Saving the Amazon
Amazon Rainforest at dawn. Photo credit, Rhett A. Butler

As they say, the best things in life tend to happen naturally. Such was true for how the Rainforest Foundation US became the beneficiary for the debut collection of Eve & Max.

While in the planning stages for the collection, founder Maxine Trowbridge stumbled upon an article about the Rainforest Foundation and its work to halt deforestation of the Amazon. It seemed the perfect fit: After all, the collection is largely inspired by contemporary artist Adam Ball's painting of an abstracted rainforest landscape, which comes to life as a pink print atop silk charmeuse dresses, kimonos and more. Not to mention, lending a conscious eye toward sustainability and respecting the environment is always at the core of Eve & Max's business model.

Max reached out to the foundation and was promptly connected to executive director Suzanne Pelletier, a dynamic leader who has led the Rainforest Foundation since 2009. We caught up with Suzanne to learn more about the foundation's work and understand how it empowers indigenous people living in the rainforest to protect their land. What we discovered was all at once thought-provoking and insightful. The bottom line? Efforts to preserve human rights and the environment must go hand-in-hand — and the time to act is, without a doubt, now.

Suzanne PelletierSuzanne Pelletier, executive director, Rainforest Foundation US

The Rainforest Foundation has an exciting and star-studded founding story. Sting is at the core of it all.
Over 30 years ago, Sting was on tour with Amnesty International. He was introduced to an indigenous leader from Brazil — chief Raoni Metuktire a Kayapo leader — and the chief told him about a dam that was going to be built that would dissipate his territory. He invited Sting to come to visit his territory. At that point, Sting saw what the implications would be if this dam were built — it would have destroyed the chief's community — so Sting understood and came to learn the importance of why the community was pushing for the rights to manage their territory.

From that point, Sting tried to work to develop the first privately funded territorial reserve in Brazil. It was the first time that private funds helped create a protected area for indigenous people — not a national park, but to help the community get its territorial rights through the legal system. It was the beginning of what's called rights-based conservation: working with local communities to assert their rights, and then, as a result, forests and the environment are protected.

Much has evolved in the foundation's 30-year history, but has the mission of empowering indigenous people to protect the forest remains the same?
The Rainforest Foundation was the first international organization to take that approach. Now we see over the decades more and more research has come back showing that it's the most effective strategy you can take to stop deforestation. We now know that the deforestation rates on indigenous territories where the indigenous people have secured land rights are about one-third less than the deforestation rate on other land types. We pushed forward that approach, and we've always maintained a strong connection to indigenous leaders and communities — and we've always worked in partnership with those communities.

Over the years, we've focused consistently on land-titling with communities and always providing direct financing to the communities doing the work themselves. We're not focused on building up big teams in the US or within those countries. We have an adequate staff level to do our work. Still, we really try to support the local indigenous movement as much as possible through direct financing of their work, technical training and capacity training.

We've now grown into a network. There's two other Rainforest Foundations, one is in the UK, and one is in Norway. Collectively, we work in Asia, Africa and Latin America. We've helped title over 33 million acres. We've also assisted with territorial monitoring on a much larger area with long-term protection for 33 million acres.

The foundation's goal is to "protect nature and human rights." Often, people forget that these two issues go hand-in-hand.
When you look at where forests are protected, it's where indigenous peoples have rights. Often, they may have rights on the books in these countries, but they're not actually being enforced on the local level. So, there's a lot of illegal activity that happens: People come in and try to take indigenous peoples' resources.

Communities, if they assert their rights to their lands and their forests, they are the best protectors. We help communities understand their rights, assert their rights, make sure they can meet with government officials, know their rights, and push for them. We make sure they get the technical training to back up their case for what they're trying to push. All of those things go hand in hand, and they're mutually reinforcing.

And it's not just rights to territories: Indigenous people's cultures are so tied to their resources. If they lose their land, they lose their culture. So there's a powerful connection between the importance of indigenous people pushing for their rights to exist as people. Their rights to practice their own culture and religion and traditional practices go hand in hand with how they view their resources, and how they use them are a lot more sustainable than most people.

