Friday, June 17, 2016

Ecosystems and Urban Communities

By Jonathan Klopp

I want all large buildings to have wind and solar generation. Homes with the best sunlight should have rooftop solar. I want vertical farming skyscrapers. I want wide scale urban composting. I want robust filters on all exhaust points. We need islands of fertility (communal forests/orchards acting as urban lungs) in every neighborhood. We need to sustainably and locally source most municipal supplies. We need to incorporate new building materials (like hempcrete). We need buildings to have net negative emissions, whether they produce more clean energy or sequester more emissions than used to construct or power them. The hard part is finding a use for everything's waste, including ours.

These mostly just require investment. The park in every neighborhood? Relatively easy. A change to how waste is treated? Mostly just need to develop facilities at scale. Vertical farming already exists on a smaller scale, we already have CSA's and community gardens, and industries already have filtration regulations and standards. We already are making more bike lanes in a lot of cities, and large buildings with solar and wind have already been built in Dubai. There's sticker-thin technology developed by a Polish firm that can be placed on the back of your phone to charge it from any light source (i.e. solar or lamp). Hempcrete is already being utilized in some smaller buildings. In other words, I am for Deep Green cities.

As you might be able to tell, when talking about climate change, I have usually focused on cities and industry. They are massive sources of pollution and inefficiency, after all. They are also highly visible targets for improvement, but there is more to the equation beyond emissions and efficiency: reforestation and sequestration.

            A broad spectrum of green, peaks resting in mists, intermittent rains (despite it being the dry season), and rusty red dirt roads were the first sights to greet us as we pulled off the paved roads and into the rural Mata Atlantica. Minas Gerais, Brazil is a state rich in natural resources, and the exploitation of these resources led to the founding of several of its oldest cities.  The extraction did not stop with metals and minerals; it continued on in the farming practices advocated by the different levels of government. Today we see monocrops of coffee, and other commodity crops that have been deemed profitable, depleting exposed soils. Only 2% of the primary forests in the state remain. Regular rains washed away top soils, and slowly those rains are becoming less regular.

            There are bright spots where farmers are trying to address these issues. They are slowly growing into ‘islands of fertility’, as one agro-ecologist described his method for growing multiple types of plants together to bolster the bioavailability of nutrients for particular cultivars. At Iracambi, we sat with Robin Le Breton as he discussed forest corridors that help the soils retain water, awaken

dormant springs, and improve the soil quality. Successes have been achieved on a small scale, farmer by farmer. As we see livelihoods in Minas Gerais recuperating it strikes me that maybe this is what we need: islands of fertility scattered amongst the mountains, connected by forest corridors and riddled with the plurality of the available biodiversity.  Transforming how we interact with the environment is a big task, but starting small could be the answer.

Maybe the path to greener urban communities can be found through treating our cities like ecosystems.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

On the Importance of Community

By Matt Lehtonen 

                This year’s summer seminar and practicum in Brazil was my last class at AU, and I can’t think of a more fitting end to my time in the Natural Resources and Sustainable Development program. That’s because, in addition to picking up more experience abroad and continuing to hone research and writing skills, we spent a great deal of time talking and thinking deeply about values. As my classmates and I graduate from our programs and begin to plan our next steps with fancy diplomas in hand, we are confronted with intense pressure to focus on individual achievement and on acquiring more stuff: Compete aggressively for the new title and raise, use the money for a bigger house or apartment, a new car, new furniture, the latest phone, and so on. In the US, and increasingly everywhere else, we live in societies in which success is measured by the accumulation of money and material things. I don’t mean to imply that seeking better jobs and trying to earn a little more is inherently bad. Of course, those are the primary reasons most of us chose to go to graduate school for in the first place (and, let’s be honest, now we also have loans to repay). But I do believe, more strongly than ever now, that titles and stuff shouldn’t be all that’s left to seek after school. 

