Creating Alternative, Legal, and Sustainable Incomes

Creating Alternative, Legal, and Sustainable Incomes

A working model from the Peruvian Amazon

Edgardo Gomez Pisco for VASI

Our nine communities lie halfway between Pucallpa and Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon. Travel from a city is at least two days by fast boat and three or four days by the large ferryboats that carry everything from tractors and timber to farm animals, dried and frozen fish, and both legal and illegal wild animals. Our communities have no running water, no electricity, no sanitation systems, little access to health care, and essentially no Internet. The lack of sanitation and clean water contribute to the rapid spread of epidemics, and the lack of reliable transportation means that people frequently die from diarrheal diseases, snakebites, and other preventable or treatable diseases and accidents.

And yet our remote communities are under immense pressure from outside: the combined effects of climate change and illegal and/or unsustainable activities like logging, palm oil farming, indiscriminate fishing, and coca growing by growers who have been forced out of other areas. Though the forest remains beautiful—in many places jaw-droppingly so—most teenagers say they have not seen the diversity of wildlife for which the Amazon rainforest has been famous. Residents are intimately aware that their children face a life in many ways much more impoverished than their own.

Sadly, the vast majority of our youth immigrate to the cities before they are 18, and many of their parents, as well. Most have little education and end up in invasiones and pueblos jovenes (shantytowns and slums) that are filled with crime, are extremely vulnerable to tropical epidemics, and are poorly served by government programs. Many of our youth end up being the objects of sexual exploitation or pressured into other illegal and exploitative work. Those who choose to stay in our communities face decreasing options for legal and sustainable incomes and increasing conflicts over available farmable land.

Our situation may seem unimaginable to many Americans, but we are not different. In Spanish, the word for “collaborate” is colaborar: co- (together) and laborar (to work, to till, or to labor). In both languages, the word draws up powerful images of people working, laboring together in fields or in cities to reach a common goal. Our group of students, scientists, and businesspeople from our nine communities is doing just that. Called VASI (Amazonian Vision for an Integrated Sustainability), we have a shared vision to overcome differences—class, indigenous and nonindigenous, religion, gender, town, and geography—to create a sustainable future. This project in not just for our communities; we want to help others around the globe find a sustainable way forward as well.

Together we are investing our labor and capital—physical, intellectual, financial, and spiritual—toward this common goal. Fundamental to our work is the corresponding belief that each individual has the right to be heard and treated with dignity, and that every person can change and be an active source of change in their community. In the process, we are shedding colonial and oppressive structures and creating new methods of community self-empowerment based on equality, transparency, and collaboration.

VASI’s initial focuses include an effort to increase access to higher education (and by default to secondary education as well) and applied projects to create alternative, legal, sustainable incomes. Our first project is a mixed agroforestry project that combines a highly aromatic and flood-resistant variety of cacao with rare tropical hardwoods and fruits. We are working closely with craft chocolate makers in both Peru and the U.S. (see sidebar) to ensure access to fair and stable markets.

We are also developing local workshops for creating value-added products, such as furniture, from the unused portions of trees currently being felled for timber. We are in conversation with experts and high-end woodworkers in both Peru and Michigan to bring volunteer artisans to collaborate with community members. Similarly, we are in conversation with government authorities, local community members, and international experts on how we can strengthen local, long-running efforts for community-based fisheries management. Over the past year, we have also carried out a campaign to pressure the government to provide free land titles to the 6,000+ farmers in the district.

For many of the founding members of VASI, the will to do this work is deeply spiritual. Whether we draw from Liberation Theology, Evangelical Christianity, local indigenous practices, or other belief systems, the idea of working together without preference for class, gender, religion, town, geography, language, or name urges us to contemplate the ways in which we are part of the colonial structure; how we take advantage of historical abuses that continue through to today; and how we can create and embrace new ways of interacting that support our individual and communal dignity.

Don Sandro With His Cacao Seedlings Photo Credit Nancy M  Dammann For Vasi
Don Sandra with his cacao seedlings; Photo Credit Nancy M. Dammann for VASI

Craft Chocolate Links Rural Peru to Rural Michigan

VASI’s first applied project is to grow heirloom and native varieties of cacao for craft chocolates in both Peru and northwestern Lower Michigan. One of the goals of this project is to increase ties between these two rural areas, which are host to and protect the world’s two largest bodies of fresh water. Though it may be shocking, these two areas have more in common than in difference. We are facing similar challenges—high emigration of the youth, lack of jobs, and a traditional dependence on agriculture, logging, and fishing. VASI hopes to build not only business connections but also connections with the local community colleges, high schools, Rotary Clubs, and other groups.

What you can do

  • If you have a minute: Be grateful for all you have in your life and to be curious about how all these things made it to you. 
  • If you have $1: Use it to offset the difference in cost for buying a sustainably/fairly produced and traded item such as a bar of chocolate, a bag of peaches, a pound of rice, a notebook, and the like. 
  • If you have 10 minutes: Contemplate your personal vision of what a sustainable world would be like in 50 years, 100 years, 200 years, and more. In what ways could you contribute to bringing this vision to fruition?
  • If you have $100: Do something good, like paying the transportation cost for an extension worker to come and provide a community workshop on organic agriculture or more sustainable carpentry and logging techniques. (

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.