Why this 26-year-old Sandalista is hell-bent on saving the Bolivian rainforest.
Thursday, March 14, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Chris Devers is balanced on a stool in his kitchen, sipping a frothy green drink out of a porro, a hammered Brazilian silver cup with a sculpted straw. "I picked up the habit in Bolivia," he says, referring to his fondness for yerba maté, a stimulating herbal tea grown in the rainforest. He offers me a sip. It''s bitter. "It takes some getting used to," he says, "but it''s a neat bonding ritual--the locals drink it communally." While we talk, Bolivian pan flute music floats ethereally through Devers'' neat Carmel apartment.
Although he looks like a laid-back surfer, Devers, 26, is not your average gringo with some affected third world traditions. Or at least his resume would suggest that''s the case. Back from a stint with the Peace Corps in the Amazon Basin, Devers is currently developing a preservation-oriented non-profit based in Monterey and Bolivia. Called Creative Conservation, the non-government organization, or NGO, strives to provide one of the poorest countries in Latin America with a sustainable future while preserving one of South America''s least spoiled environments.
The ecotourism and municipal reserves Devers is proposing to Bolivian municipalities do two very important things: they invite dollars into the local community, and they provide residents with an economic alternative to stripping the rain forest. For almost three years, Devers worked with the local government in Buena Vista, Bolivia and fought successfully to have precious ecosystems legally protected as bioreserves. "I was just this little scrapper Peace Corps volunteer," he says. "But I raised 20k while I was there and developed management plans for the whole area."
Devers got his first taste of ecotourism when he was 20 and traveled to Ecuador with his grandfather. "I saw a 400-hectare rainforest trout farm in Quito and thought, ''This is where business and nature come together.''" Back in California, Devers studied socially responsible businesses and worked for Patagonia during his undergraduate work at UC Santa Barbara. After graduating he signed up with the Peace Corps. He wound up in Bolivia.
It wasn''t a cushy assignment, living in tents, mud huts and cement houses with no water or electricity, but the lifestyle suited him perfectly. Devers, who started going on hunting and packing trips at age 5 in the Sierra Nevadas, is a wilderness junkie. With its jaguars, pumas, tapirs, eight species of monkeys, 830 species of birds, huge freshwater pink dolphins, and 500 peaks over 20,000 feet high, Bolivia fit the bill and fed the jones. "The quality of nature there is unrivaled anywhere in the world," he says. He never even got homesick. "I never had any doubts," he says. "I will raise a family there when it''s time."
After an intensive three-month Spanish language course, Devers picked up Indian dialects hiking "in the middle of nowhere were white people had never been." He guided trips for rich foreigners and designed bird watching towers for Amboro National park. While he was there, Devers found a mentor in ornithologist Robin Clarke, co-founder of Amboro National Park and owner of an eco-lodge outside of the park. For a break, Devers made the three-and-a-half-hour journey to the town of Santa Cruz, where houses sprawled the size of city blocks. "I went from five-star luxurious hotels to Indian wilderness," he recalls.
Devers endured ticks, poisonous frogs, killer caterpillars, worms eating the muscles in his legs, Dengue fever and a major soccer injury, but it took his father''s kidney failure to get him out of the Bolivia--and somewhat reluctantly at that. "It was time to leave," he says. "But I really didn''t want to go." Devers spent almost a year running his parents'' walnut farm in Visalia while his dad recovered.
Currently working on his Master''s in International Environmental Policy Studies at Monterey Institute of International Studies, Devers has a directed study project to make Creative Conservation a reality. With an "all-star team" of experts lined up, including friends from the Peace Corps, Devers aims to give Bolivians an economic stronghold to combat drug money. "The DEA is eradicating the coca plant," Devers explains. "We are working on providing alternative sustainable development for the locals."
The challenges are legion when desperately poor natives attempt to eke out a living raising cattle in a rainforest. Deforestation and overgrazing add to global warming and pollution and result in a loss of biodiversity. "Indians were relocated from the highlands to the tropics, and they have the most miserable life you can imagine," Devers explains. "They don''t know how to survive and are ruining the rainforest."
It''s a devastation that Devers aims to nip in the bud. "What''s going to set me apart from any other NGO is I will live there until it''s done," Devers declares. "I''ll spend 10 years on it. My dream is to have an eco lodge with a piece of land in Bolivia where people can come and eat well, do yoga, and experience the tonic of wilderness. It''s one of the last frontiers in the world."
For more information about Creative Conservation contact Chris Devers at 620-1584 or e-mail him at Dchrisdevers@aol.com