Acara Institute on the Environment | University of Minnesota Wed, 12 Aug 2015 16:34:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Reflections Thu, 16 Jul 2015 16:23:10 +0000 As I wrote this in late June, I was sitting on a lovely Pacific beach in Las Penitas, Nicaragua, essentially my first off day in nearly six weeks of traveling, teaching, speaking and consulting in India, Malaysia and Nicaragua. It was a good time for reflection.

Nic beach

Las Penitas, Nicaragua

As co-director of the Institute on the Environment’s Acara program, my focus is on helping students and young entrepreneurs develop solutions to global environmental challenges. Summer is the time for me to get out of the classroom and into the world with current and past students. I spent three weeks in India helping my colleagues leading a class with 16 University of Minnesota students and four India student interns looking at sustainability challenges facing Bangalore, a growing city of 9 million people, and surrounding areas. I took a side trip to Malaysia to give a keynote address at the 1st International Conference on Empowering Entrepreneurship. After a few days back in Minnesota, Acara assistant director Brian Bell and I went to Nicaragua to teach Iowa State students doing an in-country product design program and to investigate starting a Latin America program for Acara.

By both predilection and professional experience, I am, as the joke goes, the typical engineer to whom the glass is neither half full nor half empty but twice as big as it needs to be. That steady sense of balance served me well in a previous career in technology and business development and today in an institute with a focus on large complex climate and sustainability issues. However, arriving at that state often entails extreme swings in both directions. Reflecting on the trip, I recall a number of things that gave me “half full” or “half empty” thoughts.

India Class 2015, Bangalore

India Class 2015, Selco Workshop, Bangalore

Water Availability and Quality

  • Half empty: Seeing a lakeside luxury high-rise apartment building in Bangalore dump untreated wastewater into the lake. The lake outlet, next to a low-income community, was full of suds and the water was literally on fire the previous day.
  • Half full: In Nicaragua the beach was clean and unspoiled, with a small, sustainably run eco hotel (eco in reality, not just in marketing) nearby, and seemed to be in good shape.
  • Half empty: In all three countries I visited as well as the U.S., changing rain patterns are causing major disruptions to agriculture businesses.
  • Half full: There is a growing recognition that these changes are likely permanent and resiliency is growing in importance.
Bellandur Lake, Bangalore

Bellandur Lake, Bangalore. The black soil to the right is residue from the foam burning the previous day.

Sustainable Agriculture

  • Half empty: Driving through a nasty dust storm blowing off large corporate farm fields near Leon, Nicaragua.
  • Half full: Spending time with amazing young entrepreneurs from MyRain and EOS International, both of whom are making available sustainable farming solutions to small farmers around Madurai, India, and San Isidro, Nicaragua.
  • Half empty: Large tobacco farms in Nicaragua that make heavy use of chemicals and wear out the soil in a few years, all to make a product that essentially kills you.
  • Half full: Exciting non-governmental organizations Sustainable Agro Alliance in India and CII-ASDENIC in Nicaragua, both of which have created innovative agricultural demonstration farms for training farmers on new, more sustainable, farming practices.
MyRain 3rd Anniversary Celebration, June 2015

MyRain 3rd Anniversary Celebration, June 2015

Demographics and Youth

  • Half empty: Walking through a shiny new mall in Kuala Lumpur, realizing that many countries are very skewed to a younger population, that these young people are aspiring to the middle class and corporate-type jobs and that enormous resources will be required to serve that need. When I am on a crowded street in India, I often think of this chart that shows half the world’s population lives in a circle centered in Southeast Asia.
  • Half full: Working with young students from India, Malaysia, Nicaragua and the U.S. who are dedicated and passionate about working on global grand challenges. It was great to see a strong recognition from universities I visited, especially the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and INCAE Business School in Managua, that inclusive entrepreneurship (livelihoods for all) is vital to addressing the demographic issue above and are actively creating training programs for all.

Social Justice

  • Half full: The Environmental Support Group in Bangalore was effectively using the courts to enforce policy in a country that struggles with corruption. The Ugly Indian is an extremely effective grassroots organization cleaning up the streets of India.
  • Half empty: The Bangalore Metro, under construction, is a modern marvel of engineering, providing much-needed public transportation to the city. But many low-income communities did not have a voice in the required relocation.
UMN students doing an Ugly Indian spotfix in Bangalore.

