The San Isidro, Costa Rica area… a grassroots epicenter!

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I am writing from Finca Amrta, a small nature reserve, and farm in the foothills of the Talamaca mountains in Costa Rica’s southern zone. Finca Amrta has, among other things, served as a base for me to explore the area around San Isidro, Costa Rica. This area has so much to offer and is truly the epicenter of an ecological, grassroots, back to the earth movement here in Costa Rica! I have barely been able to scratch the surface of what this area has to offer in my 10 days here. Within a 30km range of where I sit there are, according to my locally verified list, 14 established Appropriate Technology/permaculture farm/school/intentional community type places…Incredible!

Each Thursday there is a farmer’s market and most of the organizations, farms, and groups in the area meet here to sell their overflow and to connect and build community. At the last market, I was able to make quite a few contacts and was invited to visit several projects in the area. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I needed to make a choice, bounce around like a butterfly, briefly introducing people to Appropedia and getting a glimpse of what their project is about, or… try to cover just a few projects in depth.

My decision was to visit just a few places and attempt more in-depth documentation of their projects. So I am working on pages about some of the elegant “low-tech” projects at Finca Amrta and New Dawn. Both farms have been a presence in the area for over 20 years and have some simple solutions figured out for this particular climate in regards to farming, bamboo building, composting systems, etc. My hosts and the stewards of Finca Amrta, Susanna and Miguel, have been dedicated to living and demonstrating ecological land use and earth-based principles since they bought this land in 1989. My time here has been deeply grounding and enriching. Simply following Susanna and Miguel to watching them work and live has been nothing short of awe-inspiring.

As an added bonus, renowned medicinal plant expert Ed Bernhardt, N.D., and his wife Jessica live just next door. Ed has been working with tropical medicinal plants & gardens in Costa Rica for 20+ years and he and his wife now run the New Dawn school where they teach natural health care and permaculture classes on their land where students can eat from the garden and live in their bamboo- waddle and daub cabin (Appropedia page coming soon!)

Despite my decision to stay put, I couldn’t resist the invitation to make one quick stop to visit Finca Fruicion, mostly because I felt a connection with Alana, Jason, and their amazing new arrival (baby boy) Cedar. On the bus ride over to, I asked the woman next to me if she knew which stop to get off for Finca Fruicion. As it turns out, this woman was Desiree Wells, who is now living and offering permaculture courses on the farm. Alana and Jason just bought the farm in 2008, are raising 2 young boys, and just had a 3rd in May. Given the circumstances, I assumed I would be visiting a site with still very much in its infancy. I am happy to admit I was completely incorrect in my assumptions and am blown away with their accomplishments which include (among other things): tilapia aquaculture ponds, a chicken coop, a goat pen, a thatched roof rancho, biodiesel run school bus cabins, a greenhouse, composting toilets, solar-heated showers, the sturdy beginnings of permaculture gardens, and over 150 young fruit trees! . Needless to say I could not document these projects during my one-day stay. Looks like we need another Appropedia Travel Intern to follow up on this gem of a project (as well as numerous others in the area and, actually, in the world)!

This area is also a hot-spot for anyone interested in learning about bamboo construction. I will soon be posting pages documenting some of the bamboo-building methods my good friend Arya has learned while working at the local bamboo shop. Also, Arya and I paid a visit to another larger bamboo factory in the area called Bambu Tico. We were quite inspired by their operation and the myriad of bamboo products they have to offer.

I have to say that my favorite tidbit about bamboo construction came from Ed over at New Dawn; his simple bamboo-curing method. Simply cut the pieces of bamboo you would like to use and leave them standing in the bamboo stand for about 2 months resting on a rock (so they don’t act as straws). The bamboo stand acts as a natural pest and mold repellent for the curing bamboo. After a few months in the stand remove the bamboo and let the pieces bake in the sun for about 2 weeks. .. and that is that! It has worked for Ed and his building for years!

My fantastic voyage is approaching its last stop, one of my favorite places in the world: Rancho Mastatal!!! They have some amazing natural buildings, composting toilets, permaculture gardens, a bio-digester, solar electric and water, rainwater catch, and more! I was lucky enough to visit Rancho Mastatal 4 years ago; the spirit of the land and the community made a lasting impression and I am excited to return and to have a chance to share what is happening there with the Appropedia community!

That’s all for now. Thanks for checking in!

