When I chose to volunteer at an ecological project in the cloud forest, I was sure I was contributing to saving the world and that I was doing everything right. Oh boy was I wrong.
I first arrived in Ecuador at the age of 19, and at the time, I thought I knew everything about sustainable development after studying environmental, economic and social sustainability at school.
I have always loved nature. In primary school, I formed an environmental club with my friends to collect trash from our local forest. I was always concerned with things like pollution, forest decline and climate change. So, when I found the volunteer project in Ecuador, it sounded like a perfect match: I would be working in the “primary” forest, measuring trees and helping to protect its unique environment.
When I got there, it felt like heaven. The house was remote, in the middle of the woods, no road leading in or out. I spent my days happily surrounded by trees, orchids and moss.
But every morning, my little slice of heaven was disrupted by the cacophony of chainsaws from outside the reserve. Local farmers were cutting down my beloved forest, and it was killing me inside. Sometimes we went to the cleared areas to “save” the saplings of endangered trees by replanting them inside the reserve. The more time I spent there, the more those farmers seemed like the enemy to me. I had read so much about it before, about the cultivators encroaching on the primary forest. But, experiencing it firsthand was much worse. I started to believe that it truly was “us” against “them.”
And then I met Lucy.
Lucy was the cook at the station and about my age. We became friends. We peeled piles of potatoes together, shared stories about our crushes, and sat in front of the fireplace giggling and gabbing long after everybody else had gone to bed. She started to become more and more important to me.
One day she invited me to her house for the weekend and I met the members of her family. There and then, I realized that they were “them.” Lucy’s family were those very farmers who were cutting trees on their land and destroying the primary forest. At first I was shocked, as I could not get my head around the fact that my new best friend was one of the “bad guys.” After the shock wore off, I assembled the courage to ask Lucy about their reasoning for cutting down their forest. Soon, my entire world view started crumbling.
It was explained to me that potato farming was the only way to make money in that part of the world. But their little piece of land was not producing enough potatoes to sustain them. You see, Lucy’s sister was disabled, and they had huge hospital bills to pay. Ecuador has no proper health insurance system. Their very survival depended on potato production. They were forced to clear additional fields to keep production up. If they had not cut down the trees, they would not have been able to feed their kids properly, to pay the hospital bills, or to send them to school. Cutting their forest was their only option for survival.
Of course, I had read about this before. But reading about it in school and understanding it firsthand are completely different. I grew up sheltered in Germany. I never had to worry about basic needs. I took healthcare for granted. I had no idea about the challenges faced by most farmers in developing countries. Nor did I understand the implications that these challenges had on conservation. I was naive, and learned quickly that conservation and sustainability are not a black and white issue.
Although conservation is still my passion, I decided to pursue a career in development work, engaging with farmers to find ways to protect the environment while also creating sufficient income for families in need. What I learned through my experience is that farmers are not the enemies of conservation. In fact, they can be our strongest allies. I am forever grateful for my friendship with Lucy, as she and her family taught me much more than I could have ever learned through a text book.
Author: Eva Wieners
Image: Daniel Schroeder at Pixoto; Giving Tree
Editors: Pippa Sorley; Catherine Monkman