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Bill Toone

Founder, Ecolife Conservation, Escondido, California


This Conservationist Helps Humans and Wildlife Coexist

Around the world, people destroy animal and human habitats largely because of unmet needs, especially when it comes to growing and preparing food. Ecolife Conservation works on two tracks so people and nature can prosper together: We provide free, highly efficient stoves to indigenous people living near a monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán, Mexico. And we cultivate and advocate aquaponics, a low-impact agricultural method where fish and plants work symbiotically, that uses 90 percent less water and land. We’ve come to understand that the way to save animals in the wild is by improving agriculture and making better stoves.

The problem I’m trying to solve

Animals are dying all over the planet because of habitat destruction, especially the practice of chopping down trees for use in open-fire cooking at home. These fires are also dangerous for the billions of people forced to cook this way, because they lead to lung diseases that prematurely kill more than 3 million annually. We realized we could help both humans and their animal neighbors by giving people in environmentally sensitive areas efficient vented stoves. And since commercial agriculture also requires huge swaths of land and large amounts of water, encouraging farmers to switch to aquaponics is another important way to save the environment.

The moment that sparked my passion

I’ve always been interested in saving wildlife and was part of the original group that helped recover the majestic condors in California. Like many environmentalists, back then I viewed humans as impediments to flourishing wildlife. But after I returned from years of environmental work in Madagascar, a cyclone devastated the families there, including a little boy who had befriended me.

I wanted to find and assist the boy and those families, but no environmental group would fund it because their money was earmarked only for wildlife. That’s when I realized that people and habitats must be seen as intimately connected. I founded Ecolife Conservation in 2003 to help save the world by aiding humans and animals together.

What I wish other people knew

Aquaponics was first practiced more than 2,000 years ago when people in what is now Thailand realized that trapping fish in rice paddies boosted their crops and gave them healthy protein to boot, and the Aztecs discovered that floating plants on lakes made the water cleaner for their fish. This happens because waste produced by fish converts into a form of nitrogen that helps plants grow, and the healthier plants then purify the fish’s water.

In the modern era, though, aquaponics wasn’t practiced on a commercial scale until recently. We do it at our Innovation Center, which serves as a training ground for others and yields thousands of heads of lettuce that we donate to the community, using very little water and land. Transitioning the world from open-fire to fuel-efficient, vented stoves helps climate change too. If billions of people in the world got these kinds of stoves, it would have the same effect as taking every car off the road in the U.S. and Europe.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Anyone can help the environment by examining their own eating habits. I love poultry and meat, for example, but I know those cause a lot of habitat destruction, so I build most of my meals around vegetables and use meat as a garnish. One delicious piece of medium-rare beef that used to be a single meal is now stretched across several—served with my eggs for breakfast, on top of a pile of veggies for lunch, and with a big salad for dinner. You can also make an impact by supporting sustainable agriculture in your community, including helping local farmers grasp the enormous environmental benefits from converting to aquaponics.

Why my approach is unique

We advocate for aquaponics to become large-scale and commercial. We recently created a large, portable system for use in remote parts of the world. Educating schoolchildren about aquaponics is also key to its future, so we’ve supplied small kits to hundreds of schools.

The thousands of stoves we have given away — thereby saving millions of butterflies in Mexico — were designed with the local culture in mind. Because residents are used to the taste of foods cooked with fire, we use wood as our fuel source, but 60 percent less than with open cooking, sparing hundreds of thousands of trees. Several years in, we have more than a 90 percent adoption rate. We know all these numbers because our program is certified by an independent group measuring our real impact in the world.