Day in the life of a Travel Intern

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On our journey from the rainforest to Lima, we decided to stopped for a few days in the cultural mecca of Cusco, Peru. But a funny thing happened on the way to Cusco…

After an entire night of bus travel on the winding mountain roads I woke up out of my half slumber to find that we were in complete standstill traffic about 30 minutes (by bus) outside of Cusco. The road was blocked and we would be waiting until nightfall. After inquiring with the driver and some of the locals, we were assured that our best and safest option was to walk 4 hours to Cusco down the road. I had naively assumed the block had been caused by a rock slide, as the steep terrain seemed to threaten collapse around every turn of the highway.

I had to  laugh when we came to the first block… it was simply a few logs that blocked the way and a collection of  about 20 people. I approached the group of elderly women sitting atop the logs and asked about the situation. In broken Spanish they more or less said, “We do not have water to grow plants or to live. We do not have access to the lake from which we have always gotten our water. The lake is also becoming very polluted. We want enough clean water to live and we will wait here until our message is heard.”

The sights long the the 30km of road were nothing less than surreal. For over 30 Kilometers, the road was blocked by rocks, boulders, logs, small fires, chunks of metal, glittering broken glass and hundreds of people young and old. This was a major, multi-pueblo, direct-action protest aimed at getting the attention of the Peruvian government.

The walk was very long and difficult, about 30km ( 20miles) on pavement in the mid-day sun. Though I had to fight to keep my spirits up, there was an undeniable beauty in being able to walk this long stretch of highway without a single car passing. There were only mountains splattered with pinkish mud and sagebrush, similarly pink adobe houses, and the faces of countless smiling,relentless people.

As we neared Cusco we saw that the Peruvian Army had arrived in drones to clear the streets. It has been difficult for me to find this story covered in the media, but as far as I can tell from talking with the people, the issue is water privatization. The people get their water from one lake. Someone owns or has recently bought the lake and this private or new owner raised the price of water so that the people could no longer afford enough water to grow crops. This is a simplified version of the story, but it is the only information that was consistent among all the people I questioned.

I am by no means an educated authority on these issues, but I know that these situations are not black and white. If someone owns the water, there is the danger that the people will not have access to what they need, however, there can also be problems when no one feels responsible for a resource.
I am aware that this is an age old debate and as I said, I know only enough to know that I know nothing about this, but I do think it is an issue worth thinking about. I know alternatives exist and I look forward to comments and peoples opinion on these issues. Please enlighten me.

Well, there is much more to say but that all for today. Be sure to check out my next blog (coming very soon) in which I hope to talk a bit about my process as I figure out what it means to be an Appropedia Travel Intern.

Thanks for cheking in!
Isabell

Appropedia takes the Initiative!

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Appropedia has grown rapidly in multiple dimensions since our early days, especially in several months.  Both the volume and range of activity at Appropedia.org is up significantly.  We have content translation activity, content porting activity, partnership activity, and site technology development activity, all expanding in parallel. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn communities have grown dramatically as well.

In addition to all the active participants, we have many eager supporters that haven’t yet identified the best way to engage. We get notes like, “I love what you’re doing!  What can I do to help?”  And for every explicit offer, we know there are much more unspoken.  To better use all this pent up energy and goodwill, we are beginning a new program for engaging volunteers, both new and veteran.

Appropedia Initiatives

And so, without further ado, allow us to introduce Appropedia Initiatives! The Appropedia Initiatives program is an open-ended series of specific activities that will benefit from community engagement. Each Initiative will be designed to attract a critical mass of contributions and enthusiasm, to build momentum on a particular topic or practice.

We know that our community of supportive people has a great variety of skills, and we envision a wide variety of Initiatives to engage as many people as we can.  Some Initiatives will be focused on the Appropedia.org site (either content or technology), and others will be more community-oriented.

Essentially, Initiatives are ordinary Appropedia activities that are likely to have some broad interest. Like most things at Appropedia, users’ input and ideas will define the Initiatives program’s path.

Each new Initiative will be highlighted on the Appropedia main page, and we will do community outreach in the form of social media posts to make sure that everyone gets a chance to see it.  Naturally, we welcome your help in passing the word and identifying people, partners, and resources appropriate for each Initiative.

The goal is for each Appropedia Initiative to take on a life of its own and to continue for months beyond its initial moment in the spotlight.  To make sure that fledgling Initiatives have a good chance, we’re asking that each initiative have some semi-committed support in the form of an “Initiative steward” who will shepherd the activity for at least 3 months.

Check out the provisional guidelines for Appropedia Initiatives and see whether your favorite topic or project might be the right candidate for an Initiative.  If so, create a launch page and add your Initiative to the list!