                One of the primary texts we read and discussed over the course was Bill McKibben’s 2007 book Deep Economy. In it, McKibben spills a lot of ink summarizing a mounting body of social science research that shows that, despite steadily rising levels of consumption in the US and other developed countries, people are no happier than they were some 30 or 40 years ago. In fact, by many measures we are worse off, as many developed nations now report higher rates of depression and other serious mental health conditions, as well as diet-related illness such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease than they did half a century ago. As we have steadily focused on making everything bigger (from houses and cars to banks and farms) we have grown increasingly sick and isolated.  As we spend more and more of our time at work, in our cars, or glued to various screens, tuned in to our individually curated programs and playlists, our ties to community outside of our immediate friends and family have frayed and our happiness and health has suffered. On the bright side, more and more of us seem to be recognizing the sense of loss that comes with lack of community and trying to do something about it.
                Tucked away in the midst of misty peaks, remnant rainforest, and steep hillsides patterned with pasture and rows of coffee trees in rural Minas Gerais, Iracambi served as an ideal place to mull on these themes. The fresh air, lack of cell service, steep hikes, and stunning views certainly helped to provide some distance from the hustle and bustle of grad school and city life. Even more inspiring, though, were the handful of people we met who have decided to abandon unsatisfying jobs and lifestyles in order to pursue new livelihoods built around an intense respect for community and the land. Some have already been introduced in this blog by others: Demian, who along with his best friend Bruno, left a job in finance in the state capital to buy land and start a farm, now divides his days between tending organic crops, working to reforest parts of his land with native trees, checking in on beehives, crafting beautiful drums and lamps out of bamboo, and reading and writing poetry; and Pavão, who walked away from a job at a refrigerator factory in protest after discovering they were dumping waste coolant directly into the local bay, and now works intently to develop best practices for organic cultivation of coffee, strawberries, and other vegetables and delights in sharing his ideas and his produce with neighbors and friends.              

We have met other inspiring individuals as well. Leandro, a primatologist by training, came to the region to study the endangered Muriqui monkeys that inhabit the nearby Serra do Brigadeiro State Park, fell in love, and decided to stay. With the help of his wife, family, and friends, he is about to finish building a beautiful house made out of yellow bricks, hand pressed one by one out of dirt from his property, and with floors, beams, and window trim crafted from reclaimed wood. It is a project motivated from start to finish out of a desire to respect the land, use less energy and natural resources, and make more with less. Toni, another close friend and former employee of Iracambi, is perhaps the most extreme model of anti-materialist living. Quiet, thoughtful, and intense, he spends his days tending a small organic coffee plantation, caring for his horses, painting, and making beautiful paper mache hummingbirds to be given as gifts to visitors and volunteers. Toni owns no vehicle, spends very little money, and lives in a small house with a wood stove for heat and just a handful of bare CFL bulbs and candles for light. In our conversations with these people they spoke passionately and eloquently about a renewed sense of satisfaction and fulfillment they have experienced since moving to the region and working closely with their neighbors and the land. Each, in their own way, models a belief that, after basic needs and a moderate level of material comfort is met, we can be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled when we devote our surplus energy to art, family, community, and the cultivation of a deep respect for the natural processes that sustain us.
These are extreme cases, perhaps. I don’t realistically expect that all or most people will want to flee their jobs and homes to become farmers and craftsmen in the countryside (though anyone who does should have to courage to go for it!). All around us though, there are examples of people taking important steps, both small and large, to re-center community and ecology in our lives. In our last class discussion, inspired by our readings and the people we met, my classmates and I brainstormed ideas for concrete steps we might take to make changes in our own communities at home: grow more of our own food and support local farmers, volunteer with a non-profit or community group, go to local meetings and get involved in local politics, organize with neighbors to invest in renewable and local energy generation, and so on. I intend to follow through, and I hope my classmates will too.

