Purses from Plastic

THE UBIQUITOUS PLASTIC grocery bag—used for lunches, garbage cans, and groceries—is one of the most prolific sources of pollution in modern-day society. Scientists estimate that worldwide people use 500 trillion plastic bags each year. In the Americas alone, the United States reports using 380 billion plastic bags a year. Cheap to buy and easy to store, the plastic bag has become the favorite of grocery stores who no longer ask, “Paper or plastic?”

Lack of recycling programs and improper disposal of the bags create a waste nightmare and environmental hazards that are too complex to track. Non biodegradable plastic bags travel on the wind polluting our oceans and forests or take up permanent residence in our already overcrowded landfills.

Since 2006 an innovative program that started in Costa Rica is using those bags in a most environmentally friendly way. Women living in small villages on the Caribbean Coast convert the plastic bags into thread and weave attractive and colorful purses with them.

Weaving for Nature is run by WIDECAST, a conservation organization that protects sea turtles in the Caribbean and its surroundings. The program solves several problems at once. The bags are re-used, eliminating the need for disposal, and the business gives people an environmentally friendly income source.

The program is organized to promote fair trade standards with an environmental mission. The weaver receives 75% of the profit and the rest goes toward sea turtle conservation efforts. The weavers, mostly housewives in small villages, work under fair and relaxed conditions and are compensated for all stages of production from collecting and washing the bags through the finished product.

According to Didiher Chacon-Chaverri, WIDECAST Country Coordinator in Costa Rica, weavers produce about 3 purses a week that means they can earn $180 a month to supplement their family’s main income.

To date the project has employed more than 50 women in villages on the coast of Costa Rica, Panama and Nicaragua. In 2008 the sale of bags, coin purses, plastic figures and Christmas Tree ornaments generated $75,000 in income for the four coastal communities.

The environmental benefits of this program are far-reaching. Along the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and other countries, the plastic bag is a deadly enemy of marine habitats.

Because many of these bags are thrown on the ground or tossed into rivers, they often end up in the sea where they suffocate coral and kill sea turtles. For the hapless sea turtle gliding through the ocean, a plastic bag looks just like its favorite food, the jellyfish. The turtle gobbles up the bag and either chokes on the plastic or feels full and stops looking for real food.

Unfortunately plastic waste of any kind affects the entire marine environment. Because plastic bags are made of polyethylene, they are not biodegradable, and even if the bags are broken into smaller pieces, their tiny particles invade all levels of the food chain causing disease and sometimes death for marine life.

The Dolphin Research Center in Florida estimates that 100,000 marine mammals die each year from eating plastic bags.

WIDECAST estimates that each purse made is removing approximately 70 plastic bags from the environment for a total of 12,000 plastic bags a month. The bags are sold throughout Costa Rica in tourist areas and gift shops and online through http://www.inbio.ac.cr.

They range in color and size and come in various styles including beach bags, calabash bags, messenger bags, water bottle cases, and coin purses. For more information about the project, visit latinamericanseaturtles.org.


Published in Americas magazine, September-October 2009, by Chris Hardman

 

The Devil Gardener

DEEP IN the Peruvian Amazon a mystery tantalizes travelers and locals alike: Who fashions the random forest clearings in which only one species of tree grows and little jungle debris litters the forest floor? Local people believe that an evil forest spirit called the Chuyachaqui creates these clearings. The Chuyachaqui  is also said to change his appearance to confuse people and lose them in the forest.

Stanford University biologist Megan Frederickson believes that ants — not evil spirits — create these gardens. “A Devil’s garden is a lot like a grove or an orchard and so it has the feel to it like something that has been planted by people,” Frederickson says.

Her research at the Madre Selva Biological Station in Loreto Peru has revealed that a species of ant, Myrmelachista schumanni, is responsible for these mysterious clearings. Because these ants nest and rear their young in only the lemon ant tree, Duroia hirsute, they have developed a gardening “technique” to remove all surrounding vegetation and only allow new lemon ant trees to thrive.

Frederickson and her field assistant, Antonio Coral, observed that worker ants chew holes in the leaves of all the plants they don’t want near their host tree. The ants stick their abdomens in the holes and secrete a few drops of formic acid to kill the unwanted plants, creating space for more lemon ant trees. The untreated saplings began to die within 24 hours, proving it wasn’t the lemon ant tree that was responsible.

