Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What's mine is yours (well, almost...)

As I mentioned in my last post, the project that I’m going to be working with is a partnership between the Dominican partner on my internship, ENDA-Dominicana, and Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining giant. If you’ve never heard of Barrick, I encourage you to do some research on them as a company. For those of you who go or went to the University of Toronto, you should know Barrick through their sponsorships at the university, such as the Munk School of Global Affairs, or the Munk Debates at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The association with the mine is an interesting one. Certainly, it has been profitable for ENDA-Dom since it brings in a lot of funds from their corporate social responsibility coffers. The reforestation project is planned for a five-year period from 2011-2016, and is funded to the tune of $8 million (see the links at the end for more information). The partnership, however, puts ENDA as an organization in the middle of a controversial situation, relating to the history of the mine and the current political atmosphere in the country.

The Pueblo Viejo mine

First, the history: Barrick is the latest in a series of owners of the Pueblo Viejo mine. The original owners, Rosario Dominicana, had operated the mine in the 1980s and their tenure there resulted in awful contamination of the watersheds surrounding the mine. Rosario’s controlling position in the mine was bought out in 1992 by a Canadian company, PlacerDome, which planned to resume operations but was hindered by the ongoing cleanup efforts and the negative image of the mine in the community. Also, PlacerDome was bought by Barrick Gold some time later, and it was Barrick that assumed the responsibilities of remediation and resuming operations. They launched a number of community development initiatives starting last year (you can see their site for more details), including the reforestation project that ENDA is the lead partner on. They’ve also spent millions on a state-of-the-art containment system for hazardous wastes from gold mining, such as cyanide. Nonetheless, because of its coloured history, and because the recent operations have only just begun, the Pueblo Viejo mine is synonymous with environmental contamination in the national consciousness.

An eroded hillslope on Monte Negro, part of the Barrick holdings in Pueblo Viejo

The political situation does not help matters, either. There has been quite some opposition to the mine since it started operations last year. While some people have voiced concern about the environmental consequences, they are not the focus of most of the protests. This may be because other concerns are seen to be more important, or because people have some amount of faith in the safety precautions that Barrick has put in place for the containment of hazardous waste. The focus of the protests has been the lack of employment of local workers in the mine, which will get much worse once the construction phase ends completely and the largely Dominican construction workforce is dismissed. Many of the miners are foreign workers brought in from Peru and Mexico. The company claims that the vast majority of the employees are Dominican, and that the people who have been brought in have specific skills that they were unable to find in the country. However, many people I have talked to, including some who work at the mine, dispute this claim.

In addition, the Dominican government is poised to introduce a program of fiscal reform that would increase taxes on many everyday goods, making life more difficult for almost everyone. At the same time, the contract recently signed with Barrick was seen by many to be too lenient, and many are pushing the government to renegotiate the deal – something that the government, understandably, is reluctant to do because breaking a contract would result in all sorts of penalties and legal challenges, as well as international fallout from Canada and the United States. This puts the government in an awkward situation, since they’re facing the people and trying to get them to make a sacrifice after giving a sweet deal to the mining companies and spending lavishly on recent election campaigns.

There have been a number of protests in the area in recent months, with groups of people shutting down major highways and demonstrating against the mine. Many workers’ groups are using the protests to demand that more local people be given jobs, or that the company invest more in the communities. While none of these protests have happened while we have been here, I’ve heard that things get completely shut down. Many people here see them as kind of a nuisance, and Canadians that we know make a point of staying completely hidden when they occur. 

The local organizations that partner with ENDA or the mine in different ways have to walk a fine line – they don’t endorse everything the mine does, but they support a more constructive engagement with the company that involves dialogue and seeing how Barrick can support the community. In general, the efforts of ENDA's projects to promote agroforestry and reforest sensitive areas are seen as positive steps. However, if public opinion were to shift drastically against the mine, all that could change. 

For those who are interested in learning more, here are some links to news stories about the mine and the project I’m working on. They’re all in Spanish, but I figure Google translate should give the gist of them, at least:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Life in the DR!

