Eliot Logan-Hines promised himself he'd save the rainforest at just 6 years old.
"I remember watching this creek behind my house [in Austin, Texas] just become more and more polluted," Logan-Hines, now 28, recalled. "I remember just getting so upset and wanting to know why this was happening." Taking care of a classroom iguana in the third grade helped to seal his decision.
It's safe to say that Logan-Hines, the executive director of the Runa Foundation and a Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies graduate, has made good on his word. Based in Ecuador, Logan-Hines' nonprofit organization works specifically with indigenous Kichwa farmers in the nation's Amazon region who are producing guayusa (pronounced gwhy-you-suh), a plant grown for iced tea and other beverages that is quickly becoming a hot commodity on the international market. But unlike other organizations, Runa (a Kichwa word that loosely translates to "fully living human being") aspires to "go beyond fair trade" by taking a unique, environmentally conscious approach to the process. Among its tasks: planting what Runa members describe as "buffer zones" of guayusa and other plants around valuable areas of the Amazon rainforest in order to conserve them.
As Logan-Hines notes, the Runa Foundation has two concise goals: to allow Kichwa farmers to "participate in the global economy using renewable resources" and to conserve the rainforest -- unique challenges in a region where the inhabitants are eager to develop their community yet have limited access to both materials and funding. In addition to helping plant the "buffer zones," Runa members also conduct workshops on sustainable agriculture management and hold agroforestry training courses for area farmers. To date, Logan-Hines estimates the Runa team has reached 1,000 farmers in 70 different Ecuadorian communities since the organization's 2010 establishment.
"We want to work with indigenous people who know the forest, who know the plants and figure out how we can live in a world where the market system can also respect the forest," Logan-Hines, who now lives in Ecuador full time, told The Huffington Post. "The Kichwa are people who come from a very different mindset and culture. But I think the key to our success is that we put the power and the responsibility into their hands."
Still, the Runa team has faced a number of hurdles in its first year -- not the least of which is local confusion over the specifics of deforestation and both its immediate and long-term impacts. "Sometimes the destruction is unnoticeable; it's very hard to detect as it happens on that small of a scale," Logan-Hines acknowledged.
Harvesting the guayusa, he added, has less obvious benefits, as it reduces the need for farmers and other area residents to harvest materials from the rainforest illegally. The Runa team is aiming to plant over 2 million trees within five years, and reforest over 740 hectares of rainforest in the next two. (So far, 100,000 trees have already been planted in the past year.)
But for Logan-Hines, who fell in love with Latin America while in college, the best part of the process is simply witnessing the love Kichwa farmers feel for their craft. "It's a large part of their cultural heritage, there's a lot of pride around it," he said of local farmers' views on guayusa. "It gives them a lot of pride that they can share their culture, and I hope that's something that will continue to increase."
For more information on the Runa Foundation, click here.