News Article

Making a Difference from Behind a Desk

Catherine Pargeter
After completing a graduate program in environmental science and management in 2006, most of my class was off to desk jobs in offices. Lucky were the ones who found a job that let them be outside for at least some part of the day. And then there was me. I grabbed my backpack and volunteered for three years with the U.S. Peace Corps.
My village was in the Chikwawa district of southern Malawi.  Surrounding the national park where I worked were vast sugar cane fields, with the headquarters of the sugar company 20 kilometers away.  It was an odd juxtaposition, local villagers and the Peace Corps volunteer living in mud huts with no electricity or running water so close to expats, mostly from South Africa, living in luxurious, beautiful compounds complete with a golf course, a swimming pool, an upscale restaurant and clubhouse.
Although the sugar company brought employment to the region, many aspects of their community relations were frustrating to say the least, with offenses ranging from removing historically and culturally significant trees to treatment of their workers and other villagers. The medical center was not able to test for malaria even though the irrigation systems, which flooded the fields, created vast mosquito breeding grounds. Furthermore, local villagers who weren’t associated with the company were not allowed to be treated at its clinic, the only one for 20 kilometers (although the medical associate, who became a good friend, turned people away only if he had to). In my opinion, however, the most egregious offense were the dikes installed to protect the sugar cane crops from the annual flooding that occurred during the rainy season. By not allowing the water to flow over the sugar cane fields to the river on the other side, the dikes caused massive flooding of the upstream villages, flooding houses, eroding topsoil and sweeping up anything and anyone else in its path. These were villagers who typically made less than $1 per day and depended upon the fields in the flood zone to grow their food staples.
Upon returning to America last year, I knew I wanted to work to encourage businesses like that sugar company to improve their corporate citizenship. Working at Trillium is the perfect fit – the work that we do in our ESG Research and Corporate Advocacy department helps to create better interaction between corporations and the local communities that support them. So even though I too am now in an office, I am helping make a difference, and helping to improve communities …without the backpack.