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This plantation-turned-university grows environmental entrepreneurs

October 10, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
A former banana plantation in Costa Rica is now a school -- but the curriculum still involves growing fruit. EARTH University, founded in 1992, trains students from developing nations in responsible, sustainable agriculture. Graduates then apply their knowledge in their own countries, hoping to improve both the economy and the environment. Special Correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Next: combining sustainable agriculture with entrepreneurship in developing countries.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from EARTH University, a campus in Costa Rica that aims to do just that.

His story is part of our Agents for Change series.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: It is quite likely the only university in the world where traffic stops for bananas, millions of them wrapped tightly in blue plastic.

EARTH University actually was a commercial banana plantation before being converted in 1992 to a school to train students from developing countries grappling with climate change and growing populations. Funds came from the U.S. and Costa Rican governments and the Michigan-based Kellogg Foundation.

JOSE ZAGLUL, Co-Founder, EARTH University: When we first came to this property, the whole river was contaminated with the blue plastic bag that also have chemical inside to protect it, to protect it from insects. And when the first group of students came, we brought them here and we started to pick all the plastic.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today, university co-founder Jose Zaglul says the blue plastic bags are recycled and tons of plant waste, stalks, fruit that don’t make the grade. Things that used to be discarded are collected and fed to livestock.

JOSE ZAGLUL: Now we don’t use chemicals in the bags. And we also are using an organic fungicide.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: These bananas are labeled as responsibly grown and sold across the U.S. in Whole Foods stores. The enterprise supports dozens of local jobs and scholarships.

JOSE ZAGLUL: That girl over there, she’s from Panama. This guy is from Brazil. I think she is from Ecuador. That guy you see, he’s from Somaliland in Africa.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Forty-three countries are represented here. A majority of the 400 students depend on financial aid. From 1,600 applications, about 110 are admitted each year.

JOSE ZAGLUL: What we attempt to discover there is their interest to go back to their countries, because we are about forming leaders and individuals that really overcome barriers.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Yves Rusanganwa is a first-year student from Rwanda born soon after that country’s genocide.

YVES RUSANGANWA, Student, EARTH University: I grew up hearing about hunger, hearing about poverty, hearing epidemic diseases. I grew up in that environment. So, as I was growing up, I grew up a passion inside of me of doing something in this world and try to change that history.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many students say a lack of knowledge hinders productivity and keeps most farmers in their homelands in poverty.

Devotha Tumushimiyimana is also from Rwanda, a nation the size of Maryland with a population of 11 million.

DEVOTHA TUMUSHIMIYIMANA, Student, EARTH University: My country is a small country. So, I would like also to teach people how they can use — I mean, how they can do agriculture in small land.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Jose Zaglul says doing agriculture on small land, or even no land, is an important part of the curriculum.

JOSE ZAGLUL: At home, in the schools, in rooftops in the cities, and you don’t have to utilize so much energy and fossil fuels to transport them.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Across campus, fruits and vegetables are grown in unlikely containers, with unlikely tools.

JOSE ZAGLUL: All the bottles, you can fill them with water, with — and then it’s like drip irrigation.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: The campus tries to model the ideal carbon-neutral world it wants its graduates to help create. Zaglul says that’s sometimes involved taking risks, like the decision at the start to keep producing bananas.

JOSE ZAGLUL: It used to cost us 25 cents more per box to do all the sustainable practices. And nobody would pay us for that. I tell you, we were losing money, but we had to show the students that it is possible to do sustainable business.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Possible, he says, because, over time, recycling and not using pesticides save money. Then came the right large customer, Whole Foods.

Besides the classroom and field emphasis on sustainable practices, students are encouraged to develop business ideas.

Twenty-three-year-old Diderot Saintilma has plans for when he returns to his native Haiti.

DIDEROT SAINTILMA, Student, EARTH University (through translator): Where I come from, there are a lot of peanut farmers. They don’t do very much post-harvest processing. So I would like to start an association or cooperative of small peanut farmers, so they can get added value for products.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Many graduates have taken ideas from here to the business world. For Costa Rican Joaquin Viquez, it was animal waste recycling. Solids are separated to make fertilizer, while large bladders or bio-digesters break down liquid wastes to capture methane, or biogas.

JOAQUIN VIQUEZ, Entrepreneur: This is like five times thinner than what we use now.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Its not new technology, he says. It simply wasn’t commercialized for farms in developing countries.

JOAQUIN VIQUEZ: There was no one you could call or no store you could go and say, hey, I want a digester. And so we made it technically accessible and we do a lot of efforts to make it economically feasible for a farmer.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On this day, they were installing a digester at the Calderon family farm, about 100 head of dairy and beef cows.

MARIA AGUILLAR CALDERON, Dairy Farmer (through translator): I took a course recently at the National Institute of Learning, and they talked about global warming and hygiene. And I really came back wanting to have a clean farm. So, I contacted a microfinance agency, talked to my husband and used our savings to do this.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Viquez says not only will this family be reducing greenhouse gases emitted by unprocessed animal wastes, but their energy savings over time will more than cover the digester’s $3,400 cost.

JOAQUIN VIQUEZ: They’re not going to have to use any firewood or propane for the cooking. And I know they’re going to have surplus.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Viquez is one of about 2,000 EARTH University alumni. Jose Zaglul says each on average has created four other jobs, and their influence has spread in other ways. Many commercial banana producers, he says, have adopted practices that began here.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Guapiles, Costa Rica.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Fred’s reporting is a partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.