Disaffected with his way of life in the US and concerned about the multiple ecological crises bearing down on humankind, Joe Brewer set off on a journey to learn what he might be able to do. He had considerable background in the earth sciences, studied cognitive linguistics and philosophy, and had worked with the activist group, The Rules. But restoring an entire ecosystem would be a novel challenge.
In 2019, Brewer ended up in Barichara, Colombia, with his wife and infant daughter, where he soon found himself helping to catalyze a "living laboratory of regeneration" of a degraded landscape, an arid tropical forest, in the northern Andes. Ninety percent of the forest in the region's one million acres had been cut down, causing the once-fertile food forest to dry out and become a desert.
How does one begin to restore such a profoundly degraded landscape?
As a newcomer to the region, Brewer quickly realized that there were many great local projects underway, but their practitioners barely knew of each other's existence. So he slowly waded in, forming relationships with farmers and eco-players, and bringing them into closer communication with each other. Brewer also relied on the principles of permaculture, closely observing the patterns and cycles of the ecosystem to try to identify what it needed to begin to flourish and sustain itself.
Fortunately, Brewer had learned a great deal about earth sciences through former affiliations with the International Centre for Earth Simulation, the Center for Complex Systems Research at the University of Illinois, the Cultural Evolution Society, the Rockridge Institute, and the Evolution Institute.
But for Brewer, reclaiming the ecosystem was not some abstract exercise or supervisory challenge. It was personal and gritty. In April 2020, one month after the pandemic lockdowns in Colombia, Brewer would sneak out of his house to the edge of town, and start to dig "contour swales" in the side of the mountain. These are horizontal irrigation ditches perpendicular to the flow of water that help catch rain water and encourage it to sink into the soil.