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Saving Lives By Thinking About Conservation Differently

To live we must eat. But the two most important ways we get food — agriculture and cooking — are also the two most dangerous activities to our environment and our health, experts say. 

Luckily, the team at Ecolife Conservation are working to find solutions for both problems.The company’s mission is to do conservation work that has an equal and measurable impact on people as it does on the environment.

Founder Bill Toone — a trained biologist and conservationist, who spent the start of his career working for the Zoological Society of San Diego and worked on the California Condor Recovery Program — took a turn in his career that led him to Madagascar. There, he realized that conservation, which typically highlights the needs of animals and environment, needs to include efforts to improve the lives of humans as well. 

Bill Toone in Madagascar with community members.

In Madagascar, Toone was on a biological transect when he met a members of a tiny village. He spent three years with the people and became particularly close with a young child who befriended him. When he left in 1999, the boy’s family asked Toone if he would adopt their child. Knowing it was impossible, he had to leave the child behind. Five months later, the community was wiped out in an enormous storm. 

Toone was desperate to find help for this community, but was met with resistance from all his outlets as they told him they protected animals, not people.  

“So I started looking at how you could do conservation that could include people and could benefit people,” Toone said. “Something that was valuable to the community, rather than a threat.”

In 2003, Ecolife Conservation was formed. One of the first missions was a trip back to Madagascar where Toone found the young boy, now a man, and was reunited with others in the community. 

“I’m very proud to be part of an organization that will not walk away from a child,” he said. 

In trying to figure out how to make the greatest impact on communities while also protecting the environment, Toone explained it is all related to healthy ecosystems. There is a direct relationship in the health of people with the health of their environment. Communities rich in natural resources can thrive, while those without, suffer. Toone has found that by providing resources, even in the most unexpected ways, can help lift communities in enormous ways.

Smoke-Free Cooking

Worldwide, the single largest killer of human beings is from cooking smoke with about 4.2 million deaths — mostly among women and children — each year, Toone said.

Toone and his team found a way to help decrease the impact of deaths caused by cooking smoke while also protecting Monarch butterflies — by using Patsari stoves.

A young girl stands near the Patsari stove in her home.

Patsari stoves are brick-walled ovens with sealed cooking surfaces to keep smoke from leaking out. They also have a combustion chamber and prefabricated chimneys that funnel 90% of smoke outside of the house. These nearly smokeless stoves help protect women and children from smoke inhalation and additionally use 60% less wood, which is not only important to forests, it is also important to watersheds and other local resources including the Monarch butterflies. 

Ecolife found a community from the UNESCO World Heritage site, which is in the Monarch butterfly biosphere reserve to bring these stoves. Working with partners in Mexico, they introduced themselves to the people of these communities using female “promadoras” who helped convince the communities that these stoves were a better alternative to open cooking in their homes. 

To date, Ecolife has installed nearly 9,000 stoves in communities throughout Mexico.Their success is measured by the fact that they have penetrated more than 90% of the communities they have approached and have a 90% adoption rate. The environmental impact has reached 43,000 people, saved 625,000 trees and butterfly habitats and reduced the carbon footprint by 130,000 tons. 

For the women and children, it has relieved them of the burden of collecting wood and cooking throughout the day, which has given many children more time for school and to help their communities in other ways. 

Eco-Friendly Agriculture

Cooking food is one solution that Ecolife has tackled. Growing it is another.

Traditional farming takes a huge toll on our environment from land and water use to the amount of pesticides that affect ecosystems. 

“It chews up more land and places more species at risk than any other human activity,” Toone said.

That is why many are rediscovering an ancient farming technique once used by both Aztecs and ancient Thais called aquaponics, and could be a solution in protecting resources.

Ecolife Conservation Aquaponics farm in Escondido.

Aquaponics uses fish to grow plants. 

“It’s a mini example of how the world works. The fish fertilize the plants, the plants clean the water,” he said. “It’s the carbon cycle, water cycle, reproductive cycle, and production cycle. Exactly how the world functions.”

Ecolife has become a leader in teaching aquaponics as research, for new farmers, and in schools. They have a teaching farm in Escondido off Deer Springs Road, which is open for tours and educational development. Toone added, his team includes some of the best aquaponics people in the nation. They have produced several tons of produce that has all been donated to local organizations such as Interfaith Community Services, Produce for Patriots and other organizations that assist underserved people in our communities.

Ecolife has also created an aquaponics kit that can be used in classrooms or for home growing. 

“One of the things about aquaponics is that you can get a high productivity out of a small space,” said Toone, adding that several restaurants grow their own produce on rooftops. 

Aquaponics kit that can be used at home or as a classroom learning tool.

They are in the process of creating a larger kit called the Modular Aquaponics Response Kit (M.A.R.K.) to give to underserved communities and the same communities that are using the stoves. This tool will not only give communities fresh produce, but it will also allow them to farm fish such as tilapia, which would give the people a rich protein source as well. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of versatility to it because of its compactness and effectiveness,” Toone said.

Aquaponics farming not only saves water, it can grow in any environment, so unlike traditional farming, soil-rich land is not necessary. Toone believes by training this type of farming to new farmers it will someday create a business model that overtakes traditional farming for much of the produce we eat today.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Ecolife Conservation is a nonprofit organization that is funded through its board of directors and donations. Its annual gala is scheduled for October 16 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. They also host monthly speaking events and an annual trip to Mexico. 

“Escondido is a proud supporter of companies that work to find solutions to world problems,” said Teresa Collins, Deputy Director of Communications for the City of Escondido. “Ecolife Conservation allows the community both education and resources to help be part of those solutions, and help lift our own communities as well.”

As a nonprofit, they are in the final stages of receiving The Gold Standard Carbon Verification for their stove initiative. This honor was established in 2003 to ensure projects that reduce carbon emissions follow the highest levels of environmental integrity and contribute to sustainable development.

When asked what Toone wants people to know about Ecolife, he replied, “I want people to know that there’s a wonderful balance in our organization. It is the most passionate team of people you could run into that is really tempered by data statistics and measures. We are driven but thoughtful.”