UMN students doing an Ugly Indian spotfix in Bangalore.

Solution Availability

  • Half full: While we know that practically everyone in the world has, or has access to, a mobile phone, the real changes will come as all those phones move to smartphones over the next decade. Akhilesh Tilotia, in his just published book, “The Making of India,” projects 625 smartphone users in India by 2020, up from around 160 million users today. This recent story in MIT Technology Review summarizes this trend nicely.
  • Half empty: Distribution and lack of physical access because of poor infrastructure can’t be overcome solely by digital technology.

Every year this trip causes me to think about an emerging issue. This year the big issue that stuck out for me was livelihoods. In addition to UKM and UCAE, we met organizations such as Thriive working on new ideas for creating livelihoods. According to Tilotia, “over the next ten years till 2025, 250 million people will become eligible (old enough) to join the workforce in India.” That is more than 2 million people every month for 10 years. These young people need jobs, and the opportunities need to be fair across society to diminish further economic income separation. These livelihoods need to be sustainable — financially, socially and environmentally. This demographic challenge is weighing heavily on the minds of many thought leaders in these countries.

We teach students to use a “What, So What, Now What” method in reflecting on experiential learning. What is the “Now What” for Acara from these reflections? Create solutions addressed to specific environmental or social grand challenges, ensuring that these solutions are financially and environmentally sustainable, provide livelihoods, and are accessible to all.

This is not a short journey by any means, and for an educational program like Acara (along with many others globally), it’s an ongoing process to develop a pipeline of young leaders to address these challenges. Meeting the dynamic people I met on these travels, I feel, despite the swings above, that we can carve out a path to creating a balance of being just right.

]]> 0
Bye India! See you later? Mon, 08 Jun 2015 14:04:33 +0000 And so the adventure comes to an end. Bringing students to India is always an enjoyable time and allows me to see India again through fresh eyes.

As always, India presented dramatic contrasts and experiences.

We visited state-of-the-art labs in a Honeywell facility that would be proudly showcased anywhere in the world, but the building was alongside traffic-clogged roads and within site of a lake that was literally on fire from pollutants.

A cluster of luxury high-rise apartments was nearby with prices that would be high even in Minnesota, and it was within shouting (or beeping, as the case may be) distance of a nearby slum.

June 8_1

Students experienced the ubiquity of human generosity. For example, students who were lost on the first day treasure hunt were offered a ride from a total stranger.

Another student bought a trinket in a market and only had big bills, so the vendor said, “No problem, take it and pay me when you get change.”

June 8_2

Students experienced the pervasiveness of Western culture, finding that young people here like many of the same music and TV shows.

But they also saw totally different cultural aspects. Women’s empowerment is equally important to rural women in India as it is to young women from Minnesota, but it means something different in execution. Time and space are interpreted differently here.

June 8_3

Most importantly, students engaged deeply in discussions with themselves and the organizations we visited about the holistic aspects of development in a developing country.

This included at times heated discussions on:
The ethics of schools and hospitals for indigenous tribal populations
The necessity of a new and modern Metro for rapid transit balanced with the ethics of moving whole neighborhoods of people with lesser voices during the construction
The challenges of sustaining an ancient and well-crafted water shed for the city’s water needs
Methods for effecting change, from grassroots to legal means to entrepreneurship
June 8_4

These questions and contradictions are a constant struggle. Our objective for the students is to experience these challenges first-hand and use holistic, sustainable thinking, whether their work takes them to an office building in Minneapolis or a village in India.

June 8_5

]]> 0
Looking into the past Sat, 06 Jun 2015 14:03:17 +0000 This morning we wrapped up the academic portion of the class with a reflective discussion about what we’ve learned during the past three weeks in India.

We talked about how the problems here are much more complex than we anticipated.

Sarah shared her “One Shoe Theory,” which goes as follows: It seemed that everywhere we went, we found a single lone shoe abandoned by its owner. We could never quite figure out how someone loses a single shoe.

Sarah compared this phenomenon to how there are many things we experienced here that we don’t completely understand. But just because we don’t understand why something is done a certain way, that does not mean there isn’t good reasoning behind it that may be invisible to us.