Well, it’s been a little over three weeks since I landed in the Dominican Republic, and plenty has been happening! Here in the Dominican, I’m working for an organization called ENDA-Dominicana (ENDA stands for Environment and Development Action, and is an international NGO based in Senegal). After landing in the country, we spend the first couple of days reviewing the documentation of the projects so that  we could figure out what kinds of things we were interested in doing. There was a lot to go through, and it still feels like there’s tons to learn. ENDA-Dom has been working in the country for over thirty years, so the full scope of their involvement in the Domincan Republic is something that only a few people are really aware  of.


I also spent a good portion of the first two weeks figuring out my living situation. I’m living with another intern from the Falls Brook Centre, Elisa. Since our internships are based around the town of Cotuí, we’re primarily living at the apartment that our director rents there. The apartment, I should add, is a palace compared to our digs at Falls Brook. It is huge, has all the amenities one could want, and is in a brand new building. It is also right next to one of the most happening nightclubs in Cotuí, the De Melissa Car Wash – so named because it is, in fact, a car wash during the day. Many nightspots are similarly repurposed during the work day, which helps to explain why a town of 17 000 people has three massive car washing establishments. We’re also renting a (far more humble) room in Santo Domingo because our work requires us to spend a day or two every week in the capital at ENDA’s main office. The lady of the house has rented to interns before, so she knows what to expect from us.

The main ENDA project that we’re working with is super interesting, and a little controversial. ENDA has partnered with a large Canadian mining company, Barrick Gold, to carry out a reforestation and ommunity development project in the area around the Barrick mine, near Cotuí. The project itself is pretty extensive, as the area stretches from the Pueblo Viejo mine all the way to Los Haitises National Park, on the eastern coast. The idea is to encourage landowners to plant trees on their land for the purpose of either having managed woodlots or agroforestry systems. This would allow people to obtain an economic yield from the trees they plant, either from timber harvesting or the sale of fruits such as cocoa, plantain, or citrus. Naturally, since the major corporate partner is a giant mining company, controversy has followed – more on that later.

Delivering trees in Jobo

Those same trees one week later, with treekeepers

We’ve also been shown around some of the other ENDA projects in the area – they’ve been supporting a bunch of small woodworking businesses and sawmills, with the goal of increasing local production. While the Dominican Republic has incredible forest resources and an advanced management system, it still imports something like 90% of its lumber because the local industry has not been able to match demand. Many of the difficulties that local industries face is due to the extremely stringent laws surrounding the right to cut down trees for lumber, which have been in place for over 50 years, since the Trujillo dictatorship. Ironically, the result of these environmental protection laws is that lumber is imported from countries that suffer from overharvesting, such as Honduras and Brazil.

Over the last week or so, we’ve been figuring out where we interns fit into all of this. Our boss in Santo Domingo has urged us to get to work on spreading the word about the project, since there has not been a lot of publicity since the planting started last year, and the project staff have not had time to publicize their  results. In addition to the promotion/website work, we’ve been accompanying the technical staff of the project into the field to help with surveys and follow-up with project partners. These visits also help us to gather information about different experiences that people are having, in order to spread information and suggestions related to the project. Also, we’ve been finding that there’s quite a network of interns in the area who are working on similar projects, so there’s plenty of opportunity for collaboration. We’re also trying to find ways to make our work sustainable, so that the website updating and promotion can be done on a continual basis, rather than relying on interns to come along and start from a basic level each year.

And that’s not all! We’ve also been meeting amazing people. Our co-workers in the Cotuí and Santo Domingo offices have been amazing friends and supports over the last weeks. We had two very memorable couchsurfing experiences with wonderful, generous hosts while we were finding places to stay and becoming acquainted with the Dominican life. The project partners that we have met in the villages around Cotuí have been incredible and welcomed us into their homes from the beginning. We’ve also met some international interns from Canada and Korea, and have heard of others from Japan and the United States in the area. All in all, I think we’re in for a really wonderful few months!

Sunday, October 14, 2012


One of my favourite parts of the internship at Falls Brook Centre was the amount of freedom we had to take on random new projects simply because we could. Admittedly, when I think about it there is really no reason why many of these projects could not be done anywhere in the world, but something about living with eight gifted and curious people got the creative juices flowing.

