Preservation a way of life for tiny Del Mar nonprofit


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.

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.

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

Part of the original project, instituted with a consortium of German universities that do tropical ecosystem research and train students at the San Francisco Research Station, was that for every German researcher or professor hired, there would be an Ecuadorian counterpart, Gayler said.

Today there are about 30 Ph.D.s and hundreds in training to follow in their footsteps in a program offering advanced degrees in the biological sciences in Ecuador for Ecuadorian students — something that had not previously been available.

“We have become well known for our ethics,” Gayler added. “Our philosophy is not ‘You should,” but rather ‘How can we help?’”

Usuriaga, who now is based in Del Mar but travels routinely to Mexico and Latin America for NCI, exemplifies the approach. A native of Iquitos, Peru, who described herself as a city girl who wasn’t a conservationist but a business person, worked for a company that exported ornamental fish from the Amazon.

“I didn’t know how life is in the forest,” she said. But while on vacation in the Caribbean, “I saw the fish I was exporting … and felt embarrassed.”

When she returned, she sought out a university in Lima and helped establish a sustainable breeding program that has helped protect the native species.

That experience led her to apply for a job with NCI where she can utilize her “passion for working with local people.”

While working with local artists to develop an enterprise selling their handcrafts in what became one of the first exports out of Iquitos, she became more connected with the environment as she traveled on boats across the Amazon.

She realized, she said, “If you have healthy forests, it is good for people’s lives.”

Evey, who has responsibility for heading up fundraising efforts and is one of only five paid staffers in the U.S. — a fact that Gayler cites frequently as setting them apart from other nonprofits.

A veteran development director who has worked with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the J. Craig Venter Institute as well as university settings, Evey noted that most of the major donors are San Diegans.

“I’ve never seen an organization that produces so much return on its donor dollars,” he said.

Besides its large donors, there are smaller ones too, from people who purchase a “rainforest certificate of appreciation” — $100 to save an acre — to those who go carbon neutral, who are contributing to the effort.

A project with the city of Solana Beach is helping to preserve part of a tropical forest in southern Ecuador. Called the Solana Beach Living Forest Carbon Offset Fund, the goal is to preserve 2,000 acres by encouraging residents to contribute to offset the city’s carbon footprint.

And recently the merchants of Cedros South Crossing presented proceeds from a wine tasting to Gayler and Usuriaga to assist with efforts in the Salitral-Huarmaca Regional Conservation Area in Peru to convert unprotected federal lands to protected status. At a cost of less than a dollar per acres the merchants’ contribution will “fund the conversion of over 450 acres of Peruvian endangered dry forest,“ a press release noted.