By Laura Urrutia

Deforestation, climate change, and the migrating effect of young generations from rural to metropolitan areas are among the most threatening factors for the biodiversity and livelihood of the rural population in Central and South America. Shifting the traditional use of machetes, the long-bladed knives present for centuries among those communities, to help with forests’ regeneration is part of a multifaceted digital project led by American biologist Sarah Otterstrom that aims to improve the livelihood of over one and a half million farmers by 2027 in five different countries. 

Sarah, founder of Paso Pacifico, an organisation focused on landscape-scale conservation projects in Central America, felt the need to scale the positive impact achieved in the last 20 years, to other regions. With this purpose in mind, in 2019 she joined ASPIRe, an accelerator and a learning lab that supports social entrepreneurs to design for exponential system change. 

“After two decades working in Central America, I asked myself: what could I do with my experience to achieve a bigger impact? As a social entrepreneur, I need to know how this impact is going to continue in the future. At this stage, when I needed to consolidate my experience and I was looking for ways to expand my impact geographically, I joined ASPIRe,” explains Sarah, an Ashoka Fellow, and a renowned conservation scientist.  

The result of this experience is the Machete Project, a new digital platform to mitigate at scale the effect of climate change through tropical forest restoration that will be deployed by 2027 in Peru, Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, and Indonesia but at a later stage, aims to have a global outreach. 

How the use of machetes became a pivotal idea 

The idea that triggered this project was the reflection on how to preserve and use the knowledge of rural farmers and how ancestral expertise in using machetes could be transferred to the regeneration of forests. This journey came about during the ASPIRe journey inspired by the Societal Thinking´s framework and the many conversations with their Chief Curator, Sanjay Purohit.

“Sanjay encouraged me to reflect on how a small change in habits could have a very different result and to consider in depth what my motivation had been to work over 20 years in the field hand in hand with local communities. This led me to think about how repurposing the use of machetes could be the cornerstone of a new solution,” recalls Sarah, who studied Biology in Costa Rica and a doctorate in Ecology at the University of California.

“ASPIRe opens your mind to dream of how you could achieve impact beyond your current reach. It helps you to make this impact a reality and opens up new pathways in your journey as a social entrepreneur. I wasn’t aware of the use of digital platforms as drivers of innovation and social entrepreneurship, so ASPIRe opened new horizons for impact.” 

Catalyzing interactions 

The platform will serve as a trigger for a social movement led by local people with the goal of forest restoration. This innovative solution will gather farmer expertise, which will be transferred to younger generations and other communities around the world.  

One key feature of the platform is the connection of teams of young people, who recently migrated to urban areas and have a bond with their original rural communities, with farmers. These young adults are set to inform farmers about the urge to restore forests and to persuade them to use their machetes to remove vegetation that obstructs the growth of trees, as this practice will help the regeneration of forests in a more effective way than just replanting trees without any further intervention. 

Catalyzing interactions is one of the principles featured in a research report from ASPIRe on leveraging platforms for the good of all, These design principles were distilled from the core values of Societal Thinking.  It studied 14 cutting-edge platforms led by Ashoka Fellows around the world and identified key guidelines that initiatives focused on having a positive impact on society can apply for impact at scale.  

Sarah explains how this idea changed her mindset: “At ASPIRe, I realised that I could contribute more than what I was already doing. The idea of becoming a catalyst and an orchestrator in order to increase your impact was very powerful for me.”  This shift from doer to enabler is at the core of ASPIRe´s effort to help Ashoka Fellows understand and navigate through this critical transformation of their roles, to bring their impact to exponential scale.  

“Distributing agency, giving the right to choose and dignity to the people we work with have always been values in the way we work, but these principles are also key in projects of human and environmental development. Those values are hardly included in reforestation projects, as they usually just tell rural communities what to do whereas this platform is designed to recognise the knowledge and experience of those communities. We believe that if this recognition comes from younger generations, the dignity felt by the farmers will be even greater. 

“For trees that come from a tree nursery, it takes 10 to 15 years for them to grow to a tropical forest. But even if you plant those trees, without the work of machetes, the process usually fails. Many of those forest restoration projects require three to five years of removing the vegetation and competing against those trees to ensure there is a faster and more successful natural regeneration in those forests. In this project, farmers feel valued as their agricultural skills are used to restore forests that will be beneficial for their crops and their community.” 

The power of data and technology 

The Machete Project also demonstrates how system change can be achieved by activating agency and cultivating changemaking networks, using the power of data and technology, an approach that sums up ASPIRe’s vision. 

“The younger generations will support farmers by mapping and measuring the progress of forests restoration and by collecting and sharing their stories,” highlights Sarah. “The platform will also serve as a knowledge library for farmers which will ensure that their knowledge is preserved and openly shared among communities around the world. 

“Restoration of forests is crucial, especially in areas near rivers, because it reduces risks of extreme climate events, such as landslides, and it provides biodiversity in agriculture, which translates into a diversified and high-value range of products, such as cacao, and consequently, economic resilience for these rural communities.”  

The Machete Project is under development with the support of several organisations and companies, such as the tech firm SoftServe, a connection she made through ASPIRe. The Project aims to gather the necessary funding to extend the project globally after the first phase ends in 2027. Given its positive and effective social impact, Paso Pacifico announced recently its Commitment to Action at the Clinton Global Initiative.  

Knock-on effect 

Sarah feels the application of the learnings from the ASPIRe experience goes beyond the Machete Project, as it has become a systematic way of understanding projects and finding solutions in Paso Pacifico. 

“I am trying to incorporate the ASPIRe approach and principles in a wide range of projects that we already have in El Salvador and Nicaragua at Paso Pacifico. We believe very strongly in its potential. I think now it’s become a way of being a social entrepreneur that permeates everything I do”, concludes Sarah. 


We invite you to read the full report “Leveraging Platforms for the Good of All. Insights from leading Social Entrepreneurs”, co-authored by Irina Snissar Lobo, Maria Zapata and Erlijn Sie.  We hope you find it useful, and that you will share your insights with us at