Tag Archives: compassion

How a Costa Rican Cattle Farmer Taught Me a Lesson About Compassion, Social Justice and Stopping Deforestation

I used to wonder why the rainforest gets cut down.  I must admit, I had even thought  to myself , “Why don’t ‘those people’  just get out there and plant some more trees? ”  I mused how they had the land and it seemed like they had the time, so why not just do it?  Back then, I didn’t really realize how hard it was to reforest on a large scale. I had no idea how long term the activity was in order to make sure the trees survive.  And, I didn’t realize that in my own self righteous and innocent ignorance, I was expecting the poorest people on the planet to protect our most precious and beneficial resource, the RAINFOREST.  I guess I was just expecting them to do it for free. Thank goodness some humiliating experiences came to show me how I was wrong, ultimately changing me, my work and everyone around me. Each and every hard lesson uplifted me to forge forward in a better direction for being an agent of change. Here is a glimpse into our journey of creating Association Community Carbon Trees-Costa Rica.com.

Maybe you have seen my posts before where I basically beg for tree Sponsors. Yea, I know, it can be tiring for you. Just think how I feel? Most days, my posts are completely ignored, no one likes our page and even so called “friends” don’t even like our page. Much less sponsor a tree! If I let it get me down, it would.  But I pick myself up, and try again because I have seen what ACCT is doing and how it works for all of us. You could definitely say I’m committed.

Maybe you find yourself thinking,  “Why should I care?”  Some people just are not interested in planting trees or climate change. Or at first glance, you might think there are enough rainforest trees out there.  Like all of us, you understandably have other things to spend your money on like dinner and movie, a new pair of jeans, yoga classes, going to that awesome Festival or vacation, your kid’s college education, the mortgage.  I get it. I really do.  You might just think your single tree just won’t make much of a difference. So why bother? But every single tree does contribute to the whole forest. No one has to break their bank or become a total non-consumer to be part of the ACCT movement.

all in it together

Sometimes  seemingly “awake” people ask me why we have to help people in a foreign country, like Costa Rica, when their own country has so many problems and poor people in need?  Other times, I get the “feel good” retort from well meaning folks,  “Oh I’m sorry, I cannot give $25 for a  campesino to produce, plant and care for a real rainforest tree for 25 years because I already donate to (fill in the blank with other philanthropic organization). Or, I get the back slapping permaculture crowd telling me they are already doing their part where they live.  And so it is. More people than ever are acting on a local level. Awesome job folks!  But what about the global scene? The rainforest is still being cut down faster than ever. We are still losing species at an alarming rate, droughts and floods are plaguing our planet and CO2 is out of control. No matter what we are interested in, we all need air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat. The rainforest gives us all of this.

Trees cut down by poor family to plant palm oil in 2014.
Trees cut down by poor family to plant palm oil in 2014.
Deforestation is alive and well in Costa Rica.
Deforestation is alive and well in Costa Rica.

For me, such conversations with people who resist planting even one rainforest tree can be disappointing and discouraging, to say the least. It’s hard to explain why the rainforest affects all of us, how every single person has a carbon footprint no matter where we live which can be erased by planting trees on the Equator. In general, I guess people have enough problems and do not want to think about how we are relying on the poorest people to protect and regenerate our most beneficial natural resource.  Out of sight, out of mind. Today, I try to inspire and encourage myself by remembering my own learning curve when I first started doing reforestation and conservation work for private clients over 15 years ago.  So, I want to share a true story with you that helped me to open my eyes and my heart and learn to be the change.

One of the most notable and humiliating reality checks was handed to me back in 2007 while I was the President of a local conservation group in the southern Pacific zone of Costa Rica. The real estate frenzy hit our area bringing with it the development of new roads and ocean view homesites.  Cultural norms were changing all over the place and the once quiet, simple Costa Rica “Pura Vida” lifestyle had given way to a hotbed of realtors and speculators looking to buy their piece of Paradise. But who was I to judge? I had come to live here myself back in 1998 to establish  a “for profit” reforestation company and, in so many ways, I understood the allure of the lush green jungles, slow pace and  laissez fare.  But push did come to shove and people started calling me to seek help when the chain saws screamed and the tractors rolled damaging irreparably ecosystems at every turn. Since most foreigners did not speak enough Spanish to deal with the local authorities, who often were corrupt and accepted bribes from developers to turn a blind eye,  I took it upon myself to be the one to prosecute people who cut down trees without proper permits.  