With data from a two-year rainforest census, Frederickson and her team calculated that the gardens expand about 7 percent each year. They estimate that the largest garden in their study is 807 years old. That garden measures 1,300 square meters and houses 3 million worker ants and 15,000 queens. With that much competition, the Chuyachaqui may have to go to the devil and live somewhere else.


Published in Wildlife Conservation magazine by Chris Hardman

 

Bolivian Voices

ON A SATURDAY morning in El Alto, Bolivia, a group of men and women at the Internet café Scorpio are intently studying the computer screens in front of them. Some of these people have never had Internet access before, but now they are learning about blogging, digital photography and video techniques—all the tools they need to have a voice in the online global dialogue that is the Internet.

This three-hour workshop is part of Voces Bolivianas, an innovative program that gives Bolvians from all sectors of society a chance to tell their story online. Typically Internet content about Bolivia is created by one segment of the population: the middle and upper classes. But Voces Bolivianas enables people from underrepresented populations—the poor, women and indigenous groups—to publish their stories. The result is a mosaic of video, writing and audio that is as diverse as the country itself. “I think the Internet can be the great equalizer, as it connects people that may not normally interact offline,” says Voces Bolivianas Director Eduardo Ávila.

Along with Mario Durán and Hugo Miranda, two other well-known Bolivian bloggers, Ávila started Voces Bolivianas in September 2007. Startup funds came from Rising Voices, an outreach of the non-profit organization Global Voices online. The initial workshop trained 23 new bloggers and created demand for even more workshops. For the first time, people like Marisol Medina, a student at the Public University of El Alto, had a platform to communicate online, whether she was writing about her quest to learn the native indigenous language of Aymara or the unfairness of boys throwing balloons at girls during carnival. In her blog called Realities, Loyola Larico writes about the importance of traditions. “From the cultural point of view, we should not forget our traditions and customs,” she writes. “My grandfather would say, if you know where you come from, you will know where to go.”

Other Voces Bolivianas students, including artisans, laborers, government workers and teachers, have created blogs about local politics, daily life in El Alto, Bolivian rock music, art and dance, and neighborhood struggles. “I think these groups have not been on as equal footing as many other sectors in Bolivia, and now they have just as much opportunity to express themselves as anyone else,” Ávila says. “I have also been content with how many of the young people and university students are finding a place to connect in regards to maintaining customs and traditions.” Translators at Voces Bolivianas maintain a site in the Aymara language and plan to add sites in Bolivia’s two other indigenous languages: Quechua and Guaraní.

The Voces Bolivianas training program also includes instruction in photography, video and audio. In one workshop, the participants were able to wander around El Alto and take photographs to share with the world on the free picture-posting site Flickr. The students were given access to video cameras to produce videos about daily life and traditions that are posted on the highly popular web site youtube.com. Some of the students produced audio recordings, called podcasts, to include with their blogs.

The success of the first project created demand for an additional project in El Alto and another in the city of Santa Cruz. According to Ávila, Voces Bolivianas would like to expand to two new cities and add more language sites in the immediate future. “We are in the process of looking for more funding to be able to take advantage of the interest in this field to be able to reach more people,” he explains.


Published in Americas Magazine by Chris Hardman

Native Lands for Wolf and Man

AS THE SPIRIT of the wolf returns to Idaho’s national forest, so does the spirit of the Native American tribe in charge of reintroducing them.

For the first time, the U.S. government has contracted an Indian nation—the Nez Percé tribe of Northern Idaho—to manage the recovery of an endangered species—the gray wolf.  The success of this project is being hailed as a cultural victory for a people with a strong spiritual connection to an elusive and beautiful animal.

The history of the Nez Percé is sadly similar to the history of the gray wolf—both were forced out of their territory to make room for white settlers.  In 1855, the Nez Percé signed a treaty with the U.S. government allowing the tribe to keep most of their traditional lands in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

The discovery of gold in 1860, made this land extremely valuable, so the U.S. government decided to take over most of the tribe’s land  by creating a second treaty in 1863. But the Nez Percé claimed that the tribe never agreed to the second treaty.

Hostilities escalated and a series of battles and forced marches ensued. After the Nez Percé surrendered in 1877, the remaining members of the tribe were shuffled around the country until they finally were placed on a reservation in Lapwai, Idaho.

