The Santa Cruz, New Mexico-based Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute successfully completed its first service learning trip to South America in January. “It was a small group, but a great educational experience for all of us,” said Executive Director Emigdio Ballon. Ballon and co-founder Lorraine Gray began their journey in Peru with six fellow travelers, including Percy and Louise Schmeiser, internationally renowned for their 16-year legal battle with Monsanto, as a result of having their canola fields contaminated with GMO (genetically modified organism) seed.


The group took a 22-hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco through the Andes Mountains to participate in several conferences, where the Schmeisers recounted their experience and warned the people of Peru to keep GMOs out of their country. The conferences concluded with an “Idle No More” march through the streets of Cusco in support of Indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental protection. There were over 100 marchers carrying signs. The Peruvian portion of the tour also included a nature hike and seed blessing in Pisac, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and visits to several Incan ruins where the travelers viewed ancient techniques of irrigation and terrace gardening.

The trip continued with a 10-hour bus ride across the border to Bolivia. Although their stay in this third-world country was only five days, their time there was extremely productive. The visit coincided with the National Day of Indigenous People. Thousands of Indigenous people took to the streets of La Paz, waving flags, eating traditional food and honoring their Aymara president, Evo Morales, who addressed the masses in the plaza. The group also visited the ancient ruins of Tihuanacu to study the magnificent architecture and amazing irrigation system. Although many of the ruins are still intact, many sections of it were desecrated by the Spanish invasion in search of gold and are now being restored.

The Bolivian portion of the tour concluded in Cochabamba, where the group met with Oscar Olivera, leader of the Bolivian “Water Wars.” In 1999 Olivera led the people of Cochabamba in a battle with Bechtel Corporation and others against the privatization of water in their region. Olivera’s Fundación Abril, the organization he co-founded in honor of their April 2000 victory, has built Escuela Andina del Agua, a school to support the protection of water rights. The organization is also working to establish a Montessori school for local indigenous children.

In honor of the group’s visit, the leaders of Fundación Abril organized a conference of local farmers and politicians to hear Percy Schmeiser tell of his battle with Monsanto. Ballon and Gray also spoke there, opening a dialogue that has become the foundation for a partnership between the people of Cochabamba, Fundación Abril and Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute. Programs are now being developed to bring a group of students from the US to Cochabamba to do much needed service work. As a result of this exchange, Oscar Olivera has joined Four Bridges’ board of directors.

The three-week trip concluded in Argentina at the Eco-villa GAIA in Navarro, a village that offers numerous examples of sustainable living, including solar and wind energy, natural growing methods, composting toilets and much more. This segment of the tour began with a two-day conference where Schmeiser, Ballon and Gray gave presentations. In the following days, the students who attended the conference completed service learning projects to put into action the skills they were able to learn at GAIA.

Lauren Mapp, a Culinary Arts and Journalism major from Mesa College in San Diego, summarized her experience: “Going on the eco-tour with Four Bridges was the chance of a lifetime. From the beautiful journey through the Andes Mountains to the hard work at the Eco-villa GAIA farm in Argentina, this trip really opened my eyes to the field of sustainable agriculture.” Elijah Trujillo, who is studying Environmental Science and Sustainable Agriculture at Northern New Mexico College said, “It was a mind-opening experience that broadened my perspective and exposed me to different lifestyles and cultures.”

The staff at Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute is planning several other service learning trips in 2013. Besides bringing students from the US to South America, they hope to bring students from South America and other parts of the world to NM to study at Four Bridges’ educational farm in NM, and to tour and study with other organizations in the area. They are also planning to expand their programs to include the study of Korean natural farming in Hawaii, and to offer service learning work in Ethiopia and Uganda. Anyone interested in taking a tour to South America or hosting a tour group in NM should visit the website www.4bridges.org

Kahneratokwas, a Mohawk from Akwesasne, New York, now lives in Santa Cruz, NM. Her articles have appeared in Indian Time, The Akwesasne Phoenix and The People’s Voice, where she had a weekly column, The Medicine Bag, about the uses of traditional herbal medicines.

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