In 2000, Diego moved with his family to Atenas, Costa Rica, a small pueblo in the mountains of Alajuela. His initial motivations for the move included:
“[My wife and I] wanted our children to realize their privilege just by being U.S. citizens, and hopefully to learn to understand the responsibilities inherent in that privilege. Additionally, we wanted to visit biological stations in various rainforests in the country, learning the language of the natural world as seen by those who have dedicated their lives to understanding the flora and fauna of the tropics. I wanted to see if there was a way to support the work of these people, and their communities, who are on the “front line” of the ecosystem crisis.” -Diego
In Costa Rica, Diego traveled the country, exploring sustainable development projects. This work led to the development of the sustainable agriculture Certification And Traceability System (CATS), a project Diego co-developed with Hewlett Packard.
With international agricultural trade skyrocketing, the increase in food safety problems could no longer be ignored. Recent scares such as foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease were exacerbated by the dismantling of trade barriers among European Union countries. Similarly, freer trade of grains, coupled with poor labeling and tracking of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), made it easier for genetically modified Starlink corn to inadvertently mix with non-GMO corn. Reports of health problems induced by Alar, commonly used on apples, caused confusion and fear among consumers, who had no way to know which apples had or had not been sprayed. The use of bovine growth hormone in dairies in the U.S. caused a significant increase in the market for organic dairy products, as seen by the growth of Horizon Dairies to a over $100 million company. Increasingly, scientists were linking cancer and other diseases to pesticide residues on the world’s food supply.
In an attempt to remedy some of these issues, the US began passing regulatory laws that not only affected the country’s own farmers but also large and small-scale farmers around the world who exported to the US. With the organic marketplace booming, studies out of the United Nations indicated that farmers in less developed countries would soon fall behind without certification. Aware that of the 2.1 billion farmers in the world, the largest segment of the market did not have the funds for organic certification, Diego saw that indigenous defacto organic farmers could increase their margins 100% through organic certification. These were motivations for the creation of the Certification and Traceability System (CATS) project.
The certification process requires auditing an established system to determine if it is meeting established standards and practices. In the case of organic certification, the standards document many factors, including sound ecological management practices, chain of custody, proper packaging labeling, pest management practices, waste management, and efficient resource use. Traceability is one part of the organic system that is verified in the process of getting organic certification.
Traceability, or chain of custody, is the system that verifies the origin of a product over its entire life cycle – in the case of organic foods, from field to table. The traceability system will permit an inspector, for example, to purchase a cup of organic yogurt in a supermarket and be able to follow an audit trail of every organic ingredient back to the group of farms from which they came.
The CATS business plan would allow the project to scale to over 2 billion people, a quarter of the world’s population at the time, by developing a beach head strategy and using technology that would leverage the abilities of under-resourced indigenous communities to obtain organic certification. CATS attempted to utilize the infrastructures of remote areas, specifically those with poor roads and no electricity or telephones, through appropriate technology. For example, in the remotest areas, a CATS information broker would ride on horseback from the coops to the farms in the different regional areas, carrying a laptop. They could then synchronize with the farmers’ handheld devices, charge their batteries, and make note or take digital photos of infestations. (See vision document for the CATS project.) Another example of appropriate technology for indigenous farmers was Diego’s discovery of “real time.” Coming from HP Labs, where researchers wanted information in nanoseconds, Diego realized that real time was defined differently based on the need of the individual. Through interviews with farmers and other affiliates in Central America, he found that two months was considered real time for most indigenous farmers. Therefore, an information broker on horseback would have to meet that two-month window. Redefining real-time proved to be a unique contribution to this work and aided in making the technology appropriate for the farmer.
Other unique contributions include Diego’s market segmentation work and his establishment of an information economy through CATS. By having access to an information broker, CATS allowed farmers to have “real time” market stats and information so that they could know what to plant, determine the groups that purchased their goods, establish their market price, and choose where to sell.
Because many of the farmers were illiterate, CATS explored research from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Media Lab which was researching multi-literate user interfaces. Depending on the literacy level of the user, the handheld device could show icons, pictures or words. CATS also helped promote community retention by providing IT work to younger generations who would normally leave the pueblo to pursue jobs in larger cities. By building an electronic infrastructure, the youth of the area could develop IT and other high tech skills and provide support to their communities through low impact technology solutions. Ultimately, CATS would strengthen local economies and bring the voices, and products, of off-the-grid farmers into the market.
On September 11, 2011, Diego and his colleague Christopher Shockey, an HP Project Manager, flew to meet with the UN to discuss further development of the CATS project. Like many new projects at the time, funding came to an abrupt halt after September 11.