At the same time the Nez Percé lived in the Northwest so did thousands of wolves, but as white settlers spread throughout  Idaho’s forests and rivers, the wolves soon learned that unlike the Nez Percé, the new people did not welcome their presence. Instead of respect and kinship, the white man possessed a deep fear of his canine neighbors.

In the 1860s, hunters slaughtered thousands of wolves by scattering poisoned bison carcasses around wolf feeding grounds. When the demand for wolf fur increased, hunters killed a many as 1,000 wolves a winter.

In Montana alone more than 80,000 wolves were killed in a 40-year period. The U.S. government joined the slaughter in the 1900s by hiring hunters and trappers to kill wolves thought dangerous to livestock. Thirty years later, the gray wolf had been eliminated from most of the U.S.

“Our history has mirrored one another’s,” says Jamie Pinkham, Nez Percé  Tribal Council member. “The settlers had two obstacles: that of the Indian people and that of the predators such as the wolves, who were both in conflict as to access to the land.  [As a result] both the Nez Percé  and the gray wolf were dispossessed. Today we see that mirror continue but in a more optimistic journey.”

The same government that persecuted both the wolves and the Nez Percé in the past is supporting a conservation program that is providing rebirth for both groups today.

Between 1995 and 1996, as part of a three-state reintroduction plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a total of 35 gray wolves on one million acres of federally protected land in Idaho’s Frank Church-river of No Return Wilderness. At the same time the FWS hired the Nez Percé tribe to manage, monitor and research the wolves.

Not all residents of Idaho welcome the wolves’ return. Ranchers fear that reintroduction of this crafty predator is a danger to their livestock.

Led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a group of protesters sued to prevent the return of the wolves to Idaho before they were released. The case languished in court and the wolves were released anyway.

To compensate livestock owners for their financial losses, a program supported by the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife pays ranchers market price for any cattle wolves kill. To ease the continued tension between ranchers and conservationists, the Nez Percé  work hard to establish good relationships between biologists and ranchers.

In 1996 the Nez Percé invited the Wolf Education and Research Center, to relocate on tribal lands in Winchester, Idaho. “It became a natural marriage,” Pinkham says. “On one hand, we’re handling the wild reintroduction and on the other hand, we have these 11 ambassador wolves who help create a positive message for the recovery of their wild cousins.”

The center’s captive-born pack of 11 wolves living in a 20-acre enclosure gives the public an opportunity to view a secretive animal in a natural setting. The center’s primary goal is to develop management plans that will allow wolves and humans to coexist in the same environment. With more knowledge, better and more informed decisions about wolf conservation can be made.

Wolves figure prominently in the Nez Percé religion. They are admired because of their hunting skills, their language and their tradition of sharing food. Having the wolves return to Idaho is viewed by the Nez Percé as the return of a brother, a vital link to their culture and traditions of the past.

“We are both regaining a rightful place on the land we were once removed from,” Pinkham says.


Published in Americas magazine, April 2000, by Chris Hardman

Medicinal Weeds of the Maya

WORKING WITH the Highland Maya in Chiapas, Mexico, University of Georgia researcher John R. Stepp has documented that weeds are a more valuable source of medicine than plants found deep in the forest. Stepp spent 9 months tracking medicinal plant use of 208 people in 6 communities. He found that the majority of medicines used were made from weeds found close by homes and villages.

The Maya are well known for their use of medicinal plants, and in recent years scientists from around the world have tapped into their knowledge in search of cures for cancer, AIDS, and other devastating diseases. But very little research has been done on the medicinal value of weeds — those pesky invasive species that quickly take over disturbed habitat near homes and other cleared areas. According to Stepp, weeds are a logical choice for medicinal use, “Weeds are readily available. You know that they are going to be there when you go looking for them. If you’re sick, you don’t want to travel a long ways to find a plant.”

Using weeds found close to home eliminates the need to store plants, saving time and effort. “Some of the more volatile compounds, if you dry them, lose their strength. So it’s much better from a treatment point of view to go out and get fresh material,” Stepp says. In contrast to other Indian groups throughout Latin America who dry and store plants, the Highland Maya rely almost exclusively on fresh material.

