The Boat Ride that Launched Sustainable Harvest International

By Florence Reed, President + Founder

Sustainable Harvest International probably wouldn’t exist today if I weren’t always running late…

One fateful morning in March 1997, I was the last person to board a boat and find the last open seat on one of the long white benches that ran down each side of the open skiff. As the boat pulled away from the dock in Bocas del Toro, Panama and headed for the offshore reef, I noticed the tall man next to me. From the clean, simple cut of his attire, I guessed he was European.

“My name is Dieter,” he said, speaking loudly over the roar of the outboard motor, the pounding splash of the hull on the waves, and the clanking together of scuba tanks under our bench. Dieter and his traveling companion, Martin, were both from Switzerland. My maternal grandparents are Swiss—we conversed easily for the ride through the turquoise water to our dive spot on the reef.

Diving in Bocas del Toro, Panama - photo courtesy of Flickr

As always, I was thrilled by the diversity of life I saw during our dives. How could there be so many shapes, textures, and bright colors, all in one place?

Dieter, Martin, and I discussed the dive as we headed back to shore, and they shared that they were both on vacation. I told them that I had lived in Panama for two years in the early nineties but that now I was only there for two weeks, as the Latin America Program Director for a nonprofit. I also explained my budding plans to start an agroforestry extension program in Panama for the nonprofit, though I worried whether my boss would really support it.

As we approached the dock, Dieter pointed to a cluster of tables under palm roofs and asked if I’d like to join them for dinner. I agreed, and soon, we were eating fresh snapper at a rustic wooden table overlooking the starlit bay.

Trying to get a sense of where they’d been, I asked if they’d flown into Panama City. They shook their heads no. Martin told me that they’d been vacationing in Costa Rica but weren’t finding it interesting, so they took a bus to the Panamanian border and crossed over into Bocas del Toro.

“We didn’t plan to visit Panama and didn’t know anything about it,” Dieter said.   “As soon as we got to the Panamanian side of the border, we asked the moneychangers if we could trade US dollars for Panamanian money. Boy, did they look confused!” He chuckled.

“You didn’t know that Panama uses the US dollar?” I laughed too. “Sounds like you need a tour guide.”

Dieter’s face lit up with the expression of an aha moment. “We want to see the real Panama, away from the tourist areas,” he said. “Do you think you could take us?”

Little did I know the importance my saying yes would some day mean…

The next day, we were on the road to Santa Rita, the community where I lived and worked during my Peace Corps service in the early 90s, as an environmental education and forestry extension volunteer.

The road to Santa Rita

Santa Rita looked nothing like what I had imagined when I applied for the Peace Corps. Instead of the rainforest paradise I had hoped for, I was sent to a red moonscape where rolling hills of clay were interspersed with patches of dry cornstalks and the occasional small herd of scrawny cattle. The most eroded areas were mini-canyons five to ten feet deep. Drier and less forested than the Atlantic coast of Panama, the natural environment had been obliterated by centuries of slash-and-burn farming, as well as overgrazing by cattle.

Florence Reed establishing nurseries with farmers in Santa Rita, Panama as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1991

By the time I finished my Peace Corps service, Santa Rita looked a little less like the moon and more like the lush rainforests I had originally envisioned. Six community groups worked with me during my two years of service. Together, we established tree nurseries and planted thousands of trees to bring life back to the land. I hoped to soon replicate the program I was starting in Honduras in Panama, so that farmers could learn alternatives to slash-and-burn farming that would preserve all those trees we had planted along with the remaining natural forest.

I guess Dieter must have been impressed with what he saw, but I wouldn’t know how impressed until a few months later.

During the few days I spent with Dieter and Martin in Santa Rita, I shared my concerns about the organization that employed me at the time. I needed to vent my frustration that my employer wouldn’t pay for motorcycles to help the field trainers I had recently hired to get them where they needed to go. I had no ulterior motives when I shared these concerns with Dieter. Besides, Dieter was close to my age and I assumed that like me, he must also be broke.

