- Cool Earth has said that “saving the rainforest” isn’t a new concept, but how Cool Earth helps do it actually is. Can you explain the Cool Earth approach and how it differs?
You’re absolutely right; it’s not a new concept. Even if you say the environmental movement started on the first Earth Day in 1970, that’s fifty years of saving it whilst half has disappeared.
This failure to save something that so many people agreed we must protect (from the millions of concerned consumers to the 350 million people living in the rainforest) was the reason for Cool Earth’s creation in 2007. Coincidentally, it turned out that 2007 was a pivotal year for deforestation that had nothing to do with Cool Earth. That was the year that the average patch of cleared rainforest fell below 50 acres. This was good news and bad news.
Good, because it meant the long campaign, led by Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, to shame the world’s biggest companies into avoiding rainforest beef, soya and timber had gained critical mass. Industrial clear cutting was on the way out.
Bad, because overall rates of forest loss had not really changed. Clear cutting had been replaced by much smaller scale destruction but in many more places. Illegal logging, firewood, smallholder plots; these small patches of rainforest are cleared for many reasons but very few that respond to a global moratorium or a consumer boycott. And yet they accounted for the majority of tropical deforestation.
So Cool Earth took the opposite approach to Greenpeace. Rather than working on governments and consumers, Cool Earth’s focus is on the families and villages in the rainforest.
- You’ve said that “Poverty kills rainforest”: Can you explain that further?
There are lots of reasons for new plots of rainforest being cleared but pretty much every one is a consequence of poverty. The first villages we worked with in Peru, for example, were facing malnutrition amongst most of their children and really horrific levels of malaria.
Their only asset was their rainforest and, sure enough, a gang of loggers had turned up with a paltry offer for their cedar trees. The village knew that the offer was a fraction of what those trees were worth. They also knew from villages downriver that the loggers would do their best to force them into debt to take control of their forest. But it was the only offer they had.
The story is the same throughout the tropics. Whether it be offers from charcoal makers in the Congo, palm planters in PNG or colonists in Peru, families who have protected the forest for generations only give up their forest when poverty leaves them with no other option.
- What is the current “state-of-the-state” of rainforest loggers? Are they increasing? Decreasing? Has anything been changing?
The international agreements to ban imports of rainforest timber have halted so much legal logging. But with just about anything that’s banned, if demand still exists, illegal suppliers fill vacuum. Most logging of primary rainforest is therefore done illegally in the small gangs we come across so often. They focus on the most valuable trees but one tracks are cleared, the less sought after trees will be taken and the forest degrades.
The only way to address it is to give control to local people who have the most to gain from keeping the forest intact. That’s the Cool Earth model.
- Please share some specific stories of how Cool Earth has directly helped local indigenous communities.
Indigenous communities often are overlooked by local and national governments when it comes to essentials like healthcare, education and skill training. By cultivating and selling cacao, communities like the Asháninka have doubled local income, earning them far more than logging could ever pay and funding school supplies and emergency evacuations to hospital. By linking communities like the Asháninka with chefs at SUSHISAMBA, Cool Earth has helped sustainable incomes form both locally and internationally, alongside the skills needed in accessing these long term.
Savings and loans, although not the most exciting of subjects by any means, could be the main part of communities’ arsenal against deforestation. Communities that have a secure financial future don’t have to sell their trees, which is why Village Saving and Loans Associations (VSLAs) training is a priority in PNG. Through the training, even the poorest members of the community will have the opportunity to take control, borrow and save, ensuring they are financially strong enough to resist loggers for good.
- You’ve said that when rainforests are saved, it physically stops loggers from coming in. Can you explain that a bit more?
When loggers are prevented access to a piece of forest, they do what any of us would, and try elsewhere. One of the most important parts of Cool Earth’s approach is to ask the villages we work with to tell their neighbours about their experience. This has resulted in village after village working with Cool Earth and creating contiguous tracts of protected forest. In partnerships with the Asháninka in Peru and Maniema Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, these village-led efforts make unprotected reserve in accessible to loggers. Word of mouth has been one of the most powerful tools in Cool Earth’s growth.
- Is there any steps people can do in their day-to-day to help decrease deforestation? It all seems so far away – what can people do at the local level?
Consumers have done a great job in demanding products free of rainforest soya, beef, minerals and timber. Industry responds to consumer demand, and soon this becomes the norm.
So aside from supporting Cool Earth, I’d say being super-vigilant about palm oil. It’s an extraordinary product that you’ll find in just about half of all super-market products but it’s also the big driver of industrial deforestation. Avoiding products with palm oil is the simplest thing to do, however checking any palm that is used is certified sustainable is key.
Take 5 minutes to hear Matthew speak about Cool Earth in this Tedx Talk.
Featured image includes Ben Gray, Vivienne Westwood, Chef Claudio Cardoso and Matthew Owen.