February 10, 2003 - The Union Leader: Panama RPCV Florence Reed making a difference

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Panama RPCV Florence Reed making a difference

Read and comment on this story from The Union Leader on Panama RPCV Florence Reed whose non-profit organization, Sustainable Harvest International, has saved more than 40,000 acres of rain forest, planted almost 800,000 trees and helped 615 families in Central America keep their farms at:

Portsmouth woman making a difference*

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Portsmouth woman making a difference

Union Leader Correspondent

PORTSMOUTH — This is the truth:

One person can change the world.

This is the proof:

In five years, Florence Reed’s non-profit organization, Sustainable Harvest International, has saved more than 40,000 acres of rain forest, planted almost 800,000 trees and, most importantly, helped 615 families in Central America keep their farms.

Her work is being done in Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua and Belize.

This is why:

In 1991, when Reed went to Panama as a Peace Corps volunteer, she found the forests were being destroyed through slash-and-burn farming, depleting the soil of nutrients and drying up the water.

Families were having to give up on their land and move to the cities where, with no skills and tremendous competition for jobs, poverty flourished as their crops never had.

When her assignment to teach school fell through, Reed was sent to the village of Santa Rita, about five hours outside of Panama. When she asked the people what they wanted her to do for them, they said, “Teach us to farm without taking any more trees.”

Reed had graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual major in environmental conservation and international affairs. What she hadn’t learned in school, she read up on at the library in Panama.

Two years later, Reed came back to New Hampshire, knowing she wanted to start what would become Sustainable Harvest International, but she needed experience with non-profit groups. So she spent the next couple of years working for other agencies and then, finally, gave herself a one-day deadline.

“I’d been thinking about it for so long, I said, ‘okay, I’m either going to do this today or I’m going to put the dream aside and go get a regular job,’ ” Reed said during an interview in her one-room Portsmouth office last week.

As fate would have it, she received an e-mail that afternoon from a man in Switzerland that she had met six weeks earlier in Panama, where she was still returning to work with farmers.

When she told him of her plans, he offered to help. The next day he wired he $6,000.

“I sent half to the people in Honduras and took the rest to set up an office in my parents house, form a board of directors, and start sending letters out to people to raise money,” Reed said.

That was in 1997. Reed hired two extension agents in Honduras — “I thought it was better to hire local people who knew the language and the culture” — who began working with 10 communities providing technical assistance.

Today, her organization has 16 Central Americans on staff, working with 615 families in 75 villages and four countries.

During her stint with the Peace Corps, Reed realized the farmers needed long-term assistance so they could produce more on their land without losing any more trees.

“Slash-and-burn farming was all they knew,” she says. “But they knew it wasn’t working. They couldn’t support themselves on the land anymore. Some areas were already completely deforested.”

Slash-and-burn farming originated with indigenous people. Reed said. They would burn the vegetation in the middle of the forest, plant their crops, then move on to another area to let the farmed land recover.

Soon there were more and more people and less and less land. What was once forest became desert. Each time the cycle was repeated, fewer crops grew back naturally.

Reed taught them to grow trees between their crops, which helps put nitrogen back in the soil. Within a year, one farmer went from growing just enough food for his family to having enough to sell, earning money to buy his daughters dresses.

SHI is also showing farmers the benefits of diversifying their crops and teaching teach them marketing concepts, such as growing a product that other farmers aren’t so they can get more money.

“One family was growing corn, earning $80 a year,” Reed said. “He switched to onions and made $2,000 in one year.”

The farmers have been learning to grow rice in paddies and SHI extension workers have reported they are producing four times as much rice as they once did.

“That means they are four times better off,” Reed said.

And that is the goal of SHI, to provide farmers with three to five years of help that will generate sustainable crops and to reverse the ecological damage done to their land.

“The average income for a family is $500 to $600. That’s not enough to eat well, it’s not enough to send their kids to school more than a few years,” Reed said. “If they have sustainable crops, they can make more money and stay on their farms.”

Sustainable Harvest International has been so successful in Honduras, the program is set to be taken over by the government. That has freed Reed to concentrate on the other countries who need help.

But there are more than her organization can handle. SHI has received requests for assistance from all around the world. As with any non-profit agency, money is the biggest obstacle.

Almost all of the funding for SHI comes from private donations. While Reed’s goal is to build the programs in Panama, Nicaragua and Belize, her immediate goal is to be able to keep the workers she has.

“Right now, we’re struggling to maintain our current programs,” Reed said. “If I had to say I couldn’t pay one of the extension workers their salary, that would mean 50 families we couldn’t help for the five years we promised. So we’re doing everything we can to find new donors.”

The Web site is www.sustainableharvest.org.
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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; What RPCVs are doing; Service; COS - Panama; Special Interests - Rainforests; Special Interests - Forestry



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