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With some significant shifts occurring in our economic structures at the moment, I notice many of us who have been on the fringes are now stepping up our game. It really is time to stand in our power and use it well (rather than be ashamed of it). Having attempted to live money-free in Turkey and learning the error of my ways, my patience with people (usually middle-class) who think poverty is some kind of virtue, has worn rather thin. Powerlessness is not something to aspire to, but I’ve already barked on about that here.
Over to Kristen Krash. Here’s how she and Juan are funding their reforestation project and their low-impact, inspiring lives, plus plenty of tips on how you can use whatever power and skills you possess to create some decent change.
La Reina del Cacao
by Kristen Krash of Sueño de Vida in Ecuador
Simply by going about its business of survival, the tiny coronavirus has done more to interrupt big business – and big consumption – than anything any of us can remember. Unprecedented lockdown, the news shrieks. Global economy on the verge of collapse.
If you've carved out a spot for yourself away from the gloom and doom, perhaps you're thinking, meh. Let it collapse. No big loss there. That's why I'm out here.
Or, this is a great opportunity for humanity!
Only if we take it. Otherwise it's just another tragically missed chance and a lot of unemployment.
Off-gridders and people who have acquired essential skills like farming or building have a particularly keen opportunity right now to sow the seeds of sedition. Change rarely if ever comes from inside the system; change manoeuvres from the periphery. Peasant revolts, campesino revolutions. The "haves" of society don't instigate real change. Why would they?
Those of us tucked away in our mountaintops and forests might have a bit of land, some food security and essential skills, but we sorely lack systems that work for us—or anyone else who isn't a "have." The coronavirus is chomping at the rotted foundation of the global economy and leaving big gaps in its wake. Now is our chance to move in. How? Well, here's what my partner Juan and I are doing to instigate change from off-grid in Ecuador and some ways you can too, from wherever you are.
We've been regenerating logged parcels of land with mixed forest systems in Ecuador for four years now. One of the many tree species we've planted is cacao. Recently, we started harvesting enough cacao to sell. Great, we thought, one more step on the road to sustainability.
With our first harvests, we did like the farmers around us: toiled for days in the field, cut hundreds of heavy cacao pods from the trees, carried them in backbreaking loads (yes, just like those awful pictures of children in Africa) and opened each fruit with a machete to extract the cocoa beans.
Then we hauled the sacks of raw cacao in our battered Russian jeep to the local distributor to get paid….Ready? Thirty-six cents per pound. $72 for two hundred pounds. Roughly $1.20 per hour of labour. Meanwhile, a 3-oz dark chocolate bar made with Ecuadorian cacao can sell for $5 or more.
Now, let me ask you: Is that sustainable?
I asked myself too, while I was dragging a sack of wet cacao out of the field that weighed nearly as much as I do. And again when we saw a small old woman sell a small bag of cacao, and then take her paltry amount of money directly to the market to buy food. This is subsistence farming: a poor person barely getting by while the CEO of Nestle rolls in billions. “This is so wrong,” Juan and I said. “We have to do something.”
Back in business?
After four years of voluntary off-grid exile, I jumped back into the fray, because I know what vegans and yogis will pay for organic cocoa nibs. I hunkered under a tree, pulled out my phone and posted to Facebook. Fresh cocoa nibs. Who wants some? Within hours I had enough orders to tell me I was hunkering in a real opportunity.
We worked madly to harvest, ferment, dry, roast, shell – all by hand – and fulfil the orders. Every available surface was covered with drying cacao beans. We needed packaging, labels, customs clearance, online checkout, and all of it is more difficult when you're off the grid and outside the first world. But we did it. We are processing and selling our own cacao.
Have we lost the plot? Have we become fat capitalists posing as organic farmers? Or do we have a way to leverage opportunity into real change?
A market is a place of exchange. Money is a medium. Using them doesn't make you the Monopoly Man. How matters much more. Juan and I use every single dollar we earn from our cacao to pay for our reforestation work and pay a just wage to our local helpers. As our small enterprise grows we can incentivise local growers to farm organically by offering a better price.
