The next chapter

by Jeff Schnurr on January 30, 2017

In October of 2006, I first went to Tanzania.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was searching. I was looking for a way to put my beliefs into action. I’d spent a lot of time looking inward, trying to become a better person, to become a part of the world around me. A Tanzanian friend, who has since become one of my best friends, Mbarouk Mussa Omar, asked me if I could help him plant trees on his island, Pemba. I had a high school diploma and was more qualified to bus tables than anything else and there was nothing in my past that would indicate what I would help create in the future, outside of tree-planting…

I’d used tree-planting to finance my travels, and had spent a few years in the Canadian North working in some pretty rough conditions with some of the best people I’ve ever known. We’d started some nurseries to grow trees in Tanzania, and in 2007 I came back to plant trees with Brinkman and Associates Reforestation. That season I planted trees alongside Daimen Hardie, a high school friend who is one of the smartest people I know. I have learned a lot from Daimen over the years and am still amazed at all he’s accomplished. I am in awe of his ability to learn and achieve mastery in everything he endeavours. I also met Zach Melanson that year, a wild art school grad who could put anyone at ease with a joke and his charisma. At the end of that season Daimen and his partner Estelle (a plant and permaculture guru) left to head back to the Maritimes to build their timber frame, straw bale home. Zach and I moved to Montreal, and together the four of us would start Community Forests International to support a budding tree-planting project back in Pemba. We still didn’t know where it would go but we knew that we had just worked incredibly hard planting trees in Northern Ontario and BC and we wanted to work just as hard at something we believed in. We wanted to build an organization that could hold our vision for how sustainable the world could be. 

I grew up at CFI. I have worked over the past ten years with some truly amazing people to leave the world better off than it was when we found it. Our path wasn’t easy - we’ve experienced rejection, adversity, growing pains and upset like no other, but we did it together. I can still remember the first time Zach called me to tell me that a proposal we’d written had been rejected… from his tone I’d thought someone had died and was relieved to hear that our grant application had been declined. It was a feeling we’ve grown pretty used to over the years, but back then we put it all on the line every single day. We all worked on CFI full-time, seven days a week and without pay - Zach and I shovelling snow at nights in Montreal and Daimen working out of a public library in Halifax (he didn’t have a computer) to keep plugging away at the funding game. I can’t believe we ever endured. Our partners in Pemba did the same. Mike Tritchler and Maryam Bakar Shariff joined the team. Day in and day out the Pemba crew worked, without an office and with a borrowed vehicle, visiting rural villages to make sure community leaders had what they needed to grow and plant trees.

CFI team in the yurt at Whaelghinbran Farm. From left to right: Gavin Hardie, Dale Prest, Jeff Schnurr, Zach Melanson, Estelle Drisdelle and Daimen Hardie

Since then, we’ve planted over a million and a half trees and converted hundreds of acres of land into food producing agroforestry systems. We’ve built rainwater systems for clean drinking water, and have pioneered sustainable building techniques and cook stoves that use less wood for fuel. Our team in Pemba has grown to over 15 full-time staff. After we moved the organization to Sackville, NB and started doing projects in Canada, Dale Prest joined the team and created a new way to manage forests for carbon storage. We bought a 700-acre farm and forest and ran a farmer training program. We hosted workshops, built yurts and sustainable backwoods cabins. I can only shake my head at the scope and magnitude of what we’ve been able to make happen.

I have had the honour to be the executive director of this amazing organization, an organization that never took no for an answer, an organization that always did what was right, acting on the possible and challenging the reasonable. I can truly say that working with the amazing people at Community Forests International has been the greatest honour of my life. This past spring, Daimen and I watched Siti Bakar Makame, our agriculture officer in Pemba, present on our work at the Adaptation Futures conference in the Netherlands. When she explained the life of a Pemban woman and told of how our work had made such a difference, I have never been more proud of what we have helped create. We used to wonder if ideas mattered, if an idea could change the world and now we know that ideas and an inspired group of people can do almost anything. The genius, the dedication and the tenacity I’ve seen in the people around me over the years has given me nothing but hope for this planet and our future, despite all the turbulence and pain in the world around us. 

So this isn’t easy. In fact, leaving my role as executive director is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. That said I believe deeply in sustainability and know that I can’t hold on forever. It’s time to let the leaders within this organization take the helm and build the next chapter. On February 1st, Daimen Hardie will take up the role of executive director and will work to take CFI to the next level. I’ll move onto the board and will help with strategy and vision, but the people that have made this organization what it is will be charged with making our dreams a reality. I know that the team at CFI, and our partners in Pemba, will continue to think big, to dream big, and that they won’t take no for an answer. I’m excited for the next chapter, and thank you all for the honour to have worked alongside you.

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