Maine man teaches skills to protect rain forests, aid nearby communities

Posted March 01, 2014, at 11 a.m.
Last modified March 01, 2014, at 7:46 p.m.

SOUTH BERWICK, Maine — The need to save and sustain many of the world’s forests is a cry that has been heard for decades, but one local man is actually responding.

Scott Landis developed innovative forest management techniques that are aiding underprivileged Latin American communities and helping them sustain their tropical forests.

Landis, 63, founded a nonprofit organization called GreenWood in 1993.

A local woodworker and writer, he became “immersed in rain forest issues” researching a story in the Peruvian Amazon during the late 1980s. He had previously studied Spanish, English and international relations briefly at Cornell University.

In the early 90s, Landis founded the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection (WARP), a group of woodworkers from North America who were interested in protecting the rain forest. GreenWood began as a field project of WARP and was created by Landis; Curtis Buchanan, a chairmaker in Jonesborough, Tenn.; and Brian Boggs, a chairmaker in Asheville, N.C. Landis said they wanted to create a plan to aid in development in South and Central American countries while meeting environmental objectives and taking into account all local resources.

“We noticed that a lot of international development aid did not address the real needs and realities of the people on the ground in remote forest communities, who often have no electricity, and no access to tools, capital or markets,” he said. “All too often, these ‘traditional’ development schemes spend enormous amounts of money, attempting to provide developed world (North American or European) tools and technology, in an environment that is not able to support them or benefit from them.”

Landis said although this meant that “ancient techniques” and hand tools would need to be utilized, some modern machinery and technology could be used as well.

“You can make high-quality products by hand, just as you can make junk with the most sophisticated equipment,” Landis said. “The key is focusing on quality and striking the right balance between resources and technology.”

Landis, who said forests are the lungs of the planet, saw the struggles that many poor Latin American communities faced due to deforestation for agriculture, “fueled by poverty, drug trafficking, population pressure and unsustainable industrialization.”

He thought, if the people in those communities could be taught profitable skills that would also promote maintenance and protection of the forests, it would be an endeavor worth pursuing.

So he did.

For the past 20 years, Landis has worked in some of the most threatened tropical forests. He began on Honduras’ Mosquito Coast after being invited by a Honduran forester to implement his concept in places on the coast that were already exercising efficient forest management, but lacking in value-added production or sales to support it.

Landis founded Greenwood’s Honduran counterpart Fundacion Madera Verde and expanded efforts to the Peruvian Amazon.

GreenWood and Madera Verde partnered with three local forestry cooperatives on the Mosquito Coast that are leaders in agriculture in that area. The cooperatives supply the mahogany used to make high-end instruments for California’s Taylor Guitar Co. and others.

GreenWood and Madera Verde teach local artisans how to craft and sell high-quality wood products through the efficient use of “lesser-known and lower-value tree species, waste wood and nontimber forest products, as well as wood from well-managed and independently certified forests.” Many short-term field workshops are provided in fields such as chair making, boatbuilding, sawmilling and guitar-part production. It also provides them with the needed tools to get started.

The artisans themselves currently craft more than 40 different furniture designs and accessories, selling them primarily to local and regional clients.

Through this small-scale approach to profitable agriculture, forests are being protected by discouraging the otherwise popular slash-and-burn and illegal logging methods.

In the past five years, GreenWood and Madera Verde “delivered more than $1.2 million in revenue to the north coast of Honduras.” They also employ approximately 75 individuals from nine different villages. Profits from proceeds have even been used to help fund micro-hydro electric projects in two communities and provide workers insurance and other infrastructure and development investments.

More than 100 artisans, sawyers and forest owners in 10 different communities have been trained and the organizations help manage more than 30,000 acres of tropical forest.

GreenWood also now participates in basic forest research and fighting against illegal forest invaders, according to Landis.

“Having an innovative idea is cool, but it’s only the first step,” Landis said. “Keeping at it day after day and year after year — forging partnerships along the way — that’s what makes innovation real.”

Landis said he finds it very rewarding to marry individuals with an abundance of rich forest resources to those who have the tools, capital, skills and knowledge to help them protect their resources while also benefiting themselves and their country.

However, the rewards have not always come easily. Landis said the conditions in both Honduras and Peru are “remote, rustic and, occasionally highly volatile and unpredictable.” Over the last two decades he said Honduras has become much more chaotic and politically challenging, with an ever-growing involvement in the international drug trade and a coup in 2009.

“We are operating in a frontier environment, not unlike our own Wild West frontier of the 1800s,” he said, explaining how some of the maintained forests are still invaded, settled on illegally, cleared, burned and converted to subsistence agriculture and cattle pasture. GreenWood now uses bar codes and GPS locators on trees and harvested guitar parts to track them from the forest to the client. They also monitor the forests on the ground and with satellite imagery.

“There is no more untapped wilderness around the next bend to exploit,” he said. “We have to find better ways to make use of what’s left.”

Luckily, those he works with have always been grateful and the local governments and officials appreciate the support.

The Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies awarded Greenwood and Fundacion Madera Verde with its first-ever Innovation Prize. An international panel of judges selected the two organizations after they gave a presentation at the 20th Annual International Society of Tropical Foresters Conference.

The objective was to choose the organization that best identified and promoted “practical and strategic finance initiatives designed to conserve tropical forest ecosystems.” Greenwood and Madera Verde were able to develop a network of “Green Brokers,” which “cultivates sustainable business relationships between rural forest producers in Central and South America and local and export markets, mainly in the U.S.”

Winning over nearly 40 other international applicants, Landis wrote, ” … the Yale prize is a validation of our unique approach to sustainable development.”

The conference was held from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1 at Yale. The prestigious prize also came with a $5,000 check.

To learn more about GreenWood visit www.greenwoodglobal.org.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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