My favourite project was actually part of my work at the centre, but it hardly felt like it. I helped with the construction of a greenhouse on the south side of our barn. It gradually expanded to take up the entire wall, including a giant roof that went a good twenty feet high! The best part was being involved right from the beginning, starting by hauling out the stones that would later become the foundation of the structure and laying them out and leveling them. We then put up a first wall which would hold large, removable windowpanes. The idea was for the windows to be removed in the summertime so that the plants could benefit from the wind and the rain when they needed them, and be protected from them when they became damaging. We then put on a roof and sides, which was a finicky process and involved a lot of climbing and precarious balancing. I took some photos throughout the process to show how it came up:

We were lucky enough to have a worm composting expert in our group of interns. In addition to being knowledgeable about the process of vermicompost and worms in general, she also brought a whole bunch of them with her when she arrived. Note that this does answer the question that everyone wonders about, but no-one dares to ask: ‘can you bring live earthworms on a plane?’ The answer is yes, but you will get funny looks.

Anyway, we got to thinking about how vermicompost could be used in different places in the community. We helped out with the existing operation, and then inspiration hit: the best place for a new worm compost box would be the local elementary school – because no one likes worms better than first graders. Think back that far and you will know it to be true.

And so it was built, a small two-level work composting affair that we made of scraps of wood we found lying in the barn. The whole experiment was little more than a cleverly-designed excuse on my part to play with power saws, but this was not realized by anyone until it was too late. The two-story design is interesting: the upper level has a screen at the bottom large enough for the worms to fit through but small enough that fresh food will not. When the bottom fills up with worm castings, you just cover the screen on top with food and wait for the worms to migrate into the upper layer. Then you can dig all of the castings out of the bottom without taking away your precious earthworms!

Allegedly, every group of interns tries to make soap – though many give up partway through the process. We managed to stick it out – first, we collected ash from the firewood, making sure to burn nothing but hardwood in the wood stove, since softwood ash does not produce the same concentrations of caustic substances. We then boiled the ash in water and reduced the liquid we obtained from that until we got thick, pasty lye. Then, with various fats, nice smelling things, and black magic, we stirred everything together into what appears to be on its way to becoming soap. Unfortunately, this recipe takes a while to cure so I will never know what the end product ended up becoming.

Of course, any talk of experiments would be incomplete without mentioning the many food-and-drink related shenanigans that went on. From yogurt making (runny) to beer brewing (delicious), we tried a little bit of everything. I really appreciate the ingenuity of people who can see weird hybrid melon-squash and make it into a casserole, and decide that the ideal thing to do with stale, flat leftover keg beer is to bake it into bread (both of these are verified good ideas).

Needless to say, if you think any of the odd projects above are worthwhile and want a more detailed description, drop me a line and I’d be happy to share more details! If your only reaction to this post was to roll your eyes at my ability to be distracted by various side projects, well, that’s cool too!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Out east!

Well, it looks like I got a little behind on this. Chalk everything up to having too much fun while I was in New Brunswick – that and already-poor blog updating skills. If I recall correctly, I promised a bit of an introduction to where I was in New Brunswick. Never mind that I am now in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – that is another story for another day!

First, a little bit of history and geography: Falls Brook Centre was born out of the 1992 Rio Summit, which has come back into the news lately because of the 20-years-on follow-up summit that just happened, Rio+20. One of the things that came out of the first Rio summit was the need for rural development that was environmentally and economically sustainable. Falls Brook was started as a demonstration centre for organic agriculture and land restoration. It’s located in the Acadian forest, on property that was logged and farmed for a long time. Since starting twenty years ago, the people here have been reforesting a good deal of the site, and have started organic gardens that provide a great deal of the food for the staff of the centre.

We’re located near Florenceville-Bristol, which you may know as the french fry capital of the world, home of McCain potato products (I know I certainly did before arriving here). The surrounding countryside, unsurprisingly, is mostly filled with potato farms and little intersections that are named after the families that have lived there for generations upon generations. It is a strange sensation to go to a village with a certain name and interact with people who have that same name. Perhaps this speaks to how much of a city boy I am?

When I told people about this internship, they had two main questions: first, what was I actually doing? Second, why was it necessary to spend three months in New Brunswick? The first question is always a favourite of people in the international development/environmental field, since the answer is often far less exciting than people expect. The second is evidence that I have too many friends from Toronto who can’t imagine spending time anywhere in the country except in cities of one million people or more.

