Today.

We are a generation of passionistas, of minds and hearts eager to make a difference, eager to make this world a better place. I hear John Mayer crooning that we’re ‘waiting on the world to change’, but I think we are doing more than waiting. We are pushing. We are screaming. We are writing and designing the lives we know are better, the systems we know can save us. We are not only imagining the planet as it could be – we are manifesting it, building it with our own hands. We have a vision, and we can express it to those who will listen – it is time to let the lost generation come forward. We will no longer be captive to stereotypes.

Tell us we don’t have enough experience. We hear it every day, at the hands of those who have taught us, those who have created the systems we live in. It seems that all the ‘experience’ of human history has only entrenched us deeper in our patterns of hatred, gluttony and apathy. Perhaps we don’t need ‘experience’, 10+ years of learning how things have been done up until now. Maybe, what we need, is a lack of experience. Maybe what we need is new ideas, concepts and passion that break free of old bonds. Bold innovations and imaginations that respectfully bid adieu to the handcuffs that have kept our hearts and minds bound.

We understand the great leaps that have been made by man kind – the screams of progress, the churning of the industrialization, the benefits of development and sanitation, yes. We desperately understand the suffering of others. No, we may not know what it is like to lose an entire family to AIDS or civil war, and yes, we have porcelain toilets and an abundance of food to eat. We are the lucky ones, but we do not take it for granted – we feel the earths pain, and our chests clench at the sight of our brothers and sisters in agony. Some days I watch the television in a grey foam of suffering, or tear the pages of the newspaper because I cannot stand what it is telling me. How, after all this time, can there still be so much suffering? And how can I, one person, change all of this? The helplessness is at times overwhelming. I can’t. But as a generation, as a concept, as a member of a resilient network, I can create change. Not just the change you hear in political speeches. Real change. Because I have waited long enough and I watch others squander the opportunity to rise up. We, the ‘lost generation’, the passionistas, want nothing more than to make our global home a healthier, more welcoming place. And isn’t that our right?

The earth is changing now, and us with it. I call out to you, world, to give us a chance. If you don’t, we will go it alone, but this is opportunity. This is a point in history, a crossing, where we can all come together, learn from one another and build foundations for the future we all envision. I shiver when I see what has been done to our planet and our people – so much has been squandered, so many hearts shattered and lives taken in the name of land, money, religion. Are any of those really valid reasons to take away life from person or planet? What went wrong here? I do not want anger to ruin us. Let friendship and acceptance shine among us instead, and let us ‘unexperienced’ folks, us idealists, share the beauty we see through the suffering.

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More about intention – a sustainable twist

Let’s take goal-setting to a whole new level – the human quest for globalization. Our need to set goals, achieve, evolve, grow, spread, and through it all, consume. This drive to strive, as we could call it, is what has brought us all to this point in history. This point where technology rules our lives, where most things are available to us at the drop of a hat, where time is money and where money is what we seem to want and need most. The human desire to grow and achieve has brought us industrialization, moon missions, iPhone apps and polio vaccines, triathletes and genetically modified super-grains. We are capable of so much, we can invent the world the way we see fit, and we DO, because we are drive to grow, to move forward, to progress. But this innate desire seems to have gone off course – our need to grow as a society isn’t always as beneficial as it may appear. Yes, we’ve developed some incredible things, but the need to grow our economy, expand our technology, can feed back to create even greater problems. I’m not saying we don’t need a strong economy, or that technology isn’t an excellent means to solve some of our problems. But perhaps we need to look at exactly how we created these problems in the first place. It was probably because of our innate desire to get bigger and be better.

Story of Stuff

Can we live sustainably, move away from growth as profit, without stifling our innate need to achieve? I think so. In 2011, perhaps we step back from ‘goals’ and look instead at commitments and intentions. Can we commit to grow spiritually, to work within our communities, to ‘develop’ instead of ‘profit’ in the traditional sense? If the ‘spiritual’ doesn’t appeal to you, think instead of the values you would like to focus on this year. Can you envision becoming a better you WITHOUT buying a bigger car, a new gadget, running yourself into the ground? Can this be a year where you set intentions to live more sustainably – within your means, but beyond yourself?

