Preservation a way of life for tiny Del Mar nonprofit

Sunset in the Maijuna area (Photo: Alvaro del Campo/The Field Museum)
Sunset in the Maijuna area (Photo: Alvaro del Campo/The Field Museum)

By Kathy Day

Some people talk about conservation; Ivan Gayler and the staff at Nature and Culture International live it.

The small-in-staff but large-in-reach nonprofit based in Del Mar began with a vision: a real one of burning rainforests that Solana Beach resident Ivan Gayler saw from the air over Ecuador.

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Nature and Culture International founder Ivan Gayler, program coordinator Silvia Usuriaga, Executive Vice President John Evey (Photo: Kathy Day)

Gayler said in a recent interview at his Del Mar office that he was aghast to see a “multi-mile fire line in the most biologically diverse rainforest in the world.”

Now it has become a “dream to preserve what’s there and to rebuild what’s left,” said the man who may be better known locally as part of the Del Mar Partnership that built Del Mar Plaza. (Another Solana Beach resident who is CEO of the partnership is David Winkler, who sits on the Nature and Culture board.)

Fifteen years ago when Gayler made the decision to leave the real estate business and concentrate on conservation, he said, few efforts existed to preserve and protect the tropical and dry rainforests of Latin American that are under constant siege from indigenous people who clear more and more land to feed their families or drug lords who burn the land for their crops

Today, “there are more threats,” added Silvia Usuriaga, the nonprofit’s program coordinator. A native of Peru, who for three years directed NCI programs in the Peruvian Amazon, she said, “Our countries want everything bigger — more roads, more dams, more access to local markets.”

The forests, she said, are being lost to companies seeking timber, biofuels, soybeans and palm oil.

It is those threats, combined with climate change, that push Gayler — who now is contending with the effects of Parkinson’s disease — and the NCI staff and board to take the organization to new places.

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White-necked jacobin (Photo: Dubi Shapiro)

The newest effort — besides one that will be announced in February — resulted in the government of Loreto, Peru, adopting protection from major development of 15 million acres of headwaters mapped with the support of NCI, 8.8 million acres of which are outside existing reserves. While not providing full protection from potential degradation, the action has already resulted in the relocation of at least one large proposed development project, said John Evey, who recently came on as executive vice president.

It’s just one example of the multi-level strategies of land acquisition, scientific research, environmental education, training scientists, and setting up sustainable development programs, that enables NCI to accomplish a lot with minimal resources, he added.

The organization began with one gesture by Gayler on the day after his nightmarish vision when he asked a local conservationist what it would take to stop the destruction. The answer was to purchase the land between two national parks — 10,000 acres.

When he asked how much and heard the answer “$100,000,” he said, “I told him that instead of remodeling my kitchen I could do something more important.”

Since then, NCI has “ensured the protection of more than 7.7 million acres of imperiled ecosystems,” according to its website natureandculture.org.

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