Earth Train/Geoversity History

“30 years of Youth and Community Empowerment for Biocultural Leadership”


“We are launching a 10-year campaign to establish a global network of youth gaining the knowledge, experience, and support we need to create a sustainably healthy and equitable world.”

—The Earth Train Youth Organizing Team, 1990

Earth Train Campaign

Earth Train was founded in 1990 by teen leaders from North America and was formally launched in June 1991 by Sweden’s Claes Nobel during his Earth Prize ceremony at the UN General Assembly Hall before 2,000 diplomatic, business, civic and youth leaders. For its youth-calling-youth-to-action 10-year campaign, Earth Train operated actual trains for high-visibility educational events, television, radio and Internet broadcasts. Earth Train provided unforgettable learning experiences —youth-led and international workshops, expeditions and conferences for over 14,000 young people and popular outreach to hundreds of thousands of young people worldwide. Our emphasis on experiential learning, a coaching relationship between experienced and emerging leaders, and peer-to-peer teaching proved effective in stimulating a multiplier effect as youth helped youth realize their leadership potential.

The first seed funding for the start up of Earth Train came from the Rex Foundation of the Grateful Dead and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. Grateful Dead lead singer, Bob Weir, spoke at the Earth Train announcement event in San Francisco. The iconic Earth Train steam locomotive SP 2472 pulled the last train to roll on the San Francisco waterfront.

During our campaign decade, Earth Train served numerous youth organizations around the U.S. and in 23 countries and native nations. Rather than build up a bricks-and-mortar organization, we focused on helping young leaders, many still in their teens, launch ambitious environmental and social justice initiatives and organizations. One of these,The Global Youth Action Network (GYAN) is one of the most expansive youth networks in the world, with more than 1,000 member organizations in over 150 countries.Read the Earth Train Youth Organizing Team Statement.


Official Founding of Earth Train at the UN HQ in NYC with Claes Nobel and John Denver
The formal launch of Earth Train took place in June 1991, in the General Assembly Hall of the UN Headquarters in New York City at a ceremony of youth leaders and dignitaries convened by Earth Train Chair Claes Nobel and featuring an inspiring performance by John Denver.

Agreement of Collaboration with UNICEF
Agreement of Collaboration with UNICEF signed by the Director General James P. Grant.

Agreement of Collaboration with UNEP
Agreement of Collaboration with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) signed by Executive Director Dr. Noel Brown.

“My relative, Alfred Nobel, had a vision. He established the Nobel Prizes for the betterment of humankind. Nathan Gray had a vision. He established the Earth Train for the healing of the planet. Nothing is more important than an idea whose time has come. The Earth Train is such an idea. It is powerful. It is timely. The Earth Train will have a great impact changing the world from what it is to what it could and should be.”

—Claes Nobel
President, United Earth; Chair, Earth Train International Board, 1990-1996

“The Earth Train vision, ‘Youth Creating Tomorrow… Today,’ is of a most deserving nature and is consistent with the United Nations Environment Programme’s youth outreach strategy, as well as its agenda for environmental protection and enhancement. …I believe that this event has the potential to be an overwhelming success and to become a milestone in our global environmental effort.”

—Noel J. Brown, Ph.D.
Director, United Nations Environment Programme

Won the Silver Anvil Award from the Public Relations Society
The Public Relations Society of America awarded the Earth Train US transcontinental campaign with its prestigious Silver Anvil Award as the best public relations program of the year “addressing challenging issues with exemplary professional skill, creativity and resourcefulness.”


One of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore’s inaugural balls headlined by B-52s and Sheryl Crow was a benefit for Earth Train
US President Bill Clinton’s Presidential Inaugural Ball benefited Earth Train with the B-52’s and Sheryl Crow, produced by Radio Station WASH-FM. Vice President Al Gore and family joined the celebration.


The Earth Train Rainforest Youth Leader Camp was established in the highlands of Puerto Rico
The Earth Train Rainforest Youth Leader Camp was established at Las Casa, Puerto Rico, a 1,000-acre forestry operation adjacent to El Yunque National Forest owned by the Institute of Ecotechnics (co-creators of Biosphere 2). For six years ending in 2000, we ran numerous programs for youth leaders and youth-led organizations, including CityKids Foundation.
During this time, Earth Train’s signature integration of leadership coaching, community and environmental service and team-building outdoor challenges was developed.


