The toyota land cruiser is to all cars as X is to set of x. And things about Panama

Sunday, October 14, 2007

MIG fighters and Coffee Farmers

The most exciting thing to happen to me in a this week occurred when I climbed up to my neighbor's house and found this :

A week earlier I dropped off plans from my boss. My neighbor said he would get the materials ready and we would build it together. When I arrived on the day we had planned to build the depulper, it was almost done.

One of my goals is to figure out what the minimum amount of capital or resources a farmer would need to produce high quality coffee and thereby increase his or her income. This depulper usually costs a couple hundred dollars, but Hermonigo , pictured above, is figuring out how to do it for about $40. Depulpers are necessary as the only way to process coffee without damaging the it is to depulp by hand, which is very time consuming.

In addition to making me happy, the wooden depulper made me think of an article I read before coming to the Peace Corps.

A couple of years ago wired magi zine wrote an article about a rich guy who had started buying MiG fighter jets from the former soviet union. He then outsourced planes flown by hired pilots to the Navy for their pilots to practice and train against. One quotation has helped me think about my work here:

"Kirlin owes his operation to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the elegant crudeness of its technology. "When the Soviets built an airplane, they intended it to serve for 50 years, maintained in the middle of nowhere by a kid who could barely read, using a tool kit not much bigger than a box of fishing tackle." By comparison, he explains, a US warplane is designed around one parameter - performance. Price and complexity are barely considered. "All Americans want is a thoroughbred, but the Russians, they want quarter horses. And lots of 'em. Their whole design philosophy is based on simplicity and reliability."

Builing your own airforce, one mig at a time

I´ve found that this idea of elegant crudeness has helped me to design projects and think through problems, along with the idea of simplicity and reliability.

Likewise, many of the commercial farmers that we learn from are not under the same financial constraints as the farmers i work with who are in extreme poverty. The speciality coffee industry is more like the United States during the cold war, with the pursuit of quality at nearly any costs, as those costs in the market are almost always recouped. I live in a place that is much closer to soviet Russia, better yet Siberian Soviet Russia, in terms of available resources. In order to produce quality coffee we have to get more resourceful and creative under more constraints.

Monday, September 03, 2007


Someone commented on my post, and here I thought I was writing to myself. So here goes my response. Thanks for commenting, Daniel.

Ed, I am wondering about the nature of this poverty trap and some comments that you made about the erosion of the soil. Is the race for education capital being run against the land?

I don´t think "The race for education" runs against the land. Traditional farming where I live essentially means clear cutting rain forest, burning it, and then planting rice, beans,corn, or root crops on it. Planting coffee involves cutting down some of the underbrush, but the canopy remains intact, and much of the habitat for animals.

For soil errosion, coffee trees are permenant, and are much better at holding back soil than beans, or rice or clearing it for anything else, and if you mix in some soil errosion barriers to stop the errosion, even better.

Clearly diminishing returns off of the farm because of erosion would be a terrible burden. what is the general effect of growing coffee on the land? i ask this question for all those liberal folks loving their 'sustainable' coffee in the morning.

Coffee trees, and coffee harvesting, are better for the people economically, and in the long run better for the land. They can make enough money to buy as much corn, rice or beans as they would had they planted those crops on the same space , and still have some money left over. Also the soil errosion is much less and the large shade trees are left so the land is still worth more and more productive.

also could you comment on the possibilities of education? as you indicate that is the way out of poverty. is it sending children off to boarding school and then hoping that they stay in the city to work?

Yeah, they either have to board at a highschool, or they have to go to a city and live with a family as a house keeper, or live with older brothers or sisters that already live in the cities if they want to go to highschool. The only highschool that goes to 12th grade is a 6 hour walk away and it only offers agricultural. There are more courses of study offered off the reservation. If a student finishes highschool and maybe some college he or she can hope to get a job in the city and send money back, or get a job with the state working for one of the agencies or for the school system on the reservation.

Thanks a bunch for the comment, I hope this helps to answer some of the questions!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Go Box Coffee and "The end of Povety"

Can a poor farmer grow coffee and increase his income to such a degree that he can escape extreme poverty? That is the question that I am trying to answer for myself during my Peace Corps service. What would a farmer have to do and how many hectarias of coffee would he or she have to have based on a family size to generate enough income to escape extreme poverty?

