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Del Mar nonprofit appears in award-winning PBS Series

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Shuar tribal member Amable and Nature & Culture President Matt Clark at Waterfall of the Gods, a sacred symbol and ritual place for the Shuar.
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The Del Mar-based nonprofit Nature and Culture International is being featured in a special episode of the PBS series The Visionaries for its critical work in saving the environment. The episode is called “Guardians of the Forest” and will air on Saturday, April 20 on KPBS2 at 5 p.m. The Visionaries is an award-winning public television documentary series hosted by acclaimed actor Sam Waterston of Law & Order fame. The documentary series highlights the rarely told stories of nonprofit organizations all around the world that are working to make a difference in their community and beyond.

Nature and Culture International was started in the early 1990s because of a trip that Ivan Gayler, a San Diego businessman, made to South America with his daughter. Flying over the Amazon, he saw a web of logging roads and fires burning down lush forests.

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Nature & Culture works in diverse ecosystems, such as the Amazon rainforest, home to fascinating creatures such as the arboreal three-toed sloth, a species that evolved 40 million years ago. Courtesy

“I was in tears for a couple hours, seeing the last great ecosystem of our planet disappearing before my eyes,” he recalls.

The sight moved him to form the nonprofit, and since then the small but mighty organization has helped to preserve 17 million acres of tropical rain forest and biodiverse ecosystems in South America and Mexico. Consolidated, that’s an area almost eight times the size of Yellowstone National Park. That translates to at least a billion tons of carbon kept out of the atmosphere.

Those same acres are home to thousands of species, many of them not yet known to science. Matthew Clark, president and CEO of Nature and Culture International, gives an example of the density of new species. “Ecuador is about the size of Colorado and it has 70 percent more bird species than all of North America. These ecosystems are packed; they are so biodiverse.”

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The Visionaries film crew crossing the Nangaritza River in southern Ecuador. Courtesy

Clark lived in Ecuador with his family for three and a half years starting in 2015, working in communications and fundraising for NCI before becoming president and CEO in 2018.

“I’ve loved Latin America since doing volunteer work in Mexico in college. But I was specifically drawn to Nature and Culture by the community-based ethos,” Clark said. “There’s a commitment throughout the organization to listen carefully to local communities and what they want and need, and to treat them as equal partners. The organization feels very egalitarian to me. I like that.”

Clark played the role of translator for the filming of “Guardians of the Forest” since the interviewer and producer, Jody Santos, didn’t speak Spanish. He admits that being able to tell the personal stories of people the organization has helped is the most heartwarming for him.

“Just last Saturday,” he recounts, “I met a young woman named Fernanda Tiwi in the Shuar village of Kiim. The Shuar are one of Ecuador’s 13 indigenous nationalities. Fernanda had been selected to study agronomy at a university in Costa Rica based on her traditional ecological knowledge of Shuar gardens called ajas. Fernanda learned from her mother, Rosa Tiwi, whom Nature and Culture partnered with on a project to promote Shuar ajas. So in some small way, it feels like we helped support Fernanda’s university success.”

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With the support of their donors, Nature & Culture has protected over 17 million acres of threatened ecosystems in Latin America. Courtesy

When asked what the most pressing environmental problem is right now globally, Clark does not hesitate in his answer. “Climate change, without a doubt, both for the U.S. and globally. I believe it will affect everyone on the planet and every aspect of life, in ways we don’t fathom. Tropical deforestation counts for about 20 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. So saving tropical forests is a big part of any climate change solution, and it’s why those 17 million acres are so important.”

Why should we care? As our ecosystems erode, they stop functioning properly. If too much pressure is put on them, they no longer provide clean water, clean air, climate regulation, functioning soils or pollination. “Can you imagine a world without bees?” Clark questions. “How are we going to eat?”

Clark explains why he’s so passionate about these issues. “Because people I love depend on and deserve clean water, healthy air and a comfortable climate. And because so much of my joy, peace and sense of wonder has come from nature. I want to save that for all the children being born now.”

The PBS episode will air nationally, and Clark and all board and staff members at Nature and Culture International hope the segment helps to educate thousands of people as to why tropical forests are important even here in the United States. He hopes people realize that the Amazon rain forest is big enough that it actually impacts climate change in this country.

“After watching the show, I hope people visit our website to learn more about what we are doing and how they can help,” Clark says. “And if they aren’t already, I hope they get involved in conservation and climate change mitigation in their own backyards as well.”

The Visionaries episode, “Guardians of the Forest,” airs April 20 at 5 p.m. on KPBS2. To learn more about the nonprofit, go to natureandculture.org.