Scott Landis was a hunting and fishing guide, woodworker and writer before a story alerted him to the ongoing threat to the rain forests more than 20 years ago.

The experience led the South Berwick resident to create GreenWood, a nonprofit that provides woodworking training to Hondurans and Peruvians and then connects them to companies, largely in the U.S., that buy their goods.

The relationship gives those who live near rain forests a financial incentive to manage and sustain the forests, rather than burn or cut them down to make way for agriculture. One of the more successful ventures ties the Honduran and Peruvian craftspeople to guitar manufacturers.

GreenWood and Madera Verde, the Honduran nonprofit that Landis founded, recently were awarded the Yale School of Forestry’s first-ever Innovation Prize.

Q: How did Madera Verde and GreenWood come about? 

A: It was a combination of my background and interests in woodworking and writing and forests. It grew out of an assignment I had in the late 1980s to write about a native cooperative that was conducting its first export of wood to California. It was using an experimental forest management process and, in covering that story, I went to Peru, to the Amazon, and interviewed woodworkers there. That eventually led to the Woodworkers’ Alliance for Rainforest Protection or WARP. The Honduras venture was a WARP field project that was established in 1993 and focused on forest certification (of sustainable practices). GreenWood was formed to deliver the woodworking training to the Hondurans and the Peruvians and the market development that we started with that project.

The impetus for the foundation of WARP was, when I got back from Peru in the late ’80s and early ’90s there were boycotts of tropical woods. On the one hand, environmentalists were saying, “Don’t cut down the rain forests,” but the wood dealers were saying, “We’re the only ones getting money into the rain forest, so if you boycott this wood, you’ll eliminate an incentive to maintain the rain forests.”

If the forest is managed wisely and carefully, and if that’s paired with quality production and innovative marketing and sales, it can be done sustainably.

Q: Why did you use that approach? 

A: It grew out of a desire to address the decline of the rain forests and a perception that the strongest advocates and those with the greatest stake in preserving rain forests are the people who live there. They need to find a productive way to use those forests as forests and to maintain them. The alternative was to clear-cut them and convert them to agriculture. We set about from a woodworker’s perspective to train woodworkers to make products and find a market for them. 

Q: What are the markets? 

A: The markets are various. In Honduras, we’ve trained furniture makers who sell to local markets, wood turners who sell locally and, to an extent, internationally. But our most successful product has been to create guitar parts for some musical instrument makers in the U.S. In Peru, we work with different markets. The focus there is hand-carved artistry, like tableware and bowls and platters and simple furniture. We basically represent a network of woodworking artisans who do furniture and boat-building and musical instruments, and our focus is on finding the right product that can be made with local tools and connect that to the best market. 

Q: Do you feel like you’re making a difference? 

A: We are. The challenges come from many different directions. We’ve seen a tremendous impact in the incomes provided for the artisans we work with and their communities. We’ve seen the communities reinvest the money in developmental infrastructure.

For instance, in two communities, they’re investing that money in micro-hydroelectric projects that bring electricity to their communities, so they have lights for the first time and refrigeration for the first time. They’ve improved their roads and schools.

But they’re beset by challenges. Honduras has become a major transit point for narcotics from Colombia, there’s wildcat gold mining that’s illegal, and outside people who have moved in and cleared and burned (the rain forests), and there’s pressure from those groups. There’s very little governance from the government of Honduras, and there are similar problems in Peru that are maybe not as acute as in Honduras. 

Q: Do you feel your approach is innovative? 

A: I’ve been at this for 20-plus years, and maybe five or six years ago I spoke to a conference and I thought I would run into other folks from around the world doing something similar. But it was a room full of foresters doing good forest management as far as I could tell, but they were encountering the same problem of how we keep this forestry going if we don’t have products and markets and sales. And they asked me a lot of questions about our approach, so what we were doing was pretty unique.

Part of our basic message is there isn’t one formula, there’s no silver bullet. We’ve done it differently in Peru than in Honduras, and if we go into a new community we do it differently, too, so we feel like we bring something new to the table. 

Q: Do you think your effort could expand? 

A: Our focus has mainly been on Latin America, but as we get out and get around, we talk to folks from Africa and Asia and from the north. Our expansion is limited by size and resources, but we think there are many places where this approach would apply. 

Q: What is the basic lesson you’ve learned from the success of GreenWood? 

A: It’s really about relationships. When we won the Yale prize, we described what we do as a “green broker network.”

Brokers don’t have a great reputation – the word is translated in Spanish as “coyote.” But we did want people to think about how that relationship could be different and positive. We act as a broker and trainer for our clients in the communities, as well as the companies on the other end that are buying the products.

We plan to expand not just geographically but into the communities themselves, to help them use more of the tree that’s harvested, for instance. So we try to find different markets and products and also to expand to use a wider variety of (tree) species, including species that currently don’t have markets.

Even though the rain forest has hundreds of species, there’s only a market for a handful of species and that’s the problem – that once those species are used, the rest of the forest has no economic value. 

Ed Murphy can be contacted at 207-791-6465 or:

emurphy@pressherald.com