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Bill Toone: Founder of ECOLIFE Conservation

ECOLIFE's multifaceted approach to conservation deals with animal extinction, human health, and protecting the natural world. As a biologist, Bill saw first-hand the need to connect community with conservation. ECOLIFE provides fuel-efficient stoves in Mexico and Uganda that benefit all aspects of the food system.

What led you to start ECOLIFE?

I’ve been in love with wildlife and nature since I was a kid. When I was in college, I worked with a professor who studied the California condor. I ended up being involved in the federal recovery team for California condor conservation, and we brought the first eggs to the San Diego Zoo. Although the population grew, I was discouraged because it was only due to zoo breeding and not because the root problem of habitat loss was being fixed. After that, I worked on a monarch butterfly project in Mexico for several years. In one big storm, ⅔ of the monarch butterfly population died, which further discouraged me. Why should I continue working on these recovery projects if our progress could be wiped away so abruptly?

I then started working in a small, rural area of Madagascar that was being turned into a national park. My role was to work with the villagers in the area to show them how to live on a national park, rather than having them relocated. I lived and worked there on and off for years, and at first it was hard to earn the community’s trust. I befriended a young boy, who was 18 months old when I first started working there, who brought me into the community. I became extremely close with them, so when it came time for me to leave Madagascar for the last time as the project ended, it was very emotional. The young boy’s parents actually asked me to take their son with me so he could have a better life. 5 months after I left, a massive storm hit Madagascar and destroyed my community. I was devastated since I had no way to know if my young friend was alive and wanted to go back to help them rebuild. I was shut down by the organization that had previously sent me there since my mission would be focused on helping people, not nature. It became clear to me that conservation was turning its back on people and only focused on protecting the environment. After that, I wanted to start something that had a 50/50 approach to helping both communities and the planet.

Can you tell us about the work you do?

At ECOLIFE, instead of telling people “no” when they want something, we want to show them a way to do things that benefits themselves and the environment. For us, this starts with cooking. We make stoves that are environmentally friendly, use a small portion of the amount of wood used in traditional stoves, and are cool to the touch to protect children. Homes that utilize wood-burning stoves suffer from extreme health issues from breathing in toxic smoke and harm the environment around them. Our stoves limit deforestation and put a stop to these health issues. With the habitats protected, wildlife is therefore able to flourish. In Mexico, we work to protect the monarch butterfly population, and in Uganda we are focused on the gorillas. The areas we work with in Mexico and Uganda are UNESCO heritage sites, meaning they are of great importance to the world. Both areas have a charismatic species that is in danger, and have an underserved community of people that can use our help. The stoves used in the two countries are also extremely different, since the communities have different uses for them. We spent years working with the communities to understand their needs before designing and installing the stoves so that we could have a clear picture of what they want for this to be successful.

Can you talk about the connection between community and conservation?

Although the scientific terms may be confusing, it’s really a simple concept. Every breath we take is because of our plants and oceans releasing oxygen. In its most basic form, we are tied to the natural world. Everything we eat has origins in nature. Without wildlife, our population wouldn’t be able to survive. We are one in the same with nature and shouldn’t be treated as separate entities. With our population being so big and continuing to grow, tiny things matter in protecting our environment. When you’re brushing your teeth, most people leave the water on. Although it seems like a small thing, if every person in the world made the decision to turn off the faucet when brushing their teeth, it would save billions of gallons of water. Our diet has the most profound impact on the world. It can be difficult to convince people to become vegetarian, but it’s not difficult to limit our meat consumption. Instead of having meat at every meal, just have it once a day. If everyone started practicing this simple change, we would have ⅓ of the global meat consumption that we do today, which would have amazing benefits for our environment.

What has been your favorite part of starting ECOLIFE?

They say when you give someone a hug, your body starts releasing endorphins after 5 seconds. I get that feeling all the time working at ECOLIFE. I’m still a biologist at heart so I also love being in the field with the butterflies and gorillas. When a donor hands me a check, whether it’s $5 or $50,000, it’s a verification that they believe in me and trust the work we do. In 2016, which was 16 years after the storm hit my community in Madagascar, a few of our donors teamed up to give me an unlimited budget to spend as much time as I needed there until I could find my answer about if my young friend was alive. My wife and I went to Madagascar and spent a month traveling through the bush until we found him and his father. He’s in his twenties now and has a baby of his own. While there, I saw that his home has a wood-burning stove and it broke my heart since I know the dangers it can have. Now, it’s my goal to bring our program to Madagascar so I can help the family that inspired me to start all of this.


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