Humanity at large is facing that same critical question: How can we continue to survive and thrive if we're not taking care of the planet and the environment around us?
We're facing a point now that we've never faced before with climate change. The more we learn, the more we realize the clock is ticking, and we really have a few short years to take action. The United Nations and many countries are looking at 10-year goals — so by 2030, we have to meet certain criteria. But the reality is we need to start moving immediately towards those goals and contemplating our daily lives and values. We need to consider where all of our products come from, how all of our laws are created, and the values behind those laws and regulations. So far, we're not going to meet those goals. We have to move quickly!

Are these issues around climate change even more glaring in the Amazon?
In the Amazon, we have even less time because not only is climate change, in general, affecting the Amazon, but the Amazon is a potential driver of climate change. We usually think of the Amazon as this enormous carbon store, which it is, but that balance is tipping. Scientists have calculated that if we lose 20 to 25 percent of the rainforests, we would forever change much of the Amazon. It would flip to a savannah, meaning it would get so dry that those wet forests won't come back. Right now, we're at about a 17 percent loss. So, we're close to this tipping point. We don't have ten years to act in the Amazon, and we have to act immediately for that whole system to continue functioning. If we lose the Amazon, it'll be very hard for us to mitigate the climate crisis.

And it's not just about carbon and climate change?
The Amazon is an incredibly important source of global weather patterns and water, especially rainfall. The Amazon generates the majority of its own water, its own rain, just through the trees taking it up through the roots and then raining down. So, the more trees we cut down, the less water gets brought up, which means there's less rainfall. And that cycle is like a feedback loop. It not only affects South America — about 70 percent of the GDP of South American countries is dependent on water or rainfall from the Amazon. It's a substantial economic force in Latin America, and it also affects weather patterns in the southern United States and the Gulf of Mexico.

What is the biggest challenge facing the Amazon?
The main driver of deforestation is cattle ranching — absolutely number one. Seventy to 80 percent of all rainforest destruction is one way or another from the cattle industry — and then that usually leads to soy farms being planted. Whether it's on a big industrial scale or a small scale, that's the most significant driver. There's obviously illegal logging that affects deforestation, but when you look at the bigger scale, it's agriculture.

Cattle ranching is a huge industry and a big part of the culture and livelihood of people living in South America. How do you balance the industry's cultural and economic importance with the need to protect the forest?
We look at what works. We know what the drivers are, and they've been the same — cattle ranching and agriculture — for a long time. Brazil is the biggest country in the Amazon. It contains 60 percent of the rainforest, and that's where over 60 percent of the deforestation is happening, so let's talk about Brazil right now. Previously Brazil was able to cut its deforestation by about 80 percent just by doing a few things — and a lot of that had to do with law enforcement. They had strong laws and enforced them, and they had a robust monitoring system. Even though cattle ranching and agriculture is an enormous economic driver in that area, they were able to cut deforestation down that far. That's incredibly important. Government policy and enforcement are enormous.

It comes down to how we coexist with our environment: How can we thrive as human beings with our practices and the things that sustain us without destroying the earth as a result?
A lot of it comes down to personal decisions and knowing where your products come from, knowing you're not contributing to deforestation. It's not easy with a commodity. But the more that individuals can do that and the more that governments put conditions on the supply chains of the products coming into their countries, it can happen.

There are good examples, and in Brazil, there are good public policies that were pushed for deforestation-free beef that many big companies signed up for. It's a mix of individual consumers putting pressure on governments and companies to do enforcement of laws.

Max Trowbridge talks about this when discussing the reasons and ethos for why she launched Eve & Max. It's the idea that we can all do our little part and be conscious about sustainability. As an everyday consumer, what are some small, relatively painless steps we can take to support the Rainforest Foundation?
As much as you can try and know where the products you buy come from and the effects of those products, it's still difficult. But we have a responsibility as a consumer to do this as much as possible. Make sure that you elect elected officials who have your values, so they'll push for policies and regulations that reflect your values. That's enormous. Understand the issues. Vote with your wallet. And with your philanthropy, support organizations that are helping people that are actually on the ground doing the work to protect forests — that's important. Make sure your money goes to people that are going to use that money to protect forests.

Are you also working on scaling some interesting technological endeavors?
The next thing that we've been working on for several years and expanding is community-based monitoring with technology. When indigenous people integrate high-tech tools on deforestation analysis and monitoring with their traditional ways of governing and monitoring their territories, deforestation decreases dramatically. Time is of the essence. Now that we know what works, it's just a matter of trying to scale up as quickly as possible, leveraging relationships of indigenous federations and leaders across the region and trying to increase training and program support to get as many communities as possible to use this technology to protect the forest. It's cost-effective, and it works.

