TWP in Cuba – Life after Fidel

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

30 November 2016

On November 25th, 2016, I was sitting on a farm outside of Cienfuegos, Cuba, drinking strong coffee under a tree and talking about Latin America’s past, present, and future with the directors of a rural theater company. Like many conversations here go, we compared other countries in the region, their trajectories, their hallmarks, and their deficiencies. Among the stories told was that of a friend of one of those at the table who had returned to Cuba almost 37 years after leaving as a political dissident, after having vowed not to return until Fidel Castro died. He had given up and decided that his love for the country was greater than his fear of what its government might do to him. Waiting for Fidel to die, I thought… and I said to the table, “so many people have been waiting for that moment.”

Later that night, I woke randomly at 3:57am EST, restless, and listened to people boisterously rolling out of a nearby nightclub. I couldn’t sleep – likely due to the late afternoon coffee – and decided to flip on the television in my room to see what the State was broadcasting at that time of night. All channels were static, except for two identical ones on which credits were rolling from a program that was ending. As soon as these ended, a newsflash came on with a visibly uncomfortable female newscaster sitting next to a photo of Fidel Castro. The audio was jammed, but my heart jumped at what I thought she might be saying. I flipped to the other station, where I heard for the first time that Fidel Castro had died. Immediately I jumped out of bed to see Raul Castro come on screen and repeat the news: “…hoy, 25 de Noviembre del 2016, a las 10:29 horas de la noche, falleció el Comandante en Jefe de la Revolución Cubana, Fidel Castro Ruz.” I immediately ran out into the courtyard to wake my colleague Lucas Wolf to share what I had just heard.

At 5:00am on November 26th, I could still hear people on the street who had clearly heard the news, and my mind raced at the significance of being in Cuba at this moment in history. The sun was an hour from coming up, and my first thoughts are how to get to Havana to bear witness to what would likely be one of the biggest public manifestations in this country’s history. I can only smile at the irony that earlier that same evening I realized that November 25th was the biggest embodiment of consumer culture in the capitalist world – Black Friday. It was as if one final ideological barb had been thrown at Cuba in an almost century-long battle for the soul of the hemisphere. Just like that, the world turned, and one of the most colossal and polemic figures in history was gone.

Cuban Flags
The Cuban flag and the 26th of July Movement flag, which marks Fidel’s first rallying cry against the Batista government in 1953, fly high in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

Several days later, now back in the U.S., I ponder the subtlety with which the country took Fidel’s passing. Flags fly at half-mast still today, and houses throughout Cienfuegos, and surely the country had both the Cuban flag and the 26th of July Movement flag draped on their windows and doors. During nine days of mourning, all cultural events and live entertainment had ceased, music in taxis was silenced, and alcohol sales were prohibited (mostly), leaving the city in a pleasant, meditative calm. But apart from the odd conversation on the street, people were relatively mum about the event unless we brought it up first, which generally led to a rich, reflective exchange.

We bagged our plans of traveling to Havana from Cienfuegos to avoid the throngs of Cubans and dozens of dignitaries from around the world that flew into Havana on Monday and Tuesday for funeral services. Mourners queued for hours in central plazas across the country to pay homage to their fallen leader, and to show their commitment to the “revolutionary values” listed in Fidel’s May 1, 2000 speech to the country. We walked to Cienfuegos’ main square in awe of the thousands of people with flowers in hand, waiting for their turn to sign Fidel’s funeral registers. For every person cheering in Miami’s streets on Friday night, there were thousands in Cuba showing, at the very least, respect for what they considered Fidel represented.  Fall where you may on the political spectrum, the impacts of Fidel’s ideological intransigence will be debated for centuries, as will the steps taken in the months and years after his death.

Paying respects to Castro in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Masses of Cuban people line up to pay their respects to fallen leader Fidel Castro in downtown Cienfuegos, Cuba

The mark Fidel Castro left on history is an unhealable wound for some, and for others a badge of honor, a national identity, and a living example of an alternate path. The Cuba I know is a place where people are cultured, talented, peaceful, loving, forward-thinking, and tough as nails. They have been through and sacrificed much to build a society and country of which most are proud, while openly recognizing its shortcomings. As Cuba crosses the chasm into a post-Castro mixed economy and an age of unprecedented information access, we have the choice of either continuing to isolate Cubans behind an artificial wall of outdated political fervor, or to lend them every bit of support we can to help protect the gains they have made while contributing to a more positive, prosperous, and inclusive future.

This is a future that I believe in, and one I hope you’ll support as Trees, Water & People extends its hands to some of the most remarkable people in the hemisphere.