Thank you all in advance for your help and support!

Make a difference on Earth Hour

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The real point of Earth Hour is not to save energy for an hour. The point is to provoke thought and action.

Some people find it hard to see the point of Earth Hour or call it tokenistic. It’s easy to see why, and if you keep your lights on during Earth Hour, no one should shame you for it. The point is to join together and go on to take action throughout the year.

So while you sit around with the lights off – or on if you prefer – ask yourself or your friends and family: how can you have a real impact? Reduce your car and plane travel? Use carbon offsets? Recycle? Lobby airlines to change their choice architecture by making carbon offset the default when purchasing a ticket? Donate to an organization that’s having a strategic impact?

How can we make a difference?

There are many options, and knowing where to focus is important. If we spend our effort on the big items, we’ll have a far, far more significant impact. Which are the big items? We need to know – for example, how effective is it to buy carbon offsets, and which offsets should we believe?

The Appropedia community helps you make informed decisions by sharing their wisdom and their research on these questions. And if you have the expertise or spent some hours trying to answer one of these questions by researching the web, then share your wisdom in a place where others can benefit and build on it. Just click edit to add to a page, or start a new page.

Having the right information enables change. Let’s enable change together.

Pandemic panic – what have we learned?

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In the recent swine flu scare, the World Health Organization (WHO) surprisingly quickly went up the pandemic scale. Now it looks clear that it won’t be a pandemic after all: far fewer people have died than die during a normal flu season – and far less than regularly die around the world from malaria, dirty water, or smoke from indoor cooking and heating, week after week and year after year.

Preparedness for a pandemic is important, and the time to get ready is well before a pandemic occurs, and the time to start handwashing and mask-wearing is when a potential outbreak first occurs. Emphasizing the seriousness of the situation is good and wise. But you can emphasize preparedness with the pandemic scale is at 2, rather than 5. (Or even zero for that matter – if the WHO makes announcements on potential pandemics, the fear factor means that many people will pay attention.) As a public health layperson, I’m hesitant to criticize the professionals (I studied public health engineering, rather than public health per se, and my focus is on knowledge sharing, rather than knowing everything myself). But these questions need to be asked. The WHO made out that there was a high likelihood of pandemic when it appeared to me and many others that there was no good reason to do so. Were they boys crying wolf, and what does this mean for the next potential pandemic?

I still believe the risk of a 1918-style pandemic happening again is very low, as I’ve argued with my friends in the development field. We’ve learnt much since 1918, our communications are many times better, and the conditions of 1918 (international war, troop movements, trench warfare, widespread poor nutrition even in rich countries, less advanced diagnostics and treatment) just don’t exist today. But I’d be a fool to say it’s impossible. We’ve built a better public health infrastructure, and the nasty virus DNA may just form into a more challenging virus.

The point is to be prepared – develop strategies such as the Flucode, and develop freely available information on making oral rehydration solution and simple masks. Be prepared for an outbreak of something nasty, and be ready to deal with it quickly – these are what we need. We’ll also have side-benefits to better deal with regular influenza (a sometimes deadly disease but without the headlines) and other diseases—action, not panic.

Am I being harsh on the WHO?

Innovation and knowledge: renewable energy

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Amazing old Mango Tree by daveiam.

The 20th century saw an enormous increase in the abundance available to much of the world’s population. Yes, poverty continues, and our task remains, as long as children die needlessly by the thousands each day. Yet, the desperation and squalor that much of the world lived in at the end of the 19th century is no longer the norm. If you doubt this, check out GapMinder’s statistics, presented in this TED talk.

How was this transformation fueled?

  • Partly by innovation and knowledge – global health improved enormously, and lifespans increased, thanks to the invention of antibiotics and many other medicines that allowed people to live where they would have died otherwise. Even more importantly, health has improved through sanitation, spurred by the scientific knowledge of diseases such as cholera and how they spread.
  • Partly by the efficiency of modern industry. For all its faults and pollution, the industry has done very well to produce enormous amounts of Stuff. From pharmaceuticals to building materials, most of the world’s population has benefited from this.
  • Partly by cheap energy – and though oil prices are rising and carbon trading and taxes are looming, most of us still treat life like it’s cheap. Improved efficiency has helped make it easier to keep doing this – innovation again, making somewhat more efficient cars, planes, heaters, and air-con, easing the burden on our pockets and meaning that even the recent oil price spike caused no revolution in our behavior – the efficiency has reduced our costs. Still, our growing appetite means it hasn’t reduced our impact.

