In the hillside fields of northern Honduras, machetes are at work—swinging and chopping, swinging and chopping—beating a steady cadence in the still, tropical air. Cicadas drone. A howler monkey bellows in the distance. And all day long, machetes hack through the fields, back and forth, back and forth. Making a living from the soil has never been easy here. Most farmers are too poor to buy tools. But everyone owns a machete. These long narrow blades are used to harvest crops, to chop trees and to fight the tropical undergrowth that creeps relentlessly into the fields. Side by side, young boys and old men work in the sweltering heat, bent and swinging.

It has been this way for generations. A farmer clears a few acres of rainforest and plants corn and beans, growing just enough to feed his family. Each year, yields are a little smaller, the soil more depleted. After a few years, the family moves on, leaving behind a moonscape of barren soil. Then the process begins again, slashing and burning a new piece of rainforest to create another field. In some cases, families simply give up on farming and move to the city in hopes of finding a job. Here, where their farming skills are useless, they discover instead a new kind of poverty.

"I saw the rainforest destruction—and the poverty—with my own eyes," says Florence Reed '90, who joined the Peace Corps as soon as she graduated, and was stationed in Central America. Here, where more than half the rainforest has been destroyed in the last 50 years, Reed drew on her degree in environmental conservation, as well as on her own extensive research, to teach sustainable farming methods to villagers in Santa Rita, Panama. So many trees had been cut in their village that the topsoil had been completely washed away. The exposed ground had become so parched and hard it could no longer absorb moisture, and the water supply was in danger. "They were begging for help," she says.

What Reed witnessed in that small village sparked a determination to devote her life to saving the rainforest. So she went in search of a job with an organization that shared her goals. What she found was discouraging. Some groups offered workshops or conferences and then left. Others bought acreage and called it a park. Neither worked: farmers would still cut and burn trees to clear fields for planting. One agency she heard about paid people to plant millions of trees on a mountainside in an effort to promote reforestation. "Within a couple of years the trees had all been cut down—by the same people who had planted them," says Reed. "They had no reason to value what they'd done, no understanding of the process."

Reed envisioned an organization that would work alongside farmers, helping them learn to coexist with the rainforest instead of destroying it. She would follow up with visits for at least three years until the new way of farming became more natural than the old way, until farmers saw the changes that were possible—a better life and a thriving rainforest. For a few years, as she worked with various nonprofits and traveled periodically to visit farmer friends in Central America, Reed continued to dream, sharing her idea with anyone who would listen. And then one day a $6,000 check arrived in the mail. Sent by a Swiss acquaintance she'd met during a trip to Central America, the donation was the first tangible evidence that her dream had a future.

Reed launched Sustainable Harvest International in 1997 out of a bedroom office in her parents' New Hampshire home. It is, as far as she knows, the only organization in the world providing long-term technical assistance to rural families in the tropics, offering them alternatives to slash-and-burn agriculture.

The early days were not easy. Reed did everything from fund raising to filing. "I didn't really have a personal life," she says. "It was pretty much sleep, SHI, sleep, SHI." Reed was driven by a constant sense of urgency: according to some estimates, another acre of rainforest is destroyed every second. Saving the rainforest, she knew, would mean changing minds. The people living in the shadow of these forests, cutting its trees, scraping a living from its depleted soil, needed new ways to think, new ideas to try. But they had no access to information. "They don't watch TV," Reed says. "They don't read magazines or newspapers. Most have, perhaps, a third-grade education." And so Reed went to talk to them herself.

"In the beginning, we couldn't even afford a motorcycle," she recalls. "So we went on foot, by bike, by horse—anything we could find." Accompanied by Yovany Munguia, the first Sustainable Harvest extension agent, Reed made her way into villages often days away from the nearest city. Sometimes, during the rainy season, she battled knee-deep mud to reach her destination. "This is when it dawned on me what it means to be the director of an international nonprofit," she says, laughing. Meeting in schools, churches or community buildings, Reed spoke in Spanish to small groups of interested farmers. Her pitch was low-tech—no splashy computer presentations or photo displays. She had only her own experience with farmers in Panama to draw on. But she also had Munguia at her side—and the promise of regular return visits over the next few years to help farmers establish the new techniques.

