Andon Zebal’s eureka moment came when he was confronted with several hundred gallons of honey in Mexico’s Yucatan. The founder of a still-young Charlottesville nonprofit called New Forest Earth was on a post-college solo trek through Central America, trying to figure out how he could create an organization that could help stop the destruction of irreplaceable natural lands in the developing world.
While in Mexico—his mother’s birthplace, and the country where he grew up—he visited a cooperative that had found itself in a sticky situation.
“They were harvesting this wonderful honey, but they couldn’t move it,” Zebal said. “They ended up with a room literally full of honey. They knew how to produce it, but they didn’t know how to sell it.”
That moment inspired the mission of New Forest Earth: Empower indigenous people to protect their forests through the development of sustainable products. It’s not a new concept, but Zebal’s approach is remarkable for a few reasons. He’s built a small network of partners in remote areas of the Americas almost entirely on his own. And he’s just 27.
Zebal, who relocated to Charlottesville from Southeastern Virginia last year, always assumed he’d grow up to be a scientist. But while he was working on his undergraduate biology degree at William and Mary, he hit a turning point. A friend who was studying a woody vine in the Costa Rican rainforest learned her experimental plot had an expiration date, and was slated to be mowed down and turned over to pineapple production a year from when her project started.
“She knew for a fact that it was going to happen, and she couldn’t do anything about it,” Zebal said. Something shifted in him then. “I realized I wanted to solve problems instead of studying problems. That changed my life trajectory a little.”
A lot, actually. After graduation in 2009 he set out on a quest, and his plans to save endangered ecosystems took shape.
Originally, he had hoped to start an organization that could buy up threatened land, but as he made his way through Mexico’s tropical Yucatan and the highlands of Chiapas, he realized the best stewards of the forest already lived there, and many were actively seeking ways to make a living that didn’t involve logging or destructive farming. They didn’t need to be displaced. What they did need was reliable access to people who would buy what they were selling.
On that trip, he connected with a Mexican cooperative called Taller de los Leñateros whose Mayan members make handmade journals from natural, sustainably harvested fibers. Later, while serving as a field assistant to a researcher friend in Ecuador, he met members of the native Amazonian Waorani tribe who were trying to free their families from dependency on handouts from oil companies looking to drill on their crude-rich land by selling jewelry made of seeds and palm leaves.
Zebal is now working to create a local market for their goods in Charlottesville, selling online and from a vendor table on the Downtown Mall on sunny days. He’s hoping to establish nonprofit status for his venture soon, and turn the income stream—currently just big enough to cover expenses, and, theoretically, his own rent—back to the communities it springs from via reforestation efforts and cultural development.
In the meantime, he’s building an educational program at the Tandem Friends School to teach youth about sustainable development and ways they can replicate his efforts.
“I like botanical metaphors,” he said. “And what I’m doing is deepening the roots, starting some seedlings and making them transplantable. Will it work? I don’t know. But I’m planning on spending pretty much the rest of my life figuring it out.”