After breakfast we put on our tourist caps and visited the ruins at Hampi, which served as the capitol of the Vijayanagara Empire from 1343 to 1565.

June 6_2_1

We were mesmerized as the tour guide showed us how some of the pillars in the buildings doubled as drums, and all the students suddenly became pillar-drum masters.

The tour guide also showed us how complex the stone carvings were. We watched a cobra head turn into two monkeys and a boar turn into an elephant, depending on which part of the carving we looked at.

The tour guide also brought us to magnificent structures that were used as elephant garages 600 years ago and showed us a tree that is well over 150 years old.

June 6_2_2

In the afternoon we went on a relaxing and somewhat refreshing boat ride on semi-spherical rafts made of bamboo, tarps, and tar.

We saw the ruins of a few temples and the remains of a bridge that used to connect the two banks of the river.

At the end of the tour we were soaked in sweat, sunburned, and ready to return to the air-conditioned hotel that was so cold it “felt like home.”

June 6_2_3

]]> 0
हे भारत, हमें बहुत मज़ा आया! (Oh India, we had a lot of fun!) Sat, 06 Jun 2015 14:00:01 +0000 Our time here in India is sadly coming to a close. After three intense weeks, I cannot believe that most of us will be on a plane headed home in less than 24 hours.

June 6_1

It seems like only yesterday that we stepped out of the airport and into a flurry of sights and sounds we were not accustomed to.

From the first time meeting the interns and exploring the city to seeing a football game, we have experienced every facet of Indian culture.

June 6_2

The intense heat, constant sweat, noise, and traffic have now become a part of our everyday lives, and I am not sure how we will all survive the peaceful U.S. streets.

I’m sure we will all be wrapped in sweaters, hailing nonexistent auto rickshaws, not completely comprehending that we have left India.

June 6_3

These last three weeks have altered us all for the better, and we have gained friendships that will hopefully last years to come.

We are sad to leave the interns behind. They have taught us so much and have enriched our lives with many jokes and memories we will never forget.

June 6_4

Tomorrow, our final day here, will be filled with last-minute souvenir shopping and food tasting (Taco Bell!) that will be the perfect ending to a wonderful journey.

June 6_5

]]> 0
Durga, kumkum, teertha, snakes! Fri, 05 Jun 2015 13:58:05 +0000 Ever seen traffic stop to let hens peck their way across the street? No? Well, here in Raichur, we did.

We started our day by traveling to a small village in the Raichur district to see the TCB (trench cum bund) system.

On this car ride, we saw cows decorated with paint and their horns colored a shade brighter than the sun. The car swerved in various directions to avoid hitting the cattle meandering on the road.

June 5_2_1

A mile away from our destination, we stopped at a Durga temple. According to the people living there, not stopping at the temple before traveling along the path is said to bring bad luck.

The students seemed fascinated by the kumkum and teertha provided in the temple. We then visited the government lands where TCB was introduced and learned its various advantages, recharging ground water being one of the most important.

June 5_2_2

One of our guides from the Samuha organization found the skin of a type of snake common in the area. The flaky skin was passed around and was to be used to freak out a few people. Unfortunately, we had to get rid of it before the scare fest.

June 5_2_3

In the small village community, on the occasion of “Vanmahotsava,” the students were asked to plant saplings as a sign of respect. With the mud being washed away from our hands, another trip to the village came to an end.

June 5_2_4

]]> 0
The Convoy Fri, 05 Jun 2015 13:57:00 +0000 After yet another hearty and leaf-filled meal at the Samuha office near Devadurga, a debriefing was in order to bring the two-day visit to a close.

The debriefing was essential to the visit – it put the field visits into perspective and provided a suitable space for feedback.

The convoy set out toward Hospet by 2:45 p.m. amid fond waves of goodbye from the organizers. Once on the road, favorable seating positions were taken up, which soon turned into rather unnatural poses in the quest to find a couple of hours of sleep.

June 5_1

The highways and streets of every village, be it Jalahalli or Chinchodi, were brimming with supporters of the newly elected political party in the region. Pink and purple holi colors were smeared on a good number of howling and elated citizens, adding vibrancy to an otherwise dull and dusty surrounding.

