Life on EARTH
A former ag chemical scientist trades counting dead
fish for an organic paradise.

By Dan Sullivan

May 11, 2007: “What are you doing here?” Heiner Castillo still recalls with a wince that candid query from a senior faculty member when he first came to apply for the organic farm manager’s position at EARTH (Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda) University in Guacimo, Limón, Costa Rica, four years ago.

Up until then, Castillo had been successfully following the path of conventional agriculture.
“I grew up in a rural area around coffee and sugar plantations, so I had a strong influence from my environment to study agronomy,” said Castillo, who attended an agricultural high school before enrolling at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (Spanish acronym CATIE, pronounced Kah'-Tee-Eh) in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

Following a short stint teaching at another agricultural high school, opportunity knocked and Castillo was offered a chance to work for a large multinational chemical company. The job came with a company car, a good salary, a lot responsibility and an office in Costa Rica’s capital San Jose. The 20-kilometer commute through city traffic often took an hour and a half.

“When you apply herbicide by planes, you have to measure the impact on aquatic life. You have to measure how many fish are going to die, and they really die. At the end of the day, it was hard to feel satisfaction. How many lives are you going to kill just by applying one product?”

“Because of the rules of our country and the infrastructure for research, [agricultural chemical companies] have to register their chemicals with the Ministry of Agriculture,” Castillo explained. “They have to give proof they are testing them in-country with crops they are going to be used on at that level they are going to be used. If we were going to sell an herbicide for rice, I was in charge of tests for rice.

“By the end of the third year I was expending almost 24 hours a day with my job, traveling around throughout Costa Rica making sure the tests were conducted well. When you are there and you can see the impacts of these kinds of chemicals, sometimes you are frustrated and think, ‘What am I doing here, and what am I doing with this kind of stuff?’

“When you apply herbicide by planes, you have to measure the impact on aquatic life. You have to measure how many fish are going to die, and they really die. At the end of the day, it was hard to feel satisfaction. How many lives are you going to kill just by applying one product?”

Another disturbing reality of such work, Castillo said, is that rural farmers seldom read the warning labels or follow instructions. “If you as a technician say, ‘Okay, apply half a liter,’ they’re going to apply a liter and a half looking for more efficacy of the product…Four years was enough.”

Flash forward to EARTH, a private, nonprofit university, according to its website (www.earth.ac.cr): “dedicated to education in the agricultural sciences and natural resources in order to contribute to sustainable development in the humid tropics by seeking a balance between agricultural production and environmental protection.”

“I just saw the advertisement announcing the position, and at that moment I felt that was what I was looking for,” Castillo recalled. "I really like to teach, and even though they needed an administrator for the farm, I knew that this is a university, so I will have opportunities to interact with students. I am an agronomist: This was the place I could integrate all my skills and interests."

“If they wanted students to really learn about organic agriculture, it would be beneficial to have a person [teaching them] who had been living it and doing it on the opposite side.”

Castillo recalled he did his best to convince administrators “that if they wanted students to really learn about organic agriculture, it would be beneficial to have a person [teaching them] who had been living it and doing it on the opposite side.”

So Castillo, his wife (who is working on a PhD through a sister-college program with Purdue University) and their 3-year-old son traded city life for an eco-home in the middle of a 3,300 hectare tropical farm. “It’s 180 degrees [different]….It’s great to live in the middle of nothing. It’s a really peaceful place. The whole campus is surrounded by woods. In the morning you wake when you hear the monkeys. You live taking care of nature, and you take some moments in the day to breathe deep, feel nature and feel the warm air. It’s great to wake up in the morning, see nature—green and full of colors—and you have to receive a group of 30 or 40 students, and you are able to do that.

“We are really happy because we feel it has been so good for our boy. It’s amazing for us. We walk around with him on the farm; he likes to feed the pigs and catch eggs from the chickens. We don’t have to worry when he’s outside the home that something dangerous is going to happen.” Running kitchen appliances on biogas did take some getting used to, he said.

Mission EARTH

According to Castillo, about 80 percent of EARTH University’s students are recruited from rural areas of Latin America, Africa and the Philippines. Another 15 percent are similarly recruited from Costa Rica, with a total of about 95 percent of the 400-plus student body fully funded through grants, donations and endowments to Earth University Foundation, as well as sustainable enterprise projects.

“We are looking for something more [than test scores]: people who will be able to make change by supporting activities in their communities.”

“EARTH was created with the idea to develop the rural areas of the tropics, so, year after year, we go to rural communities,” Castillo said. When one typically considers the best candidates for a traditional university, he said, first considerations are high test scores or the ability to pay.

“We are looking for something more: people who will be able to make change by supporting activities in their communities. In indigenous areas, some of the elders might recommend that this guy has the capacity to transmit that knowledge that he is going to learn, so that’s what we look for.

“Every year, when the students are on vacations, the staff looks hard for these [students]. In rural mountain areas of Bolivia or Peru, sometimes we find a good [candidate] who does not have the best test scores—sometimes they have not had access to the best schools—and we give them the opportunity to begin with us four months before the start of the program to give them the tools they are going to need to be successful.”

Castillo recalled one particular graduate who returned to her home country of Colombia. “She writes now: ‘I am working with indigenous communities in rural Colombia, teaching them how to produce biogas for fuel instead of firewood.’ She’s real proud of what she’s doing.”

Teaching low-input technology that can be applied at appropriate scale with consideration to varying environmental as well as political landscapes can be a challenge, Castillo concedes.

“In our organic farm we have a water well, but we don’t need that,” he says. “We have 3-and-a-half meters of rain a year. Usually we have to drain our soils—we don’t have to put water in them. People come from other areas and ask, ‘Why did you build that?’ We say, ‘Our students go back and have situations where have to look for water.’ We try to find all the possibilities they are going to have in their lives.”