As a student of sustainable urban design, I recognize that, for better or for worse, most of the world’s population now lives in cities. We tend to think of cities as dense and dynamic hubs for culture and industry, as antithesis to all this is rural or natural. I believe though, that in addition to supporting dense populations, exciting new technologies, and wonderful expressions of culture and art, our cities can also be more like rural areas, full of tight-knit communities, gardens, trees, wildlife, and functioning ecosystems. Technology, and smart policy and design (the things we tend to study in school) will undoubtedly factor into making this vision a reality, but our collective values will also play an equally important part. Ultimately, more of us will have to desire more socially just and ecologically balanced societies, and work to share and amplify those values in our communities. We have so much to gain if we do, and everything to lose if we don’t.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Reflections on our weekend in Ouro Preto

by Christopher Pitt

Our trip to Ouro Preto (Black Gold) was a welcome respite from the intense work at Iracambi.  We were able to strengthen our bonds as a group, and get to know one another outside of the structured academic environment.  
Ouro Preto is a former colonial mining town that was founded at the end of the 17th century.  Additionally, it was the focal point of the Brazilian gold rush in the 18th century and became the largest city in Brazil.  With the exhaustion of the gold mines in the 19th century the city’s influence declined but many Escada churches, bridges, and fountains remain as a testimony to its past prosperity and the unique talent of the Baroque sculptor Aleijadinho.
The first church I visited was Igreja de São Francisco de Assis (Saint Francis de Assisi).  It was built in 1810 and was classified as one of the seven wonders of Portuguese origin in the world in 2009. Next to the church is a market which occupies the whole square with tents filled with handmade soapstone crafts.  You can find lots of interesting things here and it is one of the best places to find souvenirs in the city.
Each church gives a spectacular view of the city and they are all amazing works of architecture. One of the best views is from the top of the Igreja de Santa Efigenia (Church of Saint Efigenia) which is an exhausting climb to the top.  However, it is well worth it especially if you go there during sunset when you can see the entire historical part of Ouro Preto.
As a group we had numerous delicious meals.  Our first night we ate at a pizza and pancake rodízio called O Sótão - Casa de Panquecas.  Waiters came around and offered us everything form Margarita pizza to sweet pancakes.
The highlight of the trip (well, for the Real Madrid fans in the group) was watching Real Madrid defeat Atletico Madrid in the Champions League final.  The game was a tense, nail-biting affair with Real Madrid edging their opponents in penalty kicks.  We watched the game at a quaint restaurant called Escadabaixo Bar Cozinha which several us returned to the next day.
Next to our hostel was a bar/restaurant called Trem de Minas (Minas Train).  They had live music and specialized in food form Salvador, Bahia.  This included Moqueqa which I had yet to find on the trip.  Moqueqa is a stew made with a coconut milk base and accompanied with tomatoes, onions, garlic, coriander and palm oil (dendê). 
Aside from the Moqueqa there were obvious similarities between Ouro Preto and Salvador.  For example, the cobblestone streets, architecture, churches all served as reminders that they were Portuguese colonial towns.  However, the comparisons stop there.  Salvador had a rhythm and liveliness to it that was absent in Ouro Preto. Despite these differences our trip to Ouro Preto was a wonderful experience.
I highly recommend that visitors stop by this former colonial mining town to get a better sense of Brazil’s diverse and complex history.  Tchau!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Taste of Brazil

By Luz Angela Serrano

From the first day of this trip I was excited to explore and try the Brazilian cuisine since Brazil is a melting pot of colors, languages and customs, famous by its varied and exquisite cuisine.  Through this amazing journey that started in Rio de Janeiro and ended in the middle of the rainforest in the state of Minas Gerais, I can tell that I fall in love with Brazil, its food, values and people. 

Brazilian food is just one expression of the vast diversity of customs, resources and the beauty of this country. I was fascinated by the fact that I was able to find all type of food and flavors in big and congested cities such as Rio de Janeiro, as well as excellent homemade cuisine in remote rural areas of the state of Minas Gerais.  Even though, I was attracted by all kind of ingredients what really called my attention was to be part of the rich dynamic of values sharing that takes place in every meal.

Mealtime in Brazil is the moment of reunion and joy. Every restaurant has a big table with multiples dishes for all kind of preferences. Sometimes the environment is enriched by the present of musicians performing bossa-nova, forró or jazz. It is very common to find buffets and “per kilo” restaurants’, ordering from the menu is very rare and strange because this is the time to exchange your ideas, thoughts, moments and worries with your friends. This concept behind the meal time is very special in Brazil and it resembles its culture of friendship and happiness. In others cultures lunchtime is the time to grab a sandwich and eat it in front of the computer, along and with a lot of stress, but here in Brazil, I was able to see that no matter how big the problems and worries are, the mealtime is the time to come together with your friends, family and colleagues to enjoy the moment as it is.

