CERES Education Interview with Andrew Mahar AM
Co-founder of WithOneSeed
August 2015

1. How did you first get started with environmental education?

I have lead social justice and economic participation initiatives for the past thirty years. And while I have been a supporter of the broader environment movement it is only in the last five years that I have actively engaged in a movement to ‘replenish the planet with everything we do’.

The idea of WithOneSeed came about after I read a book by Tim Flannery called ‘Now or Never’. A chapter in that book, ‘Trees for Security’, proposed engaging with subsistence farmers across the Asia Pacific rainforest area to look after their forests.

The forests are not only vital to maintaining the farmers’ subsistence livelihoods and to rehabilitating local environments, but they also provided a resource of inestimable value to the rest of the world by contributing to the reduction of atmospheric carbon.

Our intention is to not only put the forests back in Timor Leste, but to develop educational programs in Australia to encourage appreciation of the importance of trees and plants to our survival too.

The whole thing has a really lovely synergy to it, and all from with one seed.

2. What have been the biggest highlights of your journey so far?

The people I work with.

All of the activities and actions and the subsequent achievements of these are not mine alone. To make sustainable change in this world, whether in the natural or built environment, involves the active participation of many people bringing their knowledge, skills and relationships to bare on the issues at hand.

My role has been one of taking an idea, and not necessarily my own idea, and gathering people around who have what it takes to bring the idea to something tangible.

I have been fortunate to be able to bring together a diverse range of talented people: from renowned environmental scientists, to world recognised agroforestry and permaculture practitioners, to international climate legal practitioners and educators with experience in climate science, social science and citizenship.

To put an ‘earned’ dollar in someone’s pocket gives the power to determine their future. This work supports communities to move beyond charity and aid by delivering opportunities for communities to be economically independent. The global issue of climate change produces opportunities that were not thought of before. For subsistence farmers to become tree farmers and trade in carbon is an innovative opportunity. They can establish themselves on an equal standing with global corporations who are looking for ways to reduce their carbon emissions. It’s a win for everyone and a win for the planet.

(Above: 1. One of ten WithOneSeed Community Tree Cooperatives. 2. WithOneSeed makes annual payments to Community Tree Cooperative farmers for planting and maintaining trees)

3. What has been the biggest obstacle? How did you / are you overcoming it?

Our approach is simple in its theory and application. We’re planting trees and planting ideas.

While this is simple, our work is challenging due to the communities where we work. Timor-Leste is one of the newest nations in the world, gaining nationhood in 2002 after 25 years of traumatic occupation. We’re building capacity from a very low base, which takes patience and perseverance. The Timorese are very resilient and willing to learn and adapt to new ideas, especially once trust is established.

Our innovation comes from the annual incentive payments made to subsistence farmers who maintain the trees. If a subsistence farmer has to choose between planting a cash crop or planting trees that may take 20 years to provide a financial return, the choice is obvious. However, if we can make a cash crop from trees that sequester carbon, the equation is quite different. WithOneSeed is changing lives by:

  • Protecting the environment and stopping erosion, reducing land degradation, holding carbon in the soil and increasing soil fertility, thereby;
  • Improving crop yields and reducing hunger, improving nourishment, thereby;
  • Improving learning outcomes and increasing education outcomes, delivering better health outcomes, improving earning capacity, thereby;
  • Building local economies and raising social and economic participation, strengthening community capacity and wellbeing.

(Above: 1. WithOneSeed has planted over 50,000 Mahogany trees across 10 villages since 2009. 2. Only 30% of children in Timor Leste complete primary school)

4. What future plans or goals are you excited about?

My long-term vision is to build village-based economies using environmental practices that are viable and move beyond subsistence living. Today, Timor-Leste is an oil/gas dependent economy. This is not sustainable. Planting trees today will allow the country to have viable alternatives tomorrow.

We plan to plant 1,000,000+ trees by replicating the WithOneSeed Community Tree Cooperative model across Timor-Leste. The WithOneSeed model documentation will be made available to other Asia Pacific countries under the Creative-Commons ethos.

WithOneSeed’s reforestation program generates an annual income for tree farmers and in the future, further income will be achieved through a selective harvest program of high-quality timber for local markets. Every tree harvested will need to be replaced with two trees. This cyclical model provides communities with continuous income as well as a form of superannuation from future timber commodities.

Communities gain considerable short-term benefits from rehabilitating their land and generate considerable long-term wealth to provide for future generations. Village farmers understand this long-term vision.

WithOneSeed is also setting a climate agenda for a national regulatory framework on climate issues in Timor Leste. Last week the Timor Leste Government formally agreed to establish a partnership with the xpand Foundation, the social enterprise that manages the WithOneSeed program in Australia. This will see the WithOneSeed model adopted in other parts of the country. The Government has also accepted an offer from Baker & McKenzie, a global law firm that specialises in climate law, to develop national regulations around Clean-Development-Mechanism (CDM) and Voluntary-Carbon-Standards (VCS).

(Above: 1. Three-year-old Mahogany trees, Baguia Timor Leste. 2. A classroom in the forest. WithOneSeed Environment Education Week 2014, Baguia Timor Leste)

5. What advice would you offer to someone wanting to begin a sustainability program at their school or organisation?

I believe the real challenge for Australians generally, who have been raised in a comfortable, middle-class environment is to know how to work effectively, in a culture like Timor Leste, that is just so different.

The key is to bring ideas and not pretend to the expertise to have the secrets for realisation of those ideas. We can’t tell the people in those communities how to do things.

They know, they are smart, they live it. It must have a life of its own. If they can’t do it and it doesn’t get done in their way, then it doesn’t get done.

And if it has no life of its own, it cannot continue after the Australians depart. That is precisely what must be avoided. WithOneSeed is about the autonomous future of Timor Leste village communities in 10, 20, 30 years hence. It is therefore about that notion of empowerment. Perhaps the word is overused, but the principle it stands for is profound. People must have the opportunity to make decisions for themselves. They may succeed or they may fail, but, if they are exercising autonomy, that’s OK.

Finally, after working in social enterprises’ for over 30 years I would say have a love and passion for your work, there will be a few tears along the way, Follow your convictions through positive leadership and innovation and most importantly listen. Listen to voice of the people with whom you are engaged.

(Above: 1. Andrew Mahar AM, co-founder of WithOneSeed. 2. A social enterprise model. Working with students in Geelong, Victoria)

CERES Education would like to thank Andrew for sharing his story.

For more information on Andrew’s work, please visit the following websites


Andrew Mahar AM can be contacted on andrew@xpand.net.au

Also check out:
WithOneSeed’s Sustainability Hub blog page

By CERES Education – Outreach Team|2017-11-06T18:26:49+10:00August 5th, 2015|0 Comments