Innovation and knowledge

Innovation and knowledge will provide solutions to climate change – the only question being whether they will do it in time. A transformed industry (see industrial ecology) will continue to produce, but more intelligently.

The only major hiccup is in cheap energy. Rising fossil fuel costs are inevitable, and probably sooner rather than later. We can sit back and demand action from our governments, or we can take things into our own hands. Because cheap energy isn’t going to disappear.

Today, the alternative to cheap oil and dirt cheap coal isn’t unaffordable solar and wind. Prices for renewables are coming down. It’s now a matter of paying a modest premium, not even double the super-cheap prices we’re used to, and certainly affordable for the most significant users in the developed world. Combined with some intelligent choices, continued innovation, and some belt-tightening when it comes to our wasteful habits, we can get through this, possibly with some temporary hardship, but without a peak oil apocalypse.

The trajectories of clean and dirty energy will cross, possibly very soon, as work accelerates on new solar technologies and other renewables, as well as on energy transport and storage technologies. Fossil fuels will never be as abundant as they were, but renewable energies will continue to get cheaper through the power of innovation.

What can we do?

Wondering how to slash or even eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will look entirely different when solar energy is cheaper than coal. Allowing everyone on the planet to have a decent standard of living and access to the best things about the modern world – will be an entirely different task as solar panels get cheaper.

But it still needs to happen – we’re still dominated by the old ways, the old habits, and interests, even risking the planet as we know it, always risking our future. We need concerted action to push forward the technologies and the policies that we need. We need to pull together, to pool our knowledge, to share and build our knowledge banks from the individual level to the corporate and government levels.

Let’s not underestimate how much we can achieve when we put our hearts and minds into it. With action and determination, we can do amazing things. An abundant world is within sight.

Photo credit: daveiam

Solutions to climate change

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Most of us in the Appropedia community and the Appropedia project stands for abundance, for thrivability. We believe in using every tool at our disposal to make a better quality of life, building and working within a thriving ecosystem in which there is no waste, enhancing the renewal of natural resources.

One very different “solution” that is sometimes heard for the climate crisis, for reducing our environmental impact in all ways, is to drastically cut the human population. There is even an optimistic quality to these writings in some cases, looking forward to a better time after the population has been reduced by 90% or more. These comments left on a New Scientist article are an example:

A managed reduction in the human population to a sustainable 300 million would do much to reduce the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere.

Of course, it would – but most of us will find this a ghastly thought – there’s no pretty way to slash our numbers in a short period of time, and I don’t think we want to call in the 20th century’s experts in population reduction.

A crash would certainly have its benefits, just as the Black Death had positive effects – leaving more food and more land per person, fewer serfs per feudal estate, and giving serfs the openings to swap their allegiance to a lord offering a better deal. Most of us, though, want a solution that doesn’t involve massive death by chaos or eugenics, just as we don’t want another Black Death.

To be fair, this commenter seemed to imagine something other than mass murder or letting massive numbers of people die somehow:

People respond well to draconian measures of population control when it is explained to them in a simple clear manner – like I say China is a case in point.

The error here is that China has not reduced its population, merely slowed its growth. So we’re back to killing people if we really want this population to crash.

Some good and sobering points about this kind of population crash utopia were made in response, in the same comments section:

Also how does dropping the population to 300 million help, if for example America wiped everyone else out we would still have a problem because America produces so much CO2.

and

I’d have to imagine that there would be more than a few loudly vocal dissenters to this plan, many of these carrying weapons of some sort and more than happy to ensure that you, or I for that matter, are among the cull while they survive…

Use less, it makes sense.

My favorite responses, though, suggested that if instead of reducing our population size, we should reduce our literal size:

We should be genetically engineering humans to be smaller, Lillypudlians or smaller, same dimensions just smaller. We would have all the resources we need then we could manage up to a sustainable population instead. I am a bit worried about cats though!

More seriously, this still leaves the issue of how we can sustainably and drastically reduce our impact without starving ourselves or killing each other off.

