Scott Landis from York County, Maine founded a nonprofit organization which works to economically empower some of the poorest people on Earth, who live on the edge of one of the few remaining tropical rainforests in Central America — and Scott Landis wouldn’t have it any other way.
His is a tale of Honduras, and it is worth telling and worth celebrating — as Yale University did recently when it recognized Landis’ organization GreenWood and its Honduran counterpart, Fundacion Madera Verde. The groups received the first Innovation Prize from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Landis started GreenWood 20 years ago, after working as a woodworker and journalist, becoming an editor of Fine Woodworking magazine. But it was a freelance assignment to the Peruvian Amazon that changed the direction of his life. With his eyes opened to the increased destruction of rainforests for their tropical woods, he began to devise an organization that would work to both sustain the forest and provide income for impoverished local people.
“I envisioned using a group of woodworkers addressing the use of tropical wood at a time of diminishing resources, when it was becoming a focal point of environmental concern,” Landis said. “There was a strong push on the left to avoid using all tropical woods. On the other hand, we could sustain forest that was going to be cut and burned and converted to agriculture.”
He chose Honduras to launch his effort because it is “the wild west,” he said. “They’re doing today what we did a couple of hundred years ago as we worked our way across the country.” Limited electricity, primitive tools, a government far removed and, in Honduras’ case, chaotic and unresponsive, are just a few of the challenges.
GreenWood works with villages on the edge of the 1.3 million-acre Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in a remote northeast portion of Honduras. Tapping Landis’ friendships with fine woodworkers worldwide as well as foresters, GreenWood selectively harvests trees and uses the wood to make items for sale within the country and for export.
This system is, literally, based on a time far removed from our technological 21st century. Wood is harvested with handsaws, brought down the mountain on donkeys or by river, planed and fashioned by hand — although recently several villages bought bandsaws with low-interest loans provided by Greenwood. Products such as furniture are sold to regional markets. And when GreenWood landed a contract with California-based Taylor Guitar Company, things began to pick up.
The communities have paid back their loans and are making a profit today, he said. The last few years have been challenging in the Rio Platano Reserve, as Honduras has become a transfer point for drugs. According to a recent New York Time report, drug lords seize sections the government-owned forest, cut down the trees and turn the land into cattle ranches that are used to launder their money.
“There’s not much the Honduran government does. It’s teetering on the edge of a failed state,” he said. “It’s been very frustrating, and it has changed when I go to Honduras and where I go. I don’t travel at night anymore, even in well lit areas.”
He said the communities on the edge of the reserve “act as a buffer zone. If that buffer zone is not stabilized and controlled, there’s no way that reserve will remain. It will become overrun. It has become overrun — by landless settlers, by narco traffickers, by wildcat gold miners.”
Despite this, GreenWood and Fundacion Madera Verde will remain in the area. And GreenWood is now replicating the system in the Peruvian Amazon, although there the products are dinnerware – plates, bowls and platters. GreenWood would like to expand to other Central and South American countries, as well.
Asked why he entered this work he said, “because it feels right.”
“It depends on the day you catch me. It can feel like a drop in the bucket sometimes. But I follow the adage, you dig where you stand. You have to start someplace. This is where I’ve chosen to dig.”
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