Interview by Jeanine Behr Getz
Photograph by ChiChi Ubina
Most of our readers know you from your ten years at Audubon Greenwich, what are you doing now?
A year and a half ago I left Audubon for the very exciting opportunity of becoming the Executive Director of Bridges to Community (https://www.bridgestocommunity.org). This has allowed me to combine my love of conservation with my passion to build a more just and sustainable world through service learning and community development by engaging volunteers to work in developing countries.
What do you enjoy most about what you do with Bridges to Communities?
I have the opportunity to work in two vastly different worlds; one day I’m in the highly sophisticated communities of Fairfield and Westchester and the next I’m in the rural villages of Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic where people are substance farmers making a dollar a day.
I am engaging both worlds in building community development plans in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, jointly prioritizing needs in housing, education, health and economic development and, through shared work and conversation, they begin to understand each other. They realize that they have the same core values of wanting to improve the lives of their families and their environment and by working together we all can do that.
What do you think the most effective role for men can be in the environmental cause?
I don’t want to place traditional roles or stereotypes on anyone as there are many men doing great professional work in the environmental field as well as just practicing good environmental stewardship in their own lives. What I hope everyone will commit to doing more of is looking beyond personal choices, such as recycling, and really think creatively about how they can build environmentally sustainable economies and embrace the concept of managing climate change, not only because it is the only way we will leave a livable world to our children, but also because there are great investments and money to be made right now by those who want to take leadership in these areas.
What are some new sustainable opportunities our readers should learn more about or invest in?
Beyond the Bridges experience, which everyone should go on, there are really exciting sustainable development projects going on right now that need your readers. I am working with communities that are signing agreements to protect the forest that surrounds them and looking for markets to sell allspice, lemongrass and other essential oil products that go into organic cosmetics. They have 65,000 all spice trees that help form a buffer around their community and a globally significant rainforest but need markets to sell in. Others already have buyers but need us purchasing the product. Coffee and cacao farmers who are selling carbon credits because they are farming with forest friendly and shade grown methods can help companies who need to buy carbon credits and retail purchasers who want to buy sustainable products. The moment is now for all of us to think about at what level we want to enter these markets, as investors or retail shoppers, and then reap the benefits of excellent products with long-term sustainable growth potential both for the environment and our bank accounts.
What are your thoughts on additional ways our readers can affect sustainable change?
I don’t think there is any single silver bullet but I do think the two biggest ways to really personally improve our society are to vote in every election, volunteer and become part of the change you want to see.
Vote- In 2012 only 57% of the eligible voters turned out at the polls; whichever side of the aisle you stand on, this has to be troubling as we will only invoke change if we have participation.
Volunteer- Make a very personal contribution with your time. Locally, nationally or internationally. For example, building a house for a family in Nicaragua with Bridges to Community gives insights into much larger global economic and environmental issues.
Be the change you want to see- Insights learned may just lead to solutions like building stable economies that preserve natural resources in developing countries and provide jobs so people do not want to illegally immigrate to the US.
What environmental changes do you see going on in the countries you work in?
Deforestation and drought are the two largest problems facing both countries. In the Dominican Republic large agricultural enterprises have bought almost all the best tillable land and are using vast amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to maximize their output. In doing so they are polluting the water system and forcing small farmers to enter formally pristine forest areas and cut them down so they can make a living. Of course this is short term as that land will only produce crops for a short while and then they have to cut more forest. This has caused a drastic change in the DR with only 22% of their forested land remaining. In Nicaragua they are suffering the same drought California and others on the Pacific side are facing. This, along with the cost of land on the Pacific side, is causing people to migrate to the eastern part of the country trying to open it up for cattle and timbering. They are entering one of the most globally important and sensitive ecosystems in our hemisphere called the Bosawas Biosphere. The second largest rainforest complex in the Americas after the Amazon. It has been deforested by 30% in just the last ten years and will cease to exist in 20 years if this continues. This dire situation in both countries is causing national and international organizations to come up with highly creative methods that are incorporating economic incentives for communities and investors to choose sustainable agricultural crops and methods of farming for long-term protection of the environment and their economic future. Now we need more investment and more buyers at the retail level to support these solutions.
