Jenny Smith did not realize what the how severe the personal consequences of her activism efforts in Costa Rica could be until the tire fell off her car and her dog wound up dead.
Jenny is the founder of Association Community Carbon Trees (ACCT), a nonprofit organization in Costa Rica that specializes in tree planting and reforestation efforts. Specifically, ACCT focuses on planting trees that increase the biodiversity in the area, meaning that seeds of many different species that all differently and mutually support the function of the local ecosystem are planted. A group like this did not exist in Costa Rica when she first came to visit 22 years ago. Instead, in initially volunteering in a local conservation group, she learned that local environmental efforts had little focus on replanting trees and no one truly understood the importance of planting a variety of tree species. After her initial visit to the country, she knew she wanted to pack up and move there from the US, and do some sort of work in conservation. She didn’t necessarily know how soon or how it would completely change her life forever.
One experience that helped cement her decision to move occurred when she was applying for a law job after her first lifechanging trip to Costa Rica. She detailed the story as follows: “The interviewer, I’ll never forget him. He said, ‘If I give you this job, what’s your plan?’ I told him how my plan was to move to Costa Rica and work with a small conservation group there on the ground educating communities and see where that takes me. He said, ‘Move to Costa Rica, because I’ve got fifteen lawyers who want this job, and not one of that gave me an answer like that. Go. I’m not giving you this job, and this is going to be the most important “no” of your life.’”
He was right. She took his advice, packed up her life in Louisiana, where she had a family and had just gotten an environmental law degree, and moved to Costa Rica. She began by immediately working with the conservation group from her first visit. However, in the face of massive, national deforestation trends, where people both foreign and native were chopping down trees to create land for unsustainable agriculture, she saw a need for tree planting and she decided to fill it. Thus, Community Carbon Trees was born. It was one of the first major tree planting groups in the world, though many now exist and have followed ACCT’s reforestation model.
If you’re like me, you might not initially think that something as seemingly innocuous as tree planting would cause up much of a stir anywhere, let alone Costa Rica since it is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Jenny thought the same. However, she has learned throughout the past twenty-two years in Costa Rica that the opposite is most often true. Many local people are reliant on cutting down trees on their property to sell the land, making this work their primary source of income. The locals also saw many foreigners coming in and buying lots of land to do the same. In the face of local environmental efforts to protect the trees, the foreigners were often exempt from the consequences while the locals bore the brunt of the effects, and this caused the locals to be defensive in the face of unfair contrast.
As such, Jenny faced a lot of push back from local Costa Ricans during the first decade of her time in Costa Rica. She believes that she contributed to some of this, as she says she came into the country without an understanding of why the local people weren’t passionate about work like hers and did not engage in similar work themselves. “I thought, ‘Why don’t they just get out there and plant some trees? I don’t understand. They’re sitting on their porch, they’re poor, they have all this land, and they’re just sitting around on it.’ I was really turned off [by this] but it was because I didn’t understand or see what the problem was.”
This root problem was poverty and a lack of education. She said that it took a few “humiliating” experiences for her to learn why this was the case, the most important of which led to the death of her dog.
“It was actually one of my neighbors who cut down a huge piece of forest and made lots for sale. The day that the tractors and chainsaws were there, you could hear the monkeys and hawks screaming. I run down there and the lawyer in me came out. ‘This is against the law. Where’s your permit?’ I asked. This man got in my face and he threatened me physically, told me I needed to watch out because ‘no foreigner was going to come to his country and tell him what he could or couldn’t do.’ That I didn’t get it, and all the ‘Gringos’ were doing exactly what he was doing. ‘Why can they do it and I can’t?’ he questioned.”
Jenny agreed with him: no one should be doing this, foreigner or local. She described how she refused to back down, and she ended up calling the relevant environmental government branch on him. “They came and opened a case, and then my dog ended up dead. Then the tire rolled off my truck.” She said she attributed the death to the neighbor, given his access to her home, and the tire to someone from a different case, as it happened in one of her work zones in a different province.
