By Gemara Gifford, Director of Development and Biodiversity
Happy International Day for Biological Diversity from everyone here at Trees, Water & People! “Biodiversity,” is a term that describes the variety of life on earth, from microorganisms to the largest trees. It can also refer to the number of different types of species living in a particular area. When there are high numbers of multiple species in a region, we call this a “biodiversity hotspot.”
Did you know that Trees, Water & People’s work occurs in many biodiversity hotspots? Central America, in particular, is one of the most biodiverse places on earth, with eight ecoregions and dozens of microhabitat types, it can support an incredible array of human, agricultural, and animal life. The small country of Guatemala, for example, boasts over 350 species of birds — that’s more species than the entire country of Canada! On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, grasslands are known as the most threatened and biodiverse terrestrial ecosystem in North America – a forgotten ecosystem to say the least.
So, how does biodiversity loss affect humans?
At TWP, we know that biodiversity supports the overall health of the planet and has a direct impact on everyone. The next time you sit down to eat, think about this: every third bite of food you take is made possible by a pollinator, like a bee, bat, or hummingbird. Without a healthy biodiversity of pollinators, our current food system as we know it would collapse.
From an aesthetic point of view, many of us travel thousands of miles to see the rarest forms of life, like the odd cloud forests and creatures in Honduras. This brings us wonder, appreciation, and perspective. At the same time, it is important to be conscious about the carbon footprint that tourism has on the environment so that future generations may enjoy the diversity of life on our planet.
This year’s International Day for Biological Diversity is focused on sustainable travel, and TWP is doing our part to take our place in this movement. Do you want to get involved with TWP to support the biodiversity of Honduras? Sign up for our eNewsletter to learn more about our second EcoTour to the Highlands of Honduras occurring in January 2018. Spots are limited! Together, we can support the earth’s biodiversity.
I have long believed that people have the power to craft their own future. While each journey is unique, we all have the capacity to identify what we value, versus what we don’t, and to forge a path that produces more of the former and less of the latter. If we’re lucky, we have a moment where self-awareness, opportunity, and circumstance intersect, and we take that first step toward the future we want to live.
In 2005, I launched into a career in International Development by accepting an internship with Trees, Water & People (TWP) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. There were more “unknowns” than “knowns” in the offer, and the pay would have barely covered my utility bills in San Francisco at the time, but as I stood at that intersection of introspection and opportunity, I knew this was a path I needed to follow.
Now, 13 years after my first conversations with co-founder Stuart Conway, and almost 20 years since the organization was founded, I am happy to take the next step on this path by accepting the role of Executive Director of Trees, Water & People – effective May 15, 2017. This shift comes after years of thoughtful succession planning and several deep conversations and interviews with TWP staff and board.
TWP set me on a path to discover the world through the smoky lens of traditional cooking practices, giving me an intimate, ground-level introduction to what life is like on the margins of global society. Through this experience, I’ve acquired a broad perspective of the uniqueness of life on our planet, and have made hundreds of allies who value our planet and global community enough that they have dedicated their lives’ work to protecting them.
Despite the hard truths inherent to our work, I find tremendous inspiration in the grit, hustle, hope, and smiles exhibited by the people we serve, both in Central America and on Tribal Lands in the Great Plains. Only by working together can we achieve a more sustainable future for our planet, and I’m privileged to support their struggles and aspirations daily through my work at TWP.
In this new role, my goal is to engage more meaningfully with you – our community of generous supporters. None of the impact TWP delivers would be possible without your support, and I know that together we can redouble our efforts to improve the lives of people and the planet.
I’m ready to craft our future together. Will you join me?
Richard Fox, Trees, Water & People’s co-founder and former Executive Director will be stepping down after 19 yearsbut will remain on staff as the National Director through the end of the year. When asked about the transition, Richard had this to say, “I am honored to step down and for Sebastian to become the next Executive Director of this great organization. He has been trained for this position for many years, and we could not ask for a more compassionate, capable, and competent person to provide the next generation of leadership for Trees, Water & People.” Following his retirement, Richard will remain involved with TWP as a board member.
Trees, Water & People is excited to welcome our new Executive Director, Sebastian Africano!