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Standing with Standing Rock

by Sally MacAdams, TWP Volunteer

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It was kind of by chance that I got inspired about the many benefits of renewable energy projects in Native American communities back in mid-2015. I was listening to a podcast about the social, environmental and economic issues associated with oil and mining projects on reservations and the hope offered by green alternatives. From my home in Melbourne, Australia, it might have seemed like something very distant from me – except that I had recently gotten interested in Community Owned Renewable Energy (CORE) and coincidentally, my father and his wife had just moved to Colorado, and I was already planning a trip to visit in 2016.

I quickly became a little obsessed with researching CORE projects in North America, particularly in First Nations, and I teamed up with a local Australian organization called Community Power Agency so that I could channel this obsession into something useful. As a community sustainability professional, I was also hoping to be able to contribute to something during my trip to the US, so I started to look around at not-for-profit organizations in Colorado and came across Trees, Water and People (TWP).

I connected with TWP’s Development Director Gemara Gifford, and after a Skype conversation, I was excited at the possibilities of contributing to TWP’s Tribal Renewable Energy Program. And I was especially excited to learn about TWP’s partnership with Henry Red Cloud of Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE). I had been moved to tears by a quote from Henry in This Changes Everything about how there are times when incremental change is okay, and then there are times “when you need to run like a buffalo.”

Fast forward to August 2016, and I arrived in Fort Collins and felt immediately welcome at TWP. My work focussed mostly on seeking funding for green building projects, solar furnaces and other sustainable development partnerships between TWP and LSE.
Towards the end of my time in Colorado, I was lucky enough to travel with TWP’s Executive Director Richard Fox up to meet Henry and to visit the epicenter of many of these projects: Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center at Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

Welcome to RCREC
The welcome sign at RCREC from my trip with Richard Fox to meet Henry Red Cloud.

Coming full circle to what had first sparked my interest in tribal energy, right at the end of my placement at TWP, a partnership project was forming to support the water protectors at Cannonball, North Dakota. The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline had been growing more and more intense during my stay in the US. The historic gathering at Standing Rock of so many tribes from across the Americas, and of allies from around the world, epitomizes the fight of indigenous communities across the globe to have their sovereignty respected and to protect their water, land and sacred sites from companies, institutions and governments who consistently disregard these rights.

Denver NoDALP Event
People across the country are showing solidarity with those at Standing Rock, like this event in Denver.

To support not only the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin Camps, but also the permanent community at Standing Rock as they face the coming winter, Lakota Solar Enterprises and TWP have come together with a range of partners, including Honor the Earth, Standing Rock Tribal Council, local (Colorado) organiser-fundraiser Samantha Reynolds and Namaste Solar, to provide solar heaters, straw bale shelters, and solar systems to power local radio. You can contribute to these projects here.

Seeing this come together felt like a very fitting end to my time with TWP and I’m looking forward to continuing to follow TWP’s and LSE’s collaborations across the country.

If you would like to help TWP support those standing up against the Dakota Access Pipeline, please donate today. Thank you for your kindness! 

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It’s The Little Things…

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

What a week.

We at Trees, Water & People (TWP) would like to thank all of you who have spoken your minds, gathered in community, and laid bare your hearts in the aftermath of this recent election. We are proud to be an organization committed to working alongside you for the betterment of our global community and planet and will continue to lean into that commitment in the years ahead.

Last week I was reminded of the power that each of us holds to affect the world around us in a positive way – to extend a hand, build meaningful relationships, actively oppose injustice, and reinforce the beliefs we hold dear. I also came to understand that organizations like TWP will have to redouble our efforts in the coming years to deter the human and ecological threats posed by the incoming administration. We will not shy away from that challenge.

Unity Church in La Bendícion
Volunteers from Unity Church in Fort Collins, CO traveled to the community of La Bendición, Guatemala with us last winter.

The work we do, and the communities with which we work – from Native Americans on the Great Plains to indigenous communities throughout Central America – put TWP at the crux of some of the major social and environmental challenges of our time. As these challenges grow more acute in the coming years, we will work intently with those who value social, racial and cultural inclusivity, human rights, biodiversity, a clean environment, international collaboration, and a low-emissions future.

Travel is more important than ever. Getting to know parts of the world with which you are less familiar is the best way to test your assertions and broaden your perspective. Travel also exposes us to the scale of our global challenges and where YOU can be most effective in the effort to keep humanity thriving. Exiting our comfort zones enlightens us in the sense that it highlights the shortcomings of borders – a line on a map doesn’t isolate us from what happens on the other side of it.

