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Reinventing the Banana

By Don Morrison

PORT Magazine, March 23, 2011

There was something odd about my banana. I had just landed in New York City and was foraging for breakfast. Once bought and peeled, however, it turned out to be not the usual gas-ripened stick of supermarket cardboard but an altogether different experience: creamier, sweeter, more compact, with a fine balance of oil and acid, a floral bouquet and a lingering finish on the mid-palate. Only when I read the label did things begin to make sense: this banana had been to university.

Earth University, to be precise. Or, as it is formally known, EARTH University, though I’ll forgo the capital letters hereinafter to conserve ink. For conservation is what Earth U is all about: conserving natural resources, promoting sustainable agriculture, building a better life for the small farmers who struggle in less-developed parts of the world. Founded 20 years ago by government and private donors, Earth is an accredited institution of tertiary education with 400 full-time students from two dozen countries and a modern 8,000-acre campus in the Central American nation of Costa Rica.

And, just inside the campus gates, a commercial banana plantation. It produces about 600,000 boxes of sustainably grown bananas a year. Nearly 90 percent of them are sold by Whole Foods, the supermarket chain with 200 stores in the US and the UK. For the past decade, Earth University-brand bananas have been treasured for their taste by many people who, like me, had no idea what Earth University is. I had to find out.

Though the school is largely unknown to the general public and does not make those journalistic lists of the world’s best universities, it has a large band of international supporters eager to change all that. Among them is Sofia Englund, a UK-based member of Earth University’s Young Advisory Board, who agreed to do most of the legwork for this story. By the time she was finished, I was dreaming about being her age again so I could apply for admission. And I felt much better about the future of our battered planet.

Central America in the late 1980s seemed like the land God forgot. Seventy percent of its rural families lived in poverty. More than one million acres were lost every year to deforestation. Many countries in the region – El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama – were mired in civil wars, and most of the rest were plagued by corruption and economic mismanagement.

Against that sorry backdrop, officials at the Agency for International Development, an offshoot of the US State Department, began talking with their counterparts in the government of Costa Rica. It’s the region’s most stable and prosperous country, which is a blessing that can be traced to the 1949 abolition of its military. That’s right, Costa Rica, with a population of 4.3 million, has no standing army (also no juntas and no coups). It relies on international law, diplomacy and a small police force for security, and the money saved is spent on education and conservation.

The Americans and the Costa Ricans concluded that key to stability in the region was improving the quality of agriculture, since most of its people are farmers. And one way to do that was to forgo the handouts that had long characterised development aid and instead train a new generation of Central Americans to farm more effectively, with less harm to the region’s fragile ecology. Moreover, by focusing on the special agricultural problems of humid climates like Central America’s, the school could also help similar farming regions worldwide. The project was given a name that advertised its global ambitions: Agricultural School of the Humid Tropical Region – in Spanish: Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda, or EARTH. US universities lined up to offer advice, a board of directors was chosen, and a foundation established to raise money. Environmentalists, whose numbers were growing along with global worries about deforestation, were on board.

In Central America, however, the project was greeted with suspicion. Some regional leaders feared the new school would be an agent of US political interference. It was hardly a groundless concern, since the administration of President Ronald Reagan had at that time been supporting juntas and dictators throughout the region. “The initiative to establish Earth University came at a very complicated political time,” says the school’s first and only president, José Zaglul. “My main concern was the political implications of such a project.”

Zaglul grew up in Costa Rica, the son of Lebanese immigrants. He studied at Lebanon’s American University of Beirut, worked for the Dole pineapple company and took a PhD at the University of Florida. As head of the animal husbandry programme at CATIE, Costa Rica’s tropical research institute, Zaglul was intrigued by the controversy over the proposed new agricultural school and applied for the top job there, largely out of curiosity. “I sent in my application almost to challenge the board of directors, to see what they were going to do with it,” he recalls. “What surprised me was that they selected me. I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’”

That was a long time ago, and today Zaglul presides over a flexible curriculum that sees students spending almost as much time digging in the dirt as hitting the books. Entrepreneurship and community engagement are key elements. “Earth’s programme is experiential and participatory,” says Zaglul. “What is learned in the classroom is applied in the field or in the lab, and coursework is integrated and multidisciplinary. We have no departments at Earth.”

What Earth does have are 80-odd faculty members with diverse backgrounds and a shared distrust of convention. Jan Axelsson, who teaches communication skills, spent 13 years as a teacher in his native Sweden. “Teaching at Earth can be a challenge for those with the traditional authoritarian experience of that job,” he says. “The reality here is different. It combines facilitating technical formation with being a substitute parent. You have to forget about normal office hours because the students need support, academic and emotional, past the last lecture at 6pm.”

Ramón León moved to Earth from an academic job in California to teach integrated weed management. A major attraction was Earth’s student-centred approach. “You do not have the conventional view of academia here, so you don’t have to pretend that you are a real uptight intellectual,” he says. “The focus is on the students and not the teachers. You don’t have to play the role of the university professor on a pedestal. I teach at the level of the students. We get dirty in the mud, we joke and we have fun.”

