2014 PFIG Recipient Sarah Dugan

Career Administrator

Sarah Dugan
College of Arts & Sciences
Biology & Global Development Studies
2016 Graduation Year

Internship: Runa Foundation in Archidona, Ecuador

Notes on the first week

This summer, I am interning with the Runa Foundation in Archidona, Ecuador. The Foundation works closely with the commercial branch of Runa, which produces a variety of guayusa tea beverages. The Runa Foundation not only serves as a watchdog to the company; they conduct research, engage in community outreach, and promote cultural exchange. Currently, their primary focuses are ecosystems, fair trade, and knowledge generation, but they are seeking to expand their involvement in other areas.

I am working on a grassroots public health project that seeks to combine Runa’s existing relationships with indigenous Kichwa communities with another non-profit’s technical knowledge regarding water filtration systems. My main responsibilities involve designing, implementing, and analyzing needs assessment surveys, as well as performing water quality tests in three nearby Kichwa communities. If the surveys reveal there are recurring health problems caused by contaminated water, I will be involved in the process of researching and writing grants to fund future projects. It is also possible that I will be helping to plan community charlas that discuss sanitation practices and preventative health measures.

Though this project will be my main focus for the summer, after seeing the many initiatives that the Runa Foundation and Runa are involved in, I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to learn more about a variety of different fields. The first week has been a whirlwind of introductions, presentations, and planning for the next few months.  The Runa Foundation works to ensure that all interns are knowledgeable about the organization’s social enterprise model as well as important aspects of Kichwa culture. Appropriately, we all started our first day of work at 3:30 in the morning so that we could take part in a traditional guayusa ceremony before being introduced to the finer details of the Foundation’s and Runa’s operations.

I have already started some smaller projects as well. The commercial half of Runa is currently performing many novel experiments with guayusa, and I have been helping them collect data. I have also been researching cacao and café prices that will later be included in a manual for guayusa farmers that work with Runa. In addition to this, my fellow interns and I have been compiling information and writing entries for the Foundation’s newsletter, which highlights the enterprise’s recent activities and accomplishments. I am looking forward to taking on more of these small projects, as they provide valuable insight into the inner workings of Runa’s myriad operations.

Though it is only the first week, I have learned a lot already. In our first workshops, I learned the basics of monitoring and evaluation, as well as the process of setting up focus groups and collecting unbiased information. I hope to continue to develop these practical skills in the upcoming weeks.  I am excited to take development theory and apply it in the field.

Furthermore, there are many things I hope to accomplish over the next few months. I hope to continue to improve my Spanish language skills and pick up some basic Kichwa as well. I am interested in further investigating the relationship between water quality in these communities and the health of the surrounding rainforest. I am hoping to make connections with as many nearby water-focused non-profits as possible—we have already identified a few that may prove to be useful resources in the future. All in all, I am very excited about the first week and I am looking forward to the rest of the summer and the challenges that lie ahead. 

Midway

As I approach the midway point of my internship, I find it difficult to believe how quickly the last few weeks have gone. We have concluded our initial survey of our first community, Santa Rita. We planned our first day to coincide with a community meeting so that the community president would be able to explain our project to his constituents. During the time allotted for us at the community meeting, we all briefly introduced ourselves (standing in front of over one hundred people and introducing myself in Kichwa was a bit of a surreal experience), and asked community members to draw two maps. One map was at the “micro” level, which includes the community of Santa Rita and its six neighborhoods. The other was at the “macro” level, which allows us to see the location of agriculture, livestock, logging, and other activities in relation to the main water source. We returned the next day to conduct surveys asking about water uses, habits, sanitation, and attitudes, as well as to take water samples from various sources. Overall, there was a lot of community participation and interest.

However, the project has not been without its drawbacks. At the beginning of the summer, we created a timeline to allocate approximately how much time we would spend on each element of the project—which includes creating the survey, implementing the survey, analyzing the results, sharing the results with the communities, and submitting a grant proposal. However, myriad obstacles have caused us to reevaluate our plans. We will continue working with one of the originally planned communities, but have limited our focus to only two communities. This decision was made for several reasons. We did not want to overwhelm these communities with “projects” and risk losing their participation. The Runa Foundation’s transportation resources are minimal, and two of the originally planned communities are very rural and remote. There was also a severe delay in the anticipated timeline due to difficulties obtaining the necessary materials for testing our water samples. However, all these unexpected challenges have provided valuable insight into the reality of development projects, and have shown me how crucial it is to be flexible and resourceful when faced with obstacles.

It is comforting to know that despite the drawbacks we have faced so far, there is still a history of successful water projects in Ecuador. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see one for myself, when I accompanied a project leader from a different NGO to a community that had just installed a water filtration system. We met with the community health promoter and members of the community water council to discuss some concerns and to take water samples. It was a valuable experience to be able to witness the later stages in the evolution of a water project, and gave me hope for what we might be able to accomplish in the future. 

Although this project has been my main focus this summer, other side projects have also proven to be interesting endeavors. The Runa newsletter is finished, and working on articles for it exposed me to interesting information regarding the genetic diversity of Ilex guayusa (and its significance for farmers) as well as other projects the Foundation is currently working on. We are also working on constructing a compost bin as well as planting over 1,000 Pachako trees for future experimental use.

This internship has been an incredible experience thus far, and I am looking forward to seeing what the future holds

Final Reflections

My time at the Runa Foundation has sadly come to an end, but I will undoubtedly utilize the skills and information I learned this summer in my future academic and professional endeavors.

We concluded the community meeting, map-making, surveying, and water quality testing in our second community, and my last few weeks at Runa were spent writing several documents. One was a report for the communities of Santa Rita and Santo Domingo, explaining our findings and their significance. It also included discussion points for a community conversation that will unfortunately take place after I leave. The topic: Now that we have this information, what further action, if any, do the communities wish to take in the pursuit of clean water? I also worked on another report for the people who will work on this project in the future—people who will ideally pick up where the summer interns left off. It included practical information, as well as some of the things I have come to realize this summer, such as the limitations of surveys as a means of data collection; issues of jealousy and general relationship dynamics in small communities; and the difficulty—but necessity—of including the perspectives and opinions of Kichwa community members who speak little Spanish.

I have learned many practical skills and gained a much greater understanding of the way non-profits and development projects operate. I have also learned quite a bit about the challenges and rewards of working with a team of incredibly diverse people. The project this summer was only the first step of what will hopefully be a long-term initiative, and I will likely be working from afar throughout the year on grant proposals and other related work. It would be incredible to return to Ecuador in the near future to see what might become of this project.

Interning with the Runa Foundation has been an amazing experience in countless ways. Thank you very much to the UVA Parents Fund for this opportunity!