My self created “job” was not  popular with some folks. It was not usually fun nor lucrative.  But I knew someone had to do it. I was bold and strong and knew how to cause a ruckus. I could swing a big chain and I carried a big stick. I was ready to stand in front of a tractor or chain saw and fight for the forest. Word got out, more and more people called, and little by little, good people were seeking pre-construction assistance so they could  respect  Nature in the process of building their dream. We offered free environmental law seminars and the room was packed every time. People were hungry for the information and I was willing to share as much as I could.  We cleaned up and kicked out some of the corrupt  local resource MINAE guards and SETENA began to take notice and realize that real environmental impact studies were necessary to protect this last stretch of rainforest prime for development in the southern Pacific zone.  For a while, we could see that we were  making a difference. I knew the high impact self proclaimed “eco” developers were feeling the pinch when one of them flew in one afternoon on his helicopter to meet me.  After complaining that I was ruining job opportunities for Costa Ricans, ( janitors, maids etc.), he proceeded to tell me I was despicable.  I laughed. I could live with that accusation.  I had already won over 20 cases with my big lawyer stick. I possessed a whole lot of good intentions and felt ridiculously invincible. Unbeknownst to me, my good intentions had paved my own road to hell. So many  rich investors were still doing whatever they wanted while their equally “well off”   neighbors came to me expecting free legal work to fight them. And the Costa Ricans were now wise to the game and ready to cash in on it too. It was only fair. Something was wrong with the bigger picture.  I had so much to learn.


When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  One day,  I came head to head with a local Costa Rican man who happened to be my neighbor.  We had always been on good terms. Just a few months before he had explained to me in a friendly conversation how his late grandfather had been paid by foreign government subsidies to burn the rainforest down in the 1970’s. I just couldn’t  believe it.  So, like any good lawyer striving to be an eco-warrior, I began to research.  I found out quite easily in the Library of Congress that Costa Ricans were indeed paid to cut down and burn their forests in favor of producing cheap beef for export to foreign markets, particularly the United States. Wendy’s and Burger King were two of the primary consumers.  I began asking every Tico I came into contact with about how their land came to be deforested.  I always got the same story. The land was too steep to even pull out the wood for personal use or sale. Poor farmers did not have tractors or trucks and were understandably looking for the easiest and  cheapest way to convert their forest to cattle land. And so, they burned it down. It appalled me that on top of the obvious destruction of ecosystems, all the carbon dioxide stored in these giant Tree beings had been toxically released into our atmosphere.

Slash and burn to convert rainforest into cattle land.
Slash and burn to convert rainforest into cattle land.

I am a dirt lover. I could touch, see, smell and feel just how fragile and thin the topsoil is in the tropical jungle. Covered by trees, the soils are a bastion of biodiversity important in countless ways to the overall health of the biosphere. But when the trees are chopped down and the soils exposed to months of blazing Equatorial sun, followed by 8 months more of torrential rain running on steep terrain, it spells dirt disaster.  Within just 7 years of cutting down a forest, the once fertile dirt is degraded. Dead soil full of cow poop runs off into rivers, causing sedimentation and nitrogen pollution which then flows downstream polluting estuaries and heating up oceans. Over time, landslides threaten and destroy communities, even killing people as a result of unstable, deforested land.  Water springs, once healthy, dry  up and rivers evaporate under the sun. No animals, no food, no water is left. And the cow business? A total flop. They are skinny and tough and require concentrated GMO  foods to put on weight. Farmers lose money on top of destroying their land. No one wins. 


