I have admired the group Sustainable Harvest International ever since I first heard of them at a Green America Green Festival. I saved a note about them in my file of travel ideas. All I knew was that they organize trips for people to visit Central American communities to volunteer.
When researching for my Maine green tours, it was exciting to find them located in Maine as compared to most non-profits located in larger cities. I was most honored when they said that we could hear from Flo Reed, the founder of the organization. Their offices were too small to accommodate our group, so I booked a room at the local library (a very cute library in Ellsworth actually).
From 1991-1993, Flo was a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama. While there, she learned a lot from the local families about most current agricultural techniques and how they keep families in poverty while destroying the rain forest. After leaving Peace Corps, she put together a program that combines many sustainable agricultural techniques and started Sustainable Harvest International in 1997. The organization hires local teachers who mentor families for a five-year period. The families rebuild their land, which has often been slashed and burned, and see results such a 800% better returns and greater diversity of crops.
Right now, Sustainable Harvest International works with families in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama. They have mentored about 1,500 families directly. They have found that each family teaches an average of seven other families in these techniques. Their efforts have saved thousands of acres of rain forest. In the spirit of Trashmagination, which finds value where it may not be visible at first, their programs have helped people feel more valuable and inspired to build their communities.
My life has been blessed by meeting many inspiring people, and I try to hold them in my mind when making decisions. Flo is one of those people who gives you faith when bad things happen. She is humble but confident, with a clarity of spirit that comes from doing really amazing things. She started this charity living at her parent’s house, a young Peace Corps graduate, and she never gave up. She has walked that line between respecting the knowledge of local cultures while adding value. The sustainable agriculture practices are things you have likely heard about like composting, more efficient stoves, organic farming and shade growing. What is unique about their efforts is the “five phase” approach that gradually adds one element at a time to a family’s life. It was her vision to combine these things and provide ongoing support that makes the difference.
Flo shared photos and stories from families whose lives have been transformed by this program. Even with those testimonials though, programs like this can seem very far away to people living in the United States. That’s why I’m intrigued by their Smaller World Tours that brings volunteers right to where they are making an impact. Some tours focus more on learning and some focus more on volunteering. Either way, I would think that tour participants would have their world view shifted by such a trip. I hope to take my family on such a trip some day!