A Week in Borrowed Boots

By David Siegel, Vice Chair of Green Empowerment’s Board of Directors. David is a city planner who has worked with communities domestically and internationally for over 40 years to define and carry out an intentional future.

Each year, Green Empowerment conducts a field trip for a small group of board members, staff and supporters to experience the work that we do across the globe. This year, we traveled to Ecuador. The following post is both a daily log and a reflection on how a week in borrowed boots can (literally and figuratively) make all the difference. 

Day One

Location: Quito, Pinchincha ProvinceElevation: 9,300 feetTransportation: Plane, taxi, mini-bus

My wife and I hail a taxi from the airport to La Floresta, Quito to join our touring party. We check into our room at Apartamento Los Quipus and then walk to ALTROPICO, where we listen to an informative presentation by our implementing partner. It’s fascinating to learn about the political and economic forces that both enable and limit community development efforts in the regions they serve. Tomorrow, we leave Quito for the coast, then jungles. I’ve got shorts, hiking boots and (for now) a down jacket… ready for anything.

Day Two

Location: Mompiche, Esmeraldas ProvinceElevation: Sea levelTransportation: Mini-bus

From the mountains to the ocean! Eight hours of twisting roads, rolling past an ever-changing landscape, descending over 8,000 feet pretty much says it all — we have a lot of ground to cover. Finally, we arrive in Mompiche, welcomed by a pair of tail-wagging dogs. They join us on our walk from Hotel Bernabeth to the city center. We eat fresh seafood and get our first taste of Ecuadorian aji. Tomorrow, we start visiting the projects that Green Empowerment supports. Better get some rest.

Day Three

Location: Rio Sucio, Esmeraldas ProvinceElevation: Sea levelTransportation: Mini-bus, pickup truck, motorized canoe

We depart Mompiche at the break of dawn and stop for a quick breakfast. At the table, we are bestowed both fluffy eggs and rubber boots for the walking we’ll be doing along muddy trails, river banks and hillsides. With borrowed boots afoot, we journey to Palma Real where the learning begins. Community President Santiago and the local water committee welcome us and show us the water pumping and filtration systems that Green Empowerment helped to install. Local leaders and school children thank us for our support and share what it means to have clean water in their community. We depart Palma Real in our mini-bus with four members of the local water committee. We deboard and hop into pickup trucks, then motorized canoes, that take us where our mini-bus cannot.

We reach Pailon and participate in a community meeting led by Sam Schlesinger, Green Empowerment’s Ecuador Program Manager, and Gustavo, ALTROPICO’s WASH Promoter. Local leaders and water committee members from both Pailon and Palma Real share successes and challenges associated with their newly installed water projects. We learn that the projects have transformed daily life, improving children’s health and reducing the amount of time that families spend gathering water from the river. The meeting concludes and we canoe to Canalon, where we enjoy a revitalizing lunch and visit three more projects –  a water system, an improved cookstove and a biodigester. Gustavo treats us to fresh cacao, the community’s primary crop. That night, a local family welcomes us into their home for an overnight stay, making the experience complete.

Day Four

Location: Rio Sucio, Esmeraldas ProvinceElevation: Sea levelTransportation: Mini-bus, pickup truck

Busy day! We leave our hosts in Canalon and head toward the coastal, industrial city of Esmeraldas. On our way to Esmeraldas, we board more pickup trucks and make our way to Felfa, another small farming community where cacao is king. We participate in a community meeting and discuss projects that Green Empowerment has supported for several years. We learn that Sam is called “Samuelito” here and that we should trust him 200% because of his hard work and commitment to Felfa’s success. The community is proud of its many projects – from its water system to its communal cacao drying facility – but it struggles to sustainably finance them. Community leaders work creatively to host soccer tournaments and raffles that generate funds quickly, when project maintenance is needed. After the meeting, we view well-intentioned projects installed by aid organizations that failed because they did not consider how the facility would be maintained in the future. Much like the rubber boots that we borrowed for the mud, follow-up is key to international development work.We climb back into the pickup trucks, slide back down the muddy road from which we came, meet our transport, and two hours later reach the provincial capital of Esmeraldas for much-appreciated rest.

Day Five

Location: Rio Blanco, Carchi ProvinceElevation: 8,500 feetTransportation: Mini-bus

Stoves! It’s all about stoves today! We board our mini-bus and ascend to Carchi Province, along the Ecuadorian-Colombian border. Many homes in the community of Las Juntas have two means of cooking — propane (although subsidized, still costly to use) and wood. Wooden stoves require a fair amount of wood to sustain the flame, which generates a great deal of smoke in and around the kitchen. Green Empowerment and ALTROPICO are working with several families, like Don Vicente’s, to build efficient wood stoves, or improved cookstoves, that require far less wood and generate far less smoke and particulate matter. We visit four installations – three built with masonry, and one that is “portable” and built with metal sheeting. Each stove owner praises the stoves’ efficiency and the savings afforded in terms of time and fuel. These families are now some of our greatest advocates, spreading the word to others who might be interested in clean cooking. By increasing the demand for improved cookstoves, Green Empowerment hopes that local vendors will become increasingly interested in supplying the demand.After “stove-fest,” we make our way to Ibarra, a provincial capital city in northern Ecuador, for dinner and rest before the last leg of our trip – Otavalo and then home.

Day Six

Location: Otavalo, Imbabura ProvinceElevation: 8,200 feetTransportation: Mini-bus

We leave our hotel in Ibarra for a quick trip to Otavalo – a community of about 50,000 people, many indigenous, that is well-known for its artisanal craft market and animal market where a variety of livestock are sold and purchased. We visit both markets and then Cuicocha, a 3 km wide caldera and crater lake at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano. The name Cuicocha comes from the Kichwa indigenous language and means “Lago del Cuy” (or Guinea Pig Lake), due in part to the shape of the two lava islands within the lake. After a refreshing visit to the lake, we return to Otavalo. It is time to bid one another “adios.”

ReflectionIt’s one thing to read and hear about Green Empowerment’s work — it’s entirely different to experience it in person. This trip was an incredible opportunity to learn from field staff who work tirelessly to make projects happen, and connect with community members and partners. In addition to borrowed boots, I learned that the following tenets make all the difference in international development work:

Empathy and trust. It was educational, gratifying and touching to see the level of genuine appreciation, respect and trust that communities feel for Green Empowerment thanks to the work hard work of Sam. Sam took the time to get to know the needs of the community, he worked with ALTROPICO to leverage community resources and address these needs, and then applied his expertise in field-engineering to ensure the solutions were workable. The fondness, trust and appreciation expressed for Sam and his work was very real and touching.

Capacity-building. Using local resources, inviting communities to participate in planning processes and ensuring that communities are able to operate and maintain projects moving forward builds local capacity and feelings of both ownership and accomplishment.

Adaptation. New technology creates opportunity, and equips communities with new skills and responsibilities that can be applied to other aspects of life. For example, the implementation of a new billing and collection process for community members who wish to access water services strengthened community leaders’ ability to problem-solve and think creatively.

Follow-through. Some well-meaning organizations “fly into” communities after natural disaster or crisis, seeking to address challenges they identify as most pressing. All too often, they leave before ensuring that solutions work or are able to be maintained at the community level. Green Empowerment’s field staff follow-up and work with communities to evaluate project performance and train on project maintenance, thus solving a problem, building capacity and encouraging communities to pursue other community development opportunities in the future.

All in all, this trip was a real eye-opener. The experience really revealed the difference this work makes in the daily lives of the communities we support. Green Empowerment’s approach is one of a kind, leading to real change and real empowerment, one community at a time.

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