The majority of our meals were moments to relax and comment on cool subjects. We as a group adapted quickly to this dynamic of taking time to eat, share and enjoy the time with others.  At nearly every meal, our professor, Eve Bratman, ordered a variety of food to share, the concept of sharing was always present and between lines it was a message of sharing the value of appreciation of moments and people. Our days in Rio where driven by regular meals in accordance with American times. However, everything changed when we arrived to Iracambi a research center located in the city of Rosário de Limeira in the state of Minas Gerais.

This place is a refugee for passionate people who care and protect the environment. It is a magic place in the middle of the rain forest where is very easy to be trapped by its beauty and spell. Our regular day at this magic place starts with the sound of a spoon biting a pot at 8:00 am. This is the mechanism that Carminha uses to let the residents know that it is time to eat and share. Breakfast offers a variety of traditional food and it is the first indicator that you are in the middle of the rain forest in a rural area of Minas.  There are always homemade cakes made of carrot or cinnamon, bread, cookies, oatmeal, honey, peanut butter, the famous cheese of Minas, fresh coffee and fresh milk. Lunch is always between noon and 1:00pm. It is the time for the meat, the rice and the beans. As complement you can find cooked vegetables, cassava, pumpkin and salad, and you need to be sure to eat properly because dinner is around 8:00pm which offers beans, rice, salad and some kind of vegetable cake. All food is cooked in traditional fire stoves; and apparently this is what makes the food famous in this region with and unique taste.


During out time in Ouro Preto and Mariana I had the change to try more traditional dishes, such as the Coxinhas which is a little raindrops of fried goodness usually filled with chicken and a very creamy cheese called “catupiry”, farofa which is a fried cassava flour, Pão de Queijo and feijoada. As a dessert in this region of Minas is common to find açaí and Romeu e Julieta, which is guava paste and white cheese stacked on top of each other.

As a closure of flavors we went to Pirapanema in Muriaé, MG for a gastronomy festival. The festival aimed to promote the gastronomy of the Serra do Brigadeiro region. The event brought together local restaurants and had the participation of renowned chefs of the area. But what made the event more especial was that the town created common spaces to eat. They had big tables in the streets and parks, so you were always sharing with others. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Grassroots Values

By Zev Rose

As our time in Brazil comes to an end I find myself reflecting on the stories and unique attributes of Brazil that I want to share with my friends and family. I look forward to looking over all the amazing pictures we’ve taken of the beautiful landscapes, farms, cities, towns, people, and food. And reviewing my notes from all the interesting courses, interviews and discussions. But beyond the physical memories I want to be able to take with me the culture of sharing, and pervasive feeling of love, humility, and openness.  

After the rush and excitement of our first few days in Rio de Janeiro arriving to Iracambi after hour 6-hour bus ride was a great relief. I felt graciously welcomed and taken care of by the staff and woke up the next morning to the beautiful sights and sounds of the Atlantic Rainforest. The vastness of the area around Iracambi was disorienting at first and as we bumped along the dirt roads, crisscrossing hills and visiting farmers, I had a hard time believing I’d ever get a handle on this place. But those feeling began to subside as we spent time learning and engaging with farmers that are committed to the land, their community, and their values. I also felt embraced by the staff of Iracambi, who took every opportunity to befriend us by sharing their time and unique perspectives on Iracambi, the region, and the world.

A group of agroecology high school  students in Muriaé with our AU team
As our group developed relationships with farmers practicing and teaching agroecology I began to understand that for them these practices are a way of life, rich in environmental and social values. The farmers generously donated their time to show us all over their farms and show us the various methods they’re using and experiments they’re conducting. They’ve found that agroecology produces higher yields and helps to improve the critical natural resources that have been degraded over the years. They also shared with us the love and joy they have for the land, the food they produce, the forest, the springs, and all that is involved with their difficult work. The values that underpin their lifestyles are basic human values, and yet so many people struggle to practice them in their day-to-day lives. I was moved by their openness, and the fact that they enjoyed sharing their deep thoughts and visions for their lives and the community.