CSU Alt. Break trip 2016
These Colorado State University students spent their spring break building a home for a Lakota family living on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Photo by Vanesa Blanco Lopez.

Climate change is one arena in which this plays out, and one in which TWP will be very active in the coming years. Making sustained progress in the climate struggle requires that we work against those who would undo societal advances in favor of personal gain. Progress for some means a setback to others, so being the most academically or professionally prepared means little if you don’t intimately know what drives your stakeholders, and your adversaries.

In the coming years, we’re going to need your help to drive change in this adverse political environment. We need YOU to help us support indigenous communities protecting their natural resources. We need YOU to help create sustainable livelihoods for people in rural communities at home and abroad. And we need YOU to embrace the role you will play in creating ecologically, economically, and politically stable planet for future generations.

As our eco-heroine, Wangari Maathai said, “It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.” So please join Trees, Water & People in planting the seeds of a better future by making a donation that supports our work, or by joining us on a trip to where the work happens. It’s in our hands now – let’s make good on this opportunity to create the future we want to see.

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Northwest Haiti Still in Dire Need After Hurricane Matthew

by Sebastian Africano, International Director

Friends, Family, Colleagues,

I ask for your attention again as we get critical news from Hurricane Matthew’s wake in northwestern Haiti. In total, 55,000 people have been directly impacted by the storm in the two municipalities where TWP has worked since 2007. Our colleagues at AMURT have just returned from a trip to the area to assess needs, and are seeing immense challenges ahead. Roads have been washed out, irrigation systems have been destroyed, and almost all livelihood activities have ground to a halt. 70% of crops for this fall’s harvest are gone. 90% of the salt basins used to harvest sea salt have been flooded with mud. The limited sources for potable water in the area have been washed out.

family in northwest Haiti
A family in northwest Haiti stands by their crumbling home after Hurricane Matthew. Photo by Sara Wolf.

Here is a first-hand account from our partners at AMURT.

“Just returned from the Northwest after a very hard trip – productive but very heartbreaking at the same time. The damage after the last inundations and heavy rains has been much more extensive than I thought. In fact when I went to the area after Matthew and compare what I saw then and what I witness now – it’s several degrees more severe and critical. I visited villages that have such substantial malnutrition, whose residents have lost all of their livelihoods and have nothing left to them. Several villages had cases of infant death due to malnutrition (only 3 weeks after the hurricane!), cholera returning, no drinking water, mud covering everything, productive soil covering salt basins, eroded roads…

This is a very extensive humanitarian crisis that is not talked about anywhere in the news. It’s as if this region is forgotten by all and is slipping into a spiral of vulnerability that will surely deepen week by week. I wanted to send you a quick email while I’m fresh back with very strong impressions and renewed urgency to respond.”

Destroyed village
Entire villages turned into rubble after Hurricane Matthew blew threw northwest Haiti last month. Photo by Sara Wolf.

Due to their economic fragility and geographic isolation, families in this region have nowhere to turn to feed their families. They can migrate to one of Haiti’s overcrowded cities to live in the squalor of an informal urban slum, or they can rebuild their lives where they are. At TWP, we’re supporting the latter alternative – providing emergency relief via our partners, and helping the region rebuild and reinvest their way to a livable state.

Our resources for this effort are extremely limited, so we turn to you, our donors to help us with a special contribution to the effort. Again – 100% of the funds raised for this relief and reconstruction campaign will go to the communities in the Northwest Artibonite. No amount is too small. We will keep you posted as updates arise.

Thank you!

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Hurricane Matthew’s Destructive Path in Northwest Haiti

by Sebastian Africano, International Director of Trees, Water & People

For the last week I’ve been pondering the severity of Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in the Caribbean, a region in which I’ve spent a lot of time, and where I’ve worked with dozens of chronically vulnerable communities. While Matthew made landfall on the south coast of Haiti, which is what most are seeing in the news, I had not seen one mention of the conditions on Haiti’s northern peninsula, the region in which TWP has worked since 2007 with partners at AMURT and LOCAL.

