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Testing the Thesis

Senior Colin Arisman digs into ecological solutions in Ecuador

Senior Colin Arisman says when he wasn't studying Spanish, conducting interviews and working in the fields while in Ecuador, he was spending time with his host family. (Photo courtesy of Arisman)

The completion of a senior thesis is a singular moment for any young academic, a moment of profound satisfaction and a capstone on an undergraduate career. But what happens after the thesis is defended? Physically, its pages are bound and added to the library's holdings. And for some students, the thesis' contents may go on to fuel graduate work or help define a career.

In the case of UVM senior Colin Arisman, a natural resources major and Honors College student, his thesis will likely live on to influence farming practices in a place where the impacts of agriculture are of critical importance: the Intag Cloud Forest in Ecuador.

"Saving the rainforest" was no doubt the dream for many children of the '90s, but Arisman has used his senior thesis as an opportunity to explore a set of promising solutions for the negative effects of farming in biological hotspots like Intag.

Following a two-week, UVM travel study course "The Politics of Land Use in Ecuador" with UVM lecturer Pete Shear earlier this year, Arisman took three months "off" from his time at UVM to stay in Intag, work in a farming cooperative, study Spanish and conduct research for the thesis that would fulfill his work as an Honors College student when he returned to campus.

His work is based on research his adviser Professor Joshua Farley has been conducting in Brazil -- specifically, how payment for ecosystems services, coupled with agroecology, can mitigate damage to the environment. This idea is rooted in a concept first set forth in 1997 by Robert Costanza, founding director of UVM's Gund Institute for Ecological Economics -- that clean air and clean water and other hallmarks of a healthy environment have financial value. Payments for ecosystems services means putting that theory to work to finance land uses that create a healthy environment while also meeting farmer's needs. For Farley's research, that means implementation of agroecology, a method of farming that attempts to sync agriculture with the surrounding ecosystem in a sustainable way.

Picture a typical industrial agricultural field: the land is clear cut, and a single crop grows in neat rows. But this method relies heavily on chemical input in the form of pesticides and heavy use of fertilizer, which can lead to a degradation of the soil over time and leach contaminants into nearby water sources. Agroecology, on the other hand, uses ecological principles -- like plant diversity and the use of natural predators -- which helps keep the surrounding ecosystem intact.

"My work in Brazil is trying to figure out the big picture," Farley explains. "If we fail to restore our ecosystems, we face catastrophe, and if we fail to increase our food production for the growing population, we face catastrophe." Financing the adoption of agroecological practices in the hopes of restoring ecosystems could help deal with both problems at once. When Arisman approached Farley to advise his thesis, Farley suggested researching this possibility in another locale.

Reality on the ground

Arisman says it was important to him not just to work from afar -- conducting research at the library, and finishing the thesis without ever having touched the soil he would spend so long studying -- and instead see firsthand the practices employed by farmers in Intag.

This perspective was perhaps shaped by another travel study course he took in 2010 to the Dominican Republic. While there, he was so moved by the plight of a group of Haitian migrant workers, he returned and fundraised money by selling his photographs from the trip and art his mother, Susan Abbott, a professional painter, had created of the community. Arisman and Abbott continue to raise money to gain access to an aquifer to provide the community with clean water.

"That trip really solidified my interest in learning Spanish and got me interested in the idea of development," Arisman says. "I'm very interested in where environmental conservation and social justice meet…. Finding solutions that benefit people and the environment is a very promising idea to me."

By traveling to and living in Ecuador, Arisman was able to see how Farley's ideas could work -- and already were working -- in Intag. "The most central part of my project was already occurring on the local level," Arisman says, acknowledging the agroecological movement already growing in the region. "My thesis is a lot more about communicating their success," he says, than recommending a dramatic overhaul in the way campesino farmers engage with non-governmental organizations and the local government.

But he also saw a key difference between Brazil and Ecuador when it came to how these payments for ecosystems services should be distributed -- a finding that would inform Farley's work as well. In some areas of Brazil, payments have been distributed via municipalities, and Farley is hoping to adapt this approach to his study site. But in Ecuador, Arisman found that funds would be better distributed not by the government but through the farming cooperatives already in place.  

The cooperatives, he says, "can offer higher market prices for goods like coffee, organic sugarcane, artisan cheeses. These higher market prices will entice small agricultural producers to join the cooperative." In turn, the cooperatives can make stipulations that its producers use sustainable practices, including diversified subsistence farming, which promotes crop diversity and food security for farm families. "There is an expectation," Arisman says, "for cooperative members to produce their own food and also produce these cash crops in a sustainable way that won't negatively affect this very special ecosystem."

It's a solution that's attracted the attention of Earth Economics, a Washington state-based non-profit devoted to researching and implementing economically viable and environmentally sound solutions to problems around the world. They've helped advise Arisman's work and have shown interest in his proposal. "My hope is that Earth Economics could help fund the cooperative I studied and then apply my idea to a new area where there is no cooperative agriculture," he says. Eventually, Arisman would like to pursue a career helping cooperatives form and connect with first world funding.

In the meantime, there's the thesis to finish writing and then defend. It's clear, though, that at this point, those are just details. "I think his work will have a real impact," Farley says.