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The San Diego Union Tribune Interviews NCI Founder Ivan Gayler on Saving the planet, one forest at a time.



Ivan Gayler (Eduardo Contreras/San Diego Union-Tribune)

By Lisa Deaderick, Union Tribune

September 25, 2016 – From 30,000 feet, while flying over the Amazon 30 years ago, Ivan Gayler saw a pattern of logging roads and forest fires. It was too much destruction.

“The greatest ecosystem on the planet was disappearing before our very eyes,” he says. “Believing the loss of biodiversity and changes to global climate were the two greatest issues of our era, I knew I had to act.”

He acted by founding Nature and Culture International (NCI), a conservation non-profit aimed at helping local and indigenous people secure rain forests for preservation in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico. The organization has offices in Del Mar, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru, and is committed to maintaining the biodiversity in nature and the cultural diversity of each region. He’s created a system in which donors and conservationists in the field work against deforestation of threatened ecosystems, he says.

Gayler, 63, lives in Del Mar and serves as chairman emeritus of NCI. He spent years as a developer, notably for developing and then selling the Del Mar Plaza in the late 1980s. While he could create another shopping center, he’s grown more interested in assisting nature in its creations and talks about his organization and their work, and why biodiversity is so important to him.

Q: How would you describe NCI?
A: At the heart of our mission, we empower local people to protect their land in a way that is lasting and meaningful to them. This is done by providing them with economic resources, expertise, education and full-time staff to get the work done. We ask communities to share their conservation dreams with us. We then help them develop, organize and execute a conservation plan that meets their needs.
Q: What, specifically, does your organization do to help local people preserve their forests?
A: The answer to this question depends on the situation, as no one model works for lasting conservation. Our strengths are that we work and act locally, and can adapt programs to suit the needs of local people. In some cases, we help indigenous communities acquire land titles or create community reserves for their ancestral land. In other cases, we work with local governments and water authorities to establish biodiversity and watershed reserves to ensure clean drinking water for surrounding communities. Every situation requires thoughtful, specific and creative solutions.
Q: Why do you believe biodiversity is important?
A: The importance of biodiversity is interwoven throughout our daily experience from the variety of foods that we eat, the fresh air we breathe and water we drink. Further, an estimated 40 percent of all pharmaceuticals can trace their origins from nature sources. If we don’t attend to the loss of global habitat and biodiversity, we will also lose unknown scientific information that could lead to new medicines, crops and understanding of ourselves.
What I love about Del Mar …
What I love most about Del Mar is that it is not just where I live but it is truly my home amongst friends with similar values.
Q: What is the biodiversity in that region like compared to, say, ours?
A: The biodiversity of tropical forests in Latin America are far richer than the temperate forests of the United States. For example, the United States is 35 times the size of Ecuador but Ecuador has nearly twice the number of bird species (1,700 species compared to 900). While it’s hard to think about conservation beyond our backyard, these threatened regions need the attention of the world due to their critical importance to life on earth.
Q: Why the focus on those five Latin American countries?
A: We started in southern Ecuador because it is considered one of the most important biodiversity hotspots in the world. Due to the Huancabamba Depression, a low point between the northern and southern Andes Mountains, a remarkable amount of species survived the last ice age over 12,000 years ago. We started by establishing a scientific research station near Loja, Ecuador, to study this region rich in biodiversity. … When we recognized that the conservation model worked, we started opening local offices in Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia and Brazil.
Q: What was the initial response from local and indigenous people in those countries when your organization first started its work there?
A: Our offices in Latin America are located in threatened areas and staffed by local conservationists who build trust with locals over time. We all recognize that lasting conservation can only occur when locals benefit from the conservation. We now find that communities are approaching us for help with their conservation dreams.
Q: How much land have you helped secure in each country?
A: We’ve helped put over 13 million acres in protection since its inception. That includes 7 million acres throughout five countries in Latin America with another 6 million in biosphere reserves in Ecuador.
Q: How is that land being managed now, compared to what was being done to it before?
A: Land that is not under any type of conservation is in constant threat of deforestation. The key is helping communities to manage their land in a sustainable ways (prevent over fishing, limit clear cutting for agriculture and pastures) while simultaneously creating conservation protections from outside threats. We also help locals to identify and develop sustainable industries (harvesting palm fruit, or palo santo seeds, and creating a market for local art and handicrafts) that provide long-term economic benefits to communities.
Q: What’s been challenging about your work in conservation with NCI?
A: Originally, the biggest challenge was the distance between my home in Del Mar and the work being done in South America. With the creation of the non-profit, I was able to recruit other like-minded conservationists who shared my passion for ecosystem protection. These people now share with me an even greater challenge: to raise the necessary resources to continue and expand our conservation work before the forests disappear forever. It is truly a race for time.
Q: What’s been rewarding about your work?
A: My greatest reward comes from knowing that we are doing great work that is improving people’s everyday lives while preventing the loss of biodiversity and habitat. During these 20 years, I have met extraordinary conservationists who are dedicated to saving their forests. I can now call these people my dear friends and consider them all part of our extended family.
Q: What have you learned about yourself as a result of your work?
A: Service is indeed the highest calling. I realized long ago that I could build another shopping center like the Del Mar Plaza but never in a million years could I create a songbird, a pink river dolphin or a blue morpho butterfly. That has helped me to dedicate my time and resources to help conserve the variety of life on earth. To me the highest expression of life is the variety of life itself.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: “You never recognize a Zen master on the street for he/she is an utterly normal person.” This simple statement has had a profound effect on me in realizing that wisdom and mastery are all around us in the people we meet every day. We have a moral obligation to continue the good work we are doing not for ourselves but for future generations and the health of the planet.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I was a carpenter by trade for over eight years.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: “Doing nothing” except for “a walk-about” in nature.

Lisa Deaderick (September 25, 2016).
Saving the planet, one forest at a time.