Today I received the first news from the communities with which we’ve worked, and it’s not good (see below). As such, Trees, Water & People will be raising funds for the relief effort in the Northwest, and for continued stabilization of the hillsides with trees, shrubs, and grasses. 100% of funds raised will go to the recovery and reconstruction effort. Here is an email from our colleagues at AMURT, who just conducted a 3-day visit to the region:
Even before Hurricane Matthew, the northwest of Haiti was designated as an extreme vulnerability zone as a result of the 3-year drought – the farming and environment of the entire area has been devastated and has led to an increase of migration, the spread of cholera, and shrinking of livelihoods. The passing of Matthew along the NW of Haiti has devastated all coastal communities which rely on fishing, salt production, and subsistence farming. The photos show the extensive damage done to houses, but the damage extends inland – most of the irrigation canals have been destroyed, farms wiped out, livestock lost, salt basins submerged in mud, trees uprooted. Polluted water sources and very poor sanitation raise the danger of the expansion of the cholera epidemic which still plagues the region.

hurricane-matthew-destruction-2
This couple stands in front of a line of destroyed houses after Hurricane Matthew in northwest Haiti. Photo by Sara Wolf.

Hurricane Matthew has increased the vulnerability of this already impoverished and isolated corner of Haiti to a new level, which is exacerbated by the complete lack of basic services. The real crisis will deepen week by week as the sparse stocks of seeds and supplies begin running out. With the primary sources of livelihoods (in particular salt production and farming) severely impacted, those most vulnerable have lost the only source of meager income that has helped them meet their basic food needs. The situation is critical and requires an immediate response which is integrated, durable and targeting the most vulnerable populations.
Assessment

  • 280 houses completely destroyed, 640 houses inundated and damaged, 720 houses severely damaged, five schools severely damaged.
  • 90% of salt basins severely impacted/destroyed.
  • Majority of farming land and irrigation severely impacted from the mountains to the coast.
  • Majority of road severely impacted, access to most inland areas very difficult.
hurricane-matthew-destruction-3
This family stands beside their demolished home after Hurricane Matthew raged through northwest Haiti. Photo by Sara Wolf

Greatest Needs

First phase – emergency food, water, sanitation, medical and emergency kits, temporary shelter, child-friendly spaces, cash for work to clear debris and repair roads and salt basins.

Second phase – Livelihood creation, cash for work to protect watersheds and coastal areas, construction of permanent shelter, school reconstruction.

Program Focus of AMURT during the first 3-month period

  • Emergency food distribution (dry rations) and hot meal canteens for vulnerable groups (children under 5, elderly, pregnant women and handicapped) – a total of 2,500 beneficiaries in 5 coastal communities
  • Distribution of Non-Food Items (NFI) and emergency shelter kits until more extensive reconstruction can be planned
  • Water and sanitation – treated drinking water stations, latrines, sanitation education
  • Emergency Child-Friendly Spaces – daily hot meals and psycho-social and arts programs for children
  • Cash for Work program to repair roads, damaged areas, salt basins
  • Assistance to re-build the damaged fishing, salt production, and farming (tools, seeds, accompaniment)

Trees, Water & People has planted almost 500,000 trees in northern Haiti with our partners, and with any luck, they lessened the damage downhill of where they were planted. All funds raised by TWP will be used for the priorities listed above, and any remaining after the initial response will go toward rebuilding tree nurseries and replanting the contour channels and check dams that reduce erosion and mudslide risk. This is a desperately isolated region, which is why we worked here in the first place – let’s not let it be forgotten as the country recovers from yet another devastating natural disaster.

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Connecting TWP’s Work through Migratory Birds

By Gemara Gifford, Conservation Scientist & TWP’s Development Director

Mist-nets
Mist-nets help researchers study migratory warblers in Central America, photo by Ruth Bennett

Have you ever wondered where birds go when they fly south? October is that time of year when migratory birds to gear up to fly from TWP’s projects in the Northern Great Plains all the way down to those in Latin America. Golden-winged Warblers (pictured above), Black-and-white Warblers, Wood Thrushes, and Baltimore Orioles are just a few species that will winter in remote places like Guatemalan villages, Salvadoran cloud forests, Honduran coffee agroecosystems, and Nicaraguan dry forests.

Unfortunately, migratory bird populations are declining faster than most other avian species worldwide (State of North America’s Birds 2016) due to habitat loss on their wintering grounds and also because we know less about their conservation requirements in Central America compared to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada. What we do know is migrants tend to live in the same places as the rural communities whom TWP works with, and can directly benefit from community-based development projects (Agroecosystems for communities and conservation).

Did you know that TWP’s clean cookstove, reforestation, and farmer-to-farmer training programs in Central America are especially helping to conserve migratory birds?