World Water Day is an important day in a long list of significant calendar dates, sharing the same week with International Day of Happiness, International Day of Forests, and The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. For those organizations that work with water, we know how critical it truly is as an element and necessity of all life on this planet. “Agua es vida, or water is life;” that simple yet profound phrase is uttered in communities across the Americas that have less water than most. It’s a statement and a refrain that captures the full awareness of the delicate nature of life and our total dependence on this one element.
At Trees, Water & People, we seek to expand on that awareness through programs that support enhanced water access in communities throughout Central America and the US. This year in Central America, our efforts with water will focus on rainwater catchment tanks in the Cordillera (mountain range) de Montecillos in the highlands of central Honduras. Our local counterparts, CEASO (Center for Teaching and Learning Sustainable Agriculture) were assisted by several TWP work trip participants this past January. CEASO’s philosophy towards water is holistic and profound; they see the importance of the forests, the soil, and the other elements existing in a balanced cycle that keeps our natural world healthy and able to support rural communities.
In El Salvador, a country ravaged by deforestation, our counterparts at Árboles y Agua para el Pueblo diligently work to keep their nursery humming with new plants, which will go towards diversifying a smallholder plot or anchoring trees and their roots to a critical watershed. In Guatemala, our partners at Utz Che look to build rural resilience and increased access to water for marginalized indigenous and campesino communities in all of the geographic zones of the country.
La Bendición, our special exchange community that has hosted two recent TWP work trips, seeks to find solutions for their water woes by capitalizing on the old coffee plantation infrastructure that they hope can be transformed to provide the community with more robust water security during the dry season. Here in Managua, work continues at NICFEC, the Nicaraguan Center for Forests, Energy, and Climate, which will serve as a demonstration center for best practices and methods to maximize water conservation and soil management for sustainable agriculture in a changing environment that is projected to see fewer rains in the future.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the region, there are additional stark reminders of the critical importance of water. México City continues to sink due to continued overdrawing of its aquifers, the number of planned resorts for Costa Rica´s booming Guanacaste region is in jeopardy due to a lack of available water, and here in Nicaragua, the land of the large freshwater lakes, many communities south of Managua face an acute shortage of water and virtual dependence on water distribution trucks.
In the United States, TWP stands with the Water Protectors of Standing Rock in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Over this past winter, we provided off-grid solar heaters and generators to provide warmth and energy to the protest camps. These camps are the frontline resistance in a struggle for critical water and natural resource sovereignty. All of our strategic partners are focused on water, and we at TWP are striving to find ways to boost our water-related projects as we continue to hear how critically important it is for the survival of our communities.
Examples abound across the globe, and these stories of water stress are reminders that we must continue to focus our efforts on conservation, education, and innovation to stem the looming water crisis. If you would like to support these Central American communities protect and improve their water resources, please donate today!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
The sacred ancestral land of the Sioux holds many memories and stories. Stories, of great warriors and leaders, of wisdom, of culture, and of reverence for the earth. The land also holds stories of a long history of injustice, genocide, and trauma linked to colonization, and the extraction of non-renewable resources for the purpose of industrialization.
Today, as an unprecedented number of Tribes gather in solidarity in North Dakota, as protectors of the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, and the earth and waters (our common heritage); a new story is being written. However, we must also make note that the demonstrated leadership of Tribal Nations extends beyond the front lines of non-violent direct action.
Tribal Nations are deeply engaged at the community-based level to address the perils of climate change. Tribal governments, community-based organizations, schools, and individuals are committed to exemplary solutions-based innovation, and policies related to housing, food sovereignty, education, and renewable energy. Examples of this community-based leadership can be found in tribal communities across the United States. Most recently it was demonstrated at a small teacher workshop at the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
In Aug of 2016 the Red Cloud Indian School in collaboration with Trees, Water & People, We Share Solar, and Lakota Solar Enterprises held a teacher curriculum workshop as part of their paid continuing education and 2016-17 school year preparation. The We Share Solar Education Program curriculum developed by WE CARE Solar is centered around the hands on construction of a small portable solar electric system to provide basic lighting and charging for small electronics. The curriculum has four major components: 1) innovative solar energy technology 2) integrated mathematics for application of energy systems 3) engineering and 4) global energy use.