There are biochemical reasons why weeds make good medicine as well. Most plants manufacture compounds for defense against herbivores and insects. A lot of these compounds have medicinal properties — in small doses they are medicinal, in large doses they are toxic. Weeds tend to produce more compounds than plants living in the forest, who use structural defenses like thick bark and tannins to protect against browsing. Because most weeds only live for a short period of time, they can’t afford to expend the energy required to develop structural defenses. Developing chemical defenses is much more economical.

Stepp found that the majority of medicinal weeds were used for gastrointestinal diseases and respiratory illnesses, two conditions that account for 80% of health problems. One of the most frequently used weeds is the species Verbena litoralis. Named Yakan kulub wamal in Maya (grasshopper leg herb), this weed provides a potent cure for diarrhea. The Mexican sunflower, Tithonia diversifolia, is used to treat abdominal pain and diarrhea.

The Highland Maya have lived in the Chiapas region of Mexico for more than one thousand years. As a result, they have accumulated a vast understanding of medicinal flora that has been passed down through oral traditions to today’s population of 800,000 people. By the age of 5, children can name 100 plants, and adults can name nearly 600. This widespread knowledge has minimized the need for specialized healers. Unless they have a very serious illness or a condition with a supernatural element — like a curse —  most people simply go out in the backyard and treat themselves.

Stepp says his study contrasts with the romantic image of native people gathering secret plants deep in the rainforest. “The truth is more exotic,” he explains. “I think the fact that people do have such a widespread knowledge and that they’re living on top of their pharmacy is more exotic than trekking off into the jungle.”


Published in Americas Magazine by Chris Hardman

Low-tech Prescription for Chagas

CHAGAS DISEASE is a serious and sometimes deadly infection that affects 16-18 million people throughout the Americas. What if there were a simple and inexpensive way to prevent transmission? Rockefeller University and Columbia University Professor Joel E. Cohen and Ricardo Gürtler from the University of Buenos Aires say there is, and they have the scientific data to prove it. Cohen and Gürtler are combining their expertise in applied mathematics and tropical infectious diseases to develop mathematical models to solve health problems.

According to the World Health Organization, Chagas disease is endemic to 21 countries in the Americas, where 100 million people are at risk of contracting the disease. The infection is life-long and in its most severe form can lead to heart failure. Humans get the disease from a parasite named Trypanosoma cruzi. The parasite is transmitted to humans through an infected blood transfusion or through the feces of the blood-sucking reduvid bug, locally known as “kissing” bugs, “cone-nosed” bugs, vinchuca, or barbeiro

Cohen and Gürtler set out to learn how the parasite spreads in rural households. They created a mathematical model based on a decade of data from three rural villages in Northwest Argentina. The first model of its kind, it processes data from household populations of bugs, parasites and their relationship to the numbers of humans, chickens, and dogs living within a household.

The results show that transmission follows a seasonal pattern based on what animals live in the house at what time. The cycle begins in the spring when humans, dogs, and chickens all sleep inside together — a safeguard against chicken theft or predation. The bugs also live inside and they feast on the chickens finding them to be an ideal source of a blood meal. Although chickens can’t be infected with the parasite, their presence in the household increases the bug population that peaks in the summer when the chickens are usually moved outside. The bugs then turn to the dogs as their secondary choice for a blood meal. Not only are the dogs much more infectious than humans, but they are also twice as likely to be chosen for a meal as humans.

Based on this data, Cohen and Gürtler’s mathematical model predicts that letting dogs sleep outside could almost eliminate the transmission of infection —  their official recommendation is to move both dogs and chickens to an outbuilding and keep them out of the bedroom.

“It is important to emphasize that the high technology approach to the control of infectious disease has left this disease behind,” Cohen says. “The problem is that the people who have [Chagas] are poor. There is very little prospect of a pharmaceutical company recouping the research costs required to save the 16 to 20 million people who are infected with this disease. What our work does is give the people who are affected the possibility of improving their health by their own efforts.”

A simple solution such as keeping animals out of the sleeping area is practical for all income levels.  “The ingredient here is knowledge rather than high technology.”

Cohen and Gürtler think a similar approach could help understand how other diseases, such as leishmaniasis and malaria, are related to the presence of animals in the household. They believe that the mathematical model will lead to other low-tech solutions for common health problems found in rural areas.

“We think that there are a lot of problems in developing countries where solutions don’t have to come from high-tech or from outside,” Cohen says. “I do think there is a place for the ecological approach for the prevention of disease.”

—Chris Hardman

Published in Americas magazine

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