For those of you who haven’t already, check out the Story of Stuff, an incredible little sketch on sustainability. It will rock your socks off. P.S., Story of Stuff often releases new material on different “stuff”, so check in often!

Serenity in San Rafael

I am inspired over and over again by the dedication and passion that the Paraguayan environmentalists display in the face of ignorance, animosity and even violence.

Early Saturday morning (again at 4:30 am….still completely incapable of human communication), we set out to the San Rafael reserve in the eastern region of the country, part of the Upper Parana Atlantic Forest. San Rafael is owned and managed by a Swiss couple, Hans and Christina. The bright and bubbly pair saw the need for conservation and decided to buy some of the threatened area to protect it. They initiated, and continue to manage, PROCOSARA, an NGO dedicated to protecting the forest through land purchase, reforestation and environmental education.

A few of the future leaders

A few of the future leaders

The weekend was a workshop for 20 local youth who have been elected as “environmental leaders” at their schools. The youth got to learn about the Atlantic Forest and basic conservation, play plenty of games outside, and form lasting bonds with each other. It was motivating to see the enthusiasm they all showed for preserving the planet – kids really do know what’s going on, and they want to TELL you about it! And they can generally tell you in a way that will make you laugh till your abs hurt. They all had a chance to perform a little bit of environmental “theater”, demonstrating how they would teach people in their community about the environment. The results were heartening and hilarious, and got them so riled up that they didn’t fall asleep until well after midnight (though who ever does when they go to camp?)

Games in the sunshine

Games in the sunshine

Sun beams

Sun beams

The reserve was the perfect place for the kids to run around till they collapsed. The Cordillera San Rafael is a stunning location, and the first opportunity I’ve had to truly be immersed in nature here. One of the park guards –slash- forest fire fighters took us on a walk through the reserve, where our senses were overwhelmed by the active peacefulness of nature. If you stand absolutely still, you can hear the songs of birds, and monkeys jumping from branch to branch. Butterflies of every color swirl up around you as you walk, and sunlight streams down between the branches to light the cool dampness that surrounds you. It is a stark contrast to the parched, baking fields that lie only twenty minutes away.

In the green

In the green

Of course nature isn’t always so pleasant. While gazing through the canopy I managed to disturb a few ant colonies, of which I was notified by intense stinging all over my ankles and up my legs. Tiny devil’s minions, they are! After a frantic “ants in my pants” dance, I managed to rid myself of the beasts, and kept a close eye on the ground from then on.

Niki next to a grandfather tree

Niki next to a grandfather tree

Our guide Javier

Our guide Javier

According to our guide Javier, the life of a San Rafael park guard is anything but peaceful. They have to be ready at a moments notice to head into the reserve and extinguish the forest fires lit by local campesinos and indigenous – hard and dangerous work. Not only are they risking their lives to fight the fires – they are in danger whenever they go near any of the local pueblos. They are hated by many of the local residents, who have yet to understand the importance of preserving the forest, and consider it a personal offence when the fires they set are extinguished. Many of the “guardaparques” have been physically attacked, and even shot at. Christina, owner of the reserve, has also been attacked at gunpoint – luckily she ducked just in time to escape the bullet. Such dedication to a cause amazes me – to risk your life every day for something you believe in so strongly.

Bliss!

Bliss!

Oscar the Ocelot

Oscar the Ocelot

Not everything is dark and gloomy though, because I got to meet a baby ocelot!! Maybe the cutest thing I have seen in a very long time (in addition to which I wrote a paper about ocelots in the fourth grade and have been dying to see one every since.) This baby (whom I will name Oscar for now) was found stranded alone on the side of a road nearby, and was brought to the reserve, where he will be raised until he is old enough to go fend for himself in the forest again. Oscar is just about the most darling and beautiful creature I have ever had the chance to encounter, though he is very timid. He lives in a hut with rabbits, who seem quite nonchalant about his presence. They are blissfully unaware that one day he may return in search of bunny for dinner.