Where do you get your environmental news/information from?
I am a strong believer in the old journalism law that you should have at least three confirmed sources for any story so I check lots of sources for different reasons.
I listen to NPR and BBC news as well as reading the NY Times and Wall Street Journal to see what responsible main stream media sources are reporting. This helps me understand what the public knows about environmental issues we are dealing with. I then look to the academic and scientific community for solutions; places like the Union of Concerned Scientists, Cornell Lab of Ornithology as well as our Federal agencies like Fish and Wildlife Service, these are the people who have the resources to study the issues and propose solutions. Then I go to the activist organizations like Audubon, Nature Conservancy and others to find out what groups are actually doing to work on the solutions and how I personally and/or Bridges may participate.
What impact does a trip with Bridges to Communities have on the volunteer?
While the impact on the communities served is great, the personal impact on the volunteer is just as powerful. I see this constantly in both young and old. High school students who visit these rural communities are immersed in a different culture, often for the first time. They learn how to respect differences, appreciate what they have, build leadership and team building skills and come out much more mature after a short visit. I have had many parents tell me their kids wrote and spoke about their volunteer experience, on their university applications and in their “first job” interviews, as an example of a major turning point in their lives.
Volunteering builds a level of self-esteem and confidence in the most positive of ways.
2015 Bridges to community volunteers directly served approximately 1,000 people by building them new homes and latrines, and our medical volunteers served another 8,000 patients but that is only half of the story.
What has been your biggest achievement thus far in your career? Why?
My biggest achievement so far with Bridges has been a maternity clinic we built in the very rural north eastern region of Nicaragua. This is an area that has so little health services women often had to walk 8 hours, while in labor, to reach a hospital or health post. The maternity clinic serves about 18,000 residents and now provides women a place they can go to before, during and after child birth for health services as well as being a training center for midwives and health promotors so the 28 communities in that area now can have health providers right in their own town.
FCL knows you to be an avid birder and birding photographer, what are you seeing in the world of birding?
The technological advances that are helping conservation are what continue to amaze me. For instance my local Audubon chapter is participating in a Smithsonian research project that places micro GPS units on Wood Thrushes and is able to track their entire migratory path that started in Bedford, NY. This summer they discovered two of the birds being tracked wintered in Nicaragua, right next to the Bosawas Biosphere and right next to one of the communities Bridges to Community works in. Not only is the technology giving us incredibly important data that will help in selecting priority lands for conservation it is empirically showing us the interconnectivity of our communities and our shared responsibility to protect both the NY nesting site and the Nicaraguan wintering site if we want to protect these iconic species we enjoy so much in our back yards.
What are some green gift suggestions for holidays this year?
In line with what I have been talking about I suggest a couple great items for coffee and chocolate lovers:
The Birds & Beans “Good Coffee Holiday Gift Set” gives you a great assortment of delicious coffee while your purchase supports organic shade-grown Nicaraguan coffee farms that shelter migratory birds. Order now from Birds & Beans: http://www.birdsandbeans.com/shop/giftset.html
For those wanting the best chocolate, farmed by local growers in the DR using sustainable methods go to Dandelion Chocolate and indulge yourself: http://www.dandelionchocolate.com/
And for those wanting a simple idea, I suggest take the time to go out as a family for a hike or a walk. If you head down to the Sound shoreline you might encounter one of the Franklin Gulls that were speeding their way down to Chile a week ago or a Ruddy Turnstone that will soon be feeding on the shores of Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic.
Take a moment to reflect, especially with younger kids, on how we are connected through ecosystems, economies, and cultures and, if we really want to live up to the holiday spirit of peace on earth and good will to all, what we can we do to further that feeling and make this a great holiday season.
It has been great to catch up, thank you for sharing your sustainable & volunteer investment ideas. Just in closing, favorite quote/s?
I have several, but two are from Theodore Roosevelt:
“Believe you can and you’re halfway there”
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”