Rainforest converted to cattle pastures is not sustainable.
Rainforest converted to cattle pastures is not sustainable.
Converting rainforest to cattle farms degrades land and causes landslides which ultimately flood rivers and pollute sensitive ocean environments.
Converting rainforest to cattle farms degrades land and causes landslides which ultimately flood rivers and pollute sensitive ocean environments.

But I digress from my story. One pleasant morning, I went on a brisk walk, enjoying the peace and quiet, marveling at the Nature all around me.  I looked up out of my reverie to see a sleek, black Jaguarundi stealthily leap across my path. I gave thanks and wondered why it is said that a black cat crossing your path means bad luck. Uncannily, seconds later, I heard a nearby chain saw whirring. Before I knew what was happening, I heard a vicious CRACK and wood SPLINTER, then an eery  “KABOOM” echoed through the area. Monkeys  were screaming wildly and dogs were barking all around me.   One after the other, huge tall trees were falling and branches were flying.  I could feel the desperation of the animals in the air.  It was contagious. My mind was racing and I kicked into reaction mode, running toward the mayhem. A million thoughts flitted through my brain as my blood pressure rose.

I had fought so many other battles on behalf of other people in defense of  trees, mostly for free. Even though I had recently vowed to stay out of “these kinds of fights”, the fact that it was happening in my own “backyard” spurred me onward.  Something would not let me walk away. Little did I know how that black cat foreboded a warning that I am ultimately glad  I did not heed.

My Costa Rican neighbor had begun to illegally deforest the rest of his land which was partially covered at the time by a Mayo Colorado forest. This type of tree forms a natural monoculture and serves its own unique purpose. A Mayo Colorado tree forms a network and basically does not allow any other type of tree to grow. They are home to countless pollinating bees and understory plants and upper story epiphytes and bromeliads. It felt like a cathedral under those trees. They shaded the nearby water stream and protected the healthy soil. They were central to the natural, healthy ecosystem that was thriving there.

I approached the crew of men still wielding their murderous chain saws faster than I could gather my wits. No one even looked up at first. It was Sunday, perfect for illegal cutting since there were no MINAE resource guards available until Monday.  No one was scared of little ole me. I wish I could say that I was cool, calm and collected. No way. I was wild.  Looking back I see how ineffective I was because my emotions had gotten the better of me. Seeing the trees ooze their bloody cellulose while birds searched for their fallen nests was just more than I could handle.

I confronted Sergio, the land owner and stood in front of a giant tree next in line for the killing frenzy.  My once neighborly friend began waving his sharp machete at me, convincingly threatening my life and scaring me half to death. He had major back up too. Men with chain saws.  I was all alone. I knew I was terribly outnumbered. I tried to reason with each of them, but all of my pleas were falling on deaf ears. I ran home and cried my eyes out and began to formulate a plan to get the MINAE guards there the very next morning. Somehow, I knew it was going to be too little, too late.

Meet my neighbor Sergio!
Meet my neighbor Sergio!


The destruction was done, acres of forest were cut down in a single day. Yet, the lesson would take months and years to germinate and take root.  My neighbor became even more angry at me when the MINAE guards came out a few days later to investigate and issue the Denuncia to begin the lawsuit. Everyone in Costa Rica, whether a citizen, a resident or a tourist, has standing to defend trees, rivers, and  animals who do not have a voice under Article 50 of the Costa Rican Constitution. This was one of the things that truly impressed me about Costa Rica early on. I had witnessed superb rulings by the Sala IV or Constitutional Environmental Court made up of brave judges,  willing to enforce the environmental laws in favor of protecting Nature. I felt like I was on the right side of the fight.

But Sergio felt equally justified in his actions. He  began to enlist other neighbors to threaten and harass me. I did not feel safe. My adorable new German Shepard puppy dog mysteriously turned up dead. One gentle man came to my house a few days later to  counsel me. He told me no matter how much he understood and even agreed with me, I should back off or end up dead in the ditch. I called my Mentor who immediately told me I should be careful too.  When he said I did not have to worry about the people who threatened me to my face, I felt a little better. But then he told me that I SHOULD worry about the people who did not say it to my face. My heart nearly jumped out of my chest. How many peoples’ buttons and pocketbooks had I already hit?   I thought I loved what I was doing. I thought I was right.  I did not want to go back to the USA and be a lawyer in an office. I was conflicted. I lost a lot of sleep.