CNN Student Bureau Created
CNN Student Bureau was established in 1997 in collaboration with Turner Learning, directed by Dr. John Richards, managed by CNN veteran reporter Alan Duke. Youth Associate Director of Earth Train, Sid Akbar, co-led UNICEF-sponsored CNN Student Bureau training programs in North America, Europe and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia.


Panama Becomes the International Home Base for Earth Train (later renamed Geoversity)

Starting in 2000, after a decade of high-visibility campaign activities around the world, Earth Train began to concentrate on the establishment of its permanent international base and on developing its youth experiential learning programs in Panama. Originally, our intention was to create a headquarters in Panama City’s historic quarter and a rural campus in the valley of the upper Río Mamoní equal in size to the camp we ran in the Puerto Rican rainforest. However, we soon realized that the entire river valley, 28,000 acres, was in grave danger of being deforested mostly by absentee ranchers threatening a catastrophic tipping effect on the valley’s exceptional year-round green micro-climate. Expanding ranches, lack of law enforcement and illegal logging also imperiled the primary forests of Gunayala, the neighboring autonomous territory of the indigenous Guna.

Centro Mamoní - Panamá

First Trips to Panama to establish Earth Train’s youth leadership camp and collaboration with the Guna people
Earth Train’s Youth Leadership Camp was at Earth Train’s 1,000-acre upland rainforest next to El Yunque National Park, Puerto Rico, with the participation of Guna youth leader Toniel Edman and his cousin. During the two-week program with CityKids Foundation, they urged us to consider Panama as the location for Earth Train’s planned international base.

In December of 2000, Earth Train co-founder and executive director Nathan Gray traveled to Panama at the urging of Earth Train board member Leo LeBon, founder and former CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek and Guna environmental leader Guillermo Archibald. Nathan, accompanied by his wife, Zita Dias and his then 20-year-old son, Nate Gray, visited possible locations for an Earth Train field campus. Their first visit was to the upper watershed of the upper Río Mamoní crossing the continental divide to Las Guavitas, the security outpost of the Guna General Congress in Gunayala.

During Nathan Gray’s second trip to Panama accompanied by Leo, the Head Chief of the Guna General Congress, Gunayala, Gilberto Arias invited Earth Train to establish its base in a location enabling collaboration with the Congress and Guna youth.

Earth Train took the first step toward establishing its campus in the valley of the upper Río Mamoní by assisting the family of Gil Toribio in getting their land, 168 acres, out of foreclosure. Earth Train bought the land to establish what was then called Centro Madroño, now Centro Mamoní. Working with family members and volunteers, including Toniel and other Guna youth, members of the Toribio family, and other neighbors helped create rudimentary facilities. First property manager was then 19-year old Rolando Toribio who would later over the years benefit from three work-study experiences in the U.S. sponsored by Earth Train.

CNN Student Bureau reports on 9/11 Attacks
Earth Train’s Youth Associate Director Sid Akbar travels to Pakistan for CNN Student Bureau for a month of service in the refugee camps on the border with Afghanistan. In areas strictly off limits to press, he films a series of reports about the camps and radical Islamic schools (madrasa) in one of the most tense and dangerous locations in the world. Shortly after his return to the U.S. and while Sid and Nathan Gray were editing his reports at Earth Train’s office in California, the September 11 Al Qaeda attack occurred. Sid flew immediately to Atlanta and was, for the full week following the attack, a featured commentator with extraordinary in-depth reporting on the indoctrination and organizing work of radical Islamists in Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Acquisition of Casa Arias, former residence of first president of Panama
Casa Arias, the 9,000-square foot residence of the first President and Co-founder of the Republic of Panama, Tomás Arias, was purchased and restoration began. Located in Panama City’s historic quarter —a World Heritage Site— Casa Arias served as Earth Train’s international office and home to the Gray-Dias family and interns for 10 years. It then served as Earth Train’s cultural center, later known as Geoversity House.

Construction of Centro Mamoní’s main buildings
Centro Mamoní’s first structures were completed for staff and volunteers, including central meeting and dining space (El Comedor) and the first house (Casa Mono) under the direction of Nathan Gray and California builder Bay Ingleheart and local workers.

Held construction and reforestation camps in Panama
Earth Train ran its first Pioneering Building Camp at Centro Mamoní, June through August, in team with a group of students from Tufts University and Guna youth volunteers led by Toniel Edman and friends. From this group came Earth Train’s first long-term group of interns in Panama.


