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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Fall 2004 :Hope in the Humid Tropics


Hope in the Humid Tropics
EARTH University breaks from tradition by emphasizing learning rather than teaching.


By Penny Bonda

About EARTH University
EARTH is one of only two freestanding universities outside the United States initially funded with U.S. government dollars. The other is American University in Beirut.

The university operates on an annual budget of $10.9 million with 55 percent covered by its $90 million endowment, 12 percent by tuition, 30 percent by fundraising efforts and three percent by other income. Current key supporters include corporations such as American Express and Dow Agrosciences, private family foundations, NGOs and the governments of Norway and Sweden.

For additional information, contact EARTH University Foundation, Five Piedmont Center, Ste. 215, 3525 Piedmont Rd. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30305.

EARTH University describes itself as a private, non-profit institution dedicated to education in agricultural sciences and natural resources in order to contribute to sustainable development in the humid tropics by seeking a balance between agricultural production and environmental protection. Opened for business just 14 years ago, EARTH has graduated 815 agronomists from 17 Latin American countries and Spain. The student body in 2003 included 401 students from 19 countries, young potential leaders who otherwise would not have had access to a university education.

The journey, from concept to today’s thriving educational institution tucked into the northeast corner of Costa Rica on the Caribbean Sea, has been neither smooth nor as treacherous as one would expect the founding of a new university to be. EARTH is a novel educational model that breaks all the traditional rules by introducing a refreshing and modern way of instruction that emphasizes learning rather than teaching. Born of the economic turmoil in Central America in the early 1980s and of the migration of people moving from the high, dry land areas to the rain forests, an international feasibility study for the project was conducted in 1985 with financial support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. In 1986, Kellogg was joined by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which secured over $100 million in startup funding, and the Costa Rican government, which enacted a law creating EARTH University.

The goals of the university were set early on when it was decided that EARTH would place equal emphasis on the development of entrepreneurial skills, commitment to community and responsibility to the environment. It quickly became apparent that the structure of a traditional college would not suffice.

“From the beginning, we knew we wanted to do something different,” said Jose Zaglul, EARTH’s president since its inception. “We wanted an integrated approach that wasn’t based on departments, but would have people working together from different disciplines. We wanted to put emphasis on the environment and also on the social impact of our actions—to teach our students to create jobs rather than to seek jobs. We felt that, in order to make a difference, we had to give opportunities to the young men and women that came from the poorer areas and provide them with a first-class education. If we do that, they can change the world.”

Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Spirit
EARTH is a Spanish acronym (Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda) descriptive of its emphasis on the agricultural challenges in the humid topics. Its curriculum is rigorous and demanding—students receive intensive instruction and conduct fieldwork for 11 months a year, six days a week for four years. Upon completion, graduates receive a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural engineering though the number of credits they’ve taken is nearly equivalent to a Master’s degree in the United States.

The four years of study are precisely defined to incorporate social commitment, environmental awareness, entrepreneurial spirit and the development of human values. Multicultural integration is emphasized from the beginning as students are required to form teams, choosing partners from different countries, who will work together in one of the most unique aspects of EARTH’s program: the entrepreneurial project.

“Every student has to have run a business in order to graduate,” explains program director Irene Alvarado. “First they form a company to investigate which opportunities they will pursue, and at the beginning of their second year they present a feasibility study to a faculty jury. After approval, the team is given a $3,000 loan as seed money to launch its company. By the middle of their third year, students must close down their business, repay the loan and present a report on the differences between what had been planned and what actually happened. Throughout the process they are learning accounting, administration, team building, time management and marketing skills.” Ninety-five percent of all projects either make money or break even.

Students will often choose entrepreneurial projects in areas that are familiar to them such as researching new farming methods or working on problems specific to agriculture in the humid tropics. Some will concentrate on product development such as soaps made from non-traditional spices and other plants, pineapple and ginger juices, or Thanksgiving turkeys raised for grateful resident Americans. The campus population of 800 provides a captive market and students also sell to shops in the surrounding towns and in San Jose.

Some projects, such as the fish ponds, spawn new ongoing businesses and some have been acknowledged by the multinational commercial banana growers as making significant contributions to the industry—one of the most important in all of Latin America. Polypropylene twine, a waste product at banana plantations, has been turned into an energy source for the cement factory at EARTH as a result of an entrepreneurial project.

New Ways of Thinking and Doing
Another development at EARTH that has had an enormous impact grew out of the university’s early commitment to environmental responsibility. Dr. Zaglul remembers that when the land for the university was acquired, there were 300 hectares of banana plants. An environmental team from the United States advised shutting the plantation down because of contamination from insect control processes. Previously, blue plastic bags with insecticide inside were wrapped around the vines to keep wasps from destroying the peels. At harvest, the bags were thrown to the ground, creating litter and, when the floods came, watershed pollution occurred that was killing fish and turtle populations.