In the farming community of Oro, Honduras, for example, Reed worked with Ramon Salguero, who used to harvest only 4,000 pounds of corn per acre from his land despite using hefty amounts of chemical fertilizers. Using sustainable methods and organic fertilizer, Salguero harvested about 10,000 pounds per acre. Don Cheyo, who also lives in Oro, once grew only beans and coffee. Five years ago, when the local Sustainable Harvest extension agent convinced Cheyo to try Tabasco peppers (as well as passion fruit and cassava) along with his traditional crops, his annual income jumped from $900 to nearly $4,000.

Farmers working with Sustainable Harvest learn a number of sustainable techniques—including -crop rotation, erosion control and pest management—that help them farm the same land year after year without depleting the soil. They also learn to plant agro-forestry plots, fields that mimic a natural forest with an overstory of hardwood trees high above plants like bananas, coffee and ginger, all of which thrive in the shade. This method brings with it an economic benefit, too: If the market value of one crop drops, as has been the case with coffee in recent years, other crops can help make up for the lost income.

Reed's approach took time and patience. "At first, people are scared to try something new," she says, "especially if the survival of their family may depend on it." It's not that slashing and burning an acre of rainforest is easier than farming it in a sustainable way. The traditional method is grueling and slow. But it's familiar. Reed could see, though, that her method was working. "At first, out of, say, 23 families in a village, maybe only six or seven would be interested in working with us," Reed says. "Eventually, once they saw the results, we'd have 21 or 22 of them on board."

Over the years, Sustainable Harvest International has grown along with the success of its farmers. Eventually, Reed was able to hire a part-time project manager named Bruce Maanum, an anthropology researcher she met in Belize. Today, Maanum supports Reed's work in his new role—as her husband. And the organization now has a full-time program director, as well as a development director and an outreach coordinator. Aside from these four "gringos," who manage the organization, all the other employees are local extension agents who work in Central America, returning again and again to the fields, answering questions and working with farmers—just as Reed first envisioned.

In eight years, SHI has helped more than 746 families in 76 communities convert more than 3,000 acres to sustainable agriculture. And since every acre farmed sustainably saves roughly five acres of rainforest, Reed calculates that about 15,000 acres of tropical forest have been saved. "It's still coming down faster than we can get it back up," she says. "But what we've saved is significant, and to the farmers and their families, we're making all the difference in the world," she says. One young farmer felt so moved by his transformed life that he asked Reed to be the maid of honor at his marriage.

Wedding invitations aside, Reed spends much of her time these days in the United States, overseeing the main office (now located in Surry, Maine) and concentrating on fund raising. "The hardest part of my job," she says, "is saying 'no.' For every family we take on, many more are waiting in line, hoping for assistance." In 2004, the Sustainable Harvest International program in Honduras became an independent affiliate (the Honduran staff now runs the show and looks for new resources), a development expected to help the organization expand its outreach, as other countries replicate this model.

To spread the word and increase support for her efforts, Reed launched a new venture this year called Smaller World Tours, which allows donors to see up close the work they have been supporting from thousands of miles away. This winter, on the first tour, Ron Poitras found himself bumping along in the back of an open pickup truck, trying to find a comfortable position as the driver maneuvered the deeply rutted mountain roads of Terreritos, Honduras. Poitras is himself an organic farmer, growing flowers and vegetables on his Small Potatoes Farm in Surry, Maine. He understands some of the challenges faced by these farmers. "It takes awhile to transition from one type of agriculture to another," he notes. "You can't just do a site visit, write something down, and say this should work well for you. You need someone on the ground, someone you can call on, someone who will be coming back, offering suggestions and assistance."

During their nine-day trip, Poitras and a dozen others witnessed for themselves the success of this "on the ground" approach—and got a taste of what it's like to be a farmer in Central America. The travelers slept in a rustic hotel, ate beans and rice at every meal, and adjusted to life without hot water. Each morning they set out to visit a Sustainable Harvest International site. On one farm, they helped to build a chicken coop. On another, they helped construct an environmentally friendly stove. They learned how a biogas generator works, climbed through steeply terraced corn fields, and saw thriving organic vegetable gardens.

More than any single experience, though, the Smaller World travelers came away touched by the lives they saw—joy in the midst of extreme poverty, hope in the face of hardship. They saw how deeply entrenched cultural attitudes have begun to shift—from desperation to self-sufficiency—and that for the first time, there is a sense of possibility, a vision for a better future. "If we could just get more people to see what's going on here," says tour participant Tony Barrington, "the difference being made in people's lives. This is such a great model."