The new love of my life

The new love of my life

To el Campo

Covered in red soil and tired to the very marrow of my bones, I have returned alive (barely) from my first trip to “el campo”. Speeding along bumpy roads, it is the first chance I had to see Paraguay as she is at heart – calm, warm, languid. There are no stark mountains, no crashing waves. Instead, we pass over rolling red landscapes illuminated by brilliant blue skies. In two days, we visited three different municipalities: Encarnacion, Pirapo and Santa Rita. I should mention here that we left Asuncion at 4 AM on Monday so as to arrive at our first destination at the start of the business day. I still do not consider 4 AM to be a functional hour of the day, so I have some adjusting to do.

The PR Team in the field

The PR Team in the field

Working with the public relations team of Francisco Pereira and Liliana Franco, we set out to promote the new PAL program (Programa de Adecuacion a las Leyes Ambientales). This is an education and training program set up by WWF Paraguay to help land owners comply with environmental regulations. Each landowner must have at least 20% of their land forested (this means either leaving it as is, or reforesting if they have cut down too many trees). Land owners can attain “compliance” by either reforesting, paying compliant farmers for their forested land (similar to carbon trading), or leaving formerly deforested land to regenerate, instead of cultivating it. The overall aim is to bring Paraguay back to a state of environmental health, with a productive and functioning forest.

View of the farm land

View of the farm land


I admire the resilience of the Paraguayan farmers, who continue to persevere in the face of severe drought. Many of their crops have been lost for the year, devastating the economy and their own survival. Though one could point out that they are not exactly environmental heroes, having deforested most of the country to grow extensive soy and corn crops, and thus contributing to the increasingly severe droughts. We met with two farmers in the municipality of Pirapo, a community settled by Japanese immigrants. It seemed very odd to me at first, hearing Japanese people, with very Japanese names, speaking Spanish. As second generation immigrants, they consider themselves completely Paraguayan.

On the job

On the job

Both farmers we spoke with in Pirapo are currently working to bring their property into compliance with environmental laws, by reforesting specific parcels of their land. They took us out through fields of dry soil to the sections where they have started reforesting, and spoke about the importance of complying with the new environmental laws (perhaps because we were there representing the WWF).

One of our "compliant" farmers

One of our "compliant" farmers

Liliana and Francisco used the opportunity to interview the farmers about their reforestation work – these interviews will be broadcast over the radio in Pirapo, as examples of good stewardship. As Liliana pointed out, big institutions and flashy media are not the best mechanisms for communication in these communities. People trust their neighbors, and if they hear from the farmer down the road that compliance is important, they will be more likely to join the program and start reforesting their own land. Through word of mouth, “el campo” has a chance at regeneration.

Having a smoke in the tractor

Having a smoke in the tractor

In both Encarnacion and Santa Rita, we went to the most popular local radio stations to distribute a short “spot” on the PAL program. While there, we were interviewed on live radio – Francisco and Liliana talked about the program and it’s implications for the community. Nicole and I thought we were only there to listen in, but both radio announcers had other ideas. They were more interested in talking to us about our intentions in Paraguay, and whether or not we were single. Twice in two days, I was broadcast to the local listeners in my mediocre Spanish – YIKES! I can only hope I didn’t make too big a fool of myself.

Back home in Asuncion now, I’m looking forward to the next trip, to meet more members of the community working towards sustainability for Paraguay.

The newest thing on the farm

The newest thing on the farm

The drive home

The drive home

Things you probably don’t know about Paraguay (because I sure didn’t)…

Three weeks I’ve been here, and it feels like months. Every day is epic, as I try and function in a work environment where every word is something I have to concentrate on. Life en Espanol is hard on the brain! I learn something new every day, which isexactly how I like to live life, so I have to say, I am enjoying it to the fullest. Paraguay, as far as I can tell, has HEART. The people are warm and welcoming, and incredibly patient with the new gringa in their midst.

SO, since I am here to work in conservation, perhaps I will elaborate a bit on what needs conserving. Let me start by saying there are plenty of trees to hug, so I will be eternally happy. Paraguay is home to the Atlantic Forest (el Bosque Atlantico), one of 200 ecoregions identified by the WWF as needing critical attention. This forest is one of the most biodiverse areas on the PLANET, with 19 endemic birds, 160 endemic mammals (including jaguars, capybaras, anteaters, and some other crazy looking creatures), 22 endemic primates (your closest cousins), and over 6000 endemic plants.

