Making a Difference: Trees, Water and People

Libby James

“We’re busier than ever,” said Sebastian Africano, executive director of the international non-profit Trees, Water and People. Based in Fort Collins with a staff of 12, TWP maintains partnerships in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, in their mission to improve the lives of rural people by helping their communities to conserve and manage their natural resources. They are also active in this country by providing services and expertise to those living on tribal lands in South Dakota and New Mexico.

Founded in 1998 by foresters Stuart Conway and Richard Fox to address deforestation issues in Central America with the goal of improving the environment, the men soon discovered that they were confronting several underlying causes. With their original goal in mind, they recognized the need to focus on issues such as improving health, creating jobs, and alleviating poverty in rural communities in Central America.

For TWP, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused them to move into high gear providing emergency food aid to communities in U.S. tribal lands and in rural Central America where many live on the edge of food scarcity during the best of times.

“All of us are working remotely these days,” Africano said. Even so, the staff was able to pivot quickly to meet emergency food needs as they emerged.

PHOTO BY TREES, WATER AND PEOPLE: Executive Director Sebastian Africano

With several food relief programs underway, TWP has begun to focus on job creation to generate income, the major factor in promoting economic recovery.

TWP, along with research assistance from Colorado State University, created the Justa clean cookstove which has revolutionized cooking methods in Honduras.  In addition to using 50 to 70 percent less firewood, the stove reduces pollutants escaping into the air. It features an insulated combustion chamber that prevents heat from escaping and makes it safe for interior use.

In addition to providing a more economical, environmentally sound cooking method, constructing the stoves provides an income source for those who build them. To date between 30 and 40 men and women have become certified cookstove builders with masonry and carpentry skills, and are able to provide an income for their families.

PHOTO COURTESY TREES, WATER AND PEOPLE: Kids with a new tree

Africano is uniquely suited for his position in charge of TWP. After earning a business degree from Penn State University and an MBA from Colorado State, he joined TWP as an intern and then went fulltime in 2004. He spent his first years with the organization in Central America between 2005 and 2009. Then he served as deputy international director until 2012 when he began a five-year stint as International Director. In 2017 he became Executive Director.  His experience includes a summer internship at Aproveco Research Center in Oregon where he studied rural technologies, and a time spent in Honduras doing marketing and establishing clean cookstove programs. From a Latin American family, he is bilingual and makes uses of his business and technical training in his current work. “I’m a lifelong tinkerer,” he says another aspect of his makeup that makes him suitable for the job he holds.

TWP is engaged in efforts that range all the way from migration issues to food security, climate change, preservation of natural resources, renewable energy, and job creation—issues that are not quickly or easily resolved. Instead of becoming discouraged by the challenges presented by COVID-19, TWP is developing new strategies and new partnerships in their ceaseless efforts to create a better planet.

The organization is sponsoring a mural at Tenney Court in downtown Fort Collins, on the north side of the street between College Ave. and Mason Street. It has been designed as an interactive work in hopes of destigmatizing migration issues.

While volunteer work for the organization has been temporarily stalled by COVID restrictions, Africano invites anyone interested to consider becoming involved by serving as a member of the TWP board.

Sebastian can be reached at their Fort Collins office 633 Remington Street, 970-484-3678, or online at info@treeswaterpeople.org.