Building the infrastructure of Centro Mamoní, including micro hydro electric
With technical assistance from Justin Gray, Earth Train installed a micro hydro electric plant drawing power from the east branch of the Arenosa flowing through Centro Mamoní. Also, installed a potable water system serving all of the buildings, that would soon include Casa Vista, Casa Hortensia, and Casa Quebrada.
Completed the large two-floor Casa Aguila designed to accommodate large groups in tents and hammocks.

First university field study in Panama
Earth Train ran its first field study and work program in Panama with students from Brandeis University, under the direction of Dan Perlman, Ph.D. Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies under the field supervision of Glenn Adelson, Ph.D., Instructor of Biology, Harvard University.

Growing the Mamoní Valley Preserve to 6,000 acres
Mounted an emergency campaign and purchased 800 acres of adjoining properties contiguous with Centro Mamoní, protecting the entire watershed of the upper Río Madroño, a major Río Mamoní tributary. With the equity participation of the Wescott-Stephens family, acquired additional properties aimed at protecting important streams and forest area for a total of 6,000 acres under Earth Train management.

Beginning of the reforestation efforts
Interns, local volunteers mounted major tree planting efforts at Centro Mamoní and at other locations in the valley.


The Mamoní Valley Preserve expansion
Under the leadership of Colin Wiel, the Wiel-Cohn family took over Wescott-Stephens land ownership and joined Earth Train in expanding the Mamoní Valley Preserve.

First formal agreement with the Guna General Congress
Under the leadership of Guna chief Gilberto Arias and then-Secretary General of the Guna General Congress, Enrique “Kike” Arias, we signed our first formal cooperation agreement with the Guna General Congress, and helped to finance their security outpost in Guna Yala, Las Guavitas.

Construction of three open-air casas and shop
Construction of three open-air casas and the large shop space —the only concrete and steel structure on the property.

Avian behavior and ecology in managed ecosystems project
The bird research project with Michigan State University and Catherine Lindell was initiated to study the behavior and ecology of birds and how birds contribute to ecological functioning and ecosystem services and disservices in forest restoration.

Continuing the reforestation efforts
With mostly volunteer labor, Earth Train planted 7,000 trees around Centro Mamoní, Junglewood Falls and at other river and stream bed locations.


Established the MVP native species tree plantation
The Mamoní Valley Preserve Native Species Tree Plantation was established under the direction of Panamanian forestry engineer Emilio Mariscal, starting with 220 acres and the planting of 80,000 trees, all with local labor. Future Geoversity Chair, Verne Harnish and his son, Cole, joined local school children in planting the first trees during the inauguration of the plantation. The Mamoní Valley Preserve became the largest employer in the valley of the upper Río Mamoní. Later, in 2011, the plantation was transferred to the environmentally positive German forestry company Forest Finance, a member of the MVP.


Stream-fed swimming pool completed
Construction of Centro Mamoní’s 25-meter stream-fed swimming pool was completed and made possible with a grant from the Hubbard Family Swim School of Arizona. The construction was managed by Rolando Toribio. The Hubbard Family also hosted the 8-month internship of Guna youth leader Giuseppe Villalaz.


Established the agroforestry center at the Mamoní Valley Preserve
The Agroforestry Center at the Mamoní Valley Preserve was initiated in 2013. It is a program of agricultural development with the establishment of a plant nursery, a bamboo plantation (mainly Guadua species ideally suited for furniture and construction), a fish and duck pond, cacao, and a variety of other suitable crops, including legumes, papaya, and leafy green vegetables. Now with staff housing, a bamboo curing station, and a full-sized shop, the Center covers an area in excess of 300 acres located equidistant between the villages of San José de Madroño and El Valle de Madroño.

Collaboration with University of Panama
Collaboration began with the University of Panama (UP) including field trips to the Mamoní Valley Preserve organized in partnership with the UP Regional Extension Campus in Chepo, Province of Panama.


Jazz and the Jungle Collaboration with Crossroads School of Arts and Sciences in California and the International School of Panama
Jazz and the Jungle collaboration begins with Junglewood and the Crossroads School of Arts and Sciences, Santa Monica, California. Under the direction of Earth Train board member and Junglewood leader Shea Welsh and Crossroads music department head Evan Avery, we hosted the first of four week-long field trips with Crossroads top students of music for a powerful combination of learning from jungle and cultural immersion and participation as performers and faculty in the renowned Panama Jazz Festival, founded by Danilo Perez.

