Lessons in sustainability from the jungles of Ecuador

Children in Guayaquil, Ecuador, receive computer training in their new learning center.

Children in Los Bancos, Ecuador, receive computer training in their new learning center.

By Rob Wood, past president of the Rotary Club of South San Francisco, San Francisco, USA

A few years ago, I learned valuable lessons in sustainability trying to help the people of Los Bancos, a community of about 100 villagers living in extreme poverty in the jungle near Guayaquil, Ecuador.

As president of my club in 2007, I was expected to come up with an international service project and had heard about a new club in Guayaquil looking for an international partner. When I asked them what the villagers needed, they answered “They need everything!”

Of course, by our standards, they did need everything. But if we truly want to help people, we need to be realistic when we organize projects. We need to objectively determine whether or not the people we’re trying to help will be able to manage and maintain whatever it is once we’re gone.

Needs assessment

With some cajoling, I encouraged the local Rotarians to go into the jungle and ask the villagers what they felt they needed. Eventually we received these priorities from the women:

  • Chickens. With a chicken ranch they could have fresh meat and eggs whenever they wanted and could sell the chickens and eggs for cash.
  • A computer learning center for the children
  • A new well and pump house
  • Flush toilets

I made my way through the intricacies of the Matching Grant system. The villagers were taught how to raise chickens. The computer learning center (a bamboo hut) was built with funds from the villagers and Guayaquil Rotarians. The hut was filled with computers, work stations, and a network to link them all. Rotaractors taught the children how to use the computers.

The chicken ranch pilot.

The chicken ranch pilot.

A new well was dug, and a new pump house built by a combined force of Rotarians and villagers, and for the first time in its history, the sound of flushing toilets was heard in Los Bancos. (Of course, the villagers continued to use the fields around the village as their bathroom, but they were very proud of their latrine block.)

The computer learning center flourished, and as it turned out, there was an Internet Service Provider in Guayaquil who could build a 200-foot-high tower necessary to reach above the jungle canopy with an antenna on the top, and bring the Internet to the village for a year ─ all for the project’s remaining balance of US$5,000.

So Internet came to the jungle. The students all made their own Facebook pages. We arranged to meet, via Skype, right there in the bamboo hut. Out in the middle of the jungle, in the midst of extreme poverty, the children and their parents, the Rotarians and the Rotaractors, all got to meet my club and other local Rotarians in real time, and not a dry eye in the place.

Set back

Unfortunately, in our case, time passed and it became clear the villagers weren’t quite ready to go into the chicken ranching business. The chickens either died or were eaten by wild dogs and cats. Storms drove rain through the cracks in the bamboo hut, ruining all the computer equipment. Our club leadership changed and so did that of the Guayaquil Rotary club, which turned its attention elsewhere. There was no money to pay the Internet bill.

I have recently reached out to reconnect with my Guayaquil contacts. The tower is still operational and two clubs want to take another run at the project. It’s possible we’ll breathe new life into the effort.

The model we created for US$25,000 was not only sustainable, it could completely revolutionize the way Rotary helps those in need. One effort with four parts ─ clean water, sanitation, training in computer skills, and internet connection linking the village with the world. Each could be a separate project but coordinated by a single club. As many as five clubs could work together making a long-term commitment, sticking with it until the village becomes self-sufficient.

If we are truly going to help, we need to be in it for the long haul. And that’s what sustainability is all about.

Source: Rotary Voices

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