D-Lab goes to Ecuador

Students help locals using local solutions

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Members of Atapo Quichalan demonstrate the drip irrigation system to nearby communities in the Andes mountains on Jan. 24. The system was developed in a joint effort by members of MIT’s D-Lab and members of Atapo Quichalan.
Jingyun Fan—The Tech

In orientation for my trip to Ecuador for D-Lab, an introductory international development class, we were told to pack mirrors — so that we could make candlelight brighter. Wait, I thought. There wouldn’t be electricity?

As it turned out, I didn’t ever need to pull out my mirror, and in many ways, and the communities we visited in Ecuador were less rustic than I had expected. But there wasn’t too much time for comparing and contrasting. We kept busy building a drip irrigation system and setting up new lines of communication between urban and rural medical clinics. Our backdrops were beautiful: the Andes Mountains, and once, an active volcano.

Doing development work is a humbling experience. In Santo Domingo, we visited a school with a small campus for special needs students. All of us were silent after touring the dirty classrooms, where one teacher was in charge of around 20 students of all ages and diseases ranging from Down’s syndrome to cerebral palsy. In contrast, the special needs program in my high school in Michigan had two teachers for its five students.

In the classroom, paint was peeling on the walls, water leaked out from the bathroom into the classroom, and some of the desks and chairs were broken. The physical therapy room contained expensive-looking equipment that seemed out of place. However, the equipment went mostly unused: the finger exercise kits were too large and stiff for children; the water therapy machine was missing a water heater and was simply sitting in a corner taking up space. We guessed that the donations had come from well-meaning donors who had not fully considered the needs of the recipients.

Without the experience or resources necessary to help these children, we felt helpless and frustrated.

In some other places, though, we were able to help. In Atapo Quichalan, we faced a challenge: we had given away our pre-made drip irrigation system to another community we had visited earlier and needed to make a new one. But the challenge turned out to be one of our best opportunities to apply the principles of development we had learned about: we designed a new system in conjunction with the local community using locally available materials. After all, they know their own culture and resources better than any of us.

For the drip irrigation system to work, we needed to create holes in the tube that permitted a slow but constant drip. After experimenting with different ways to cut holes in the tubing, a villager tried to slow the water’s flow by plugging up some holes with sticks. We then improved on this idea by plugging the holes up with cloth wicks, which used capillary action to slowly release the water.

However, the capillary action proved excessive, so a villager suggested putting the cloth wick inside “sitsi,” a hollow reed-like plant that grew in the mountains, so that the drip could be focused on a single point instead of on the entire surface of the cloth wick. It took us a day to experiment and come up with this final design for a drip irrigation system; everyone was very excited about the design.

The villagers resolved to install this prototype in one of their alfalfa fields and monitor its efficacy. The next day, we were invited to a “community gathering” in Santa Cruz where many communities in the area discussed building a new canal.

On the day of the community meeting, we arrived early in Santa Cruz. We spotted some women with beautiful woven purses and were admiring them when we saw a strange sight: an entourage of around twenty men in traditional ponchos and fedoras were marching up the mountain road carrying an assemblage of strange contraptions: long drip-irrigation tubing with cloth wicks waving in the wind, white PVC for the rainwater collection system, and a greenhouse constructed out of soda bottles.

Eventually, around 300 people gathered to form a giant circle around the villagers from Atapo Quichalan as they proudly explained the designs in Quichua, the indigenous language.

It was the people we met who made our trip unforgettable. María Marta Cotacachi Morales, an artisan in one of the Andean communities we visited, let us visit her home to see the mechanical loom with which she made her crafts. Her attire matched her trade beautifully. She dressed in a traditional white embroidered blouse with flared lace sleeve, a long black skirt, a multicolored woven belt, and lengths upon lengths of gold beads around her neck. She shyly told us that because of competition from mass manufacturers in Colombia, Peru, and even China, she and other traditional Otavaleña artisans did not have a market for their more expensive products.

We left with the crazy idea of having her make iPod cozies patterned with space invaders to sell in the D-Lab craft fair. One of the students in my group, Jessica C. Agatstein ‘12 stayed longer in María’s community than the rest of us to work on finishing the project. Our idea gradually morphed into a plan to find Marta a sustainable market so that she would be able to send her kids beyond primary school.

After visiting another community, the rest of my group returned to meet Jessica. When we left, Marta was hugging Jessica and weeping into her shoulder. “Thank you so much for coming and working with us,” her husband said. “You are the first people to step foot in our house. We’ve had other people try and work on projects in the community, but you are the first people to step into our home and see how we live. And we don’t know if it’s God or someone else blessing us, but we really want to work with you, and we hope that this works out because we really appreciate what you’ve done.”