Passing through the small, rural towns heading east to Limón, you might easily miss the entrance to EARTHUniversity, in the Caribbean slope town of Guácimo. The entryway to the university on the north side of the road is humble, and it gives little indication of the vast 8,154-acre campus behind it.
Also lost at first glance are the dozens of fruit and vegetable fields, the forest reserve, and the students, faculty and staff members committed to environmental responsibility, sustainable living and community development programs – as well as a host of other environmentally sustainable, agriculturally oriented practices that make EARTH University one of the most unique universities on the planet.
“The university started with an initiative of Costa Rican leaders in government, agriculture, agro-industry and academia … who felt the need for creating a different kind of university,” said Dr. Daniel Sherrard, provost of EARTHUniversity. “They wanted to create an institute that would prepare the graduate in a different way than other institutions in Costa Rica or Central America.
They wanted to generate a graduate with more focus on environmental sustainability and social sustainability and how that contribute to agricultural production.”
A Different Kind of University
The uniqueness of EARTH lies in the curriculum and make-up of the student body.
This year the student body is composed of 408 students who hail from 24 different countries. While they come from various socio-economic backgrounds, EARTH attempts to attract students from especially impoverished countries so that they might return to their countries of origen armed with knowledge acquired at EARTH.
“I plan to return to my home country after I graduate,” said Marco Dávila, a fourth-year student from Ecuador. “I plan to take what I’ve learned here and use it to benefit places in Ecuador that are in need of agricultural instruction and guidance.”
Possibly the most meaningful experiences students get at EARTH come with their involvement in community development programs during the third year. Students are sent to struggling farming towns in the area to assist farmers in more efficient and productive methodsand help organize the community to improve its collective farming output.
Two years ago, EARTH established a relationship with the small, impoverished town of Jiménez, just west of the university.
Despite fertile land for development, the people of Jiménez had struggled to generate significant crop margins and had failed to organize as a community to improve their lot. Then EARTH stepped in to help.
“Two years ago we had almost nothing,” said Santos Funes, president of the association in Jiménez, known as la Florita. “Now we have rice, corn, pineapples, beans and more … We were working as individuals before the university helped us organize. We were like fingers on a hand that weren’t combining their efforts.”
EARTH also assisted to empower the Jiménez women, who hadn’t worked together well. With the help of the university, the women created an organization to assist in the advancement of the town.
On Wednesday of this week, the women gave a formal presentation in a meeting with members of the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry (MAG). The proposal was to distribute two cows to every family in town.
Third-year students visit the communities in the development program every Wednesday to provide continued guidance and assistance.
Business Takes Notice
Aside from the unique student experience at EARTH, national and international businesses began taking notice of the environmentally and socially sustainable practices being developed at EARTH in the late 1990s. Whole Foods, the world’s leading vendor of natural and organic foods, visited the university in 1998 and met with university President José Zaglul about the possibility of the distribution of EARTH bananas to the U.S. based vendor (See separate story).
“The relationship with Whole Foods was born because we share similar values with them,” Zaglul said. “It is a company that believes in and values sustainable practices and a commitment to social responsibility … At EARTH, there is an academic facet and a commercial aspect. We look to create business relationships with companies that are concerned with the proper treatment of products, of workers and the social benefits that come with sustainable practices. Whole Foods respects all of those values.”
Now, almost 10 years after that first meeting, EARTH provides all the bananas distributed in the chain’s more than 270 store locations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.
The Banana Process
Whole Foods and EARTH combined efforts when Whole Foods learned of the sustainable organic banana process practiced at the university. The creation and engineering of the organic banana at EARTH is truly a marvel – one that demonstrates concern for the field workers and plant workers, while assuring that all parts of the banana are used for a completely sustainable cycle.
Beginning in the fields, the bananas are covered in a blue plastic bag that, in place of pesticides, uses a combination of garlic and chili pepper to deter insects from feeding on the fruit. When the plant has matured, usually for 11-13 weeks, it is cut by a field worker.
Unlike at other banana plantations, the heavy stalk is not physically transported to another area for cleaning. EARTH has designed an electronic system that allows workers to place the stalk on a cable, which transports the bananas to the factory where they are cleaned, sorted, boxed and shipped. Along with the relationship with Whole Foods, EARTH bananas are distributed to AutoMercado locations in Costa Rica. As of last week, EARTH distributes bananas to every AutoMercado in the country.
“EARTH treats its workers the right way,” said Enrique Santana, an administrator in the banana factory. “I worked at another banana factory before coming here and it was stressful, and you didn’t feel like people cared about you, just about how much of the product was made. It’s different here. It’s a great place to work.”
After the bananas are shipped, the main stem of the banana stalk, known as a pinzote, is sent across campus to the banana paper factory. There, the pinzote is ground and, with a mix of water and heat, is formed into banana paper. EARTH uses the banana paper on campus for journals, spiral notebooks and even business cards.
Its Own World
Given the size, the shared mentality and the sustainable practices, such as serving food produced on campus in the cafeteria, a visit to EARTH gives the feeling of being in a different country entirely. And the culture of that country, the country of EARTH, is one that prides itself on respect for the environment and utilizing it to sustain itself and teach others how to do the same.