Education for the poorly connected

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Innovative uses of the internet in education, in Mexico and India:

Universidad de la Tierra – Mexico

Located in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca de Juarez, the Universidad de la Tierra is an alternative learning initiative through which students learn from the world by doing. This process happens largely in communication with others, in the form of study/reading circles (“communities of practice”) and intercultural exchange. The NewWorkSpaces online community tool (Unitierra’s space here) enables learners to access “collaborative technology that will help [them]…convene conversations, co-create and publish documents, invite others into…learning experiences, and exchange…knowledge and resources.” Other means of sharing learning experiences include libraries, documentation centers, community radio, media campaigns, and publishing. These modes also provide dialogue opportunities around Unitierra activities such as those with indigenous communities engaged in cultural regeneration, technological and socio-political innovation, and social struggle (e.g., through workshops, videos, and ecological dry toilets and solar arrays, organic agriculture, and alternative media). More.

Samvidha – India

This project responds to the need to make relevant internet-based information accessible to all of India’s teachers and students at a low cost. Carried out by the non-profit Media Lab Asia in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur, the Samvidha project aims to bridge the digital divide by providing off-line access to curriculum-related internet content using a query-based system. Individual variations among the different students can be captured by their user profile, including each student’s personal interests and capabilities. This idea of offering personalized content access and presentation is also reflected in navigation interfaces offered in Bengali, Hindi, and English. Content appropriate for the user’s needs is then emailed to the user in the school; information located on the internet is provided to the user in English or, where available, in a given Indian language. More. See also the Samvidha page on Media Lab Asia’s website.

Thanks to The Communication Initiative Network for this news – “Where communication and media are central to social and economic development.”

Relevant Appropedia wiki pages:

Which wiki?

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I was asked about licenses and wiki software, by someone wanting to start a wiki on a sustainability-related subject area. Here is part of the response I wrote (adapted slightly):

Licenses:

Not all licenses are compatible, so unfortunately there are some limitations. We can each share, but we can’t mix the content together. The Some sites uses the CC-BY-NC-SA, and we, like Wikipedia, use CC-BY-SA*. We don’t use the NC or non-commercial clause, as we would actually like people to use our content commercially or any other way. I’ve made some notes on an Appropedia page: Which open license should you use? There is a place for the NC license, and I can understand someone with a business choosing this license, but for most purposes we’re strongly in favor of CC-BY-SA.

* Actually we use GFDL, which is different in some details, but you can expect both Wikipedia and Appropedia to change to CC-BY-SA in coming months, now that this has been allowed by the people that manage the GFDL.

We do both use the share-alike clause – which prevents someone adapting our work and then not sharing the adaptation.

Wiki software:

I can see the appeal of the subwiki system that PmWiki uses, to allow communities to have their own space in the wiki. It seems to me that there are just a few things that PmWiki does that MediaWiki does not – although they are very nice things. We can set up pages in just the same way if we want, but don’t have the ability to adjust the sidebar and don’t have the RecentChanges for just the subwiki. Though with “Related Changes” MediaWiki has something close. We do hope to have the options to do these things through MediaWiki extensions, but I don’t know when that will happen.

MediaWiki is the most established option, but certainly it’s not the only reasonable option. We’ve heard good things of TikiWiki too.

But we like MediaWiki for a few reasons:

  • It’s well-supported, with mailing lists and websites devoted to it, and there are many extensions written
  • Being so popular, we can be sure the format will be supported in future.
  • It’s well tested. Wikipedia: nuff said.
  • Appropedia is a bit more like Wikipedia but wider in content type, in aiming to be a large and comprehensive compendium of knowledge, projects, how-tos etc, on permaculture, passive solar, hybrid vehicle design – you name it. For such a large project, something proven to work on massive projects is preferred.
  • We know MediaWiki (I was active on Wikipedia before Appropedia), and collaborators from the wikisphere know MediaWiki. Easier to contribute, and to manage the site.

The major drawback to MediaWiki has been the lack of a WYSYWYG editor, but that’s changing now with the FCKeditor extension. This is usable now, but we’re waiting until they’ve resolved all the issues with tags (as we tend to use tags a lot, e.g. reference tags <ref>).

Now as for a wiki on your particular area of sustainability & resilience – that is right up our alley, and we’d love to have more about this on Appropedia. Check out Appropedia before you start up anything. You will probably find, as with Vinay Gupta, inventor of the Hexayurt (flatpack emergency shelter) that running a wiki takes hours every month – he was glad to hand that over to someone else when he joined his wiki with Appropedia. Joining an existing wiki brings you into a network of like-minded people, and lets you work on the project you love, rather than pulling your hair out managing a website.

Or to put it another way, let us go bald on your behalf.

But regardless, keep in touch. Also check out Global Swadeshi – a very interesting forum site on open design and open technology for resilient communities, started by the same Vinay Gupta.

Related wiki pages: