Sustainability: Holistic Enterprise in Ecuador

Business professor David Saiia and students work with a new breed of entrepreneurs in the Maquipucuna community.    by Khrista Trerotola ’07

In the corner of Dave Saiia’s office hangs a bright yellow coat. “I have to make sure people see me,” says the assistant professor of management, referring to when he cycles to work. Saiia commutes by bike most days, even on frigid winter days such as the day on which this interview was conducted—and not only getting a great workout, but also making his ecological footprint a little smaller.

An ecological footprint is the hypothetical amount of land and water needed to support the human population and absorb our waste. Average Americans would need 5.3 Earths each to support their living habits.

Saiia’s not just decreasing his footprint at home; he’s doing it in other countries, too—and taking IC students with him.

Last May, Saiia brought 14 students to the Maquipucuna Reserve in Ecuador, 50 miles northwest of the nation’s capital, Quito, in the heart of the country’s celebrated cloud forest. The nature reserve is privately owned and managed; its 6,000 hectares are surrounded by 14,000 hectares of protected forest.

The students worked with Fundación Maquipucuna, a local nonprofit, to help conserve the country’s biodiversity and use natural resources sustainably. Saiia is bringing 14 new students back this spring.

Learning to use resources sustainably can often require a substantial amount of money—money the local people don't have. The Fundación supports sustainable enterprise and ecotourism programs to generate more local employment; conducts training in the surrounding rural communities to promote the sustainable use of natural resources; develops community-based resource management programs; and promotes inter-institutional cooperation—while working to conserve surrounding nature reserves.

If this work is not successful, the Choco-Andean bioregion that is home to Maquipucuna—and that includes two of the top five places in the world for biodiversity—will one day be destroyed.

The Fundación plans to create a sustainable brand for the area’s products, which include coffee, to help the locals earn a livable wage. Saiia and his students are involved with this process as well as other Fundación projects. “The better job we do conserving the land, the more valuable the brand becomes,” says Saiia. “And if more people know about the brand and what we’re doing, citizens in these local communities will begin to associate the value of their products and the high­er value they can get for their products.” And this will, Saiia hopes, inspire them to participate in sustainable enterprises.

Students go with Saiia as part of a three-credit course, Sustainable Micro-Enterprise in Ecuador. Although it focuses mostly on the business aspects of sustainability, it is housed in interdisciplinary studies and open to any interested IC student. Students pay the costs, which run about $3,200.

To cut some costs, this year’s students are participating in a challenge: to use alternative transportation, such as biking or walking, for 25 days, supported by sponsors. Saiia continued to bike to school long after completing his own 25-day commitment.

The goal of Saiia’s class is to get people to consider economic activity in a sustainable context, using Maquipucuna as an example. “I want the students to come away with the knowledge that we can’t separate who we are from what we do,” says Saiia. “We can’t say, ‘Well, this is what I do for a living but it’s really not what I believe.’ We can’t make the argument that being economically sensitive is going to impair our abilities to be competitive.

“If we start thinking through sustainability—from the very inception of a business—that we can be competitive, this can work,” he says. “But sustainability and business can’t be [realized] in isolation from each other—they have to be done in coordination.”

Saiia’s 2006 students lived their Ecuador experience to the fullest. “The trip was life-changing,” says business student Kaitlin Regan ’07.“It gave me the experience of living life in harmony, coexisting with the surrounding environment without destroying it.”

“My expectations were surpassed, and I felt lucky to be a pioneer on such an important mission,” says Gabrielle Immarino ’07, a culture and communication major. “Our time there [was] such a selfless journey; my personal fulfillment is a reward that only the people and land of Maquipucuna could have offered.”

Last year the students worked on projects that catered to their interests and kept with Maquipucuna’s mission; projects included interviewing, data collecting, and creating and distributing products.

Besides coffee, Maquipucuna’s main product is ecotourism—an average of 3,000 people visit the lodge, run by Fundación Maquipucuna, each year. The goal of last year’s IC class was to increase the area’s annual ecotourism product by $45,000 to $120,000. Students focused on creating services related to ecotourism, including designing and selling a field guide to hikers, and making intangible experiences tangible, such as inviting tourists to witness a coffee roasting. All the money raised through these endeavors went back to Maquipucuna.

“We know we have a specialized kind of customer, and we thought about what kinds of things they’d be interested in experiencing during a two-day stay,” says Saiia. “We set ourselves the task to figure this out and build products around it with the objective of adding $45 onto each stay.”

Saiia hopes that after students experience the class, they realize how our societal, economic, and ecological future cannot be separated by international boundaries. And he wants them to have fun, too.

“The students should come away from the class understanding this isn’t some sort of overwhelming dire and dour path, but that it should be joyful and happy and really engaging,” says Saiia. “I want them to come away having been worked to death, but energized by the experience.”