“If You Plant It, They Will Come” with Jamie Shattenberg

Jamie Shattenberg graduated from SPU with a degree in biology in 1999. He currently is the international director of Eden Reforestation Projects in Madagascar. He directs large-scale reforestation work, which provides income for over 1,200 men and women throughout the year while restoring the devastated ecosystems. To date, they have planted more than 240 million trees.

Amanda Stubbert: We caught up with Jamie and his wife, Alyssa, in Santa Barbara, California, on a little respite break home from Madagascar. So glad to be here with you in person. Let’s start with — why focus on reforestation?

Jamie: Why do we focus on reforestation? For me, it’s been a passion of mine since I was a child, but living in Madagascar, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, and I grew up in Madagascar and my best friends were from the poorest of the poor. I saw this and I know, and it’s proven all over, there’s a direct connection between poverty and deforestation.

Amanda: Okay, let’s talk about that — a direct connection between poverty and deforestation. What is that direct connection?

Jamie: Well, the Malagasy are farming communities and they’re fishermen and we work with both those groups. And without the forest, life changes drastically. So if you think about it, everywhere where there’s forest, there’s life. And when God created the earth, he created the Garden of Eden and he put Adam and Eve into the garden. But once the relationship was broken with God and sin came into the world, Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden and life got very difficult, and it’s right there in the very beginning. That same difficulty that Adam and Eve had is happening today. And in Madagascar you see it much … it’s much more apparent because life is directly connected to their environment. We are all connected to the environment, and we don’t notice it as much and we can just go to the grocery store and buy our fruits and vegetables. But in Madagascar, especially with the poorest of the poor, there’s a direct connection.

And so the forests, I could say that they’re like the sponges of the earth. They hold the water, and without water there’s not life. So if there’s a large forest, usually underneath the forest there is a water table and the water table is held up. The roots of the trees literally are pulling water up and it’s causing transpiration as the water comes to the trees and through the leaves and up into the atmosphere. So then when the clouds come over and where it’s moist above the trees, they start to condense and rain falls, and then the rain replenishes the water on the earth. And as that happens, the rain falls, lands on the leaves, the leaves then protect the ground soil. There’s no direct contact with the soil. It hits the leaves, filters down through the forest and is collected at the base of all these trees, and there’s a massive humus layer over the ground that is a sponge that holds moisture. And then that is continuing to refill the water underground.

Farmers working in Madagascar

I don’t think we realize how important that is, because once you wipe out that forest, instead of the water falling to the earth and being held even up in the mountains on cliffs, you can literally take a whole bunch of debris and then sand and you pour water through the debris, it flows clean out underneath the debris. If you drop it directly on sand, it erodes it all away and it just a big muddy mess. And so literally the forest filters … I mean, it protects the water that comes down on earth.

But what happens when we wipe out the trees, all of a sudden the water table starts to drop, so people’s wells start to get deeper and deeper and dry up. And then the rain that does come down, instead of being absorbed, being held by the forest, it’s actually hitting the ground and digging up. Every drop is doing one little dig, and then all that debris, that top topsoil gets washed down into the rivers. And then also you have mudslides, and instead of being absorbed and held by the roots of the trees and by that humus layer, it’s actually eroding away everything that’s good and protecting the trees growing.

Amanda: So then you’ve lost the rich topsoil for crops and you’ve polluted the water that you do have.

Jamie: Exactly. And then the water washes out into the ocean. The rivers start flowing out in the ocean. All that topsoil ends out on top of your reefs and out in the ocean where it’s not supposed to be, and then it kills the reefs. And so everybody who used to live and get food sources, get water, get resources from the forest, or they were fishing and got fish, all that vanishes. And all of a sudden, we’ve been traveling and we’ll meet a villager and say, “How’s life?” “Oh, it’s so much harder.” “Why?” “Well, because there’s no water. We have to go to that hill all the way over there to get water.” And if you look, there’s still a forest over there. And I said, “Well, did there used to be forests here?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah, this used to all be forest so we could get water right here, but now it’s gone.”

And so what we’re seeing is that the livelihood, the poorest of the poor, the last place they usually turn is the forest, and it’s always been there. But as it’s getting depleted more and more, as poverty levels are increasing, as population increases, areas that used to provide abundantly for the few now can’t sustain the numbers. And as the forests are depleted, life gets harder and harder and the cycle of poverty just starts to go deeper and deeper, and it’s very difficult to reverse that cycle.

Amanda: The cycle of poverty is a mental, emotional, and cultural thing as well. And once poverty sets in and worsens, you have addiction issues, you have family issues, you have community issues, crime, all those things, right?

