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Course Report: Tropical Agriculture and Missions

Aug 03, 2011

‘Tropical Agriculture & Missions’ (TAM), offered since 2003, was taught in Costa Rica for the first time. Eight American students from five schools were enrolled, and a Costa Rican student sat in as well. Typical of the TAM course, they were a fantastic class to teach, most already seriously considering service as Christians in poorer regions of the world. They were hard-working, but also a fun group, too, very adventurous, quickly bonding, and patient with delays in the schedule.

About two of the three weeks were based in a town called Vara Blanca. At  6,000 ft, temperatures were in the 50s-70s, and it rained heavily, often daily. Our collaborator, Eastern Univ. alum Tomás Dozier, grew up in Vara Blanca, returning with his family after an earthquake in Jan. 2009 killed dozens and left many homeless. After the initial relief work, a community survey revealed that a high school was a high priority. Tomás and Chelsea Dozier formed ADE (Association for Development through Education), and began a high school. They and a small staff, mostly alumni of Eastern University’s graduate program in Intl. Development, are also involved in the one evangelical church in the area, and sharing their faith in the community. ADE has long-term access to a cabin in a primary rainforest that is ideal for an Au Sable class, and they facilitated visits with farmers, research centers, national parks, etc. 

Besides units on the scientific foundations of sustainable agriculture, basic tropical ecology, and some missiology, we visited farmers, and observed the upland rainforest and regional geology of Vara Blanca. That includes the effects from the very live Poas Volcano, 10,000 ft high, and close enough to us that we could drive to visit the billowing crater in an hour.

The first week, groups of the HS students gave presentations to our class about the types of agriculture in the valley (strawberries, dairy cattle, some dairy goats, trout, and ornamentals, especially potted ferns, for export to the US).

The third week, groups of Au Sable students gave seminars to the HS students, each covering a plant family – its basic botany and agricultural & nutritional value. Two Spanish-speaking students within the TAM class got to try their translation skills, too!

Our wonderful cook, Rosa Elena, was mom of Fabian, one of the HS students. Vara Blanca is little homes spread out over hills & hollows much like Appalachia. It’s a mile or so walk uphill from the rainforest to a paved road. Living there, we interacted with HS students and their families daily: some were neighbors. Kids often dropped by to hang out and try English, while the TAM students tried Spanish. Locating TAM in a small, rural and poor community changed the dynamic from academic abstractions about missions and development toward names and faces of people we knew.

Although this was the trial run of TAM in Costa Rica, response of the students was positive. Besides class units and visits with farmers in greater Vara Blanca, Costa Rica offers world class research and teaching institutions.  Ones we visited for orientations included CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza), an international research center established in 1940, governed by a board from 14 Latin American countries; EARTH University, an international university founded in 1990 to train students in environmentally sustainable tropical agriculture, with an emphasis on hands-on practice and business training, and a student body of 400 drawn from across the global Tropics; OTS La Selva Station (Organization for Tropical Studies, founded in 1968 by a biology research consortium, located in a lowland rainforest that receives 4 m of rain a year, and abuts one of the largest national parks in Costa Rica, that ascends to peaks ca. 10,000 ft high); national park visits that included Poas Volcano (looming over Vara Blanca), the Arenal Volcano area, Cahuita, a Caribbean tropical maritime forest near the Panama border; and CoopeSarapiqui, a fair-trade coffee-growers cooperative that exports to North America and the European Union.

Educationally, doing the class in Costa Rica seemed successful. It was harder to cover certain science units, but other topics were facilitated by living in a rainforest, in walking distance to small farms owned by hardworking, poor families. Spiritually, I was blessed how the students quickly made friends in the community and volunteered to clean and cook, and, in some cases got in significant discussions with neighbors about life in Vara Blanca. Like all small towns, there are many dynamics going on in Vara Blanca. Attending a tiny church with limited resources was also a good education about Christian ministry: I trust many will remember to pray for that little church. They invited me to preach one Sunday, and I did, in Spanish and English!  And then there are those unplanned conversations and prayer times that God seems to arrange when we’re not looking.

Thank you also to those who prayed for this course. All went so well, and we pray that God will use this course in the lives of the students who took it, too. It will be exciting to learn where they end up in years to come! God willing, I am hopeful Costa Rica may be a good long-term home for the TAM course.

View more photos from the 'Tropical Agriculture and Missions' course in our photo gallery.