Zaglul, as the new president of the only educational institution in the world that had a commercial banana plantation, resisted closing the operation and committed instead to finding ways to make banana production sustainable. Working with the producer of the plastic bags, EARTH changed the way the bags are manufactured and developed a recycling program. Others in the industry are now using the same methods or protocols that were pioneered at the school. In addition, the stalks and stems of the plants are being recycled into banana paper at EARTH’s own factory.

In December 2003, Austin, TX-based Whole Foods Market Inc. announced that it will be the exclusive sales agent in Southern California for bananas grown at EARTH. “EARTH University has taken a leadership role in the banana industry through its environmentally friendly production methods,” says Michael Besancon, South Pacific regional president for Whole Foods. “After visiting the campus it was clear that the university’s mission and curriculum mirrors Whole Foods Market’s commitment to demonstrating workable ecological solutions for the world. For example, EARTH University’s use of fertilizer made from banana stalks has influenced the production methods of major international fruit growers in Central America.”

This sort of recognition will likely grow as EARTH’s graduates return to their home countries equipped to effect positive change. All receive outreach training during their third year through EARTH’s community development program followed by internships abroad. Designed to raise social awareness for the students and to contribute to improving the quality of living in rural areas, these programs teach students to apply the knowledge learned in fieldwork and in the classroom and become role models for others. EARTH students are, for example, working closely with a struggling co-op of 140 hearts-of-palm farmers in a neighboring town by helping them take advantage of the Fair Trade agreement. In bringing this knowledge to the farmers, students are becoming more aware of the social impacts should the co-op farmers fail, 80 percent of which are single mothers working very small farms.

Role Models for the Future
EARTH’s recruitment process is as rigorous as its program. The university accepts one of every 10 people that apply and the graduation rate is 86 percent. Eighty percent of its students receive either full or partial scholarships that cover all their expenses—tuition, travels, medical, books and incidentals—and provide educational opportunities to kids who would never make it otherwise even to public universities. Students who have the capacity to pay, full or partial, do and EARTH is diligent about insuring a level playing field for all. Students seem to be universally complimentary about the university’s high ethical standards. One from Uganda singled out EARTH’s insistence on teaching respect for humanity. “At home,” he said, “the schools are strictly academic.”

A visit to EARTH is invigorating and inspiring. Randomly select any student in the cafeteria to interview and quickly become engrossed in their stories. Lester Muralles, from Belize, who is working on the biological control of white grubs through microorganisms as well as waste management, says that he’s become more social since arriving at the school and more environmentally aware. He believes that EARTH grads are well regarded in Belize, can be found in policy-making positions and collectively make Belize more globally competitive. Julius Mbuga, a second-year student from Uganda, was recruited when an EARTH professor visited his high school. The two things he most values about the university are its respect for the environment and the entrepreneurial program. He’s much more aware, he says, of the similarities and differences between students from different countries and has found it very easy to make friends. Gladys Anguti, also in her second year from Uganda, is involved in a feasibility study on the potential of a business in livestock. One of eight children, she appreciates the family feel of EARTH, especially the close professor/student relationships. She echoed the sentiments of many when she expressed her goal to reach greater heights than she ever believed possible when she returns home to her country at the conclusion of her education.

Many, many examples of achievement and success can be found among EARTH’s graduates—those who create their own businesses, offer consulting services, lead both government and private agencies and teach others. Becky Castle, the former executive director of the EARTH University Foundation, stated, “They’re graduating as experienced entrepreneurs. I’ve met a lot of students who have never considered the idea of starting a business, yet when they graduate from EARTH, they have that entrepreneurial bug. It’s just incredible to see the types of things they do when they graduate because they carry with them the whole EARTH mentality of incorporating the economic, the social and the environmental component into everything that they do.”

Dr. Zaglul enjoys telling the story of one young Mexican boy from a very poor rural town who caught his eye during an interview and was admitted despite very low test scores. “The interview process, although it should be objective, relies a lot on perceptions,” Zaglul states, “and I had a good feeling about this young man—about his attitude and honesty.” He struggled and in his third year flunked out, but instead of returning to Mexico, he stayed in the community, continued interacting with the faculty, and worked. Eventually he was readmitted and finally graduated and went home to Mexico. The next time Zaglul heard from him, years later, he had become the vice-mayor of a poor small city, had implemented a waste disposal program and other environmental initiatives and had persuaded the city’s government to sponsor a young girl with a scholarship to EARTH.

“I feel so proud,” Zaglul continues, “because this guy, in spite of his academic limitations, in spite of the hard life that he had, never gave up on his social commitment and on his commitment to the environment. He wanted to be a leader, and there he is in an influential position. This is worth everything we do.”


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