“I was young and naïve; I didn’t realize that people would come after me. It was about three months of pure fear and stress. It really woke me up. I went and faced my neighbor about a month later and asked to sit down and talk. I never accused him of anything with the dog because I knew it would just make things work. I said, ‘Please. I’d like to listen to you more and for you to share your perspective with me. I’m listening.’
“He was really straight-up about it, and he thanked me. He told me it took a lot of courage and humility to face him. He told me how he had to feed his family, and that clearing trees was the only way for him to get money, that the only thing he had was his land.”
Jenny then told her neighbor that she was going to drop the legal case. Additionally, she made him an offer: she would give him some of the fruit trees from her nursery within ACCT, and in exchange for pay, he would grow them and take care of them for years to come. “Everything about the experience changed right before my eyes. His face lit up. And I realized that if he’s going to do it, so are so many other people. It was such a big moment, inspired initially by what could be perceived as a failure on my part: to be respectful, to not get off of my high horse, and to be arrogant while I was privileged.”
From this experience, she learned about how important it was to listen to the people and understand the local problems that prevented them from having her same perspective about the value of the forest. Through listening, she further discovered the poverty dynamics in the country, and the stagnation that existed in job creation for those who lived on these isolated farmlands. She then became passionate about making sure that her work benefited both the people and the planet. She has made sure that every land-owning family she has worked with has been paid fairly for their labor.
By paying these families, they are then incentivized to take care of the trees and make sure they mature properly. If the families were just given trees and no education on how to make profit from them, they would most likely abandon the efforts and ACCT’s work would be for nothing, as has been the case in many other tree planting efforts in Costa Rica. This means that mortality rates for Community Carbon Trees are low, and success rates are higher than ever before.
Incorporating equity in Community Carbon Trees meant transitioning away from an original focus on working solely with those foreign buyers that Jenny’s neighbor spoke of. When asked how she made the transition, she stressed that it was necessary to maintain the private work in order to get the funds to support ACCT’s ability to pay local families for their work. In doing this, Community Carbon Trees has maintained a nonprofit status. This has taken a lot of strategy and hard work to accomplish.
When it comes down to it, Jenny has made big sacrifices in her life to accomplish the critical work she has in Costa Rica. She has left her home behind in the United States. She has lost her dog. She has stayed out of relationships for most of her time abroad. She missed out on a lot of fun with friends and family, choosing instead to work so she can achieve her lifelong commitment to the cause. She explained how it has been hard to find for someone as driven as herself. “I live alone and I’m not involved in a romantic relationship, and for now I just noticed I’m very careful about getting involved in someone because I know how much energy that takes. Unless it’s someone who really matches and empowers and supports me to be stronger and more supported on this mission, then it’s a no. My destiny is to carry this mission until my last breath and not get distracted by frivolities of wasting time.”
To close the interview, I asked her for the advice she would give herself twenty-two years ago if she could, or anyone else now who feels drawn to activism and wants to shape their lives around it as she has, in reflecting upon the lessons she’s learned. “It’s been key to know your numbers, all your costs. You also have to know how much you can take physically and mentally. If I get overwhelmed, I’m going to be paralyzed by fear and stress and that can lead to sickness. So having a good relaxation process like meditation, yoga, or time off for rest is key. As we talked about having a safety net [both personal and professional], it’s important to have a creative outlet to balance the work, activism, and stress. It makes the activism more joyful, and we’re going to accomplish more through joy.”
On this subject, she described how she had spent years getting worked up over seeing other international tree planting groups doing their work without looking at the bigger picture or using as holistic an approach as hers in ACCT. She said that these years weren’t joyful, and it wasn’t productive to call them out on it. ”If the leader [of an environmental group] gets burned out, if you can’t have a sense of balance in your life, you’ll never carry an organization for two decades.”
Lastly, she provided this wisdom to those who may be hesitant on going into an environmental career: “I say take the leap. It is a leap of faith to find your purpose and know that you are born to do something for humanity. Whatever that little thing that wells up in your heart is, lean in. Jump. You can always fail, up. Do what makes you happy.”
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