First off, what does it mean to escape extreme poverty? WHen you have enough to eat, to build a shelter, and to take care of your health.

The next step is to get out of the "poverty trap," which Jeffery Sachs defines as an economic state where your capital depriciates faster than it is accumulated. For example, with the people I work with, as they grow beans and corn on their hillsides, the rain errodes the top soil and the fertility of the land is decreased. The income from the land is not enough to invest in the farm so each year the farmer and his family are poorer than they were the year before.

The hope is that with a product like coffee, they could make enough money to invest in thier family and farm to escape the poverty trap. For example, by selling coffee, the family could have enough to buy enough food for the year, necessary medicine, and have a nice house, and on top of that send one of thier kids to school plus extra education so they might get a job. Once the son or daughter graduates, they can send back money, either to invest in the farm, or so that his or her brothers or sisters can also go to school. This way, the capital of the family, in this case the educational capital, is growing and is growing at a rate faster than other forms of capital. The family is now out of the poverty trap and is on "ladder" of economic developement, as Sachs puts it. At least that is the idea anyway. I´m working to see if it can become a reality.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


A friend let me borrow this book, and it has plans on how to build a $25 composting toilet. I´m going to build one in my site to see how it goes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Gross Domestic Toughness

There should be a new "econometric" : Gross Domestic Toughness. GDT.

Where I live, people do not contribute much to GDP. Most of the food they produce they consume themselves, and a lot of the work they do could be done in 1/1ooth of the time with modern machinery. However nearly everything they do contributes to what I would like to call the Gross Domestic Toughness. Not sure how the formula would work for this one. One example I can give is this : a John Deer tractor produces exponentially more than 1 guy swinging a machete, but the machete swinger is maintaining the toughness production of the country, and could probably be the crap out of the guy working the tractor.

Helping out a nieghbor build his grass roof hut got me thinking about this. I was walking up this hill carrying about 80 lbs of wet straw to this guys house. My neighbor , aparisio, is going to use the straw for the roof of his hut. It will take him and his family about 50 more trips of hiking this straw up over this mountain about a mile and a half to get the roof done. The hut is no bigger than 15 by 20 feet.

I think the toughness idea came to me when i came to the top of the hill and found two of his brothers sucking down hot sugary coffee like it was Gatorade. they had both beaten me up the hill, carrying a much higher percentage of their malnourished body wieght than i was. After cresting the hill and I doing all i could to set down my straw bale without sprawling out and looking like a total wuss, they gave me this look like " what are you tired for, we eat little mountains like this for breakfast" but instead just handed me a gord of the piping hot coffee, which if sweetened to the point where you can feel it rotting your teeth is a great re hydrator.

any ways, for less than 200 dollars, the fam could throw up a roof in 1/20 th of the time and about 1/10000th of the pain, but then who would make up for the lack of toughness that otherwise would not be added to the economy?

Monday, May 21, 2007


I love instructables .

One interesting project is a cheap electrical generator.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Minimum Input Projects

Living amongst extreme poverty has gotten me thinking a lot about reducing the minimum cost of imputs, in both time and money, for starting projects. What are the cheapest tools you can make yourself? what is the cheapest house you can build? what is the cheapest way to get electricity? The cheapest flashlight? cheapest way to get all the nurtriants you need?

One Minimum Input Project I'm trying to get rolling now is for a photo project with kids at the school. I came across this design for a pinhole camera using 35 mm film and a match box, some electrical tape. If you use some expired film, than the whole project is pretty cheap.

Flickr photos with Matchbox Pinhole tags

Here's the website that explains the basic construction by the guy who designed it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Guide to Field Soldering

Instructables comes through again. Im here waiting for a late bus back to site, and found this site on how to solder without electricity.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Go Box House

The NYT wrote about tiny houses, go box in style, although at $24,000 for 120 square feet, not go box in sticker shock. The house I hope to live in soon is 126 square feet, and should cost a little under $250. Look for my wood and tin roof shack in the next New York Times special on little houses.

Saturday, January 27, 2007


Disclaimer: This website expresses the views of Ed O'Brien, whom is entirely responsible for its content. It does not reflect the policies or positions of The United States Government, United States Peace Corps, the Republic of Panama, or anyone else.alright, now the legalspeak is out of the way