Rainforest Partnership: Saving the Rainforest one Community at a Time
I conducted an internship at Rainforest Partnership (RP), a non-profit organization in Austin, Texas from May to December 2017. RP is dedicated to ending the effects of deforestation in the Amazon basin by partnering with indigenous communities to develop their own sustainable products from their environment instead of relying on outside mineral extraction corporations that contribute to deforestation. This report will describe the mission of the organization itself, current and past projects RP has been involved in, and a description of my particular project.
Rainforests are home to a vast array of plants, animals and people. They cover just 2.5% of the Earth’s surface, where a fifth of the Earth’s freshwater is found. They are often called the lungs of the planet because they play a key role in absorbing the world’s carbon dioxide and producing oxygen, which helps to stabilize the global climate. Despite the biodiversity, tropical rainforests are extremely sensitive environments. Even the smallest change in climate can severely disrupt the biodiversity in the forests, causing many species to become endangered or extinct. Rainforests, by definition, are tall and dense jungle. They receive a very high amount of precipitation annually, around 7.5 inches (www.projectamazonas.org/amazon-facts), which is where the name comes from. Rainforests essentially have four layers to them: the forest floor, on the bottom, receives very little sunlight so hardly any plants grow on this level. Moving up from the floor is the understory later that receives slightly more sunlight than the forest floor, but the plants that grow here must have very broad leaves to receive as much sunlight as possible. Next is the canopy layer, which is the primary layer in the forest. Many animals, snakes and birds live in this level. Most of the tree leaves on this layer are smaller, oval-shaped and come to a point at the end. The fourth layer the emergent layer, where the tallest trees emerge over the rest, some growing over 200 feet from the forest floor. The biodiversity in the rainforest, particularly the Amazon Basin, includes 400 indigenous peoples, speaking over 300 different languages; Rainforest Partnership’s goal is to help the rainforest by helping the people.
They currently work in four distinct communities in Ecuador and Peru, with projects ranging from a traditional medicine center to broom and basket making. Since the start of my internship, I have focused on the question of avoided deforestation, which protects native forest and biodiversity that would otherwise be cleared for crops and grassland. Through qualitatively analyzing the data provided from Rainforest Partnership projects, the costs and benefits of avoided deforestation in relation to the communities was developed.
Rainforest Partnership: the Organization
Founded in 2008, the mission statement of Rainforest Partnership is to protect and regenerate tropical rainforests by forming partnerships with communities located in the Amazon Basin to help them develop, product, and market their own sustainable products from their environment. They want to help communities move away from a potential reliance on large mineral-extraction corporations that cause significant harm to local communities.
RP takes on incredibly ambitious projects, and has had success during their years as an established organization. One good example of a successful project is the Sani Warmi Artisan Craft Project. Like many other communities living in the Amazon Basin, the Sani Isla community, located in Ecuador, faced pressure to open up their lands for oil prospecting, but were able to consistently refuse through a determined community effort. The community already owned an eco-lodge that was easily accessible from a larger nearby city, and was generating a considerable income for the community, but they wanted a project for the women to take on to make an extra income. The Sani Isla people approached RP as a potential partner, and contracts were signed by May 2010. They first built the necessary infrastructure for the women to have a separate place to make their crafts, which allowed the project to gain momentum. The women created their own governance structure around the project, and were able to fully carry on everything without the help of RP. They started selling their crafts a year later at the eco-lodge, where their products were received very well. RP was able to keep working with the community through 2015, but in a much less directed role, and also made it to the point where they did not have to reapply for funding.
RP only has two full time employees: the executive director and the project coordinator. Each person does an incredible amount of work every day, so it is difficult to define exactly what each of them do. The director takes on the role of fundraising and acquiring partnerships with local organizations and businesses to get more publicity for RP. That is just one of her many jobs. She also has the job of communicating RP’s progress to the board of directors, who are located all around the world. The project coordinator is in charge of keeping in constant communication with people involved in all of RP’s ongoing projects. This job is difficult, because communication is often difficult since many of the communities are in remote locations. She is also in charge of writing the annual report (with the help of interns) that goes directly to the board at the end of the year.
The office of RP in Austin is very small, but comfortable. The executive director has the philosophy that everyone should be treated as if they are on the same level. This means that there are no dedicated offices (except for the director, who sometimes works alongside everyone else anyway), so everyone chooses their own spot to work at in a large room with a few couches and big tables. It is a very friendly and welcoming environment.
Interning at RP
My duties as an intern were to occasionally help with day-to-day operations in the office, which ranged from writing article reviews to requesting funding for a 6-week excursion to the Amazon. Primarily, my duties were to research and write a report about the cost and benefits of avoided deforestation in the Amazon. I often felt isolated in the organization, just because I was usually not a part of the normal day-to-day operations, and was working on a large research project by myself. I had occasional check-ins with Niyanta and Mariela, but I was mainly left to work on my own.