The view from the top of the high trail at Iracambi
The uniqueness of Iracambi comes from its ability to take strangers from all walks of life and make them friends and advocates. I believe this is due to the truly genuine people that are affiliated with it, and the steadfast values that guide them. As I leave Iracambi I am equipped with powerful new knowledge and many tools for combatting climate change and supporting rural farmers. But staying at Iracambi also helped me to appreciate that change in my country and my community starts with a culture steeped in values at the grassroots and local level. I leave feeling invigorated and enthusiastic, and ready to channel the love and openness into pursuing the social and environmental good in my personal and professional life. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Where the Journey Begins!

By: Noorullah Ahmadzai

I along with a group of my fellows from the American University came to attend our practicum program in this culturally diverse, historically vibrant and an emerging economy of Brazil. I spend my first week in Rio de Janeiro to attend various discussions and lectures with Brazilian experts to understand the bigger picture of economy, politics and governance of the country. There, I had a mix of feelings about Brazil’s bigger picture.

A group photo of class fellows with Prof. Eve Bratman @ FGV in Rio de Janeiro!

After an exciting and busy week in Rio de Janeiro, the next destination was to visit Iracambi, a research center located in the city of Rosário de Limeira in the state of Minas Gerais to understand rural livelihood and life of people that are living in rural areas. The country side has such a beautiful landscape, very green hills and cloudy sky that one can only dream of it. Everyone in the group was so excited to reach to Iracambi but we had a stopover in the middle of our way to take delicious lunch and do a little shopping of chocolates, candies and fruits to energize ourselves during our stay.

Every society and community has its own pattern of living, culture and community practices and so is this community in Limeira. There are number of great lessons that one can take from this vibrant community as a lessons to apply in professional work in the field of international development and also to share with your country fellows. I would like to highlight couple of lessons that I personally realized were helpful to me to apply in my next journey of professional life.  

Robin Le Breton, Noorullah Ahmadzai, and Binka Le Breton
First, the two individuals who founded Iracambi, Robin and Binka, have an inspiring story of their life that how they ended up in this small community. They did incredible work here in the last two decades, and along with it they established a research center to spread their vision not only in Brazil but to the globe. Among the great and incredible work they have done in this community is the reforestation of the area that was deforested many years ago. From the discussion with both of them, I realized that they have a passion and commitment, which were the reasons that this reforestation happened along with many other things. Such stories has to be shared with local rural communities elsewhere as well to get the inspiration that anything is possible if one can struggle for it. Their efforts are countless and I am glad that I got this experience of knowing such stories through this practicum program.
A photo of the area that has been reforested!

The area has a great climate for the growth of various medicinal plants that can be used for various treatment purposes but also for economic development. Importantly, these medicinal plants has been preserved and further has been expanded. Where most of these medicinal plants can help in improving the economic status of poor farmers.
This photo is of one of many species of a medicinal plants in the forest

Local farmers drying coffee beans to sun, they are in the process of filling the dried one into bags!
One of the major plantation here that farmers are doing is coffee. It’s the country most productive land for coffee and contributes a lot to the GDP of Brazil. Every farmer has some sorts of coffee. Here are some of the photos that can highlight the traditional ways of drying coffee by sun and also some newly adaptive way of drying coffee. We as a group had visited number of coffee fields and did the collection of coffee beans, which was an interesting experience to work with local farmers. I wish to do those more and more in my life!