The Canadian portion of the internship has three main focuses: forestry, agriculture, and education. Most people choose one area to work in for most of their time here. I’ve sort of been given projects in each of the areas, which have been taking shape. Our education projects have focused on presentations to schools and summer camps. This has included a highly exciting development, namely the start of my career as a puppeteer. A big part of our educational activities has been a series of puppet shows on environmental themes. I have, to date, played a heron lamenting the destruction of wetlands, a trio of musical ears of corn who talk about the impact of genetically modified seeds on heirloom varieties, and Dr. Wriggles, an expert on vermicompost. In less exciting news, I’ve also been working on the centre’s newsletter and workshops on kitchen gardening. There’s also been a lot of time to be in the forests here and learn about the Acadian ecosystems and our restoration projects.

In addition, half of our day is given to upkeep of the site’s gardens and trails, with the idea that we should learn about the day-to-day tasks involved in managing organic agriculture and forest restoration projects. I’ve been helping to build a greenhouse, about which more later.

The Canadian portion of the internship is also an opportunity for us to get to know the different partner organizations and prepare ourselves for six months working with them. After doing some research, I decided that I was interested in working with an organization in the Domincan Republic. I hope that having the extra time to learn and reflect will make it a better match for me – the projects that they have been working on in reforestation and enterprise development seem to be right up my alley.

In the beginning of September, we also had the opportunity to do a course on permaculture design. Permaculture is a system of landscape management that looks at designing systems for long-term productivity, with a focus on food production (unless I’m mistaken, the word comes from ‘permanent agriculture’). The class was an eclectic mix of environmental enthusiasts, with the Falls Brooks interns on one side and local maritime permaculture practitioners and soon-to-be practitioners on the other. We were also joined by four partners from our overseas projects, two from Cuba and two from Honduras. They brought their own perspectives to the course, and I had a great time doing a running interpretation of the classes for them.

The main project of the permaculture course was a design project based on a need identified by the community. We worked in our group with community members to come up with a design for projects. My group worked with the community land trust, a group of people that has put aside over one hundred acres to be inhabited by people who want to build a community in South Knowlesville. The land is given in free, renewable 99-year leases, the only stipulation being that people stay on the land and do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides (interested parties, consult The good folks on the land trust wanted us to design a place where people could be welcomed into the community, and stay short-term with some important amenities such as a kitchen and showers. It was an interesting experience to design something that people were actually interested in using, and we got some really good feedback!
Anyway, that is what I was up to in New Brunswick. I’m in the Dominican Republic now, about to begin the next leg of the journey! As long as I remember to keep writing, expect updates from this part of the world soon!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fired up!

Hello Everyone!

So it's been a couple of weeks since I left Toronto for the cooler, quieter lands of New Brunswick. Life here is very different, and I am sure that I will write about the daily grind at the centre here in more detail later. But first, a story from last weekend.

In Ontario, we have a day off on the first Monday of August, with the super-lame name of the 'civic holiday' or something. Brief aside: I'm pretty sure that it is actually called Simcoe Day, but due to the fact that no-one remembers who Simcoe was anymore, we opted for a neutral name rather than admit our ignorance (for the record, John Graves Simcoe was the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and the founder of what would become Toronto). I was pleased to find out that this tradition exists in New Brunswick as well, although by the name of "New Brunswick Day."

As it happened, some people in the area who used to work with Falls Brook Centre (the NGO I’m working with) were offering a two-day bushcraft course – topics included fire-building, shelter, and general survival/craft skills that could be used in the bush. While there was a bit of a price tag attached to the offer, I and two other interns decided that we couldn’t pass it up. Most of our colleagues opted inexplicably for a long weekend full of partying and fun. What fools! Clearly they were unaware that the best parties involve starting fires with flint and steel, or sleeping in lean-tos.