Koati - WWF Paraguay

Koati - WWF Paraguay

All of this in the 1.300.000 hectares that remain of the forest – imagine how diverse the area was before almost 8,000.000 hectares were deforested for farming.

Toucan - WWF Paraguay

Toucan - WWF Paraguay

Until the year 2004, Paraguay had the highest rate of deforestation in the Americas, and the second highest rate in the world. Over the past several decades, the population managed to reduce the forest to 7% of it’s original size (they were very busy bees). This deforestation completely fragmented what remains of the area, making it nearly impossible for the rare and endemic species to move around and reproduce – seriously endangering their survival. Not exactly a stellar environmental history, but now the Paraguayans are taking steps to try and redeem themselves. In 2005, the government put into place the Ley de Deforestacion Cero (Zero Deforestation Law), essentially prohibiting any further deforestation. A wonderful idea in concept, though of course it appears that in practice, many people are still deforesting for their own financial benefit.

WWF Paraguay

WWF Paraguay

There does not seem to be much enforcement happening at the moment – Paraguay struggles with it’s reputation as the most corrupt country in South America, and people have little faith that the government will actually follow through on their promises. If you happen to have a cousin in the municipal government (highly likely), then you can pretty much do what you want with your land without facing the law.

The WWF is now working with several communities to improve Forest Law compliance. In addition to housing numerous endemic species, the Atlantic Forest protects the Guarani Aquifer, one of the largest fresh water reserves in the world. Continued deforestation threatens the aquifer, as well as the Paraguayan economy. The huge soy plantations and cattle farms that already exist cannot last for long with no water. The farmers are discovering this the hard way in Paraguay’s “worst drought ever”.

Burning Forest for Soy Farming - Foto de WWF Paraguay

Burning Forest for Soy Farming - Foto de WWF Paraguay

Reforestation and environmental protection are crucial if the farming industry intends to survive. This is harder to induce in practice, as it means spending time and money on something that ISN’T soy, and does not create immediate benefits. A tree planted today may not grow to it’s full height for another 10 years, and will not provide any income. The truth cannot be ignored for long though. A farmer tilling his field will feel the heat of the sun burning down on him, will watch his dry crops whither away. He will not be able to ignore the black cloud of climate change, and the realization that he cannot continue pillaging as before.

Cultivated Field and Red Soil - WWF Paraguay

Cultivated Field and Red Soil - WWF Paraguay

The staff at WWF, and their NGO partners, work tirelessly to educate citizens on the importance of conservation and reforestation. I have faith that their message will get across, and that with their help, Paraguay has a brighter future. I’m looking forward to the successes and challenges ahead!

2 AM in Palau

It’s midnight in Palau and I’ve just had a can of Pokka Milk Coffee, in anticipation of my 2:30 – 5 am flight to Guam. Big mistake. My flight, the Continental Check-in woman informs me, was last night. Dammit Helen. Dammit. Apparently I was not clear in my communication with the travel agent, and didn’t double-check the time on my itinerary. After a brief flurry of profanities directed at no-one in particular, I managed to book a flight for Pohnpei leaving tomorrow night, so I will get to repeat the coffee and check – in process. Only this time I might actually get on a plane.

I waited 45 minutes for a taxi, and discussed the complexities of beer and human relationships with my driver (who drove 15 km an hour all the way back to my hotel). And here I am, in bed, wired on my Pokka. There is nothing good on television.

A bit about Palau then! Stunning is the first word that comes to mind. This is only my personal opinion of course, but they seem to have struck a balance between natural beauty, cultural preservation and development. The nation is home to stone monoliths, the rock islands, lush jungles, and the best Indian restaurant in this part of the Pacific (The Taj).

I spent a day with some local researchers out in the Rock Islands, often referred to as the “Eighth wonder of the world”. This archipelago of limestone has been slowly eroding around the edges for years, leaving behind funny, mushroom-like island tops covered in vegetation. And let’s not forget the perfectly clear, turquoise water all around – it really is what you picture when you think of “paradise”. The local conservation groups (and government) here have done an incredible job preserving the area. Despite grudging local politics and differing ideas on conservation, the area remains one of the most pristine in the Micronesia Challenge.