Is there much of a focus on reforestation?
For us, the most important thing to do is to protect as much forest as possible. It's the most effective and the cheapest way to protect the forest in the short term, but we also have to replant a lot in the Amazon. We are starting this year with reforestation on a small scale in some communities. We're doing some pilot projects at the community level and trying to develop a way that communities across the Amazon that are protecting their forest but have had part of it degraded over time, for one reason or another, can start trying to replant.

The last thing I'd say that's related to monitoring and reforestation: We're trying to develop a sustainable way to support those local projects across the Amazon, so we're developing a blockchain-based payment system for indigenous communities. We're helping them use satellite data to show forest cover in their community and use that as evidence to receive payments for their work to protect the forest.

It's interesting to imagine indigenous people, with their ancient traditions, interacting with such high-tech technology. Do you ever face pushback of integrating tech into their cultures?
We have been incredibly impressed with the quickness by which the indigenous leaders we've worked with have picked up the technological tools. A lot of young people are excited to be able to use these tools. We're helping train these community-based monitors — many of whom had never used a phone before — to learn how to use smartphones and customized apps. They're downloading and uploading maps and taking data points. It's incredible. We were also wondering what the older people would think about this new technology in the communities. I have spoken to many elders that have said their culture is constantly evolving and that technology is a way to help protect their culture. They're all for it. Many young people don't feel like there's an economic opportunity or job opportunity for them in their community, so many go to the city. This technology could be a way to engage them and keep them working at home to support their community.

Covid dominated the news cycle of 2020. Did you lose traction because climate change and the Amazon weren't as top of mind?
The news cycle was definitely crowded in 2020, and climate change and tropical-forest protection was absolutely not front and center. Now, juxtapose that next to 2019. In August, the fires in the Amazon were all over the papers globally — and last year, in 2020, the fires were worse! They were 10 to 20 percent worse, and they were barely covered — definitely not front-page news.

Even during Covid, when I think about a lot of the storytelling, it was: "Oh, the economy is shut down, so climate change must have reduced" and "Oh, the sky is blue again." But deforestation was up 10 percent last year, and no one was looking. People weren't out enforcing anything. That story barely got covered.

We tried to tell stories of what was happening in our communities related to Covid and trying to make that link between Covid and deforestation. It was kind of a different story than what they were thinking.

What is it about Eve & Max that made you agree to have the Rainforest Foundation be a beneficiary for this collection?
You could tell sustainability was a part of the DNA of the brand. It came out front and center in the story, the mission statement, and how Max developed the collection. It's all aligned with what companies could and should be doing. Eve & Max seemed like a great example of a company that's not just talking the talk, but it looks like Max is working on setting an example and running her business in a really ethical way.

I hope this is an opportunity for us to reach beyond our current audience — because our audience is converted, and they've probably changed some personal habits, and they're donating to an organization that's going to have an impact. The more we can reach beyond our people through partnerships like with Eve & Max, the better.

What is one fear that you have for the rainforest and the environment at large? And what is one hope that you have?
I fear that we don't act quick enough — and that people will become paralyzed by the enormity of the problem, and they won't realize that they can do something and that all it takes is for everyone to contribute.

And my hope is for young people. Something that also got lost in the news: Remember that incredibly optimistic Fall we had of young people with the climate strikes? They were influencing governments, and it was this inspiring moment of solidarity with young people around the world holding all the Boomers to account. I feel like that narrative got lost over the past year, but I have to remember that it gave me hope that young people can get motivated to do something, and adults respond.

What projects or campaigns are you focused on in 2021?
The most important thing right now is a continuation of 2020. We're trying to help our communities stay safe from Covid. Indigenous people were particularly at risk for Covid in South America because of the lack of healthcare, the lack of information and lack of medical supplies. That's been a big focus of ours with education, communication, and food. They shut off access to their communities to try and keep the virus out. Fingers crossed it doesn't last all that much longer, but we're realistic. That's number one. We have long term partnerships with communities, and we're trying to help them stay healthy.

What is the best way for us to support the work of the Rainforest Foundation?
Learning is number one and then supporting groups like ours that will directly support communities that are going to protect forests. It's not just us; it's a whole bunch of groups together that are going to help push for change and provide direct support. Donate to groups where you think they're having an impact.

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