Jamie: Poverty is not just the lack of access to resources. That’s what a lot of people think poverty is. Poverty is, in my opinion, a much bigger issue. And to me, I see it from my studies through SPU and through studies at Fuller. Poverty, if you look at it, is broken relationships, broken relationships with the creator, broken relationships with the environment, broken relationships with others, with your community, and with yourself. People who are completely trapped in poverty, they have no resources in their community. The police don’t trust them. They don’t have a voice. They’re completely ignored by their community. The world doesn’t know them. The world doesn’t care that they’re starving. There are wars and destruction, and people don’t see it. And all of a sudden, the resources in the environment, the air, the water, that’s polluted, and so what once provided life now is broken, and so fathers and mothers can’t provide for their children, they have no purpose of vocation, purpose as a family provider, and literally it all entraps them into a greater depth of poverty where it’s like this web of lies that you don’t believe you’re worth anything anymore, of, “Yeah, I was destined to just have nothing, to not be a provider.”

“Poverty is not just the lack of access to resources. That’s what a lot of people think poverty is. Poverty is, in my opinion, a much bigger issue.”

And then if you don’t know your creator, you have that spiritual poverty of not knowing who you are before God, and all those intertwined together creates a deep, deep level of poverty. And all of us are impoverished in some way through these broken relationships. And what you really have to question is, “How am I living my life? Am I living my life in a way that I am breaking relationships? Am I causing deeper poverty, or am I taking steps to help restore those relationships that help people step out of this level of poverty or this branch of poverty?” And the more we can work through the restoration of these relationships, it helps to bring people out of levels of poverty. And you can really see people be transformed physically as these relationships are being restored.

Amanda: Well, I agree with you 100%, and I think anyone who’s ever been lifted out of poverty, out of addiction, and experienced restoration knows what you’re talking about on a one-to-one basis. But here, you’re looking at Madagascar, at a country, at a community, at a people group, that has been so devastated on such a huge level, the entire cycle so broken. How do you as one person look at that and say … I think most of us look at that and say, “What could I do? There’s nothing. There’s nothing I could do to help with such a huge brokenness.” So what did you do? What made you say, “There is something I can do to actually address that giant, broken system?”

Jamie: You know, I couldn’t pinpoint it to one thing. I think God created us all to be a part of this. I think God created us all with gifts and talents, not only to bless us, but to be a blessing to others with those. And so many people say, “I can’t do it because I am not like that.” No. But God has blessed each one of us with the abilities that he has given us so that we can be a blessing to others. And if we allow him to use that and allow his grace to flow through us, I know that these relationships will start to be restored and this brokenness can be repaired.

Jaime Shattenberg and farmers in Madagascar

And so going back to Madagascar, for me, I feel like God allowed me to be born in Madagascar, to be raised with the poorest of the poor, to have a connection, to know their stories and with the purpose of … part of my job is being a liaison between the Malagasy and the rest of the world, because most people don’t know their stories. But the Malagasy can’t communicate very well. They don’t know how to communicate, what to communicate, to the outside world. And at the same time, the outside world doesn’t know how to hear the stories.

It all started very simple, but it had to do with working with the poorest of the poor and how do you empower the poorest of the poor to make a difference? I grew up and I loved the environment and I saw it being destroyed as a child. I collected animals and all these things as a kid because I loved them and I wanted to protect them and get them back to where they’re supposed to be. And I started planting at a young age. I just had a passion for it. I didn’t know why. And I think God was preparing me to be a part of this.

Where does it start? It starts with each one of us. And what was amazing is working with the Malagasy, the poorest of the poor usually, dreaming is not even in their vocabulary. You ask one of the Malagasy that have been really trapped in poverty and you say, “What’s your dream about the future?” “I want to feed my kids. I want my kids to go to school. I want to be able to leave them an inheritance that’s worth something. I want to be a father.” And these are the things that people are wrestling with.

And so through the reforestation work, what’s been amazing is we hired just a few to start and we started planting trees not knowing where it was going to go. It was just an experiment. And a good friend that I grew up with, Josie, we used to pray as a child, “How could we work together?” And he’s the first one I called him when somebody said, “We have some money for a potential project in Madagascar. Can you start it?” And this was Steve Fitz, who’s the founder of Eden Reforestation Projects. So I called Josie and said, “Can we plant mangrove trees?” So he went and put a few of the propagules, which are the seed buds from a mangrove tree, in the ground and he called two weeks in and said, “They’re growing.” I said, “Well, let’s hire eight people.” So he hired eight people and they started planting. We didn’t know what we were doing. I majored in biology at Seattle Pacific University and I wanted to be a missionary. And people were like, “How does that go together?” I said, “I don’t know, but God knows how this goes together.”