Eroded Island

After a bit of snorkeling, we headed to Ulong Island, the “set “ of Survivor Micronesia. There are a few benches left behind, but those are the only signs of modern civilization. Take ten steps off the beach, and you find yourself in thick, pungent jungle, waiting to swallow you up. A wade through the water, past some limestone caves, and you can look up, way up, to some ancient red petroglyphs. No one seemed to know much about them, aside from the story they told – a man and a woman were married, the woman fell in love with another man, and shit went down. Seems like people were having the same romantic problems thousands of years ago.

Boy meets Girl. Boy marries Girl. Girl falls in love with another Boy. Trouble ensues.

Boy meets Girl. Boy marries Girl. Girl falls in love with another Boy. Trouble ensues.

Another little gem of the rock islands is the Soft Coral Arch, a little part of one island that eroded right through to the other side, leaving a perfect underwater channel for soft coral growth. At one time, soft coral was abundant in the area, but El Nino in 1998 bleached and destroyed much of the coral life. The soft coral looks like it would be cushy to the touch, but is actually prickly and solid if you brush against it. And the colors. Well, just look at the picture.

A rainbow of soft coral

A rainbow of soft coral

Needless to say, I got horribly sun burned. (Yes, I put on SPF 30 repeatedly. I wore a hat. And a t-shirt. I still got burned). But it was 100% worth it. It was wonderful to see some more of Micronesia before heading home to Vancouver, especially such a beautiful part of the region. This is what the Micronesia Challenge is all about – preserving a unique biodiversity and culture that could never be reproduced. Thank you to PICRC for taking me out on the boat and letting me use their waterproof camera. And thank you to Surech, the new intern coordinator, who was the ultimate tour guide.

And now the photo upload function seems to have stopped working, so if you’d like to see more photos of natural beauty and wonderful people, go to

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=88185&id=507252737&l=6b593

Plant a tree for the earth you dream of

I feel like I’ve missed so much, having only started here after settling in for two months – I only have 4 months left of Micronesian story to tell. Of palm trees and SPAM, crystal waters and red spittle on the sidewalks. It is a paradox of beauty and strange habits – but the strange habits are the best part, because that’s what makes this Pohnpei.
For anyone who doesn’t know yet, I run a capacity building internship program, with 10 interns spread throughout the islands of Micronesia. I am supposed to be teaching them the skills they will need to be the conservation leaders of tomorrow. Some days I think that I learn just as much, if not more, from them. They are bright, capable, passionate individuals who work with spirit to preserve their islands and their cultures for future generations. People might complain about “the youth today”, and in fact I’ve heard that frequently here. But let me tell you that the youth today in Micronesia will do just fine, thank you, if we give them the chances they deserve. The same goes for youth all over the world – in the face of adversity and doubt, they prevail to do amazing things, the things “adults” won’t do.

A few weeks ago, Sayuri (my co-coordinator) and I approached the principal of the biggest local highschool

The gang and their sapling (Photo courtesy of Tanja)

The gang and their sapling (Photo courtesy of Tanja)

to ask him if we could work with the students to plant trees on the campus. There are few trees for shade within the fence of this campus, and most students can be found huddled under these trees to get away from the noon sun. We thought the idea of a ‘legacy garden’, trees that would provide fruit and shade over the next few years, was a great way to involve students in their local environment. Apparently, the principal disagreed – I’m sure Sayuri and I both thought he was going to nix the idea entirely. There is no need for trees here, he said – they are all over this island (quickly being deforested, I will note). And the students, they are all bad kids. They will destroy your saplings. If you plant trees near the fence, it will make it easier for them to escape. Kids today, I tell you…kids today are trouble. After 30 minutes of coaxing and visualizing, we had him convinced that we would plant the trees, and if they should be destroyed, well then it was our own darn fault for thinking too much of Kids Today.

Getting down and dirty

Early on a Saturday morning, “Kids today” gathered at this highschool, in their new matching t-shirts, and planted 50 saplings. Each of these youth signed their names on a small sign attached to wiring around the saplings – there must have been at least 150 signatures. Despite the early hour, the rising heat, and the dirt (EEWwww!) – all those kids today showed up to plant a tree with their name on it. Those saplings are still standing a few weeks later. I hope, for the future generations of motivated youth, that those trees are standing tall and proud ten years from now.
I am humbled.