You don't like people spraying chemicals on their crops? Neither do we. But remember these folks are barely eking out a marginal living. Change is terrifying. We know there's a better market for organic products and we can help open that market to our neighbours. With ten local growers on board, we can form a cooperative and start making bigger changes. It starts with us.
No doubt the current system deserves the whipping it’s getting from Covid. I say “system” because it's all pretty much the same thing. Whether you call it "regulated capitalism" or "market socialism," nothing has really changed since the days of the East India Tea Company. It's still north over south, tech-industrial over agricultural, white skin over brown.
The story of cacao in Ecuador is typical of a colonial system as alive and insidious as ever. Valuable raw materials like coffee, cacao, and spices are extracted, exported from their countries of origin, and sold in the first world to well-heeled urbanites who can't live without shade-grown coffee or acai smoothies.
It seems to me that many resource-rich "developing" countries have been developing for an awfully long time. Or there's an unjust imperialist system keeping it that way. That system is crumbling. What can we build instead?
Here are six ways you can instigate change in the post-Covid world:
Buy better stuff. I don't just mean organic. Research how companies source their products and how they treat their workers. Fair trade certifications are good, but are a bureaucratic hassle and expensive to get. There are lots of folks operating ethically without a label. Check websites. If a start-up is concerned with economic justice, they'll proudly say so.
Give up on the myth of rugged individualism. Sure, it feels good to do stuff yourself. Build a house. Grow some food. But no matter how self-sufficient you might feel with some dirt under your nails, you're still part of the human web. Right now, the only planet that supports our web is burning, and bucking the system by your lonesome can only go so far. To make the big necessary changes that just might save us, we need collective action.
Start with your local community. A first-worlder building a hobbit house permaculture paradise in a "developing" or "third-world" country is in a powerful position and has an incredible advantage. Most of the people around them growing valuable agricultural goods have very little idea how valuable they are. Or they build with concrete and farm monocultures because that's what they've been told is better (by the first world). Whether you are making a product, building sustainably or planting a polyculture, share what you're doing with your neighbours. Hire them to help you. Pay them fairly. They know the terrain and how to get essential things done. And they bring their own lunch! They can help you a lot more in the long run than passing-through backpackers. Volunteers and WOOFERS can be helpful, but as a first-worlder enjoying the lower cost of living in a developing country, it's a good move, diplomatically and ethically, to make a ladder for everyone to climb.
(If you don't speak your neighbours' language at least well enough to conduct basic interactions, start learning or go home.)
Show respect and inclusion. The people around you might not have 5G or instant digital money transfers at their fingertips, but that doesn't mean they aren't savvy or entrepreneurial. Right before Covid, I was reading about a Peruvian rainforest tribe doing quite well running their own eco-tourism business, instead of being exploited by tourist agencies showing off the "primitives" and pocketing the fees. Oh no! protested a commenter. These tribes are corrupting themselves! They should be living off the fruits of the forest! They shouldn't need money! In other words, How dare they destroy my neo-colonial illusions of the noble savage! Don't be this guy. No matter how isolated or self-sufficient, everybody needs an income. Indigenous people do not exist for our curiosity. If they want to take a seat at the table, move over. Crumbling corporations would do well to learn their more consensus-based ways of doing business.
Be clear and contractual. If you are more interested in an eco-community than a solo go, be upfront about what's needed from everyone involved. Don't be afraid to put it in writing. Many a well-intentioned project has gone awry because people didn't think clarity and boundaries mattered once they went to live off the grid. Old ways die hard, and to usher in the new we need to keep promises and follow words with actions.
Contribute to fair-trade and ethically-driven associations. Juan and I can't do this by ourselves. I spend countless hours working digitally in addition to catching fish for lunch and harvesting food, while Juan builds water systems and chicken coops. We aren't the only ones. Find a cause that speaks to you, and contribute or buy their product if they sell one. I can tell you from real-life experience, small hands-on projects are more likely to put your money right back to work.
For those of us who still can, it all comes down to choosing. The Phoenix didn't get to be a legend by sitting on her nest. It's time to rise.
You can learn more about the amazing Sueño de Vida reforestation project here.
If you’d like to support Sueño de Vida, here’s their Patreon page.
If you’d like to purchase their bona fide organic cacao, go here: https://www.suenodevida.org/new-our-cacao
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