“I majored in biology at Seattle Pacific University and I wanted to be a missionary. And people were like, ‘How does that go together?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but God knows how this goes together.'”

Amanda: “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.”

Jamie: And so we had some biology experience and knowledge as we went into this, but we didn’t know how to do mangrove reforestation. But they started it. And a year later, 100,000 trees had been planted by eight people.

Amanda: In one year?

Jamie: In one year, with very minimal education, had never done this before, from the poorest of the poor in a part of the world that nobody’s even heard of. The next year, we expanded to 13 and we did 300,000, and then the next year we expanded that and we’ve grown it slowly, slowly to this point where we have over 1,200 people receiving income throughout the year. Many are full time and some are part time, but in that, it’s the poorest of the poor who are planting trees in their communities and they’re being given a steady income that then is allowing them to send their kids to school, to buy food for their families, to fix their houses, to buy solar panels so that they can have electricity so their kids can study at nighttime. They’re starting little stores. They’re expanding their revenue resources. They’re buying land. They’re buying oxcarts. They’re building houses for their children.

Rows of trees growing in Madagascar

And two things that we see: First is feeding their family and taking care of needs for today, and then the other thing that’s almost across the board is they buy land so they have an inheritance to pass onto their children, and then they want to build a house on that. People love to dream about the future, but when you can’t feed your family today, how are you going to think about the future?

Amanda: That’s as far as the future goes.

Jamie: Exactly. And so why are the trees being cut down in Madagascar? About 90% of Madagascar has been deforested and the impact of that is devastating, but there’s about over 20 million people, I’d say, in Madagascar, and over 90% rely on charcoal for cooking and heating every day. And charcoal means you have to cut down live trees, and that’s a massive demand. And so the 10% of the forest that’s left is now being under attack for feeding this demand for charcoal. It’s just leading to a deeper and deeper cycle of poverty. What we’re seeing from these Malagasy is if we actually go in and we hire the people that are making the charcoal to now be our planters, it completely reverses their perspective. Most of them don’t want to be cutting down the trees, but they have to feed their families.

Amanda: They have, right, no other choice.

Jamie: And if I ask any person, “There’s one tree left and you need to feed your child and they’re starving to death, what would you do?” We would all cut down that tree. So it’s not a matter that they’re out to destroy it. They have no other option. And through Eden Reforestation Projects, through sponsors from around the world and partnership as people join together and network and help donate, then we can funnel that to wages for people that are actually reforesting and addressing a huge global need, it’s providing a job that then is also encountering that poverty that leads to that cycle downward, and we’re slowly seeing a shift in little communities at a time, one person, one family at a time, and seeing them able to care for themselves and are seeing them now, they’re taking care of their own medical needs.

One woman saved up enough money to take care of her own goiter on her own. She didn’t have to be donated money. She raised the money for that. Another woman, she saved enough money. Many people actually have saved enough money to replace all their teeth and so now they can eat with health and they don’t have constant pain in their mouth. Other people have gone to the point where some of them now have built houses and now they’re renting houses. Some of them bought canoes and then they hire other people to work the canoe and then they split the catch, and it’s like this economic engine, and as people invest that into other economic revenues, it’s also hiring other people and it’s starting to trickle out, and you’re seeing transformation on greater level.

And so it’s been a journey of discovery for us, but we started very small with one person, which went to eight, which went to 12, and that’s where it all starts. But the only way it works is a network, a global network around the world as people partner, and some people’s blessings, they’ve been blessed with finances and they can bless richly, and through donations is how this all happened. You asked the question, where does it start? Each one of us has to start where we’re at and it’s one step at a time, but you have no idea what God’s going to do if you give it back into his hands. And it’s far bigger than we ever imagined.

“Each one of us has to start where we’re at and it’s one step at a time, but you have no idea what God’s going to do if you give it back into his hands. And it’s far bigger than we ever imagined.”

Amanda: And I can imagine that the 240 million trees that have already been planted, globally, that might be a drop in the bucket, but that has to be enough to actually see things beginning to change in the environment there.

Jamie: In reality, we should be planting billions of trees to really counter what’s going on in the world today. But millions of trees, now into hundreds of millions is a good start.

Amanda: Yes.

Jamie: But locally, we’re seeing that. There’s one area near Mahajanga where we’ve planted probably close to 60 million, I’d say, but the people in that area, at first they didn’t want us planting. They thought we were going to take everything away, that they’d have no more access to it. But while we were there a couple months ago, we were filming and the fishermen came up to Josie and said, “Josie, thank you, because now we’re catching fish that haven’t been here for years.”

