Her economics degree from Harvard University in hand, Sophia Watkins of Key Largo launched a plan to help preserve the Amazon ecosystem, one acre at a time.
"The state of our planet right now is crazy," Watkins, a 2010 graduate from Coral Shores High School in Tavernier, said Friday. "On a personal emotional level, I needed to do something."
Watkins in January founded Forest Fund, a corporation seeking to protect Brazilian forests by paying property owners not to cut down trees for cattle-grazing space. A pilot project announced on Earth Day offers to pay landowners at three sites to protect 647 acres that Brazilian law would allow them to deforest.
"We want to make it just about as profitable for them to be conservationists instead of becoming become deforesters," Watkins said.
"Right now, we can pay a landowner $12 a month not to want to deforest," she said. "To think that $12 a month is the breaking point, it just seems nuts.... If we can crowd-source this funding, we can keep the forest standing."
As planned, the company will monitor the property through on-site visits and satellite monitoring to ensure the owners keep to their pledge.
"I can't save the Amazon [ecosystem] myself," Watkins said, "but I can create a channel for people who are willing to go beyond wanting to protect the rainforest and act to save it."
Details of the Forest Fund effort can be found at the corporation's website, ForestFund.co.
Watkins, born to biologists working in rural Ecuador and then Brazil, moved to Key Largo while in middle school.
"I've never been a city person," she said. "Being in the Keys, you're always in touch with nature, not in a bubble away from it."
"You can appreciate our beautiful surroundings and see how it's all connected," she said. "In the Keys, we go diving and eat fish we caught that day. But so many people are so disconnected from nature that they don't understand the impact we have."
The multilingual Watkins and friends formulated the Forest Fund concept while she studied soy and cattle production in the Brazilian Amazon over two years for her economics thesis on "cattle supply chains in the Amazonian municipalities of Mato Grosso, Brazil."
"The only reason I studied economics was because it's truly the only international language," she said, "and the least understood language in conservation."
"Really, the only fair way to protect the forests is to provide price supports that reduce the economic pressure on owners to cut them down," she said.
Watkins also studied environmental science and public policy before graduating from Harvard in 2015. She plans to split time between the central Brazil state of Mato Grosso and the Keys. "My family is still here," Watkins said, "so the Keys are always going to be home."