Industrial production of natural dyes will require plantations (large scale deforestation!) which will be particularly detrimental to bio-diverse/water-rich areas in the South American Andes. In addition, it’s likely that local people will only end up with manual labour jobs in these plantations, rather than the empowered position we’d like to see.

However, a bottom-up movement may be viable if it is possible to grow some of these dye producing plants as shade grown crops. Farmers could produce these crops and sell it in the boutique textile market (I’m assuming that already exists) through a dye co-operative modeled after AACRI, Intag’s shade grown coffee co-operative.

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When are We Economically Developed Enough?

This week’s point of discussion is the inherent conflict in ecotourism: preserving nature versus economic/commercial development. The assumption that such a conflict is inherent is not well supported. Economic development of a region is defined as an increase in the amount of goods and services produced in that region. While many goods and services may contribute to environmental degradation, not all of them do.

Eco-tourism, by definition, is a service that not only abstains from negatively impacting the environment, but also promotes local culture and empowers local people. As we saw in the InkaTerra case study, the ecotourism company makes a great effort to have a neutral carbon footprint and to support ecological conservation. However, perhaps few ecotourism companies go to this extent with their mission. To ensure a high standard in ecotourism, local governments could enforce stricter expectations of environmental and social impact from ecotourism companies.

While I do not see an inherent conflict in ecotourism, I do see a conflict between economic development and preserving nature. Even if a region were only to promote goods/services with a neutral carbon footprint, there is a limit to the extent of these services that a region can support. Their limiting factor could be land, other resources or even consumer demand for that service (there can only be so much ecotourism). But the quest for economic development does not end with paucity of environment-friendly resources! At some point, there will be no choice but to tap into the not-so-environment-friendly industries.

The problem does not seem to be any one industry or activity that degrades the environment. The problem is that our notion of economic development is an infinite loop. At what point are we economically developed enough? What level of production of goods/services is enough? What number makes a good GDP? With out current economic model, nothing is ever enough.

Every country races to produce more and more goods and services to sell. The countries where people cannot afford these ever increasing number of goods are termed underdeveloped. Then these underdeveloped countries strive to improve their economy, so they produce more and more. But for whom? Why? We never stop to reflect.

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