Written by: Shareshten Senior

Jennifer Leigh Smith founded Community Carbon Trees, which contributes to reforestation in Costa Rica in a big way. Community Carbon Trees is a non-profit, community-based organization that produces a highly diverse selection of rare native tropical trees in collaborative tree nurseries and then carefully transports and plants them in a natural forest matrix on deforested cattle pastures owned by struggling farmers. Community Carbon Trees is unique because long-term follow up tree maintenance by fairly paid men and women forms an integral part of the collaborative program designed to empower people living in vulnerable rainforest communities in order to stop deforestation. Jennifer continues to participate in climate change educational presentations with groups, festivals, conferences, schools, and businesses. She is connecting the dots and working to share the ACCT community reforestation model with native diverse species and long-term forest maintenance around the world. Jennifer is available to give dynamic presentations with a range of focus depending on the needs of your group. Her presentations highlight solutions and social entrepreneurship and the magni cent role trees and humans play in meeting a broad range of social and environmental challenges

SYJ: What is your next evolution?  Are there eco-projects being born out of this project that you didn’t foresee?  Have you inspired others to take a leap?

Jenny: So far we have reforested 16 family farms in San Juan de Dios community. We will keep working in this zone while expanding to two new marginalized communities this year, and one more new community in 2017. This feels good. We have been building these collaborations for years already and are in the process of making initial meetings with farm owners to design their projects.

We have two new eco-tourism sites at two different ACCT participating farms now, both planted and maintained by our reforestation crews. Tourists love the extra educational aspect of seeing the reforestation while frolicking in the waterfalls. The participating families make extra income for themselves and genuinely love showing off their work and sharing their love of Nature.  The women’s group is available to prepare yummy locally grown food and juices. What’s not to love?

Our group of 37 women purchased a small piece of land together, with each of us putting in $250, myself included. We are seeking funding to build a ACCT Connect Center complete with a big kitchen for the chocolate-making process, cheese making, soap making, coconut oil making, nut butter making and other community projects fostering arts and crafts made out of natural materials. All of these projects grew naturally out of simply paying the people to plant the trees, which, in turn, raised their self-esteem, cultivated dedication and connection to the trees and to one another.  Empowerment inevitably leads to self-initiated and self-sustained action for the benefit of all.

We have also noted a definite decrease in the use of herbicides and pesticides on the farms and in the communities where we plant. In exchange for ACCT paying people to plant and maintain the trees, farm owners must agree to zero herbicide or pesticide use. Although old habits take time to change, we are winning farmers over, one by one, since we pay them to chop the grasses, not kill it with herbicide. In addition, once the women in any community learn how to make the fertile compost, and start using it in their own gardens and in the tree nursery, it is easy to convince them to stop using the more expensive and destructive chemicals on their land. Now, they grow and harvest all kinds of beautiful fruits and organic vegetables for themselves, and sell the extra at two local farmer’s markets.

After teaching in so many schools and communities for so many years, hosting so many Kid’s Nature Days, seeing teachers and people struggle with understanding climate change, I am also currently working on a curriculum with hands-on study-play focusing on the lifecycles of nature such as hydrological systems, carbon cycles, nitrogen cycles, carbon footprints, and sustainable use of human resources, particularly the tropical rainforest in order to create profitable, triple bottom-line business opportunities. We also want to collaborate on a kid-inspired book: 50 Reasons We Love Rainforest Trees!

SYJ: Are you partnered with other organizations around the world doing similar work? If so, who can we check out to support more work like this?

Jenny: Yes, we are happy that other small tree planting groups around the globe have continually reached out for comparison, guidance, capacity building, and inspiration. I use Google hangouts and Skype conference calls, both of which are easy tools for reaching across the miles.

Some of these groups have grown much bigger than ACCT for a multitude of reasons such as profitable government connections, lower wages for labor, superior marketing outreach and location in desperately impoverished countries gathering the attention of the world. For example, I participated from the beginning with the founders of Growtrees.com in Bangladesh, India over a six month period while they built their program to include community collaboration like ACCT.

I am also in touch with a brother/sister team in Pakistan who are quite effective over the last four years helping to build the GreenTap movement throughout the region. They too have started diverse tree nurseries with communities and have private and public funding to pay workers for planting the trees. I have consulted with several women’s groups in Africa who participate in the GREENBELT movement created by Wangari Mathaii, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for planting millions of trees with women about 18 years ago. In fact, I was nominated to receive the Wangari Mathaii award in 2016. I also remain in contact with a groups in Haiti (Diaspora Foundation) whom I meet every year at a seminar called Sustainatopia.

Closer to home, I remain active in Pacto por la Vida-Reforestando CentroAmerica which was set into motion over five years ago through a kick-off conference in Guatemala hosted by the UICN or Union International for the Conservation of Natural Resources. Through this organizational framework, I stay in touch with so many people doing the same kind of work as ACCT here in Central America. We all report our annual tree planting with species and locations and share successes and challenges with each other on a yearly basis.