DSCN1039 (Large)

In due course, my wise life partner from Argentina, Juan Angel, drew a very bright line in the sand for me.  “Quit or I’m leaving”.  I knew he was thinking about my physical safety and peace of mind.  He knew more about how things work in Latin America and understood my unique weakness as a woman alone in a strange land. His stern words convinced me in no uncertain terms that I had bitten off way more than I could chew. I withdrew the complaint and resigned as President of ASANA the very next day.

In the coming weeks and months, Juan and I got into some deep discussions about conservation and equal justice. I read voraciously. I meditated. Through a myriad of examples, we explored how social justice is key to being successful in any realm,  conservation included. While Juan is not a “tree hugger” per se,  he did share my revolutionary spirit and search for justice. He knew my heart and how much I had given up for the “work” and how much I wanted to be truly effective. Although he believed in what we were doing with the private reforestation work, he challenged me to look at it from a new perspective.  He asked me bluntly, “Why are you working so hard to fight battles for rich people developing their ocean view lots? ”  He admonished, “Wake up Girlfriend!”  He showed me the shallow roots of my work.  He quipped, “Why are you running around fighting poor Costa Rican people who are just trying to survive Jenny?” He went on, “If you are going to work so hard, for free, and you really want to make a difference, why not get out there and work with the poor people who are struggling to survive while protecting the forest in a positive way.”

Juan Angel is my rock!
Juan Angel is my rock!

All of his questions and comments shed new light on my worn out path. I had to dig harder and set more solid roots that would  grow to support me and everyone and everything I cared about. I wanted to be a force for environmental AND social justice. My abiding LOVE for trees and forests and wild spaces and clean rivers and clean air had been driving me all along. It was time to change. It was time to work in the positive, and move on from the negative.

Drawing from ACCT Kids' Nature Day regular participant Ava Sylvester
Drawing from ACCT Kids’ Nature Day regular participant Ava Sylvester
Our strongest and deepest roots are based in love!  Another Kids' Nature Day creation we use to announce all of our fun educational activities!
Our strongest and deepest roots are based in love! Another Kids’ Nature Day creation we use to announce all of our fun educational activities!

After a few weeks, I began to try to make amends with Sergio. I requested a meeting with him. I reached out to community members. I ate a lot of crow.  Sergio resisted. I eventually knocked him off guard by asking him for his forgiveness for the scene I had created, the problems I had tried to cause him and his family.  I swallowed my pride and released my anger about the dead trees, the dead dog, all of it. I wanted to move on. I wanted to understand and evolve.

When he was ready to talk, I listened intently to Sergio’s side of the story.  Although he could not read or write very well, he was intelligent in so many ways that I was humbled and embarrassed for my ignorance despite all of my book and forestry training.  This amazing man explained to me that the only way his family could eat was to cut down the last bit of forest left on his land. He could not grow any food on the previously deforested areas because the dirt was dead. He intended to plant all kinds of fruit trees in  place of the forest he cut down, plus pineapples, black beans, yucca, ancestral corn and sweet potatoes. He was not going to graze any more cattle on the newly cleared land because he had already learned what a losing proposition this was over the last  25 years.

I could tell that Sergio genuinely shared my sadness for the plight of the fallen forest and the displaced animals.  We shed tears together. It was cleansing for us both. He told me again about his tragic childhood memories watching his grandfather and their neighbors burn down the forest for the cows in promise of a better life that never came.   He even admitted to agreeing with me that it is a crime to cut down the forest.  He felt he had no alternative.  All of his water springs had dried up in the previously deforested areas and now he had to pay for water from the aqueduct. The rest of his cows would die without plenty of water. The rest of his soil was dead and eroding away year after year with no solution in sight. Every rainy season he feared landslides during the hardest downpours.   He did not have a job, he had no hope of a job, and he was angry and depressed  because he could not adequately  care for his family. There was no social welfare and no soup kitchen to go to and he was desperate. He made it clear to me that if the Gringos could cut down trees for mansions with pools, there was NO WAY that I was going to tell him that he could not cut down trees to grow food. I did not argue with him.


