Remote University Cultivating World's "Green" Leaders

Stefan Lovgren in Guácimo, Costa Rica
for National Geographic News
April 22, 2008
For many universities around the world, the college experience has become more environmentally friendly, from recycling to renewable energy use to biking to class.

But at EARTH University in eastern Costa Rica, the quest for green extends far beyond campus life—it's the main focus of study.

"We're forming leaders to go out and influence their communities and their countries to take greater care of the Earth and change the world," said José Zaglul, the university's president.

That may seem like a lofty mission for a small agricultural college of 417 students tucked into the remote tropics.

But the university has earned a reputation for its hands-on, can-do academic approach to agricultural science and natural-resources management.

And many of its graduates have taken up significant positions in governments in Central and South America.

Second Chance

Since the university's founding in 1990, students have become increasingly international.

For the spring 2008 semester, a third of the student body hails from Costa Rica, while the rest come from 24 other countries, primarily within Latin America.

Many of the students come from poor backgrounds with little access to a university education.

"We have students from the most remote areas of the tropics who have to walk, take a boat, and then a bus just to take the entrance exam," Zaglul said.

But the innovative college is selective in its recruitment, he said. Out of 1,300 applications, the university selects a little over a hundred students for each incoming class.

"We want kids with good values, who are honest and ethical, socially responsible, care about the environment, and who want to go back to their countries to make a difference," he said.

The majority of the students receive scholarships to cover the annual tuition of U.S. $14,150.

The school's emphasis on experiential learning means that third-year students have to complete a 15-week internship, typically in their home country.

Students are also required to develop an environmentally sustainable business venture during their first year, which they then run until the end of their third year.

(Related: "Students Take Veggie-Fueled 'BioBus' on Eco Road Trip" [October 19, 2004].)

Practice What You Teach

David Hales is the president of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, which was voted the "greenest" college in the United States by Grist Magazine in 2007.

It's important for EARTH University, College of the Atlantic, or any university to "practice what they teach," Hales said.

"The environmental actions that we take as small schools or as large ones are part and parcel of the lessons that we teach our students," he said.

"Ultimately the question is: What do our students do when they leave?"

Cid Simões and Paola Segura, both graduates of EARTH University in 1998 and 2001 respectively, are applying what they learned at the school to sustainable agribusiness.

The husband-wife team, recently named National Geographic Emerging Explorers, help small farmers plant sustainable crops instead of practicing slash-and-burn farming. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"EARTH (University) did not only teach me technical skills about how to conduct farming in a better way, it also [taught] me how to be a better and conscientious professional by respecting our people [and] our planet," Simões said in an email.

"The most important lesson we took was that it is really possible to produce our goods without depleting our natural resources."

Long Way From Home

Among the new students in spring 2008 are Lucy Lekidayo and Christopher Sanya Lengodo, who come from Marsabit, a remote town in northern Kenya.

Neither of them had been outside of Kenya before traveling to Costa Rica and starting at EARTH, where all the instruction is in Spanish.

Before coming to the school, Lengodo said he didn't even know there was a language called Spanish.

But after a three-week intensive language course and a few weeks into the program, Lengodo could understand most of what was being said in the classroom.

For Lekidayo, meanwhile, being a young African woman studying agricultural engineering is a major challenge.

"In Kenya they were telling me this is for boys," she said.

"But I want to be an example to other girls and show that they can make it despite the many difficulties they might encounter."

Robert Ilmedimi Lechipan, a second year student at EARTH U, also calls northern Kenya home.

Lechipan said he wants to go back to Marsabit after graduation and possibly work on water issues.

"In my area we have a river, and people go inside the forest to make water troughs for the cattle to drink," he said. "But every season 700 big trees are being cut down to make these troughs ... it's destroying the forest.

"Without that forest, we won't have any water to drink. So I want to work on solutions to change that," he said.


The university has its own 2,400-acre (971-hectare) rain forest preserve and organic farm, so students can learn how their planet works while on campus.

"It's as if on the first day of medical school you go [and work in] the emergency room," university president Zaglul said.

"You may not know the science yet, but [as a student] you're exposed to the environment from day one. Once you go back to the classroom, things make more sense."

At least 150 different trees have been identified within the forest, including one new species named after the university.

The school's organic farm produces vegetables for the school cafeteria and local communities; feed for pigs, cows, and chicken; tilapia; and a local fish called guapote.

Panfilo Tabora, an EARTH U professor who heads the farm, says it was one of the first "teaching" organic farms.

"All students have to come here and put in their shift, to question and compare things, innovate, and then implement what they have learned," Tabora said.

Students work on different farming systems, such as the mandala, in which soil beds are arranged in concentric circles to allow for efficient water use.

"My hope is that the university will be more self-reliant on food production," said Riley Thomson, a Canadian student who cleared weeds from one of the farm beds.

"We should be what we eat and grow what we eat."

Spirit of Entrepreneurship

Gaspari Cordova, a second-year student from Belize, has teamed up with a group of classmates to make mature cheeses for his business venture.

"Before we started we had to come up with an environmental-impact report to show how we would treat the water that we will be using in the production process before releasing it back into the river," he said.

When asked what ingredients his group will use to make the cheeses, Cordova replied with a chuckle: "That's a corporate secret."

Zaglul, the university president, says it is essential that students develop a spirit of entrepreneurship.

"When they graduate," he said, "we don't want them to just look for jobs. We want them to go out and create new jobs."

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