I remain active with activists and scientists from around the world whom I met and studied with for five days in Chicago in 2013 for Chairman Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps. Recently, I was chosen to send a two minute video to Paris COP21 on behalf of ACCT and CRLC, highlighting how planting tropical trees with fairly paid communities stops deforestation. And just a few weeks ago, ACCT was asked to host professors and students from the University of Austria at Vienna for capacitating better community interaction in ongoing reforestation projects in the Golfito region of Costa Rica. Finally, we are currently creating a database of carbon sequestration rates for bio-diverse forest matrix plantings with small farmers for Earth University Carbon Neutral Unit here in Costa Rica.

SYJ: Did you have any mentors or teachers that helped you align on your path in a big way to make this happen? Can you tell us about some of the wisdom you inherited from them?

Jenny: Yes, teachers along the way have come in many forms. When the student is ready the teacher appears. Teachers present themselves everywhere, everyday, for as long as I can remember.

I had a pretty serious accident as a child when I was five. Strangely enough, I fell on a stick. It’s pretty weird that I literally impaled myself on a piece of a wood. I was dancing and doing little kid pirouettes on a huge fallen tree while using a rose bush stake to balance on the ground. It was a deep puncture wound that left splinters in my leg. I struggled to heal for years. I endured five surgeries. I missed a lot of school and spent a lot of time alone. I learned to happily entertain myself.  Now, I have a pretty awesome scar to remind me how strong I am, how lucky I am. I still have my leg! This accident was the beginning of my vow to do something I believed to be “worthy” in this life. I think this is a question we all ask. Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? It is different for each of us. But one thing is true for all of us in my humble opinion. We have to take care of the Earth, get in balance with her and give back to her for all she gives to us. Taking care of the Earth is also saying YES to life.

My first mentor in my law career pushed me to research and help him finalize the first environmental legislation dealing with agrochemical runoff pollution in the United States. I worked on his lifetime project with him for about 3 years just prior to it being published as the Stormwater Runoff Act.  I also worked on one of the first environmental racism cases in what they call “Cancer Alley”, Louisiana. We won in favor of the African-American residents at the lower court level.  But, when the decision was overturned on appeal, I suffered greatly. I was angry. It was unjust. I started to doubt whether I had thick enough skin to be in the law profession.

So I decided to take a well-earned vacation. I came to Costa Rica for the first time in 1998. It was then that Nature reminded me of all those seeds that had been planted in me. They started to germinate. Soon enough, I was completely transformed. Yes, just like a seed, I had to completely destroy much of my “old life” to grow into the real, authentic me. I was ready. It was time. Conditions were right. I went home from that 10 day vacation and announced to the law firm, my family, my dearest friends that I was moving to Costa Rica to “save the rainforest”. It took me a year to unravel what really was a good life, get rid of all my stuff, bolt without burning bridges. I did not know how I was going to do it, but I was willing to just put myself out there and try.  I left Baton Rouge with two backpacks and a dog named Chica, a blue heeler who was my constant companion for 15 years. It seemed so crazy to so many people back then and even now it feels like a dream. But my mother put me on that plane and told me I was living out her dream, too. I still shed a few emotional tears today when I think about it. Living in a third-world country for 17 years, far away from home all this time, has been an adventure to say the least, with its share of lessons, rewards and sacrifices. Pura vida.

I give thanks for all the steps along the way. I learned so much from so many agroforestry engineers. I learned just as much from the local people, especially the old country folks, the tree lovers, the medicinal plant people. And the children who come to our activities teach me so much honesty.  They remind me that my connection to my own childlike wonder is where my innocence and pure bliss resides.  I think this is one of the reasons that Sofiah Thom and I resonate on a more personal level. She encourages people to say yes to their purpose by painting on the canvas of their dreams and dancing like nobody is watching. I love her message. It is working for me!

By observing Nature, I see that there is always enough time. Growth is slow and steady. Fruits fall into your hands when they are ready. We reap what we sow. Grasping does not nourish. Nature shows me the expansion and contraction, the natural ebb and flow. This helps me to let go.  It takes the pressure off trying to accomplish any given result.  We all live under the same sky. Everything is OK.

I think when people can reconnect and remember their interdependence with Nature, actually see it, breathe it, and live it for real, then they begin to act more globally, not just locally. Taking care of our bigger ecosystems like the atmosphere, the soils, the forests, the water cycle is essentially taking care of ourselves, honoring the memory of our ancestors and respecting the promise of Future Generations. This is what I have learned and what I want to share with the world. No matter what your purpose in this Life is, it will be that much stronger and nourishing for you and others, when you use it to give back to Nature.

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