Local farmer vicinity where he is drying coffee beans

The new coffee bean drying technology a local producer recently installed on his property

In many of my experiences of travel to multiple developing countries, usually rural farmers are just keeping livestock for their own needs. An interesting story that I heard from one of the farmers is that he keeps cows and developed such an interesting system that he maintains all by himself and his wife. Both of them are working hand in hand to have much easier and happy life. He showed us the process of milking from cows and at the end of the tour we enjoyed taking coffee with organic fresh milk. Here is their work in few photos:

Local farmer (Cristiano) during the collection process of milk from cow
The milk storage tank, where during the milking process, milk comes through a pipe and is chilled here.
A photo of a cow on the farm, this particular cow gives 60kg of milk daily

In sharing these brief highlights of the trip, one can understand that how rural areas of Brazil are vibrant in terms of their life. As an outsider I enjoyed every single day of visits to farmers to know there stories of life, visits to nearby small cities that gives a picture of a history and how they are preserved and maintained, above all the people of this region are so warm to welcome you. The most important lesson is not just learning for myself but how to transform these stories of know-how of rural life of Brazilian context. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Laugh, Relax, and Reality: Our weekend in Ouro Preto and Mariana

Author: Michelle Samukai

We started our weekend journey in a small town called Ouro Preto, The city is known for its historic churches, stunning views and one of Brazil’s top tourist destinations. It was refreshing for us to take a break from school work and planning to enjoy some great food and get to know each other better. Everyone had the opportunity to explore, make new friends, practice their Portuguese, and get some shopping done. We were able to enjoy some local nightlife and squeezed in some samba lessons at a bar close to the hostel.

Above photo: Ouro Preto,Brazil landscape

                                           Above photo: from left: Eve, Luz, Felli, Matt enjoying the city
                                           Left photo: Michelle relaxing and working

What started as a fun and relaxing weekend trip took a slight turn once we left Ouro Preto and journeyed to Mariana early Monday morning.

 Above photo: Courtyard in the City of Mariana

Mariana is a city about 30 mins outside of Ouro Preto. Upon our arrival on Monday morning, the town was busy with many locals going to and from work. The streets were filled with cars, bikes, and people. There was a different vibe to Mariana than we had experienced in any other city we visited in Brazil. Jon who was usually very vibrant and exploratory, felt reserved and withdrawn. Eve is usually very cheerful, but couldn’t explain the weird feeling she felt while in Mariana. It was not until we got a better understanding of the nearby dam disaster that everyone started to feel a similar dark cloud.

Photo: The Samarco company's Germano tailings dam, neighboring the one that burst in November 2015 near Bento Rodrigues

In November 2015, there was a severe tailings dam disaster that began with the huge inundation of mud, completely devastating the town of Bento Rodrigues. Samarco, the mining company responsible for the damages caused during the burst. The disaster was the most recent environmental tragedy in Brazil, and the nation's worst to date. Not only was the whole town  destroyed, covered in mud and chemical waste, but subsequently, the mud flowed along about 600 km of rivers, joining the Rio Doce and eventually spilling into the ocean, causing devastation to towns and ecosystems throughout its path. There have been 19 reported deaths but that number could have been higher if the situation would have started in the evening. During an interview with Ana Cristina Souza, who works  as a volunteer at a recently-started NGO, Journal a Sirene,  which shares stories and advocates for the affected populations, Ana Cristina stated that 3000 families were directly and indirectly affected by the disaster. Everyone from the town had to relocate to different communities in Mariana. Families lost their income sources, children had to move to new schools, and the Municipality has been negatively impacted economically. Mariana is currently experiencing the hardest economic setback as a direct cause of the dam disaster.

Photo: A street in Mariana

The group was not prepared for the emotional reality that the region was experiencing. Essentially, people from Bento Rodrigues have become environmental refugees in their own country. A refugee is usually considered a stateless individual, but this circumstance is not unusual. In recent history environmental disasters are creating more and more refugees. In this case who is responsible for the lives of these families? The local government is financially unable to provide, federal and state government is more concerned with the financial gains from their 43 billion dollar lawsuit against Samarco. The company is offering a limited amount of assistance to families from the region. What will happen in the long term? What should the government be doing to assure a similar devastation does not occur in another town?

I think it was a big reality check for many of us once we realized how environmental disasters destructive and catastrophic. It is no longer just about conserving the environment economic gain; instead it is about protecting the environment to protect each other. Governments need to make it a priority to protect their environment for national security and safety. If we continue to destroy our home eventually we will have nowhere to call home. Imagine if the above photo was covered in mud and chemical residue? What would happen to the residents in those homes?