Michael Butler ’17 Helps Develop Rainforest Products to Benefit Local Communities

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Michael Butler, front, is interning with a fair trade organization

In the small town of Archidona, Ecuador, where Michael Butler ’17 is living this summer, the Andes mountains dominate the view at one end of town, while the rainforest encroaches on the other.

The rising junior is working closely with communities that make their living from these lands. He is interning with the Runa Foundation, which is the nonprofit arm of Runa Tea, a fair-trade company that cultivates and sells guayusa tea, a traditional drink of the area. Runa Foundation distributes proceeds from the tea sales to the local Kichwa communities, works on sustainable logging practices, and investigates new products to boost the area’s economy. By creating alternative ways for farmers to make money, Runa helps reduce the incentive to rely on unsustainable logging for their livelihoods, according to Butler.

Butler, who has a grant from Bowdoin to work at Runa, said he was drawn to the opportunity because he’s interested in forest conservation, natural resource management, social enterprise and “developing new products that aren’t bad for the world.” He added, “Runa conducts development work correctly.” Runa works with communities to incentivize “the sustainable and equitable extraction” of communal resources, such as guayusa, fruit and timber. “We’re not exploiting locals like the oil companies that give communities just north of us a toxic short-term profit.”

The grant, from the Robert S. Goodfriend Summer Internship Fund, is part of Bowdoin Career Planning’s funded internship program, which financially supports select students who want to pursue worthwhile, but unpaid, summer internships or other projects.

After achieving success with its guayusa tea, Runa is on the lookout for other products it can develop. Eliot Logan, the foundation’s executive director, gave Butler and two other interns a $500 budget this summer to see if they could come up with a new marketable item.

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Michael Butler walks down a street in Archidona

The interns set out to speak with many local people to find out which natural products they use. In their investigations, they met an elderly woman with a lung disease who makes tea from cacao bean shells that she claims helps her to breathe. Cacao bean shells typically get discarded in the chocolate making process.

When the interns followed the woman’s suggestion and brewed a batch of the tea from the ground-up shells, they found it tasted delicious, Butler said. “It’s amazing,” he continued. “It tastes like chocolate.”

Eliot Logan is excited by their discovery of “chocolate tea,” according to Butler, and the team of interns is now figuring out how to package and market it.The other product Butler is helping Runa explore is a nut, the muru inchi, which looks much like the peanut we buy in our supermarkets but has reddish-purple splotches. “It’s a little sweeter,” Butler added. “It tastes a little like honey.”

On top of these endeavors, Runa has a multi-year MacArthur grant to work with local communities and draw up a regional management plan to help conserve the forest. Butler has been assisting Runa’s forester as he makes trips out to three Kichwa communities to speak with loggers, observe practices and collect data.

To better understand the communities he is working with, Butler lived with a local family in Puni Katona for three days. “It was a shock,” he said. “You get up at 3 a.m. and drink guayusa tea for three, four hours, discuss the day, and then you go out to the forest gardens, where they harvest guayusa, cacao, plantains and yucca, their staple crops. Then you’re done by 1 p.m.” The men tend to log while the women farm. The men would also drink liquor during the afternoon, leading up to dinner of yucca, plantains and maybe fish or a guatusa, which is a kind of forest rodent.

An economics and environmental studies major, Butler said his interest in social entrepreneurship was solidified after taking a course on natural resources with Associate Professor of Economics Ta Herrera. “I wanted to come here to and see natural resource economics in action and apply what I’ve learned in the classroom,” he added.

While the experience has been good overall, Butler said it’s too early yet to see whether his work will have a positive impact. “I haven’t had the big, ‘I’m making a difference’ moment yet,” he noted, with a little grin. “I hope the chocolate tea goes big!”

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