Volunteer Voices: Tree Planting on Tribal Lands Nearly Complete

By Rachel Hamalian, Volunteer

From May 18 – 20, I had the privilege to be a part of Trees, Water & People and Red Cloud Renewable’s (RCR) campaign to plant 30,000 pine trees on Tribal Lands in areas most deeply affected by forest fires. I stayed at the Sacred Earth Lodge in Pine Ridge along with good and new friends who volunteered for this project. We all enjoyed breakfast and coffee together in the morning before heading off to locations on the Oglala side of Pine Ridge as well as at Wounded Knee. In the beginning, I felt nervous about plunging a large sharp blade into the ground to create a home for the baby trees – I’m not a particularly strong person, and I don’t pride myself on my manual labor skills. But, Avery and Silas Red Cloud taught us how to properly create a hole, plant the tree, get rid of any air bubbles, and create a nice bed. By the end of the first day, I was a tree planting master.

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Black Hills Ponderosa Pines Seedlings were planted on Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River Reservations

One of the most memorable moments for me occurred on the last day of tree planting. Henry Red Cloud, one of the founders of RCR, spoke to our group of 25 volunteers as we began to plant. He told us about his beliefs for the mission, how we as humans seem to have lost touch with nature, and we treat it as a machine instead of as something alive. It is true, we take and take, and give little back. Henry told us, this is a way to give back, and these trees will continue to give oxygen and life for generations after us. We planted over 2,500 trees that day alone.

I struggle with finding the right words to describe the powerful lessons I’ve learned from my experiences and relationships built in Pine Ridge. While this project has helped to heal the landscape within the Reservation, there is still much healing to be done. I feel a great love for the Natives we worked with on this project, who invited us as volunteers to come back and continue to learn about their culture and how to be an advocate. I plan to accept their invitation, as well as continue my relationship with Trees, Water & People, and the good friends I’ve made who share similar goals.

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Tree planters working during the month of May to fulfil our reforestation goal of 30,000 trees for Tribal Lands

A note from TWP’s National Director, Eriq Acosta: 

Thanks to the incredible donors, volunteers, residents of Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River Reservations, we are 95% complete with our third season of tree planting on Tribal Lands! Although tree planting season takes hard work and dedication, there is nothing more rewarding than being able to put a tree into the ground, and sharing the experience with like-minded people in the fight for a more just and sustainable planet. We will be headed back up to Pine Ridge Reservation next week with a group of 40 volunteers from Lansing Catholic High School from Michigan, and we look forward to keeping you updated!  

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Blazing into Rainy Season in Central America

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Entering its fifth month without rain, Central America is at the tail end of its 2018 fire season. This year, our partners Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo (AAP) in El Salvador are on the frontlines, as they spent all last year training a corps of young park rangers to fight fire in the Protected Area of Apaneca-Illamantepec. This was their second year of funding from FIAES – a bilateral fund between the U.S. and El Salvador to create opportunities for communities living around protected areas.

Fires are almost a given this time of year – lightning strikes, farmers burning their fields, and hunters flushing out animals are some of the principal causes. The dry conditions create a precarious situation both for landscapes and ecosystems, as to humans, who often end up in the path of rapidly advancing burns, and then suffer the air pollution hazards created.

Preparing people to protect their communities, and providing them the resources to do so is one of the objectives of the FIAES funding, projects for which Trees, Water & People provides the supplemental cost-share required by the granting agency. We are now helping our partners, AAP, pursue a third year of funding from FIAES to keep them involved in conservation work throughout the western part of the country.

In Nicaragua, we’ve been watching a political crisis unfold that first piqued in April when the government allegedly dragged its feet in responding to a 5,000-acre fire in an 8,000-acre tropical forest reserve in the east of the country. Soon after, with the populace already frustrated with them, the administration announced policy changes to the national social security program, igniting protests and heavy-handed confrontations with police forces.

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Fighting a fire next to the Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center near La Paz Centro, Nicaragua.