Just past the crossing over the Krishna river on the outskirts of the comparatively big town of Lingsugur were two woofer-ridden autos providing a considerable amount of base to their victory. Brown was beginning to be replaced by green in the landscape – a good sign indeed.

June 5_2

As the four Tata Sumo’s drove past Kasabalingsur, the sun had begun to wane and a new wave of exhaustion crept in. The drivers also seemed to lose impetus in their mission to lead the pack.

Two cars headed toward the Samuha establishment at Kanakagiri – one with the purpose of picking up an instructor, the other in search of safe havens for the desperate restroom-seeker – and two headed directly to Hospet. The unspoken competition to win the race had well and truly ended.

Three weeks of the “true” Indian experience had not prepared us for what happened next. At Gangavathi, easily the biggest town that had gone by thus far, the vehicles were welcomed/hoarded by supporters of the victorious party. Handshakes came flying in through the windows as the cars came to a near standstill.

The most intriguing moment in this particular series of events would easily be getting snapped up by the press. News coverage for the study abroad program: check!

A good number of phone calls and a few wrong turns later, the entire convoy reached its destination: Hampi International Hotel. The smiles and sighs of relief were apparent as we entered our rooms. They had soap, toilet paper, and a roof.

You’d made it, Channy.

]]> 0
A is for… Thu, 04 Jun 2015 13:53:03 +0000 We had an exciting afternoon with Samuha, a rural development NGO.

June 4_2_1

Our class split up into four groups. My group first visited a government school near Samuha’s office.

June 4_2_2

We spoke with the teachers and a parent of a hearing impaired child about the resources that Samuha is able to provide for disabled children.

By providing hearing aids, Braille and Indian Sign Language teachers, and teaching aides, Samuha is able to ensure that disabled children can attend school with their peers.

Our professor, Julian, has school-aged children, and he and the teachers were able to share their ideas about child development and teaching styles.

June 4_2_3

In addition to teachers chatting, the schoolyard was also a place for cultural knowledge to be transferred from Samuha staff to our classmate Channy, who was trying out a Lungi for the day.

June 4_2_7

Next, our group crossed the street to sit in the village and hear from women in one of the Samuha women’s self-help groups.

One woman named Hanumanta told us about how she has mobility issues. She recently learned her rights as a person with disabilities, and she is now an advocate for disability rights. Despite being illiterate, she goes to the government to demand pensions for other people with disabilities.

June 4_2_4

Hanumanta’s livelihood is in craft making, but she also does advocacy work seemingly around the clock.

The children in the village were fascinated by us and showed off their English skills by asking us where we were from and why we were visiting their village.

June 4_2_5

Each time we moved to a new area our group grew in size.

June 4_2_6

Those living in the village were surprised that we thanked them for all that they taught us. They thanked us for visiting their home and asked us if we would be returning tomorrow.

]]> 0
If you’re gonna Karnatalkatalka, you’ll have to Karnawalkawalka Thu, 04 Jun 2015 13:50:18 +0000 We hopped off the overnight train from Bangalore as the blood-red early morning sun rose over the mountains near Raichur.

From there we drove (over sextets of speedbumps) into the remote recesses of Karnataka.

June 4_1

We were welcomed to one of the campuses of SAMUHA, an organization that has been promoting social, economic, and environmental development in rural areas of the state since 1987.

Taking shelter from the midday heat, we first listened to presentations from SAMUHA leaders and organizers on various projects undertaken by their organization. The projects included a community-based rehabilitation program for people with disabilities, women’s self-help microcredit groups, a pesticide-free farming management program, and a project for improving indoor air quality with less smoky cook stoves.

June 4_2
Steamy siesta between presentations.

Based on the presentations, I thought I knew what to expect from our afternoon visit to B. R. Gunda, a village with a long-term partnership with SAMUHA, but I was not prepared for our reception.

Dozens of villagers, especially children, followed us around as we toured the B. R. Gunda’s government school and various homes, the click of a camera phone never far away.

June 4_3
Becca and Brady planting trees in the village. (Photo credit: Brian Bell)

June 4_4
Posing with the schoolchildren and teachers. (Photo credit: Brian Bell)

I didn’t feel that we deserved such attention, but people assured us that they appreciated the fact that we had traveled so far to hear their stories.

