Agents of Change

Agents of Change
November 30, 2016 Christina Mullin

Based in Costa Rica, EARTH University offers a rigorous four-year undergraduate program in sustainable agricultural and natural resources management taught by a prestigious, international faculty who provide a world-class scientific and technological education that emphasizes values, ethical entrepreneurship and environmental and social commitment. The campus is a living laboratory where tropical agriculture, conservation and the needs of the rural communities find a balance. It is a place where the students-approximately 400 from more than 30 countries-develop skills that will enable them to become agents of change.

This past October, I was invited to visit the campus.

Blue Morpho Butterfly

The 8,000 acre campus is a role model in itself: it’s carbon neutral, the hot water is heated with solar energy, recycling bins are easy to find, the food at the cafeteria is organically and locally grown, coming from either the farm gardens or student led projects near the cafeteria, where I noticed purslane growing in pots and lettuce in beds that conventionally would be planted with non-edible filler plants.

Purslane & Lettuce

Costa Rica experienced the highest rate of deforestation in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when trees were being cut down and banana trees were planted instead. In the late 1980’s, EARTH became the new custodians of the campus, inheriting a commercial banana farm that serves as an example to the students, where they learn how sustainable practices are achieved. The EARTH Bananas are Whole Trade, grown on a herbicide-free farm (they use a chemical-free, organic fungicide), where production waste from the blue plastic bags (used to protect the bananas during their growth and are soaked in a chemical-free repellent made with garlic and hot pepper) and rope are recycled, and the banana waste is composted or turned into paper.

Bananas bound for Whole Foods (I get so excited every time I see them there!)

Conventional methods that had been used in Costa Rica involved throwing the plastic bags on the ground post harvest, where they would be washed into the rivers after a rain storm, chocking the water ways with plastic waste, eventually ending up in the ocean. At EARTH, the bags are instead collected in bins at the processing center and turned into pallet holders.

Bananas post harvest

Plastic bags saved in bins

Pallet holders made from recycled plastic bags.

A field trip to the Periurban Agriculture Program, run by Alex Pacheco from Columbia, I enjoyed learning about all the different ways you can grow food in an urban environment. It was fun seeing repurposed bicycle wheels or tires being used to create raised garden beds! Students had also recycled bottle tops, plastic straws and water bottles respectively, and made an anti-fly curtain and trash bin.

Alex Pacheco explaining food growing methods

Garden Beds secured with repurposed materials.

Bottle cap curtain

Plastic bottle trash bin

Natural pest control methods are taught, such as using coriander as a way to deter rabbits from reaching the lettuce beds. According to Alex Pacheco, it’s very effective!

Coriander , which rabbits don’t like the smell of.

Next stop, was CIDER (Renewable Energies Lab), where Professor Bert Kohlmann talked about the effectiveness of the campus golf cart which is entirely powered by the solar panels on its roof (I saw it and it was fabulous!), and requiring very little use of its battery charger (the extraction of materials needed to make car batteries is depleting the environment where it is collected and the disposal of disused batteries is a whole other problem); to how women in parts of Africa risk their lives collecting wood (an increasingly scarce resource) which they need for cooking, and because they need to use it as energy efficiently as possible, they share with him a much more efficient method for burning wood (line up three pieces of wood next to each other horizontally and only light one end, pushing in the wood little by little. It last longer so you need less wood). I didn’t realize that 28 million people in South America and 8 million in Central America, cook only with wood. Even though they don’t have the big modern cookers that most North Americans and Europeans have, these close-nit indigenous communities have a cooking system that works for them. In hot, drier climate areas of south and central America, and also in Africa, a popular and ancient refrigeration method is used, that can be traced back to as early as the Old Kingdom of Egypt, around 2500 B.C.  This pot-in-pot preservation cooling system consists of a small earthenware pot placed inside a larger one, and the space between the two filled with moist sand. The inner pot is filled with fruit, and vegetables and covered with a wet cloth. The pot-in-pot cools as the water evaporates., keeping the what is inside, nice and cool.

The last stop was at the Organic Farm, run by Arnoldo Avila. This farm area of the campus feels like a small family farm, which a chicken coop,  papaya and cocoa trees and…fire ants (I stepped in two different mounds while I was absorbed in a) looking for a bird high up in a tree that made the most extraordinary sound and b) while taking photos of biochar). Since many EARTH students grew up on family farms, they are encouraged upon graduating, to return back home and assist in improving the efficiency and productivity of the farms in their communities.

Arnoldo Avila

Arnoldo Avila explains what he teaches: “The idea of integrated farming is to create a closed circuit where animal, plant, and crop production are interdependent on each other. For example, in cocoa production we use the seeds to make our finished product, but 80% of the cocoa plant is peel that would normally be unused. We process the peel to make liquid fertilizer, or extract pectin to make jelly, or we make a tea from the peal. We are using everything that would normally be discarded in other agronomical operations.”

Cocoa pod

Cocoa beans fermenting in wood crates

Avila continues: “There are several ongoing experiments in fertilizers. One of these is called biochar, which is a charcoal produced from plant matter and stored in the soil as a means of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This crystalized wood is created through a process of heating without oxygen. Instead of letting the carbon back into the air which increases your carbon footprint, the carbon is sent back into the ground, enriching the soil.”

The bio char is used throughout the organic farms on the campus as an excellent growing medium for the produce.

Bio Char

Bio Char

The international community of students that live on this rainforest like campus, share it with a biodiverse population that includes 450 bird species, howler and white capuchin monkey’s, a myriad of exotic insects, including the rare and strange looking lantern fly, commonly known as the peanut-head and the industrious leaf cutter ants.


Leaf cutter ants

A few months ago, EARTH received some very exciting news: David Ives, the Executive Director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, nominated EARTH for the Nobel Peace Prize! The Albert Schweitzer Institute is officially permitted by the Peace Research Institute in Oslo to nominate candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize, because Dr. Schweitzer was an honoree in 1952.
Here are some of the reasons why EARTH was nominated:
-They teach the students ethical values so they can contribute to sustainable development and to construct a just and prosperous society.
-Their mission is to alleviate poverty, promote social justice and build a future where our communities achieve sustainable and shared prosperity.
-They promote human development, academic excellence, ethical behavior, sustainable development, social consciousness, and the search for knowledge and biodiversity conservation.

EARTH University is a leader of positive and sustainable change.

P.S. I’m so thrilled that a copy of LOLA is available to the students at their library!