Right around that time, our partners, Proleña, were preparing for a high-school tree planting workshop when fire struck. Proleña provides in-field education to a group of 12 local high school seniors at the Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center near La Paz Centro, northwest of Managua. A few weeks ago they were preparing to plant a drip irrigated living fence of 200 trees around the perimeter of the seven-acre property with the students.

“God knows why things happen a certain way,” said Proleña’s Executive Director, Marlyng Buitrago. “The day before the workshop I went out with our pickup truck, a team of six, and two barrels of water to prep for the tree planting workshop. We were having lunch at a local restaurant when someone called to say there was a fire on the property next to ours.”

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The one fire truck fought the fire near Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center, preventing it from entering the property.

The team rushed back, and with the help of one fire truck, sent from 30km away, fought the fire all afternoon and into the evening, preventing it from entering the property. “The truck only had the water it came with, so when it was dry, we fought the fire by hand, with buckets of water. Once the sun went down, we put out the last seven hot spots, and the fire was extinguished.”

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Fighting the fire by hand along the fence line of the Tierra Verde Climate Change Education Center.

With any luck, the rainy season, which has been so unpredictable in past years, will start on time this month. But until then, we’ll continue to prepare for the inevitability of fire and to educate local communities and actors of other ways to manage the landscape.

While the dry season will soon end, we encourage our followers to keep an eye on Nicaragua, where we expect anti-government protests to persist over the next several months. Our team is safe, but the current political crisis has caused disruptions across the country and threatens to upend the stability of one of the more peaceful nations in the region. We stand for the safety and well-being of all those protesting for an equitable, prosperous, and politically transparent future in Nicaragua.

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Can Forests and Cities Coexist?

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Happy International Day of Forests!

This year’s theme is “Forests and Sustainable Cities,” which brought to mind a revelation I had when I lived in the Aldea of Suyapa, east of Tegucigalpa, Honduras back in 2005. I had always assumed that when humans arrived anywhere, the general pattern that followed was of deforestation and natural resource degradation. I believed that the mango, citrus, jocote, avocado, allspice, nance, oak, acacia, guanacaste, and other gorgeous fruiting and flowering trees were merely what was left after human settlements expanded here.

But, the story is more complicated than that.

Suyapa has now been swallowed by the capital city but is populated by the descendants of indigenous laborers that worked in the silver mines outside of Tegucigalpa until the 20th century. The land was granted to the community by the Spanish crown, and as such, it is primarily made up of the same families who initially settled it. Because of its unique history, there is a rich historical record of the town, some of it captured in old, black and white photographs.

As I became more familiar with these photos, I noticed that the town and the hills around it were almost entirely stripped of trees in the early 1900s. While this may contribute to my initial point (that humans drive deforestation), the present day reality tells a different story. Looking down on the town from the hills above it, today the urban rooftops of Suyapa are almost completely hidden by a canopy of mature trees. Within one century, people living here wholly transformed their landscape.

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Residents of the Aldea of Suyapa in Honduras working together to keep their forest healthy and to prevent forest fires. Photo by Keisi Midence.

These trees were planted by local residents (and likely animals) to provide shade, fruit, timber, and firewood, to stabilize soil along ravines, and to color the town with their flowers. Secondary benefits include filtering some of the dust and soot from the city, providing habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife, and producing oxygen for all of us. These trees transformed what could have been just another concrete-covered suburb into what feels like a rural respite in an otherwise overcrowded city.

This revelation taught me two important things – 1. Urban development and tree-cover need not be mutually exclusive, and 2. Every tree we put in the ground TODAY will materially alter the landscape and produce benefits for future generations. Planting a tree is one of the easiest ways we can all leave a positive mark the planet.

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Suyapa’s youth volunteering as the fire brigade to plant new trees, cut firebreaks, deter poachers, and stabilize erosion trouble spots. Photo by Keisi Midence.