  • TWP’s clean cookstoves greatly reduce the amount of fuelwood families use to cook (an average of 50%) and as a result protect nearby forests and reduce deforestation.
  • Our reforestation programs in the U.S. and Central America improve degraded bird habitat, with over 7 million trees planted so far, and also protect the soils and watersheds upon which families depend.
  • By training hundreds of smallholder farmers in agroecology, agriculture can be diversified with multiple tree species and crop types which creates excellent migratory bird habitat while producing important foods and fibers for people.
Golden-winged Warbler
A male Golden-winged Warbler winters in fragmented habitats in Guatemala, photo by Ruth Bennett

For 18 years, our generous supporters have been helping us make the world a better place for people and the planet. Did you realize your dedication has also been helping to conserve threatened migratory birds?

On behalf of TWP, I am excited to invite you to join us on our newest endeavor with migratory birds – to follow them as they head south! This January, we’ll take 15 TWP donors and supporters to tour our new projects in Central Honduras. There we will conduct baseline bird surveys in cloud forest agroecosystems, and participate in on-the-ground bird conservation efforts through clean cookstove construction, tree planting, and ten days of cross-cultural exchange with our local partners at the Center for Education in Sustainable Agriculture in Socorro, Honduras.

With your continued support we can make the world a better place for people and wildlife. For more information about how to attend the 2017 Honduras Work Tour, or to learn about how TWP’s projects benefit birds, give me a call at 877-606-4TWP.

A special thanks to Ruth Bennett, Ph.D. student at Cornell University, for providing photos of her ongoing research in Central America to uncover the best strategies for conserving the Golden-winged Warblers in working landscapes.

El Salvador Partners Win the J. Kirby Simon Forest Service Trust

Seven months ago, I met Trees, Water & People thanks to this very blog. I was looking for an organization in El Salvador working in one of the areas that I consider most essential to life: planting trees. Meeting them was loving them: after a few google searches and a few e-mails, I knew I had found my counterparts.

I wanted to partner with TWP to support reforestation activities in El Salvador. I work in the US Embassy in San Salvador and, as an employee, I can apply to grants from the J. Kirby Simon Foreign Service Trust, an organization that has supported volunteer efforts of employees working at U.S. diplomatic missions worldwide for 21 years. Fast forward to September 2016: Armando Hernández, the director of Arboles, Agua, y el Pueblo in El Salvador, and I designed a project that just won $3,000 from the J. Kirby Simon Trust to support tree planting efforts in my country.

 

Verónica Vásquez Cuerno
Verónica Vásquez Cuerno planting trees in El Salvador (photo by Inés Pacas).

 

Thanks to this small project, Arboles, Agua, y el Pueblo El Salvador will improve the facilities of its newly acquired tree nursery and will have part of the funds necessary to grow the 40,000 saplings in 2017. It’s not difficult to see that TWP and their partners in El Salvador have invested their hearts and souls into the organization’s mission. I feel proud to be able to support their efforts, and I hope volunteers from the U.S. Embassy and other organizations will join us in giving El Salvador the green environment that we all deserve.

But 2017 seems so far away, and I am impatient, so a couple of weeks ago I made the first trial of mobilization of volunteers. I did so by promoting the planting of 600 trees in the Ecoparque El Espino, a forest/coffee plantation in the San Salvador Volcano, managed by a campesino cooperative. I thought of this when I heard that Armando still had trees to plant from those grown in 2016. We had to take advantage of the rainy season’s last weeks, to allow the saplings to survive in their new home.

Volunteers in El Salvador
Volunteers in El Salvador working together to plant trees (photo by Giselle Méndez).

Along with my closest friends, we collected additional funds (so we could leave the J. Kirby Simon’s funds intact), and we put together a group of 30 people, including Scouts and members of the Cooperative El Espino. In six hours, we planted saplings of the species we Salvadorans know as San Andrés, Madrecacao, Black Cedar, Cocoa and Maquilishuat, which is a symbol of my country. We ended up exhausted and happy! Although we slipped in the mud, went up and down a steep hillside a thousand times, got soaked in the rain, and ate a snack spiced up with dirt (yum!), we all shared this feeling of achievement; that together we added a little heritage to El Salvador.

I am aware that this little project will not stop global warming or even deforestation in my beloved Ecoparque. I also know that if even only 60 of the 600 saplings survive, it will be a gain. Still, I want to allow myself a moment of optimism and I want to believe that at this critical moment, it’s the collective strength of people that will save our world and our humanity. We must continue to try and keep our forests growing —forests are our source of life, green, and peace and they are worth the effort.

To learn more about Trees, Water & People, please visit www.treeswaterpeople.org. Our grassroots conservation efforts depend on friends and donors investing in our work. We hope you will join our community today!

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