Though small, a Del Mar nonprofit is making a big impact on the world.
Since 1997, Nature and Culture International has helped protect millions of acres of endangered ecosystems in Latin America.
“We work directly with local communities and governments to develop a vision for conservation and a better life for the people living around conservation areas,” said NCI President Byron Swift.
Although it was more than 20 years ago, NCI founder Ivan Gayler, a Del Mar native, vividly recalled the day his tears moved him to action.
While flying over South America in the early 1990s, Gayler looked down at the Amazon rainforest and saw a lattice of logging roads and land-clearing fires.
Perhaps better known locally as part of the Del Mar Partnership that built Del Mar Plaza, Gayler, a longtime developer, decided to concentrate on conservation more than 15 years ago with the launch of NCI.
“That transformed me,” said Gayler, who co-founded Del Mar Partnership with business partner David Winkler in 1979. “The world’s last great ecosystem was disappearing before my very eyes.”
With Gayler still serving as co-chairman of the board and president of the company, Del Mar Partnership donates office space to NCI. And Winkler, co-chairman and chief executive officer of Del Mar Partnership, previously served on NCI’s board.
When Gayler first launched the foundation, he used his own funds to help build the San Francisco Scientific Station on the northern edge of Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador. There, the German Research Foundation runs what is described as the largest tropical forest research program in the world, while offering training to locals.
Since then, NCI and its partners in Ecuador, Mexico and Peru have conserved 13 million acres of critical ecosystems, ensuring the survival of countless species, through land purchases, community reserves and government reserves. This includes directly supporting the creation of 6.5 million acres of protected areas, and three United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere reserves spanning another 6.5 million acres.
“San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties combined are 4.5 million acres,” Gayler noted. “It’s larger than that.”
Gayler attributes much of the organization’s success to his strategy of working from the ground up.
Though founded in Del Mar, the organization has only six staff members locally, while 150 staff live and work in Ecuador, Mexico and Peru. NCI’s local staff members develop relationships within their communities to better understand and protect the local ecosystems.
“Local people love their forest and want to protect it,” Gayler said. “They just don’t have the resources, so we help them.”
“Our way is working with the local people,” added Silvia Usuriaga, NCI’s program coordinator and chief of staff. A native of Peru, she directed NCI programs in the Peruvian Amazon for three years before joining the U.S. office.
“We are helping them grow in their way, while conserving the forest they depend on.”
This bottom-up approach is also what attracts NCI’s local and global supporters.
After years of supporting the organization, Del Mar City Councilman Dwight Worden traveled to Ecuador in June to witness NCI’s work firsthand. During the 10-day trip, Worden, with his longtime partner, Betty Wheeler, Gayler and NCI staff, visited several NCI field research stations, beginning with a trip to Loja, the capital of Ecuador’s Loja Province, where NCI has an office.
“It’s life-changing,” said Worden, a retired attorney, who specialized in land use, environment and government law for nearly 30 years.
“To actually go in the field and see the environmental battlefront — beautiful rainforests and critical dry forests with big swaths that have been deforested — and see NCI working right there, trying to turn the tide and preserve it, is incredible.”
Of the many NCI projects Worden has learned about over the years, one that stood out, he said, is how the organization helped the community of Catacocha rehabilitate an ancient water system that sustainably supplied water to the town and its fields.
The canals and ponds, which captured water from the nearby hills, were discovered by archaeologists but were gradually covered over by soil and left unattended for many years. NCI helped the town restore these canals to their original function, while conserving and reforesting the forested watershed areas that are the water source for the irrigation system.
Until this project, which began in 2012, the rural farming community did not have sustainable agriculture.
“It’s truly grass-roots, which is why they call it Nature and Culture,” Worden said.
But NCI has even larger goals. The organization aims to save 20 million acres by the year 2020.
“We feel this is the defining issue of our time,” Gayler said. “But we can’t grow without more funding.”
The organization works in 15 regions. It costs NCI about $50,000 annually to open and operate a regional office, Gayler said.
Over the next few years, the organization aims to triple the territory it covers, extending from southern Colombia through Ecuador and Peru to Bolivia. To accomplish this, NCI hopes to establish 45 new regional offices while building the capacities of its existing ones.
“If you believe that life on Earth is important, begin now to conserve it,” said Gayler, noting that according to current projections, the world is losing 2.5 percent of its rainforests every year.
“We have a time limit,” added NCI president Swift, a Solana Beach resident and environmental lawyer who joined the staff in 2003. For more than three decades, he has worked to improve land and resource conservation and environmental policy, working with more than 50 groups in 12 countries.
“We’re trying to save one of the most important resources on the planet.”
The Andes-Amazon region of Latin America is a global hotspot for biodiversity, making it a top priority for conservation.
Not only is it home to an extraordinary array of plants and animals, but the region is also critical to the planet’s life-support systems, including the natural cycles that produce and renew air, water and climate.
In recent decades, however, the tropical and dry forests of Latin America have withered under pressure from farming and logging.
“Everybody has a sense of community,” Worden said. “For some people, their sense of community ends at their front door. For Ivan and NCI, it’s the whole world.
“People need to take a look at their personal sense of community and recognize that it really should be the world. What goes on in Ecuador and South America is directly related to their quality of life, and the quality of life for their children and grandchildren.”
For more about NCI or to donate, visit natureandculture.org.