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Sustainability in the rainforests of Costa Rica

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September 23, 2010

In my daily work, I help businesses reduce the cost of their sustainability strategies, but through an expedition to Costa Rica, I was able to live a sustainability strategy.

It all started a couple of years ago when Ernst & Young initiated a new program in cooperation with the Earthwatch Institute, a not-for-profit that conducts scientific research to help improve environmental sustainability throughout the world.

In addition to Ernst & Young’s environmental sustainability efforts within the office — removing disposable cups, promoting double-sided printing and developing our EcoCare network of 1,000-plus employee volunteers who help reduce our environmental footprint — the firm wanted to expand upon its environmental and corporate responsibility mission.

In conjunction with Earthwatch, we piloted a program in 2009, sending 11 employees to the rainforests of Costa Rica to assist Earthwatch professionals with research on sustainable farming practices for the coffee industry. The expedition was split into two parts:  mornings involved fieldwork and research into sustainability; and afternoons focused on working with a local coffee cooperative on economic sustainability.

The first year of the program, I was a member of the team that worked with Earthwatch scientists to measure the biomass of the rainforests surrounding the coffee plantations. We literally became treehuggers as we passed measuring tapes around large trees in order to estimate the amount of carbon they contained.

We also worked closely with a local coffee cooperative on several projects that were a little closer to our normal skill-sets. We helped them assess the use of incentives, and also analyzed data to show how the overuse of pesticides and herbicides could actually decrease the yields of coffee beans.

I was selected for this trip in large part because of my involvement with Ernst & Young’s Climate Change and Sustainability Services. In my role, I work with clients to identify, secure and comply with different government incentives programs that encourage the use of renewable energy or improvements in energy efficiency.

The projects and clients are very diverse: securing certification for one of the world’s largest LEED buildings; applying for tax credits for manufacturing equipment to be used to fabricate the ball bearings used in two mega-watt wind turbines; capturing a tax deduction for energy efficient lighting installed in big-box retail stores; and more.

My growth through these projects is one of the reasons I was selected to serve as a team leader for the Ernst & Young Earthwatch expedition in 2010. We again split the time between fieldwork in the morning and data analysis in the afternoon.

This year, we provided advice on how the coffee cooperative could deal with highly competitive pricing from foreign coffee suppliers. As for fieldwork — this year, we were investigating the impact of honey bees on the fertilization of coffee plants. We actually counted beans — or the number of coffee “cherries” that housed the coffee beans — and we counted honey bees as well.

The Earthwatch expedition was a wonderful career experience in many ways. I got to work closely with colleagues in other countries as Ernst & Young’s volunteers came from across North America, Central America and South America. It also provided me with a leadership opportunity — although we had such a great team, leading them was not much of a challenge and proved to be so much fun! It’s great to have had that experience and, in turn, to bring such an understanding to my clients.

Dominick Brook is a professional in Ernst & Young LLP’s Americas Climate Change and Sustainability Services.

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