Amanda: Wow.

Jamie: And the shrimp population is coming up. Flocks of ducks have flown back in and are living there and this is all food, resources for the local communities. So they were saying, “Thank you for doing what you do.” At first we’ve had to battle it, and we still have to battle it. There’s people that want our trees. Greed is a big issue. And so people see …

Amanda: Everywhere. That’s not just Madagascar, right?

Jamie: “Those trees equal money for me and my family,” but they don’t look at what the impact has on everybody else in the community. And sadly, we battle a lot of that. But with more community involvement as we hire people … we only hire people that are close to those forests, so they have ownership of the forest and they’re from that area. But then the rest of the community, as they start to see the impact, they start to help as well. And they then start to see, “No, that area, we’re protecting.” It’s a constant battle and we have to hire guards and we have to put fire lanes in the dry deciduous areas, and we have to post so people know that there’s a presence. But as we’re protecting and over the 10 years that we’ve been doing this, 12 years now, we’re really seeing local changes. Some of it’s slower, but we’re starting to see that change, which it’s just a beautiful thing to see, but there’s a long way to go and a lot more work to do. That is for sure.

Amanda: Well, Jamie, I love so much about your work because you can really see the entire cycle together and so many of us, if we’re blessed to be able to help, it’s one little piece, one little dot in that circle. And I love that your work can see the entire cycle of restoration and relationship renewal there. So what’s next for you? What’s the ultimate dream for Eden Reforestation?

Jaime Shattenberg holds a small treeJamie: One of my favorite things about Eden Projects is seeing the disempowered being empowered to do what I’d say the powerful have never been able to do. It’s seeing people that have really had a really hard life, people you know are dealt a difficult situation, they’re born into a very hard cycle, a hard place where life is very difficult just to survive. And to see their lives changed to the place where not only are they able to care for their families better, it’s not perfect but better, but also having an impact on their communities, but all of a sudden they’re having a voice in the world and the world knows their story, but their story is not just for them, but it’s for a much greater purpose that has a global impact.

For me, my dream is to see more and more Malagasy helped, and for this to spread to other countries in the world, to see that we can respond to God’s first call and first, I guess, command he asked of us, is to care for the world that we’ve been put to live, we’ve been allowed to live in. God created the garden so that we could live in it, but he also asked us to care for it. And I think a lot of people don’t realize that they can be a part of that.

The Malagasy, who have always just trusted that the forest is going to be there, but they’ve had no real act in protecting it, now are starting to protect and plant it. I’d love to see more and more and more villages rise up, be able to be empowered to be able to do this, to protect that and to be able to say no, to have the voice to say no, because if you don’t have any source of income, if you’re desperate and a rich man or rich woman comes in and says, “I want your trees for charcoal and I’ll give you this much money if you cut them all down,” anybody without any way to feed their families are going to say, “Sure.”

Amanda: Of course, of course.

Jamie: So they have a cash crop right there and they cut it all down, they have money for a month or two and then all of a sudden, life just got much worse, and the future generations are going to struggle. But if you have the voice to say no, you can actually stand up and protect your place. That’s missing all over the world. And I don’t think a lot of people in the U.S. or in the places where we have resources, understand we have the ability to say no, but some places don’t.

And so to see the people that we’re working with, the Malagasy, have a voice to say, “No, I am protecting this for our future generations,” and see that they have an impact not only for today but for the future, I want that story to be known. I want people to embrace that and help support and push that forward and be a part of that because the whole world can be a part of that if they want to, if they really want to. My dream is to see reforestation happen on a very local level where communities can be a part of it, where they’re empowered to do it, and to see the global impact and global partnership. How do we move forward with that? Where is it going to go? I don’t know. It’s really big, but God’s bigger and we can trust him.

Amanda: You started with one, and then eight, and then 13, so we’ll start with one project, and then eight, and then 13. We’ll get it. We’ll get it across the globe. All right, Jamie, I can’t thank you enough for spending time with us today. I hope everyone listening, and I know I will, I’m going to plant a tree. I’m going to tend my garden. I’m going to go restore some relationships. How does that sound?

Jamie: That sounds wonderful.

Amanda: Okay.

Jamie: One at a time.

Amanda: We’re going to come visit you in Madagascar, I think. We’re going to try.

Jamie: We would love to have you.

Amanda: All right. Thank you so much.

Jamie: Bye.

Related articles

“Getting Better with Every Mile of the Journey,” with Jamie Crespo

Getting better with every mile of the journey

The living legacy of Gary Ames

Shelly Ngo, editor of Response magazine
From the Editor
Table talk