Growing up, I had always heard my father’s stories about going to wilderness camp, something that was never much of an option for us, since these camps are now few and far between, and exponentially more expensive. However, I had always felt that a certain amount of traipsing through the woods was missing from my life. The weekend provided an ideal opportunity. We began by talking about firecraft, starting with practical things like gathering and lighting bunches of tinder and kindling, and lighting twig bundles. Then things got interesting. While our instructor freely admitted that we would almost certainly start every fire we ever made with matches or a lighter, he wanted to show us some ways of making fire that predated matches (which, incidentally, have only been in common use for just over a hundred years! Weird, eh?). We started by looking for hoof fungus and chugga fungus, which grow on white and yellow birch, respectively. Both contain a kind of corky tissue that lights very easily, and quickly turns into an ember once a spark has been cast onto it. To cast sparks, we used our knives and a ‘metal match’, a long piece of flint. We also spent a few hours learning how to search for materials and construct a bow drill, a tool that creates an ember by drilling into a dry piece of wood, which creates friction.

The most curious moment of the weekend happened after dinner on the first day. We had already explored some fairly outlandish ways of starting fires, culminating in a small flame that we got from casting sparks onto chunks of hoof fungus and putting the lit mushrooms into a nest of kindling. However, even this was outdone by a challenge that was put to us in the evening. We were provided with an old pair of blue jeans, several hacksaw blades and an encyclopedia. We were then directed to search through the gravel road for bits of quartz. All of these ingredients would, it was said, make fire. I was somewhat skeptical. This is it, I thought, as I went through the roadside looking for quartz rocks, this is some kind of bizarre New-Brunswickian sacrifice ritual and I have minutes to live. I contemplated fleeing, but I was really curious to see how it would turn out.

Those of you with more wilderness training (or logical minds) than me may have already figured it out. The blue jeans were torn into the strips, and the strips were allowed to catch fire. Before they had burned completely, they were extinguished by dropping them on an open page of the encyclopedia, which was then shut, This ruined the page of the encyclopedia in question, which is why we used one of the index volumes that no-one really ever opens (side note, does anyone even remember how to use encyclopedias anymore? I remember when they were all the rage in grade four). The result is a piece of cloth that is charred all the way through. This is the tinder cloth that will catch a spark and start to form an ember that can grow into a fire. The sparks are cast, then, with the quartz and hacksaw blade, by striking the blade against a jagged edge of quartz. These edges tend to get worn out rather quickly, however, so the process requires a constant smashing of quartz so that new edges can be created.

The rest of the weekend was great – we learned to make a basic shelter the next day using a frame of willow and alder stakes, and covered with an old parachute. We made a bed inside using spruce and fir boughs as well – we put down two body-length logs, then some larger branches for bedsprings, and then a layer of branch tips for bedding, with clumps around the head and hips for comfort. It ended up being one of the most comfortable beds I’ve had.

Thanks, as well, to our hosts' generosity, we were also able to attend free of charge by showing up on Monday (New Brunswick Day, if you were paying attention) and doing a day of farm chores. Finally, my fascination with shovels and pitchforks is paying off!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pining Away

In my last post, I may have indicated some degree of uncertainty of what, exactly, is going to happen on the internship I will be leaving on. This is normal -- the details of most, if not all, international placements are only really worked after you get there. As a result, most inquiries about what exactly I will be doing have been met with a vague answer about "forest conservation", followed by assurances that I can indeed speak a little Spanish, followed by intense interest in the weather (some heat we've been having, eh?)

Anyway, while I have been pining away for my internship to begin, I have been having some adventures of my own, right here in Toronto! Read on for the details, and to discover why the title of this post is a really clever pun (if I do say so myself).

First, a note: I, along with several of my distinguished (and remarkably attractive) colleagues graduated last month. Yay! Accomplishments! The problem with graduating is that the celebrations are quickly ruined by the long, hard job hunt or, in some cases, a crippling case of the quarter-life crisis -- about which, my friend Conor has written an excellent piece.

Another of the problems with graduating, especially from an institution like the University of Toronto, is that one quickly notices one's lack of, shall we say, experience. We've been learning about these lofty concepts and exciting events in the safety of our classrooms, blissfully unaware that what the outside world valued was not our ability to write essays about things, but our ability to do those things.

This realization hit home in my last semester, when I started to apply for jobs and realized that everything in the environmental field that interested me required that I have gone out into the environment and studied it. Awkward.