So many experiences, at once so humiliating and yet uplifting, contributed to my growing understanding that planting trees on land owned by “rich foreigners” or “big nonprofit conservation corporations” was not going to be enough to stop deforestation.   No matter how many hundreds of thousands of different kinds of trees we planted for private clients on their own land, no matter how many jobs we created for poor people on “other people’s land”,  little by little, I saw that we were not going to save the rainforest without getting deeply involved with the the local people in rural communities.  On the ground experience over a decade taught me that  both local men and women needed paid alternatives to stop deforestation.

I began to gnaw on the agony of what, at first,  looked like defeat. This experience, and many others, was pivotal in changing my dense “first world” self important attitude and approach to saving the rainforest. I became driven to invent something that could really work for everyone. I poured my heart and soul and energy more than ever into seed collecting, tree production and private planting projects with a new found vigor. I went back to Sergio’s humble wooden house the next year in June 2008 to give him 15 diverse fruit trees to plant on his newly deforested land. It was the least I could do to thank him for the lesson.  Then it hit me like a bolt of lightening. If I felt so much joy and happiness and satisfaction from planting trees, then I should focus here. I began questioning how could I share this good feeling? Wouldn’t other people like to feel this way too?  What if I could figure out a way to pay Sergio to plant and maintain these 15 trees long term? What would such an endeavor look like? Would anyone participate?

Having already planted over 450,000 diverse native trees with private projects over the previous 10 years, I knew how much long term, hard work was necessary to successfully grow the trees.   It had become clear to me how  unfair it was to ask poor people like Sergio to work for free. If we all relied on people just like this man and his family to stop deforestation, did they have to go hungry and be angry to do it? What did a life affirming alternative look like? It needed to be esteem building work, not charity.

So, I ran the numbers backwards and figured out how much money we needed to be able to produce the trees and pay the farmers over the first four years to take care of them on their own farms. ($25). I hated monoculture tree farms and wanted to produce high diversity saplings.  This was a critical component of the model. We needed money and resources and time to seed collect and build nurseries. I needed lots of help and had no money. I wanted to help educate children, adults and tourists too. All this played into my plan to create a way for other people to get involved and put in their time and energy and money.  I got inspired. I dreamed big. I went out on a limb and put up our simple, (but of course, long winded ha ha ha)  Website in late 2009. And to my sweet relief, slowly, other people crawled out there on that limb with me. People sponsored ACCT trees. Thank you. We are still out there today!

Five years later we have planted over 5000  diverse native trees on 16 different participating family farms. To date, 3497 trees are sponsored and we have 8 recurring monthly individual donors. We’ve recently built a Reforestation Partnership for business who want to offset carbon dioxide. We are growing alliances with Festivals like The Envision Festival. We are working with professional athletes like snowboarders DCP and Jeremy Jones. We are allies with other non profit climate change orgs like Protect our Winters.  We were awarded a small United Nations grant to build two huge community tree nurseries. We just received a Peace Corps volunteer to help our burgeoning Women’s group of over 35 women who are building sustainable businesses including fertile soil compost , chocolate,  and coconut oil.  We employ over 25 Costa Rican tree planters, tree maintainers and nursery workers.  We produce over 20,000 trees per year. We have hosted over 60 different volunteers from around the world. We give great educational eco tourism opportunities. We have hosted more than 60 Kids’ Nature Day educational activities. I speak at conferences around the world. I am a trained Climate Reality Leader. We still have  very low overhead. This is what  ACCT is all about.  I will forever be humbled by the trust and support shown to me and our growing community of farmers.  A seed must go through complete destruction and total transformation to germinate. And with time and nurture,  it grows, blossoms and gives ripe fruit. And so it is with Community Carbon Trees – Costa Rica.