June 4_5
Speaking with villagers about SAMUHA’s Samarthya program for people with disabilities. (Photo credit: Brian Bell)

After a few women sang us a welcome song and the men helped (between chuckles) to fix Brady’s lungi, I soon settled into the comfort and fun of this special opportunity. It was exciting to learn about community improvement initiatives through group discussions with the people themselves.

June 4_6
Discussion with a women’s self-help microcredit group. (Photo credit: Brian Bell)

Overall, I was touched by the villagers’ hospitality and, although discussions seemed to be largely directed by SAMUHA, this organization really does talk the talk and walk the walk.

I left impressed and inspired by the self-reliance and drive of the B. R. Gunda community in working together and taking charge of the projects facilitated by SAMUHA.

June 4_7
The next day, voters celebrated the victory of their party in the state elections.

]]> 0
To infinite vessels and beyond Wed, 03 Jun 2015 13:47:54 +0000 During the trip, we have become accustomed to long days jam packed with activities, and today was partially more of the same.

We left the hostel at 5 a.m. to travel to the Akshaya Patra facility, which translates to “infinite vessel.”

We were also scheduled to meet with a representative from Green Power Systems, but he had unfortunately been called away on business, so we missed out on the opportunity to speak with him.

GPS has developed a system using organic waste to produce biogas, which is used as an energy source for the food production system in place at Akshaya Patra.

June 3_2_1

After the early morning start, we were given a free afternoon, which took students in several directions. One group decided to shop on Commercial Street, while others used the rare free time to catch up on much needed sleep or work on their journals.

The group who decided to venture out to Commercial Street bought fashionable European brand name clothing at rock bottom prices or picked up gifts for their friends and loved ones.

Luckily it had rained shortly before we reached the area, which seemed to have deterred the insistent bongo drum salesmen who had been drawn to the American tourists like moths to a flame during our last shopping excursion. So I was able to focus on buying things I didn’t need like a true, red blooded American.

After shopping, we had our second missed opportunity of the day when we realized after weeks of serious anticipation that our goal of experiencing an Indian iteration of Taco Bell was not to be due to traffic conditions and time constraints.

June 3_2_2

Later, the class boarded a night train headed to Raichur, where during the previous week, temperatures had reached 111 degrees two of the days.

Stay tuned for details…if our computers don’t melt.

]]> 0
Feeding the masses Wed, 03 Jun 2015 13:47:24 +0000 Today we woke up very early. Before the sound of horns even, at least on our street.

We split into our vans for one of the last times, making sure to grab car snacks distributed by one of our amazing interns, now a friend.

We traveled to Akshaya Patra, an organization that prepares mid-day meals for school-aged children around Bangalore.

The mid-day meal program was established following the principals of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who saw children fighting with street dogs for scraps of food and declared that no child should go hungry or be deprived of education.

The program directly aims to do two things.
Encourage children to attend school by providing a free lunch for each child.
Provide a nutritious lunch!
The facility does this on an ultra efficient scale. Starting as early as 2 or 3 a.m., employees come to start prepping the food to be cooked.

Huge vats of government provided rice, market rice, daal, and vegetables come into the building to be used for the lunches. Starting at the fourth floor, food moves down through literal chutes, using gravity as a powerful food force.

The food is delivered to schools each day by 10 a.m. and requires no preparation before being served for lunch.

We know that kids who are hungry have a hard time focusing on their studies, which is why there are many programs in the U.S. to address nutrition in schools.

But beyond that, this program is addressing a more fundamental issue. Providing a meal at school creates an incentive beyond education for students – a free meal. Something that would otherwise need to be worked for, or even not available at all.

Akshaya Patra provides 1.2 million meals to students in 10 states in India. These meals cost roughly 7 rupees per child ($0.11 for those keeping track back home). This is split between government subsidies and funding done by Akshaya Patra.

The organization has seen measurable success through enrollment numbers. The mid-day meal program has been used to effectively encourage children to stay in school over the course of 15 years.

Akshaya Patra was eye-opening and a great example of how efficiency can create powerful social change.

]]> 0