Luckily, the past few months have given me the chance to get into environments near and far. For a while in May and June, I volunteered on a forestry project, doing baseline studies of a forest on the Petawawa Canadian Forces Base. The idea was to get an idea of what the forest was like before they cut it all down and tried to regenerate it. As a twist, there were going to be two harvest types -- one normal, in which the saleable logs were taken and everything else was left behind. In the other part of the forest, all of the large trees were taken, and whatever was not sold was made into woodchips and burned to generate electricity. If it could be shown that this kind of harvesting could be done in such a way that the forest regenerated and the loggers made a profit, it could pave the way for a new source of green energy -- potentially creating low-cost, low-emissions electricity for Ontario and jobs for the ailing forestry sector.

Another project I was involved with was a biodiversity survey along the Bruce Trail, on the Niagara Escarpment. This is an ecologically unique part of the province, and has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve. In the 1970s, much of it was surveyed by biologists who recorded the species present at sites throughout the escarpment. In repeating this work four decades later, we were getting an idea of how, or if, the environment had changed significantly over that time.

All of this sounds sexy, doesn't it? Well, I learned something else: science is boring. No matter how interesting the original question is, the analysis required to answer it will numb even the most inquisitive minds. I mean, I speak as someone who really, really likes science, and learning about the environment. But my brain may have turned to mush after spending three days counting twigs (which we did in order to determine the nutrient load on the forest floor).

Or, as xkcd says:

Which I took as a kind of warning: if you're going to do science, you have to be committed enough to the process to spend much of your time on things like sifting through soil samples or counting leaf hairs (something that my mother, apparently, had to do for her PhD thesis).

Anyway, that was my summer! I didn't spend the entire time pining away for my trip to New Brunswick, I also looked at some actual pines in the forest, and...

Okay, sorry.

'til next time!

Monday, June 4, 2012

New Adventures!


And, we're back! As I'm about to embark on new adventures in my life, I've decided to reactivate this blog. While I was on the farm, and in India, it was great to have a way of keeping in touch, or getting back in touch, with people and sharing a little bit of my life with those near and far.

In the last year, however, I've been a little bit distracted from my writing. It's been a great time, however little I've been in touch. Since my last update on this blog, I've returned to Canada and finished my last year of undergrad. I also finished my thesis, which talked about some of the work I did with the herbarium at Puvidham – more on that later.

But, to the point: new adventures! At the end of July, I'll be leaving with the Falls Brook Centre for an eight-month internship. I'll be working for a portion of that time at the Falls Brook Centre itself, in Knowlesville, New Brunswick, on their environmental education activities. I'll also be learning about the centre and its philosophy. Following two or three months of that, I'll be sent to work with a partner in Central America – I'll find out which partner after a month or so on the job, though potential destinations include Honduras, Costa Rica, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic!

The work that I will be doing will be a part of Falls Brook Centre's role in the International Analog Forestry Network. Analog Forestry is a kind of forest management that attempts to fit economic activities, such as farming and the harvest of forest products, into a system that mimics the natural forest. Ideally, this would preserve biodiversity as well as creating economic opportunities. That, at least, is my own understanding – I'm sure I'll write more on this at a later date.

Since being hired in March, I've been learning a lot about the kind of work I'll be doing. More than anything, however, I've found out just how much there is to learn. Luckily, I've had some time to get into the forest here in Ontario before leaving for New Brunswick. I just spent a week on the Niagara Escarpment helping with a biodiversity survey, and I'm leaving tomorrow for the Petawawa Research Forest, north of Ottawa, where I'll be working on a forestry project. In addition to getting me out of the city and into the forest, an enjoyable feat in itself, I've been able to learn a great deal about the kind of work that goes on here in Canada in the biodiversity biz. Perhaps this information will be useful in New Brunswick and beyond?

Anyway, that's me! I apologize, this post has been kind of boring, kind of like those conversations that you have with people you haven't seen for a long time, where you have to catch up all the things that have happened in your lives since you last talked. The next entries will be far more exciting, I promise. I should warn you, though, that 'exciting' in this context probably means 'filled with details of life among the plants'. Be warned!

See you next time!

P.S. Has it really been over a year since the last post? Wild.
P.P.S. Speaking of adventures, I'm posting this on the train to North Bay (which is neat to ride on, especially since it might be sold off soon!) on my way to work on the forestry project in Petawawa. More on that soon!