Today, Suyapa’s youth have formed a volunteer fire brigade that goes into the oak woodlands above town every spring to plant new trees, cut firebreaks, deter poachers, and stabilize erosion trouble spots. Threats to the local forests still exist, but teaching young people to value and protect trees and the services they provide is something that will ripple through generation upon generation. Cities in Central America have a long way to go before they can be considered truly sustainable, but I was grateful to walk away from Suyapa with my perspective changed about how humans, cities, and forests coexist.

Take some time today to think about the origins of the trees in your community, and about trees you could plant for those who come after you. And if you are passionate about getting trees into the ground, know that Trees, Water & People is always ready to turn your passion into trees for millions of people throughout the Americas.

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Experiencing Community Development in Nicaragua

by Annalise Mecham, Development Director

As the incoming Development Director at Trees, Water & People, my job is to raise the funds that will keep the organization running. Even before taking this position, I knew that to do my job successfully I would need to visit the places where we work, shake hands with our partners, smell a kitchen with a clean cookstove, and touch the soil where we are growing our trees.

This opportunity came in the middle of January when I got to travel to Nicaragua for a week-long stay with Gemara Gifford, TWP’s International Director, and Paul Thayer, a TWP board member. Shortly after arriving at the Managua airport, Paul, Gemara and our fabulous tour guide (and partner of past International Director, Lucas Wolf), Valentina, drove directly to Gaia Estate. The Estate is a Certified Bird-friendly coffee farm outside the town of Diriamba and is owned by long-time TWP friend Jefferson Shriver. Jefferson greeted us with a glass of wine, dinner, and conversation about Nicaragua. He stressed the importance of promoting farming systems that integrate overstory trees (i.e. agroforestry), and high-value and environmentally-friendly products like vanilla and turmeric. After a good night’s sleep, we awoke to the smell of fresh coffee brewing, beans that had been picked and harvested from his farm just days before.

We spent the next day with Proleña visiting Tierra Verde, our newly opened climate change education center in La Paz Centro. Since TWP’s last visit, the first floor of the dormitory has been built and 600 trees have been planted on the property (25 different species in all) as well as infrastructure for the site including roadways and electricity. Having seen Tierra Verde in many photographs, it was essential to see the property and hear about the exciting events planned for 2018.

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Conducting a strategy session at Tierra Verde with Proleña’s Executive Director, Marlyng Buitrago (second from the right) and Technical Director, Leonardo Mayorga (far right). Photo by Annalise Mecham.

Although more construction will be taking place this year, the vision for the center is starting to take shape. We talked in detail about the workshops that we have planned, including bringing in local farmers to talk about agroforestry, university students to discuss climate change, and TWP Tour participants to visit the center. We discussed plans to complete the tree nursery with at least 50,000 trees in the first year, as well as demonstration sites for clean cookstoves, and adding a greenhouse for growing and genetically testing trees.

After our visit to Tierra Verde, we toured Proleña’s workshop in Managua and visited local urban cookstove beneficiaries. I have always been aware of the impact of clean cookstoves, but it was a completely different experience to see and smell the difference. The women we visited graciously welcomed us into their kitchen and explained the changes in their lives and their health after the clean cookstove had been installed. Although my Spanish is limited, it didn’t take me long to realize how these women felt about their clean cookstoves. They would pat gently on their chests and touch their eyes, implying that they could breathe easier and their eyes were less irritated.

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Doña Thelma (center) and her family in her home. She is one of the beneficiaries of a clean cookstove and sells 300 tortillas a day to customers.

The last day was one of the most profound for me as we visited the rural communities surrounding the northern town of Jinotega, in particular, the remote village of La Cal. To get there, we had a few hours’ drive on an impossibly steep and windy dirt road with a one hour walk up a steep rocky path. The village was tucked away in a mountain valley and one of the most remote communities I have ever visited.

Upon our arrival, we were introduced to the only teacher in the community, a young man who gave us a tour including the one-room schoolhouse and various family homes. The families we visited we welcoming, kind, and joyful. We interviewed many women about the impacts of their clean cookstoves, played with the kids, saw how much time it takes to gather wood, and the challenges of living in rural Nicaragua. As we drove back that evening to Managua, the feeling I had wasn’t sadness at the rural living conditions, but a sense of awe at their resilience.

