We’re two days into orientation for study abroad, and so far, I have really mixed feelings. I was a bit nervous signing up for an ecology program, because as much as I enjoy science, I’m a politics girl at heart. Not to mention an aspiring writer/journalist. I like learning macro—how ecosystems function, what causes climatic patterns. I like toxins and soil health and agronomy. But I’m not really into identifying birds or sketching different types of leaves. And I firmly believe that ecology and conservation can’t really be separated from politics, especially if you’re trying to preserve ecosystems intact.
Our first official lecture confirmed some of my fears. We were talking about deforestation, specifically, what causes it and what we can do to stop it. Some of the things that were listed as causes of deforestation: growing population and poverty. Which is fine, except that we didn’t discuss why people in Ecuador are poor and how that may or may not relate to US foreign policy, multilateral trade agreements and the like. Because for me, talking about “poverty” without addressing what laws, policies, agreements and attitudes are causing it is pretty useless. Naturally, the “solutions” suggested were mostly in the realm of conscious consumerism. Don’t buy tropical wood. Eat less beef and soy and cocoa products. We didn’t even get as far as “contact companies buying sketchy wood and ask them to change their purchasing practices”. Xavier, one of our academic directors, asked us for more ideas. I threw out debt forgiveness and debt-for-nature swaps. I said individual choices were good for raising awareness, but that they probably wouldn’t make a significant dent in the problem. I restrained myself and didn’t mention capitalism and neoliberal trade policies.
After the lecture, I asked Xavier if SIT (my study abroad organization) has an official policy about capitalism or any other political/economic policy. He said that because SIT is an educational institution, they are apolitical. On one level, I understand this. But on another level, it’s thoroughly maddening. How can you advocate conservation of tropical forests while remaining apolitical? Not choosing a side isn’t the same thing as being neutral. I get that issues are complicated and solutions aren’t always clear, but it seems so misguided to me to refuse to articulate a position about issues which so clearly affect the outcome of something the program purports to care about.
Right now, I’m restless. I want to be on the border. I want to be doing work with an organization which has spent years thinking about what activism is and how to affect meaningful change outside the state from the bottom up. I want to make connections with radicals who speak Spanish and live in places where activism has teeth. I understand that this isn’t what this program is about, and that I have a really unique opportunity to learn ecology in the most diverse country on earth (per unit area, at least, though Colombia wins outright).
Today, we got to hike though a cloud forest reserve while learning the Spanish words for ecological and botanical things. The views were gorgeous, and I actually managed to remember a few useful facts about plants. When we got back, we had salsa dancing lessons and then went out to dinner. I went to a Tex-Mex place with five other girls, where we shared a pitcher of margaritas after I spent ten minutes convincing everyone that they were unlikely to get sick from the ice used to make them. We shared stories and played ten fingers and talked about our favorite TV shows. And it was a lot of fun.
I’m hoping I can find a happy middle ground while I’m here. I want to pay attention to South American news and work on my Spanish and talk politics with my host family. I want to keep reading and writing too much and I want to think about ways I can be useful in making meaningful changes to the world instead of just buying fair trade chocolate. But I also want to be here, in place, connecting with people and engaging with the program. I want to learn those plants, because as painful as the process can be, it’s awesome when you can walk through a forest and narrate the scenery, make sense out of the tangle of green. I want to learn a ton and accept for now that science can be apolitical, even if it shouldn’t be. I want to understand place better so I can fight for it when I get home.