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The Antman Cometh

October 11, 2016

Geanina Fripp and Scott Summers, both C’16, are in the ecology lab in Sewanee’s Spencer Hall, surrounded by hundreds of specimen tubes, each containing a single ant. They lean in toward a computer monitor showing a curving graph. “It’s a rarefaction curve,” says Summers. “It’s showing us that we have kind of passed the point where it is likely we will be discovering many more species of ants.” The two students have been collecting ants as part of a larger, multidimensional project in Haiti. Their efforts enjoyed a boost this fall when David Lubertazzi, a post-doctoral fellow from Harvard, came to campus to take a look at the project.

“You’ll have to do some more hand collecting,” Lubertazzi tells them. “Flip over rocks and actually go out to find the ants that might be too shy for your traps and bait.”

Lubertazzi, arguably the world’s leading authority on Hispaniolan ants, spent several days with Fripp, Summers, and their professor, Deborah McGrath, looking at hundreds of ants the students had collected back in Haiti during the summer. When he came to campus in October, the team had identified seven species; by the time he left, the number had grown to 22.

Sewanee’s students, faculty, and staff have been a presence in Haiti for well over a decade, and Lubertazzi was introduced to the ant project by Sean McKenzie, C’11, who was part of Sewanee’s Haiti initiative in its early days. Coordinator of Outreach Ministries Dixon Myers has been leading an alternative spring break there and more recently, McGrath and Professor of Art Pradip Malde have been taking students to the island nation to build lasting impact through engagement in the community. McGrath has been doing work on connecting environmental health with human health, and Malde has been interested in how people can tell their own stories through documentary photography. Both have also been interested in the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, whose Partners in Health program was the subject of a 2003 book by Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains.

The reasons for Haitian deforestation are well documented. In a country where biomass provides fuel for cooking, a tree is a precious commodity. When faced with the choice between cooking and keeping a forest, rational people may well choose eating a cooked meal. A few years ago, observing that Hobbesian choice and listening to the people who made it, McGrath was inspired to wonder if people might be paid to grow trees as an ecosystem service. More trees mean healthier people and, at least on a small scale, a greener planet as the growing trees sequester carbon.

From this observation, Zanmi Kafe (Partners in Coffee) and its sister project, Zanmi Foto (Partners in Photography), led by Malde, were born, comprising the Haiti Institute in Sewanee. Using green fees contributed by Sewanee students, McGrath and her team are paying farmers to grow coffee trees until the trees are mature and bearing fruit. Such payments for ecosystem services are a recognition that a healthy environment has benefits that are not easily monetized. Trees sustain clean water, clean air, a better environment for agriculture, and more resilient human health profiles. Payments for ecosystem services monetize these benefits in ways that traditional commerce cannot.

It’s a complicated project. During spring breaks, Dixon Myers’ outreach students visit the farms to make sure the coffee plants are alive and well, and to see how many are surviving. In 2016, they were joined by Liz Embler, T’17, whose seminary education includes a cross-cultural experience that will allow them to understand the world better. “I am working to create deeper relationships with the priests in Haiti, particularly the seminary in Port Au Prince.”  Liz traveled to Haiti with the Outreach Program's spring break trip in March and then traveled to the seminary and two rural parishes in August.

The work in Haiti has many goals—social, spiritual, scientific, artistic. It’s a partnership reaching across generations and cultures. Appropriately, McGrath is also director of the Finding Your Place program that introduces students to college life through understanding their own place at Sewanee. The Haiti Institute at Sewanee is another example of how focusing on a place gives students opportunities for original research, community engagement, deep understanding of another culture, and a spiritual and intellectual grounding for their lives after college.

Zanmi Kafe and Zanmi Foto, and the internships connected to these projects, are supported by gifts to the Stronger Truer Sewanee campaign from Wilma and Rick Sommer of Chattanooga and Alice Chenault and Milton Harris of Huntsville, Ala.

If you are interested in a gift that goes beyond current-use dollars, named endowed internship funds begin at the $100,000 level. Named endowed scholarship funds begin at the $150,000 level for the College and $75,000 for the School of Theology.