The curriculum is designed to help educators engage middle, and high school students in project based Solar Energy curriculum to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills, solar energy knowledge, and awareness of sustainable development.
Katie Montez, a science teacher at the Red Cloud Indian School, says, “Solar suitcases not only mesh smoothly with existing science curriculum but also invite the incorporation of other subjects, it is innately interdisciplinary. This curriculum is made with the student, educator, and community in mind. I feel very supported by this curriculum and its accessibility, as well as its dynamic nature.”
Indeed, the beauty of this curriculum is that it a guide for teachers, to not only introduce basic principles and components of solar electricity but to serve as a platform to develop and layer other subjects within the curriculum. The hope is that teachers and communities will take the curriculum and make it their own by incorporating history, art, language and story that provides relevance, and guides students toward the best use of technology at the community-based level.
The We Share Solar Suitcase will undoubtedly prepare students with a foundation of knowledge and skills to prepare them for careers in Solar Energy. However, it is ultimately about inspiring youth with a sense of empowerment to help their own communities develop and meet their goals related to renewable energy and regenerative communities.
Workshop participant and Red Cloud Indian School physics teacher, Anne Conover, reflected, “An influx of youth who are knowledgeable and excited about solar energy has the potential to change the energy landscape during a time when tribal lands and sovereignty are threatened by non-renewable energy development.”
By virtue of being human, we are all stewards of the earth. We cannot protect the beauty and ecological diversity of the planet without honoring, and protecting the wisdom and cultural diversity to which is inextricably linked. The time is now for acknowledgment and healing of the United States’ long history of ecological destruction and cultural genocide related to non-renewable energy development, and failed educational policy.
In service to ecological and cultural prosperity, we must root deeply in community, and inspire innovation and empowerment for future generations. Together in solidarity, we have the fortitude, perseverance, and wisdom to create a new story of a regenerative and just world.
With a good heart, I take your hand (Cante wasteya nape ciyuzapelo).
To learn more about how the We Share Solar curriculum can help meet your tribe’s goals related to education and renewable energy, please contact Trees Water People’s Director of Tribal Programs; Richard Fox at Richard@treeswaterpeople.org
If you are interested in supporting tribal community-based efforts toward renewable energy education, please support Trees Water People and our work with tribal leaders, youth, and community-based organization. Donations can be directed to:
The views expressed here do not represent that of any one organization. They are solely those of Kristin Lester, a renewable energy professional, and advocate for social justice and ecological stewardship.
Special thanks to the following collaborators for their shared vision and support of the We Share Solar workshop at the Red Cloud Indian School: Richard Fox (Trees Water People), Hal Aronson, Gigi Goldman, and Linda Gaffney (We Share Solar), Clare Heurter (Red Cloud Indian School), Henry Red Cloud (Lakota Solar Enterprises), Johnny Weiss (Johnny Weiss Solar Consulting LLC) and the Wellemeyer family (Louise, John, James and Douglas).
We, the Shields/Peltier Family, would like to say a big thank you to all the helping hands who built such a wonderful, blessed house for our children. We are all so very thankful and blessed to call this a home of our own. Before moving into our CEB home, we didn’t have a working shower in the trailer we were renting. The children would sometimes go a few days without showering. Since there was no running water, we had to use a garden hose and fix it up to the kitchen sink and use it to flush the toilet bowl. I sometimes had to hand-wash our clothing because we didn’t have a washer or dryer.
In the trailer, the walls were full of holes and the floor was caving in. It had a lot of rodents, bedbugs, and mice throughout the house. All the windows were covered with plastic due to them being broken out. We had problems with the outlets, only a few of them were working. We would have to unplug some things to be able to plug in heaters to warm the trailer. We all slept in one room just to keep warm, which was the living room.
Now our children have a room of their own and can take showers when they want. The children now have clean clothes and can get a good night’s sleep; they don’t have to worry about bedbugs and getting bitten up throughout the night, or worry about mice getting into our food. We don’t have to put up with all that anymore! We are all very thankful to Trees, Water & People, Henry Red Cloud and all those who helped with this home we can call ours, here on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.