Collaboration with the International School of Panama
The launch of Earth Train’s collaboration with the International School of Panama in-service learning experiences.


The name Earth Train transitions to Geoversity Foundation
The Geoversity ecosystem was formally launched in Panama by the business educator, best selling author and columnist for Fortune Magazine, Verne Harnish; the editor-at-large of Fortune Magazine, Brian Dumaine; Mercedes Eleta, the City of Knowledge Foundation; social media marketing authority David Meerman Scott and the young leaders Benjamin Goulet (Ph.D. student in Biology at Harvard), Allison Scott (student of Medicine, Columbia University), and Iniquilipi Chiarí, president of the Guna Youth Congress in Panama, and several other accomplished companies and individuals. Dr. David S. Ricketts, Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard published the founding white paper.


Mamoní Natural History Project initiated
Harvard Biology Ph.D. student and Geoversity co-founder Ben Goulet led five fellow Ph.D. students on the first of a series of remote area field research missions, the Mamoní Natural History Project. The group spent a week pursuing research projects of importance to Harvard’s storied Department of Organism and Evolutionary Biology. Under Ben’s direction, they are also producing outstanding field surveys and educational materials in support of the mission of Geoversity and the Mamoní Valley Preserve.

The University of Redlands’s Center for Spatial Studies PanaMapping Project launched
The University of Redlands/Center for Spatial Studies. PanaMapping project with Geoversity was launched by Environmental Studies Professor, Dan Klooster and Center for Spatial Studies Director, Steven Moore, Ph.D., both Geoversity co-founders. They led a team of five professors and 16 undergraduate students on a month-long field research trip to the Mamoní Valley Preserve. The students engaged in forest surveys, carbon sequestration estimation, land‐cover categorization, watershed surveys, and high‐resolution mapping with drones.

Frog reintroduction trials in the Mamoní Valley Preserve by STRI
The Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project is a project funded by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute with the mission of rescuing and establishing sustainable assurance colonies of amphibian species that are in extreme danger of extinction throughout Panama.
The Limosa Harlequin frog is a priority species and a group of 90 have been released in the Mamoní Valley Preserve.

Field Research for Avatar Video Game
In March, Geoversity co-hosted a 10-day Field Research Trip to Panama involving the 16 lead designers of an electronic video game bringing James Cameron’s world of Avatar to life. Being created by Ubisoft and Massive Entertainment, their studio in Sweden, the Avatar game release is expected to follow the debut of the first of Cameron’s Avatar movie sequels, possibly in 2022.

Geoversity’s Biocultural Design Center
Dedication of Geoversity’s Biocultural Design Center next to the Biomuseo. Geoversity initiated a temporary internship, work, display and performance complex. We set the goal of obtaining permanent occupancy with a big vision: Highly accomplished designers and builders working at the Center in team with interns, students and special guests on the design and prototyping of structures, furniture, and art objects that make intelligent use of natural materials –particularly materials such as bamboo that can be sourced in Panama- resulting in design innovation worthy of emulation. Learn more about Geoversity Design.


Continuing the frog reintroduction trials in the Mamoní Valley Preserve by STRI
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute released a second group of 58 endangered Limosa Harlequin frogs in the Mamoní Valley Preserve. Scientists monitored the frogs at the site, collected information about survivorship, dispersal, behaviour, and whether the warm microclimate in the area provided any protection against disease.


Launched the Geoversity School of Biocultural Leadership
Geoversity’s School of Biocultural Leadership launched with Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker serving as Dean. Programming, including GeoYear, set to start in 2021.

“The groundbreaking PanaMapping project, with its reliance on advanced geospatial and drone technology, makes it possible to integrate the human perspective of ground-level fieldwork with the avian perspective of interlocking ecosystems. Together they help transform our understanding of the system of systems that is Nature and the interdependence that characterizes all life on Earth.”

—Monty Hempel, Ph.D.
University of Redlands

“Life has thrived on change for billions of years by launching countless generations of self-organizing, replicating experiments. Evolution is messy, and its products diverse.
Our biocultural leaders learn how to see and develop this energetic potential, to design for and catalyze regeneration in their own communities—hotspots of care, commitment, and clarity for ongoing biocultural renewal.”

—Tamsin Woolley-Barker, Ph.D.
Dean, GeoSchool