AAS Moscow alumna, Masha Vernik, graduated from AAS Moscow in 2015 and has been keeping busy making the world a better place. She has recently received a Student Sustainability Leadership Award from Boston University.
Here's a quote from Sustainability@BU: "Masha has shown her commitment and enthusiasm for sustainability throughout her four years at Boston University. Masha stood out as a campus leader while advocating for fossil fuel divestment, advancing a Green New Deal with Sunrise, serving as the RA of Earth House, and supporting BU’s Climate Action Plan adoption...With her advocacy, Masha has made a lasting mark on BU. She has proven to be an effective and powerful leader, working within established systems and from the outside."
BELOW IS A GUEST BLOG POST FROM MASHA...
Hi, my name is Masha Vernik, I’m a 21-year-old student of International Relations at Boston University currently living with a Kichwa family for an internship in Ecuador. I am from New Jersey and Russia. I’ve done some political canvassing and sustainable agriculture work and hope to do more in the future. I’ve been told I ask too many questions. This blog is an experiment in writing style and self-revelation. Here’s a picture of me milking a goat for the first time at a nature refuge in Ecuador called La Hesperia – I had fun!
For about 2 months, I am living with a family in the Kichwa village of Santa Rita, Ecuador, a community of about 750 inhabitants nestled between Ecuador’s Andean mountains and its biodiverse Amazon region. The residents’ customs draw from their indigenous Kichwa heritage and their colonizers’ influence. People speak Spanish, Kichwa, and Espichwa (or Kichspanol?), mixing Spanish words into Kichwa sentences and vice versa, though younger generations seem to be forgetting the language fast. Chakras, small orchards/farms with historically spiritual, subsistence, and medicinal uses, are also at the nexus between antiquity and modernity, changing with the loss of ancestral knowledge and the increasing production of cash crops.
My host family includes Mom (Susana) and Dad (Bolivar) – two hard-working and light-hearted individuals who take leadership roles in the community’s cacao tourism project; Sisters Kelmy, Cristina, and Lisbeth, each with a long-term boyfriend and the first two with children aged 1 and 3, respectively; and brothers Anderson, Cosmi, and Joel, Anderson out of the house with a family, Cosmi the evasive teenager, and Joel the baby of the family at the ripe age of 8. Kichwa people are giggly, and dinner conversations devolve into bouts of laughter when a child makes a funny face or I try to speak Kichwa.
So, after that brief introduction to where I am – what am I doing here? Broadly, I hope to learn how to adapt to a very different way of life, what the base of the chocolate supply chain can look like, how to balance livelihoods with the environment, another language, how to support a community’s development without being paternalistic, and much more. More specifically, I am here to conduct research for my thesis about changes in the chakra system associated with cacao production. Much of the community’s economic life revolves around cacao. Most members of the community grow cacao in their chakras and the new community tourism center focuses on the cacao production process. Santa Rita is dubbed ‘The Village of Cacao and Chocolate’, as part of a local government initiative to boost cacao tourism in the region and the beneficiary of a dense network of NGO´s looking to support sustainable agriculture. My research will look at how and why cacao came to Santa Rita, and how its arrival is changing the chakra system. I will be conducting interviews with chakra owners and external actors involved in the cacao project (NGO’s, ministries, etc.), as well as collecting environmental data about species composition in chakras.
My second project is in collaboration with GiZ, the German development organization (analogous to USAID). They are embarking on a project to prevent Santa Rita’s chakras (and subsequently culture and livelihoods) from falling prey to increased flooding, intense droughts, soil erosion, and other predicted climate change impacts. My role in this grand undertaking is to jumpstart the collection of ancestral knowledge about selecting, saving, and planting seeds by interviewing and identifying individuals with a wealth of knowledge. This knowledge can help future generations maintain strong crops that have been selected to withstand dramatic environmental conditions.
So far, my activities of daily life include teaching English in the local school, attending and helping out with tours, conducting interviews, playing hide-and-seek with kids, tending to the chakra, swimming in the river, and reading. I was surprised my first full day in the community when I met members of the German parliament on the Committee on Economic Cooperation and Development who came to Ecuador to see the fruits of their investment in GiZ. One night at 3 am, when I woke up with diarrhea (practically a right of passage for visitors), my host father cured me of bad spirits with a tobacco branch and smoke. I swam in a small, pristine waterfall at the mouth of the community’s river. These are just some notable experience of what I hope to be many more!