University of Vermont

From Brooklyn to Brazil: an Environmental Awakening

UVM senior Joshua Carrera took time on a field study trip to Ecuador to visit a butterfly farm in the country's Cloud Forest. (Photo courtesy of Joshua Carrera)

Growing up in Brooklyn, Joshua Carrera says he didn’t know much about the environment -- or UVM. He certainly didn’t anticipate that after traveling the world studying management and human ecology in Ecuador and Brazil he’d appear on the June 2011 cover of Nature Conservancy Magazine.

His first step on that journey was enrolling at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, a UVM partnership school that sends a handful of students to the university each year. As a student there, he was selected for a “Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF)” internship, awarded by the Nature Conservancy. After his junior year, the internship brought him to Vermont, where Carrera helped remove invasive plant species from Southern Lake Champlain.

The LEAF internship also included a visit to UVM and a meeting with an alumnus of his high school, then-UVM sophomore Dylan Arie Hass-Floersch ’07. Now a college senior, Carrera says the meeting helped him decide to attend UVM, where he’s since immersed himself in campus groups like the ALANA Student Center and the Women’s Center along with his coursework in natural resources.

Even after attending an environmentally themed high school and participating in the LEAF internship, Carrera says he wasn’t convinced that studying and working on behalf of the environment was his future. But that changed after two highly influential service-learning courses in ornithology with Alan Strong, associate professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, and an ecotourism course in Costa Rica with Extension instructor and outreach coordinator David Kestenbaum.

“I’d taken over 20 courses, but these two had such an incredible impact on the way I see things,” Carrera says. “I would never have learned things like how to travel sustainably and lowering my environmental impact had I not come to UVM. It has played a major role in what I’m doing today and how I think about the world.”

Experiential learning in the Amazon

Carrera, one of six UVM students in 2010 to receive a total of $36,000 in Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship money to study abroad, travelled in August 2010 to study in Ecuador, where his mother was born, and Brazil through the SIT Study Abroad Program. Based on his research, which involved interviewing farmers and other stakeholders in the Amazon, Carrera found that a lack of land rights creates a disincentive for people to take care of their land in an environmentally responsible way, which can be damaging to the Amazon rainforest. “That’s one of the biggest environmental problems right now because people need to make a quick buck to survive, and they are going to use that land as quickly as possible before getting caught, if they ever do.”

Carrera is also working on a research project and paper that focuses on the economic viability of cacao, a fruit, as an alternative to cattle ranching. More returns are realized from cacao than cattle, Carrera says, which makes it a good candidate to help farmers shift away from cattle production. Since cattle production and the deforestation it causes produces higher amounts of carbon emissions, a switch to cacao and other plant-based production means a cleaner environment.

“But, stakeholders such as farmers must benefit from the proposed methods of reducing emissions if the program is to succeed,” Carrera writes. “If environmentally sustainable alternatives are not supported, deforestation will continue, which will result in carbon emissions and further contribute to our global problem of climate change.”

The last month of Carrera’s travels allowed for some backpacking across South America, which he chronicled in his blog, and some time to think about his next move. He’s considering studying environmental economics in graduate school or pursuing his dream of working in community-based eco-tourism in the Galapagos Islands, where he says the current economic model is unsustainable.

Bringing it back to Brooklyn

Before returning to UVM for the fall semester, however, Carrera spent time visiting his old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Even though his time growing up there was not always easy -- including a painful period when he and his family were forced to move to a homeless shelter when Carrera was 15 years old – he says maintaining close ties to his friends and family is important.

“That situation explains a lot about why I think the way I do today and how the world is sometimes really unfair,” says Carrera. “It has played a role in why I want to help others because I feel that everything I’ve done and my achievements are because of people’s efforts to help me.”

Carrera wants to return the favor by one day speaking with students from his high school who might be going through similar hardships. “I think stories like mine are important and can be a source of inspiration,” he says. “I think about where I came from and what I’ve been able to do since I left Brooklyn all the time. The whole homeless situation is one of those problems that you never see, so you often don’t know that your friend sitting right next to you is homeless. Maybe a student in a similar situation will hear my story and say, ‘Wow, he did it. Maybe I could do it. He’s telling me how I can do it, so I’m going to go for it.’”