Local Activist, Nobel Winner Work to Reforest Haiti
By Kristin Hamm
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
AT WORK IN HAITI: Broomfield resident Karen Ashmore is pictured with young Haitian girls, children of members of a group that built a tree nursery there last month.
Emboldened by her success in getting folk singer Pete Seeger's autograph, Karen Ashmore walked right up to the first female African Nobel Peace Prize-winner to pitch an idea.
Soon a partnership was born, and eventually Haitians will benefit as 1 million trees will be planted in that country, which has suffered from massive deforestation.
Ashmore, a Broomfield resident and executive director of the Lambi Fund, met Wangari Maathai at an environmental grant-makers conference in New York. Maathai, is a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She is the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which works through networks of rural women and has planted more than 30 million trees across Kenya since 1977. She is also an elected member of Kenya's Parliament.
Ashmore, who is not typically afraid to raise her voice and be heard, said she felt pretty intimidated before approaching Maathai.
"It was at an opening reception. They had one of those Bingo games to get people to move around and talk to other people," Ashmore said. "The cards say something like 'find someone who plays a musical instrument.'
"Pete Seeger, the folk musician, was standing off in the corner," she said. "So I walked up to him and said 'I bet you play an instrument.'"
Ashmore ended up with Seeger's autograph and a dose of confidence that led her to Maathai.
"He didn't bite my head off, so I thought, why not?"
The Lambi Fund, which Ashmore has been heading since 2004, has goals similar to those of the Green Belt Movement. The Lambi Fund's mission is to assist the democratic movement in Haiti. It partners with peasant-led organizations on sustainable developments — both economically and environmentally sustainable, Ashmore said. The group has a smaller grassroots reforestation project under way.
The Green Belt Movement provides income and sustenance to millions of people in Kenya through planting trees.
The two women hit it off quickly.
"I went up to her and told her about Lambi Fund and the issues Haiti is facing with deforestation," Ashmore said. "She immediately latched onto the idea.
"She called me the next day and said she'd like to partner with us."
So, that was fall 2005 and now it's 2007, meetings have transpired, enough money has been raised to get started and now the real work begins.
First the Green Belt workers will go to Haiti and visit the smaller Lambi reforestation projects.
"Then we'll sit down and think about ways we can structure a big, nationwide roll out," Ashmore said. "We will be able to draw on their 30 years of training and expertise."
In the meantime more funds are being raised to make this a lasting project and a Colorado donor has put up a challenge grant. Wendy Emrich, who sits on the Lambi board, is offering to match up to $7,000 in donations made by Coloradans. Emrich, of Denver, like Ashmore, has adopted two children from Haiti, and is a longtime environmental activist.
"My personal work in the world has been as an activist for social and environmental change and those things come together in Haiti. There is a unique opportunity right now with the partnership with the Green Belt Movement … . Itcrosses political lines. It's about basic survival for the Haitians and taking care of our planet."
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of the population living under the poverty line and 54 percent in abject poverty, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Two-thirds of all Haitians depend on the agriculture sector, mainly small-scale subsistence farming and remain vulnerable to damage from frequent natural disasters, exacerbated by the country's widespread deforestation, according to the CIA.
Ashmore does her part to get Broomfield involved in helping Haitians. A typical suburban dweller might not understand the problems created by deforestation, but Ashmore helps to bring it home.
She speaks to classes at Broomfield High School and this year showed them how their money can help. The BHS French club raised $1,100 for the Lambi Fund — enough to buy 11 pigs. After seeing photos of Ashmore in Haiti with the pigs they funded and hearing how they replaced pigs killed by floodwaters, which could've been prevented by trees, the students got it. Tropical storms are a calamity in Haiti, Jeanne in 2004 killed more than 1,000, thanks in part to deforestation.
Ashmore was drawn to help Haiti, starting with a dream in 2001 where a little girl appeared and said "please adopt me" and winding up heading an international organization out of her Broomfield home office. Ashmore, who has more than 20 years experience in social change philanthropy and has won awards for her activism in human rights, racial justice and women's issues, sees a need and tries to fill it. Even after a bad experience of being kidnapped and robbed in Haiti during the coup in 2005, she can't stay away.
"If anything it made me see even more why we need the Lambi Fund," she said. "They robbed us because they were in desperate financial straits and the root cause of that was the political instablity. It's another reason to work to democracy.
"Plus the people that helped us are so wonderful."