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A house with corn hanging from the roof in the remote village of La Cal.

On the plane ride home, I was thinking about my biggest take away from the trip. What was I going to bring back to the TWP community of donors and supporters? Without a doubt, it was the unique community-based approach that Trees, Water & People uses when working in Central America and U.S. Tribal Lands.

TWP’s approach is based on the philosophy that communities have the best judgment of how their lives and livelihoods can be improved, and if given access to the right resources, they should make decisions that will be most impactful for them. I believe that this community-based development is the most effective way to create change. Change does not come easy for anyone. Changing the way someone cooks their food can seem impossibly difficult. But, TWP’s approach to involve the community and a local nonprofit (in the case of Proleña in Nicaragua) allows for the change to be approached on an intimate, community level.

This type of grassroots change is not the easiest route. It is complicated and complex and takes years to actualize. Luckily for TWP, we have been planting seeds this way for 20 years and will continue to for many, many more!

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Celebrating 20 Years in 2018!

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Happy 2018 from all of us at Trees, Water & People!

2018 is a significant year for many reasons, but the main one is that it’s Trees, Water & People’s (TWP’s) 20th Anniversary! As the staff and I reflected on the significance of this achievement, we tried to think back to the challenges that our founders, Richard Fox and Stuart Conway, likely faced when they started this organization in 1998, in Fort Collins, Colorado…

Email and the internet were barely commonplace in 1998. They photographed their work in the field with film cameras and recorded activities with camcorders. Field reports were received by fax and cell phones were just beginning to show up on the scene. Building a following back then depended on the depth of your Rolodex, your versatility with direct mail, and your candor on a landline.

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Trees, Water & People was founded in 1998 by Richard Fox (left) and Stuart Conway (right), two foresters who saw a huge need to address the pervasive deforestation in Latin America.

Our founders worked hard to build successful relationships in the field, as well as systems and processes at home that would lay the foundation for a lasting organization. When I began working for the organization in 2005, little did I know the impact that TWP would have on the world.

Apart from the tens of thousands of beneficiaries we’ve been fortunate to serve through our projects, we’ve also created a home for dozens of staff, hundreds of volunteers and interns, and thousands of donors that have made our work possible. A significant number of those donors have supported us since the very beginning, and have literally given us the means to reach this significant milestone.

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Rafael Ramirez is transplanting tree seedlings in a small nursery in Guatemala. Photo by Jeff Caesar, 1998.

We have planted close to 7 million trees, installed over 75,000 cookstoves, and trained hundreds of rural people in everything from fruit tree-grafting, to soil conservation, to solar power and clean cookstove design. Any way you look at this story, it’s an understatement to say that it’s been an inspirational journey.

However, the world has changed drastically in very visible ways over the past 20 years, and there are forces at work today that threaten the work of nonprofits like ours.

Nine of every ten deportees from the U.S. today are going back to Central America and Mexico. Climate change is threatening small-holder agriculture in the region, and the cities are busting at the seams with migrants from rural areas, and now from abroad. U.S. investment in International Development and diplomacy has slowed to a trickle, while changes to the tax law are threatening donations from our individual supporters.

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Doña Justa making breakfast with her new fuel-efficient stove in Honduras. Photo by Jeff Caesar, 1998.

The challenges we face today are going to be very different from those faced by our founders in 1998, and are going to require that we be flexible and adaptable in how we approach our work. Your support is instrumental in our success and will be the cornerstone of what we build over the next 20 years.

For this reason, this year we’d like to celebrate YOU – our donors – who have been the lifeblood of this organization since we were founded. Over the next several months we’re going to feature 20 of our most ardent supporters, in hopes that they inspire you to share TWP’s work with your friends, family, and peers, and show them why you donate to this work.

The gains we’ve made for people and planet will only remain as such if we are vigilant and persistent in defending them – and we can’t do this alone. So THANK YOU – here’s to 20 more years of TWP, and to all the worth-while things we’re going to accomplish together!

