ECOLOGY PROJECT IN ECUADOR

Working together for the future

by Catherine Pawasarat

It’s always your choice to live for today — Raising your voice for all life to remain

These lyrics from a song by singer and activist Anja Light sum up the Australian native’s message in her quest to preserve the world’s rain forests. For a month in June and July, she used songs and visuals to impress her message on about 2,000 like-minded people at 22 events throughout Japan.

Environmental activist Anja Light sings one of her eco-tunes with Alpa, the daughter of Cotacachi Mayor Auki Titana Males.

A frequent visitor to Japan, Light called attention this time to the Ecuadorian rain forests. Light currently lives in the town of Cotacachi, two hours north of Quito by bus, and is working on a number of projects for environmental conservation and sustainable development.

“We have an ecocenter and organic net cafe in Cotacachi, including an urban permaculture display garden,” Light explains. “It aims to empower especially the young people of Cotacachi on ecological lifestyle issues, international networking and choosing alternative development options.”

Earlier this year Light helped organize an entire exposition on alternative development, including such home-grown technologies as bicycle-generated energy, very fitting for this undeveloped area.

Permaculture represents the best of modern technological advances married with ancient wisdom — a culture that ensures its own permanence (that is, sustainability) by cooperating with the features of the local ecology, rather than competing with them. It offers undeveloped regions in countries like Ecuador hope for a better life than traditional developmental offerings, like hydroelectric dams and superhighways, have been able to deliver.

The cafe and permaculture garden in Cotacachi are supported by the Rainforest Information Center, an Australian nongovernmental organization, and provide a center for ecotourists visiting the region, as well as a place to enjoy a cup of locally grown organic coffee or herbal tea.

Light works actively with Cotacachi Mayor Auki Titana Males, the first indigenous mayor in the area since the Spanish conquistadors colonized the country 500 years ago. With his environmental platform, he won the elections by an unheard-of margin of 80 percent.

Earlier this year Titana helped establish a broader program embracing the county of Cotacachi. “We are attempting to implement comprehensive environmental ordinances,” Light says, “tackling things like recycling, environmental management, pollution, destructive development, forest protection and reforestation on a county-wide level.”

She says they believe the program is the first of its kind in the world.

“After many years of campaigning ‘against’ the destruction of forests and the marginalization of indigenous people,” Light adds, “it is great to be able to work for an alternative development system, one which is actually being asked for by the people.”

Because of Light’s connections with Japan (she spent nearly three years here in the ’90s) green-leaning Japanese and local environment-related companies are getting more and more involved.

In a place called Intag, another two hours away from Cotacachi by bus, Light and the Japanese organic coffee company Wind Farm have bought 30 hectares of high-elevation cloud forest that was damaged by development, “in order to protect and rejuvenate the forest as well as create an ideal, ecological lifestyle as a demonstration for local communities and future visitors,” she says.

A young Japanese volunteer spent time on the cloud forest preserve this summer, living in a mud house and planting soy and adzuki beans and other organic vegetables.

Earlier this year Wind Farm began importing shade-grown organic coffee from Intag, a development that Light says helped locals choose this sustainable form of agriculture over large-scale mining that would have destroyed the remaining forests. Some proceeds from the coffee sales also go to support a sanctuary for sloths at a farm named Nueva Esperanza, “New Hope.” The sloth sanctuary is also supported by the newly founded Japanese Sloth Club.

Sloth Club? Not surprisingly, this group’s focus is on learning to celebrate the slow things in life, avoiding the manic pace of modern hyperconsumptive lifestyles. With help from Light and the RIC, the Sloth Club and its sloth sanctuary are raising awareness about the plight of the sloth and the need to protect its habitat, the rain forest.

Alas, the sloth, so slow, so peaceful, is so well adapted to its rain-forest environment that as the forest disappears, so do the sloths. Can you relate?

More and more people can, it seems, as Light’s recent tour had lots of new Sloth members making haste to sign up for slowing down and tuning in to the environment. Many of these people also want to visit Ecuador, some to stay for a while, to study and work the land.

“As Nueva Esperanza contains the world’s tallest mangrove tree, tropical forest and coast, it has great potential for ecotourism, which we are looking to develop with the U.S.-based NGO, Ancient Forests International,” Light explains. There is also a permaculture center and seed bank nearby.

“The permaculture center trains local people in both permaculture and seed saving techniques to encourage sustainable farming techniques in a part of Ecuador that has seen 96 percent of its forests already destroyed through activities like cattle farming and palm-oil plantations,” she says.

An environmental activist for more than a decade, Light has worked on many of the forest conservation crusades in the Eastern Hemisphere, including protesting the clear-felling of the rain forests of Sarawak, Malaysia in the ’80s and ’90s (and getting jailed for it), and working to protect old-growth forests in Tasmania.

Over the years, Light came to super-timber-consumer Japan for several of these forest protection campaigns, staying for a total of nearly 18 months. She spent another 18 months living in Kanazawa to learn more about Japan, and while here recorded her first musical CD, “Voices for the Forest.”

In 1998, Light and Titana came to Kyushu’s Yakushima island, one of Japan’s only two natural World Heritage Sites. Cotacachi and Yakushima are working on the world’s first environmental sister-city relationship; the mayors of Yakushima’s two cities reportedly plan to visit Cotacachi in the near future.