Having fun in the mud is just fine with Earth’s students. About a third of them are from Central America, with a large contingent of other Latins and a smattering of Africans, Europeans and Yankees. “Earth is like a United Nations, but without the conflicts,” says Irene Alvarado, who teaches entrepreneurship. Fees are $15,450 a year, but 80 percent of entrants receive at least some financial aid and 50 percent get a free ride. A rigorous interviewing process favours candidates with a passion for agriculture and conservation, and with the potential to make a positive impact in society as agents for change. Many students are not just the first in their family to attend college, but the first in their entire community. Céan Reginald, a third-year student, comes from four generations of hard-working Haitian farmers. “Earth is more than a university for me,” he says. “It is the beginning of a new life.”
Nothing goes unused at Earth – animal waste becomes manure and is also run through a biodigestor to make the methane gas needed for producing energy. image: Thomas Backteman

Life at Earth U begins with basic science and agriculture courses. Spanish is the main language of instruction and after the first year the students move to more specialised subjects like animal lactation and plant pathology. There is a strong practical element, with all students completing an internship and devoting a considerable amount of time to community development. Johanny Perez, a student from the Dominican Republic, designed a contest for 100 children to come up with better ways to manage industrial waste from nearby banana companies. Haiti’s Céan Reginald hopes to develop what he calls “a melina for my country”. In his agro-forestry class, he learned about a clone wood species named melina that can reach a height of 65 feet in two years. “Deforestation in Haiti is a big problem,” he says. “Only two percent of the country is covered by forest. A project with this tree can largely reverse that trend.”

Earth U students also get to be entrepreneurs. President Zaglul describes the process: “Groups of between four and six students of different nationalities decide on a business activity, conduct a feasibility study – including financial, social and environmental criteria – borrow money from the university and carry out the project, including the marketing and sale of the final product. After repaying their loan, with interest, the group shares two-thirds of the profits, while one-third goes back into a revolving fund to finance future entrepreneurial projects.”

Josué Beltetón Salazar and five classmates launched Biorem-5, a company that produces a natural pest repellant for agricultural and household uses. It combines micro-organisms with ingredients like chilli pepper and vinegar. They sell their products to local farms, including Earth U’s dairy operation, to control ticks on livestock and leafcutter ants on plants. In its first year, the company harvested $3,000 in profits. “When we came to Earth we thought agriculture was just about planting crops,” says Wolfgang Werner, another partner in Biorem-5. “This really gave us a global vision of our possibilities.”

Business is not everything at Earth University: many students volunteer their free time to help neighbouring communities. Adalice Drakeford from Paraguay and Costa Ricans Daniela Medina and Jimena Rábago obtained an Oxfam International Youth Partnership grant to train 12 women from a nearby community in peri-urban (areas between suburb and countryside) agriculture. The university itself invites hundreds of farmers, aid workers and government officials to the campus every year for training courses in agriculture and conservation.

Indeed, Earth U practises what it preaches. The campus, nestled among lush greenery in Guácimo, Limón, in Costa Rica’s Caribbean lowlands, consists of about two dozen low, whitewashed, red-roofed buildings. “It is a beautiful place to live, and a perfect place to raise a family,” says Provost Daniel Sherrad, who moved his own family here from California 20 years ago. Even though, incredibly for sweltering Central America, few offices are air-conditioned. Instead, a system based on the Venturi effect (which makes high-rise cities windy) uses existing air currents for cooling. Hot air rises through holes in classroom walls and escapes from rooftop chimneys, sucking in cooler air. In addition, several buildings resuse rainwater for toilets and solar energy for electricity and heating. The cafeteria serves food grown mostly on campus or by small farmers nearby.

That commitment to sustainability can create problems. “When we acquired the campus,” says President Zaglul, “we hired an international group of experts to execute an environmental assessment. We learned that the greatest source of contaminants was our banana farm. It was not sustainable. They strongly recommended we close it down.”

Instead, Earth U transformed the operation into a model of sustainability, recycling nearly all its waste to produce fertiliser and even paper. Today Earth sells not just bananas but also sustainably produced pineapples, coffee, flowers and frozen fruit. Earth University-brand yogurt is offered on select Copa, Taca, Iberia and American West flights originating in Costa Rica, and Earth’s non-chemical household cleanser is sold throughout the country. The school has partnered with a local bank to allow credit-card holders the opportunity to offset their vehicle emissions by planting trees on campus.

Profits – several hundred thousand dollars a year – support scholarships and related activities, but most of the school’s $12 million-plus operating budget comes from fees, private contributions and the endowment fund. “Earth University is the kind of place that sells itself,” says Mark Ohrstrom, board chairman of the Earth U Foundation and one of the school’s first American donors. “Almost everyone ends up contributing after a visit.”

Even after 20 years on the job, José Zaglul has big ambitions for Earth. The school recently branched out from the humid tropics by opening Earth-La Flor in Guanacaste, a new campus in the dry-tropical region on Costa Rica’s north Pacific side that will focus on renewable energy, water use and waste management. Earth is also thinking about offering more postgraduate programmes and non-degree vocational courses, and joint projects with universities, research institutes and businesses around the world are already proliferating.

Yet Earth University’s most valuable product will always be its graduates. They currently number more than 1,500, scattered throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas. About half of them work in the private sector (where, a recent survey found, they had created an average of 3.6 jobs each). Five Earth alumni helped represent their countries at the recent United Nations climate summit in Cancun. According to weed management professor Ramon Léon: “Our ultimate commitment is not to produce professionals but to help students become agents of change, to have a positive impact in their own communities.”

Oscar Arreola, a Guatemalan who graduated in 1993, plans to join an international aid agency when he completes his doctoral studies in sustainability at Michigan State University. “Those four years at Earth gave me technical training, reinforced my principles and human values, and instilled in me a strong commitment to work for the betterment of society and the protection of natural resources,” he says. “I think I can speak for almost all my former classmates. They are my friends today. We meet, we debate in online groups, and we still aspire to do good things together.”

Fellow graduate, Haiti’s Céan Reginald, is in agreement: “I can’t keep knowledge to myself. I have to bring it back to others. This way I can benefit from Earth University, and my country can benefit from me.” As can those of us who eat bananas.