If you would like to celebrate our 20th anniversary with us and be in the loop about Trees, Water & People’s work, please sign up for our email list.

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TWP Tours: Travel With Purpose

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director

Since Trees, Water & People’s early days, we’ve found that the best way for our community to engage with our work is to experience it first-hand. Visiting our projects leads our supporters to embrace new relationships, explore new perspectives on culture, history, and humanity, and reflect on the “why” behind Trees, Water & People’s work. Over the past two years, we’ve made an effort to expand our itineraries and offer new tours to destinations in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Cuba. As we gained momentum, we realized that these new tours were incredibly rich experiences for participants, partners, and communities alike and that the demand was too high for us to manage ourselves.

 
With this in mind, we are proud to present TWP Tours — Trees, Water & People’s new travel arm, which will manage all aspects of our tourism offerings moving forward. TWP Tours provides us the flexibility to hire additional staff whose primary focus will be to create unforgettable travel experiences throughout Central America, the Caribbean, and on U.S. Tribal lands.

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Unity Church in Fort Collins, CO traveled with us to the community of La Bendícion, Guatemala. These hands-on tours give you an opportunity to give back while experiencing local culture.

TWP Tours believes in low-impact and sustainable travel. We work with a network of experts on the ground to offer unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences to immerse travelers in the local culture. We are a team of experienced guides, cultural interpreters, and language translators — opening up a world that the average adventurer would only see at its surface.

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The students of William Smith High School traveled with us to the Pine Ridge Reservation to plant trees. Using tree planting as an environmental education tool gives TWP Tours the opportunity to work closely with all ages of students.

Another unique aspect of our work is giving back. Through our association with local NGOs, we offer travelers the opportunity to participate in planting trees, harvesting coffee, building clean cookstoves, fixing water systems, increasing food security, and monitoring wildlife. We seek to make each trip carbon neutral via the work we do on the ground and strive hard to live up to our name: Travel With Purpose.

 
So, what are you waiting for?! Visit our new website at twp.tours and join our email list to stay informed about future travel opportunities. Our next adventure to the Honduran highlands is January 4 -13, 2018, where we’ll be monitoring migratory bird populations, installing rainwater cisterns, and building clean cookstoves with our local partner, CEASO. We hope to see you there!

Protected Area Management in El Salvador

by Sebastian Africano, Executive Director 

Before moving to Fort Collins, CO in 2009, my wife and I settled in western El Salvador, a natural wonderland dotted with volcanoes, teeming with biodiversity, and a 40-minute drive from cool misty peaks to sweltering coastlines. Trees, Water & People (TWP) had worked there since 2001, through a small partner called Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo (AAP) building cookstoves, composting latrines, and maintaining the most beautiful tree nursery among all their programs.

Unfortunately, the country went through a particularly rough spell between 2010 – 2016, where political turmoil left a vacuum filled by some unsavory elements in society and significantly affected our ability to operate. Nevertheless, AAP adjusted to the new reality and began looking for new ways to improve their country from within.

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Thanks to the FIAES fund from the U.S. and El Salvadorian governments, Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo was named co-manager of the Reserva de la Biosfera Apaneca-Ilamatepec. 

Leveraging a strong reputation, AAP was able to gain access to a bilateral reconciliation fund in 2013, which was put in place by El Salvador and the U.S. to strengthen public spaces, including National Parks. They were named co-managers of a small National Park in the west of the country and began working with communities along the outskirts of this park, developing Ecotourism capacity and providing environmental education through local school systems.

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Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo provides environmental education opportunities for local schools around the National Park, including tree planting!

Four years later, the small, dedicated team at AAP is now the head of a consortium of non-governmental organizations tasked with co-managing a network of parks throughout the west of the country. Their work focuses on improving everything from trails to interpretive signage, to biodiversity conservation, and alternative economic opportunities for youth. The road is long, but as El Salvador emerges from another dark patch of history, there is optimism on the horizon again, and TWP is proud to have continued supporting a positive future for the country.

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