Of course, farmers like Juan Alberto Pérez need no convincing. In the past three years, with help from Sustainable Harvest International, Pérez and his three brothers have planted more than 11,000 fruit and forest trees, transforming their once-barren land in Pinabete, Honduras. On a cool morning last spring, Pérez was at work in his fields, adding to the neat rows of trees. He dug a handful of soil from the ground and plunked in a seedling, a tiny mahogany tree about seven inches tall. Its lustrous leaves fluttered slightly in the breeze. He tamped the soil firmly around the tender roots, then moved on, stooping and planting, stooping and planting. For Pérez, it was just another morning of work.

But for Sustainable Harvest International, Pérez's little mahogany seedling was a milestone: it was the millionth tree. One million trees closer to restoring the rainforest, the water supply, the precariously tipping ecological balance. "It was a great joy to know that we were the ones who planted this tree," says Pérez. "We must leave behind the time of just cutting the trees without planting anything. We must plant, care for and use the trees in ways that guarantee that we will always have a forest." And Pérez has an even greater vision: "I hope," he says, "that soon we will arrive at two million, then five million."

And so Reed's vision continues to grow. Slowly but steadily, like the rhythmic cadence of those machetes at work, the word is spreading—one farmer, one field, one seedling at a time.


Building a Sustainable Life

Last fall, children at 200 schools across New Hampshire crunched their way through 119,000 apples—fresh-off-the-tree Macintosh and Empires locally grown at area orchards. They were also drinking fresh cider—lots of it. "It's been an eye-opener for us," says Linda Dodds, director of food service for Newmarket schools. "The kids love it. We go through 10 cases of cider a week."

That's exactly what UNH's Office of Sustainability Programs is after—eye-opening experiences that change habits, change the way people think, and ultimately make tangible the concept of sustainability—a world in which the needs of the current population are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. "The kids learn about buying locally, about the effect on the environment, the economy, open space and all the rest of it," says Nathan Duclos '03G, assistant director of the Farm-to-School program, which is designed to connect schools and local farmers.

One of a number of OSP initiatives, the program has grown rapidly since it began in 2003, expanding from 70 participating schools last year to 200 this year. The hope is to add the rest of the state's schools as well as additional farmers, who will benefit from new outlets for their products.

One of a number of OSP initiatives, the program has grown rapidly since it began in 2003, expanding from 70 participating schools last year to 200 this year. The hope is to add the rest of the state's schools as well as additional farmers, who will benefit from new outlets for their products.

Kelly came to UNH seven years ago, when the university established an endowed sustainability program—the only one of its kind in the world. Already, he notes, UNH is a recognized leader in the field, winning national awards for energy efficiency and transportation improvements. Often working behind the scenes, OSP aims to promote learning and change that have an impact on community life.

Take compost, for example. Each morning since 1998, student interns have been making the rounds to campus dining halls, gathering more than 300,000 pounds of food waste over the years that would otherwise have wound up in a landfill. Instead, it winds up at Kingman Farm, and when it's ready, the compost is sold, finding its way back to local gardens and farms.

And then there's the lettuce—700 heads grown last year on the first certified organic plot of land on campus. When the season was over, members of the organic gardening club delivered the results of their labor directly to campus dining halls. Coordinated in part by the Office of Sustainability, the project adds one more piece to the UNH sustainability puzzle.

Other pieces get put together in the classroom, as sustainability is integrated into a host of courses. A new graduate curriculum in public health ecology, for example, includes a course co-taught by Kelly and climate researcher Cameron Wake '93G.

OSP's system for measuring greenhouse gas emissions has become a benchmark in the effort to reduce overall emissions on campus, which were measured at 60,300 metric tons of carbon dioxide between 1999-2003. UNH's new co-generation plant, scheduled for this fall, will reduce emissions by 40 percent.

Steve Pesci '87, '92G, transportation planner in the Office of Campus Planning, credits the emissions measurements with helping the university secure millions of dollars in federal funding. "It documents our progress," says Pesci. "Most places can't do that." Last year, for example, $350,000 in federal funding replaced six of UNH's diesel buses—nearly a quarter of the fleet—with vehicles that run on compressed natural gas. Another six buses are slated to be replaced this year.

From emissions reductions to curriculum changes to food supply innovations, the pieces of UNH's sustainability puzzle are gradually coming together. Kelly points to alumni as the ultimate measure of success: "Do they understand how to advance sustainability in their civic and professional lives? That's the real question," he says. Only when people think differently will change become real, as tangible as the crunch of a fresh, locally grown apple eaten by a schoolchild who can tell you where the apple came from—and why it matters.

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