September 16, 2008

Tending the Web of Life

By Agle, Betsy Agle, Collie

WORKING TOGETHER FOR A HEALTHIER ENVIRONMENT This Global ReLeaf tree-planting project in Honduras is helping villagers improve their environment-and their lives.

Hurricane Mitch may have battered the forests of Honduras, but it met its match in Roy Lara, an agronomist and educator in Trinidad, Honduras, who is determined that the post-hurricane ecosystem is going to be a healthier one.

Roy is the point man for AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf Forest in Honduras; he is also our friend. As Washington, DC, residents who have long led youth trips to Honduras, we serve as networkers, promoters, and coaches for the project.

This tree-planting side of this story started some years ago when the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras asked Roy to help plant trees after the ravages of Hurricane Mitch. Roy began teaching land stewardship in local schools and helped people plant trees in the region around Trinidad with funding from various churches, including the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC.

Over the years he has motivated families who, while living at barely subsistence levels, continue to have dreams for themselves and their communities.


Life in these villages, or hamlets, is not easy. Each consists of 50 to 100 families living in mud and adobe houses with dirt floors, a large room, and a bedroom usually shared by six people-two parents and four children. Only some have running water.

Stoves inside the home are fueled by large amounts of firewood or "lena" that must be gathered from the forest. And because the stoves aren't vented, upper respiratory problems are common among women and children.

The villagers remain largely outside the economic system. Much of the surrounding land is owned by large landowners elsewhere, and villagers become sharecroppers, contracting with landowners to receive a portion of profits from coffee production and harvesting season, their mam source of income.

Some rent land to grow corn and beans, which they store for their use or sell for cash. If crops are bad, people go hungry. Family vegetable gardens that might grow greens, onions, tomatoes, carrots, and the like are rare, so nutritional levels are low.

Other crop production comes as a result of slashing and burning the forest, further exposing soil to erosion and degradation.

Even getting into Trinidad is difficult. Often it means walking four or five miles down a mountainous road to the highway to catch a bus. Once in Trinidad, villagers shop for a minimum of necessities before heading back home. Young people often leave the villages to seek work elsewhere.

Despite the generations of poverty, we find villagers grateful for what they have, welcoming and generous to visitors. They remember when things were better-when spring water was plentiful and close by, when there were more cloud forests, and how the clouds looked coming over the mountains in the afternoon. They talk of a wider variety of bird species and of howler monkeys. They lament the disappearance of all these things and believe it related to the loss of forest cover.

Yet, instead of feeling their situation is hopeless, the villagers are willing to learn to be good stewards for their part of the world.

This is where Roy comes in. His efforts have inspired local communities, but in 2007 his funding was becoming uncertain, so he sought and received a Global ReLeaf Forest grant. Enlisting the help of concerned village leaders, residents, and schools, who together donated 50,000 volunteer hours, Roy led an effort that planted more than 23,000 trees. The Global ReLeaf money, he says, allowed him to extend his efforts to more remote communities, ones located closer to water sources in the higher elevations of nearby critical watersheds.

The trees he has planted include Atlantic mahogany, guama, acacia, leucaena, and cedar (a very different species from what we see in the United States). Some are fruit trees, others are fastgrowing natives that are not good for timber. Mahogany is an exception to that, of course, and is frequently used to shade coffee plants and as future income. These new trees, planted in the degraded headwaters of the watershed, will recharge aquifers as they prevent erosion and sedimentation.


Later that year Roy traveled to Washington to meet with us and with organizations that might help support his environmental education and treeplanting efforts. While here he met with staff from AMERICAN FORESTS to explain what its support has meant to his project. Through Global ReLeaf, Roy says, he was able to help protect critical watersheds and benefit the lives of the villagers. This growth in the project's scope would not have been possible without Global ReLeaf, he says.

We traveled recently to see a tree-planting project in La Majada, a small, poor community in the central mountains of Honduras. We were enthusiastically invited into a village leader's home. Members of the junta de agua (water council), patronato (town council), schoolchildren, and teachers, together with other community leaders, had planted thousands of trees near their village's deforested and degraded water source.

"Without trees, there is no water," explains Don Rene, the community leader for La Majada.

To further the village's benefit, the tree-planting project was coordinated with another local group's water development project. Now families could get water that was cleaner and closer to the village.

"Already the health of the children is improving," a happy Don Rene says.

In 2008 the project is taking a new turn. Sustainable Harvest Honduras, an affiliate of Sustainable Harvest International, will work with us to replace slash-and-burn agriculture with new techniques that allow families to grow crops on the same plot year after year.

Roy will lead reforestation efforts to plant 30,000 trees this year and will serve as a field trainer for Sustainable Harvest Honduras. He will teach families to use organic practices to build soil fertility, improve nutrition by planting vegetable gardens, and reduce the need for firewood by building fuel-efficient stoves.

Later they will help families identify ways to increase family income by growing marketable crops and establishing small businesses.

What makes this AMERICAN FORESTS project so successful? In part, it's on-the-ground contacts like Roy, a natural leader trained and dedicated to working to protect his country's tropical forests, and local organizations that have different but compatible goals. And AMERICAN FORESTS is supporting locally organized efforts that not only restore forests, but work to protect them from future harm.

Working in partnership, local groups are addressing environmental protection, sustainable agricultural practices, and community empowerment; AMERICAN FORESTS is key to this effort. It's urgent- and important: between 1990 and 2005, 37 percent of Honduras' forests disappeared, more than any other Latin American country. So much needs to be done there and we are trying to focus on making a difference on a small scale. This project truly epitomizes the web of life: Whatever we improve affects all the other parts of the ecosystem.

The most exciting part, for us, is the double nature of the project: protecting the environment while empowering local people to become good stewards. They may be learning from us, but we too are learning from them.

Over the years he has motivated families who, while living at barely subsistance levels, continue to have dreams for themselves and their communities.

Roy Lara (right) with community leader Don Rene. Rene is committed to many sustainable goals such as reforestation, vegetable gardens, and village water systems.

This project truly epitomizes the web of life: Whatever we improve affects all other parts of the ecosystem.

At top, three reasons mountain forests have been destroyed: slash and burn agriculture. firewood collecting, and livestock grazing. Inset: One of 25.000 trees planted with help from AMERICAN FORESTS and Trees for the Future.

These new trees, planted in the degraded headwaters of the watershed, will recharge aquifers as they prevent ecosystem erosion and sedimentation.

A village nursery. Trees were planted by students as part of an environmental project.

Betsy and Collie Agle live in Washington, DC.

Copyright American Forests Summer 2008

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