Summer Journeys: Into the Rainforest

Natalie Waldram ’18 is deeply connected to the environment. She is an Eco Mon at Taft, and a leader of the Outing Club. As a senior, she is thinking about what lies ahead.

“I thought that I wanted to pursue a career related to environmental science or environmental policy,” Natalie explains, “and wanted to interact with people already working in those fields—with the people working so hard to educate others about environmental issues. I also wanted to meet other people my age who might be considering a similar path.”

Natalie spent four weeks last summer doing just that through an organization called Sustainable Summer, first in the Amazon rainforest, then at the their Environmental Leadership Academy at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. The program combined sustainability immersion, active learning, leadership development, and environmental study. Her first stop was Ecuador.

“Ecuador was absolutely incredible,” says Natalie. “It was very beautiful. We studied cacao cultivation, and spent time learning about the chakra-style farming communities. We also considered the implications of trade and sustainable resource management.”

Chakra is the Quechua word for the small farms—the “forest gardens” on the outskirts of cities and towns. They are typically dedicated to producing both food and commercial crops for a neighborhood or collective.

“Communities of five families share backyard chakra-style farms,” explains Natalie. “The way they intercrop was fascinating to see. Unlike the monocropping we see in the US, different types of plants would be interspersed among the cacao trees.”

The differences, Natalie says, run deeper than method.

“The indigenous women do most of the farming—they care so much about what they are creating. They speak about it in very spiritual terms, and tie planting very closely to moon cycles. If there is any sense of bad spirit or moon, crops may be pulled up and replanted.”

Local co-ops bring chakra farmers together in an effort to secure fairer prices for their chocolate and other goods.

“If they export it, they often get exploited,” says Natalie. “The Huasquila jungle near Archidona is impoverished. But Ecuador is indebted to other countries—countries who are eager for its oil. It is a very complicated cycle, and there are many, many roadblocks for the native people. As an environmentalist, I always thought we should stop drilling in these countries. My time in Ecuador taught me that it is so much more complex than that. The focus needs to be on finding the balance—reconciling the needs of the people with the needs of the environment.” 

And that is the understanding Natalie carried with her into the classroom at Dartmouth to begin learning how individuals can impact institutional environmental change.

“We heard from many speakers, including the head of sustainability at Dartmouth, who talked about the gap that often exists between organizations buying into sustainable practices and implementing them,” says Natalie. “I think that is a common barrier and one that is difficult to overcome. It’s a dance, to some degree, and you need the right people behind you. As with my time in Ecuador, what I really gained was an understanding of the complexity of environmental and sustainability issues. I learned a lot about myself, and know I will bring environmental awareness into whatever career I pursue.”