When we were getting ready to go our separate ways again, Dieter surprised me by saying that he would try to raise money for the motorcycles back in Switzerland. I didn’t expect anything would come of it—I had met lots of people in my travels through Central America and we often exchanged contact info with promises to stay in touch, but we never did. Dieter and Martin returned to Switzerland, and I returned to the US.

Two weeks later, the conflicts at the organization I was working for came to a head, and I resigned. I gave myself 24 hours to see if I could figure out how to start a new nonprofit that would carry on the work I had started in Honduras…despite the fact that I had no money, limited experience, and few connections. If that didn’t work, I figured I’d look for any old job that could pay my rent. My mother helpfully pointed out that if I liked warm weather and Spanish-speakers, I could move to Florida and get a job at Disney World.

That same day, just as I was thinking that maybe that Disney World job was not so far away, Dieter surprised me again. When I dialed into the internet to check for messages on my first ever email address (established only a few months before), I found a message from Dieter waiting for me. He was writing with the good news that he had raised some money for the motorcycles I wanted for the field trainers.

I responded right away with an explanation of my new situation, including the need for funding to start a new organization that would continue the work he had been so impressed by. While I hoped he would say I could use the money he had raised to start the new organization, I thought it was unlikely. I figured he’d rather give it to an established organization than to a young woman he had only known a short time and who had no plan for how to establish or maintain the new nonprofit she hoped to create.

Hours later, another email from Dieter arrived.

“Open a new bank account in the name of your new nonprofit,” he told me, “and I’ll wire some money to it.”

He didn’t say how much and I wasn’t experienced or confident enough to ask. Nevertheless, I opened a bank account just to see what would happen. The next day, $6,000 appeared there.

That seemed like it might be just enough to get me started. And it was!

Masoala Rainforest at Zurich - photo by Thomas Meier

Twenty years later, Dieter and I were walking through another brightly colored and diverse environment—the zoo in Zurich. In Switzerland to present at the One Health Summit, I spent a day with Dieter, who still remembers that first trip to Santa Rita very clearly. 

As we walked through the zoo, Dieter recalled, “It was so barren on the drive, and I saw people looked poor. Then we got to Santa Rita and I was impressed by how green everything was and that people were doing better and that neighboring communities wanted to learn from them.”

“I saw that you were serious about your aspirations. You knew how to help people in Central America save their remaining forests and rejuvenate the degraded natural ecosystems. I was just as happy to give you the money for starting a new organization as for the motorcycles,” he said. “I believed that you would continue the good work I saw you had started in Santa Rita. My money was going to do something good for the environment.”

Ever since then, Dieter has sent larger and larger donations to Sustainable Harvest International. In 2009, he established the Sustainable Harvest Switzerland Foundation. Dieter and his parents were the first donors, followed by his friend Anita. After Anita volunteered with us in Honduras, her father started donating, as well. Alex Rubel, director of the Zurich Zoo, is the foundation chair.

“Sustainable Harvest is a great thing,” Dieter said as we left the elephant house and headed for the rainforest exhibit. “I’m proud to have played a role in founding it. And, I’m happy to see how the organization has matured.”

Dieter is still glad he took the risk of sending me the $6,000 to start Sustainable Harvest International all those years ago and, that he can continue to support our work. I’m glad, too!

Standing on an aerial walkway in the rainforest exhibit, we marveled at the size of the flying fox bats sleeping twenty feet away. A flock of gray-headed lovebirds raised a ruckus as they flew past us. Dieter followed them with his eyes and talked about how he feels that making life better for the poor is good but not as important as preserving habitat for other species.

It's hard to sleep when there's nowhere to hang. - photo by Tambako The Jaguar

“There are too many humans,” he said, “and not enough habitat for other species. It’s important to protect what is left of the natural environment and wildlife. That’s why we need less humans. Lower populations will come through education…I continue to support Sustainable Harvest International because you directly protect wildlife habitats, create new habitats, and raise standards of living for people so that they are able to plan for smaller families.”

I agree with Dieter that we need less humans on this planet. I also hope that more of the humans who do share this planet with me will be like Dieter; deep thinkers who take risks and give generously to help those most in need, human and otherwise.

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