I was taken on by Rainforest Partnership do write a cost-benefit analysis of avoided deforestation in the partner communities. I was given information about the ongoing projects, including all of the project proposals and detailed information about the communities themselves. That is the extent of my guidance, so it was left up to me how to pursue the project and write about it in a way that would hopefully benefit RP in the future.
Chipaota project, which consists of planting and harvesting piassaba palm to be used for broom and basket making in the community. The community already faces a threat from unsustainable harvesting techniques, so the project clearly outlines new and strict guidelines for harvesting the palm in the community. Although there are many benefits to this project, such as the empowerment of the community to be able to live from their own work, while also being provided with a gateway to live sustainably, there are also costs to the project. The manual labor that goes into cutting and transporting the palm has to be considered. Once the palm is transported from where it is harvested and made into brooms and baskets, it must be taken by horse to the river where it is transported by boat to the nearest city, which can take multiple days at a time.
There will be costs to any large project like this, but the benefits are more important. This project is something the community advocated for themselves. To them, the costs are worth it.
Calculating the Price of Rainforest Sustainability
Deforestation in the Amazon is an extremely relevant and important topic of discussion, both in terms of anthropological effects because of the potential displacement of people, but also the environmental ramifications as well. At the rate of deforestation today, the world’s rainforests could completely disappear in one hundred years (www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/can-you-imagine-a-world-without-rainforests/). The most profound effect of deforestation is climate change, which leads to many other ramifications, such as the marginalization of indigenous people through the destruction of the environment.
Indigenous people who live in remote areas of the rainforest are often the first to experience the direct effects of climate change because of their close proximity and reliance upon their environment. Indigenous people already face many issues, such as political and economic marginalization, but climate change only exacerbates many of these, leading to human rights violations and extreme marginalization by depriving them of their natural resources that are the main part of their livelihood and sustainability (http://www.un.org/en/events/indigenousday/pdf/Backgrounder_ClimateChange_FINAL.pdf). As the rate of deforestation continues to increase over the years, the environment in the rainforest also continues to change. A large amount of forest is cleared every day, (around 80,000 acres each day (www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-talks-daily-destruction/)), and with nothing being planted to replace the lost forest, erosion takes over and the once rich environment turns into a savannah-like landscape. More extreme natural events start to take place, such as wild fires, which can get so bad that some indigenous people have to relocate to avoid the fires.
Indigenous people living in the global south are particularly vulnerable to climate change, but their “accumulated knowledge can help us understand how the climate is changing,” (Hofmeijer et al. 2013: 958) which will help with the eventual stage of adaptation. Indigenous people are often overlooked when it comes to health surveys, creating a deficit in understanding even basic health trends among indigenous people. Indigenous people are a marginalized population, so their needs are often and continuously overlooked by their governments and large corporations (Hofmeijer et al. 2013: 958). There is hope, however. Organizations like RP strive to give a voice to these marginalized populations, and many initiatives are taking place to combat the effects of climate change in the rainforest.
Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is a global effort “to create financial value for the carbon stored in forests,” and offers incentives for developing countries to reduce carbon emissions and invest in more sustainable development (www.un-redd.org/). Many other projects are also being funded to combat climate change and its effects on indigenous populations, such as the Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon project through the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The project’s main objective is to provide training and consultation to indigenous communities on climate change issues. Unlike many other projects having to do with climate change, this project is unique because it will be executed entirely by indigenous regional and national organizations.
Climate change exacerbated by rapid deforestation is a very real and impending threat, not only to indigenous populations—who are immediately affected—but to the global populations as more carbon is released into the atmosphere and temperatures continue to rise. Although we may never be able to stop the effects of climate change entirely, moving away from deforestation is certainly a step in the right direction.
My time at Rainforest Partnership was beneficial, but also disorganized and hectic. I found it to be a good experience overall. Since there are only two full time employees at RP, they were doing so many different projects at once, most of which focused on the day-to-day operations of the organization, so my project did not seem as important, thus making it difficult to get their feedback. I think the organization, overall, does great work and is highly motivated to make a difference in the Amazon Basin by working with their communities. I am not entirely sure I would recommend RP as a place for an internship if the person seeking the internship needs structure and guidance for projects.
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Hofmeijer, I., J. D. Ford, L. Berrang-Ford, C. Zavaleta, C. Carcamo, E. Llanos, C. Carhuaz, V. Edge, S. Lwasa, and D. Namanya. “Community vulnerability to the health effects of climate change among indigenous populations in the Peruvian Amazon: a case study from Panaillo and Nuevo Progreso.” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 18, no. 7 (2012): 957-78. doi:10.1007/s11027-012-9402-6.
“UN-REDD Programme.” UN-REDD Programme. Accessed December 12, 2017. http://www.un-redd.org/.
“Rainforests Could Be Wiped Out in 100 Years – Here’s How to Prevent That.” Global Citizen. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/can-you-imagine-a-world-without-rainforests/.