Last month, I had the privilege of traveling to the rainforests of Peru with a cohort of corporate sustainability rising stars through the Corporate EcoForum’s Sustainability Leadership Development Program. For one week, we admired the centuries-old kapok and ipe trees, and spotted howler monkeys and brightly colored macaws moving across the forest canopy. Amidst the lush flora and fauna of the Tambopata National Reserve, we explored the question: how can individual leadership solve global environmental problems at scale?
If you’re willing to listen, the rainforest has wisdom to share.
The trip was a humbling reminder that no one individual can succeed alone. In the rainforest, we observed poignant examples of nature's ecosystem of collaboration. For example, many tree seedlings can grow in a small patch of forest, but only one will find enough light to flourish and reach the canopy. I was reminded of the competitive spirit of business, of the exciting race to the top that corporate sustainability presents.
In other cases, the rainforest felt far from the business world. Nature has created conditions for success that necessitate strength and enormous vulnerability. A forest can recover from a catastrophic storm or fire, but that recovery may take hundreds of years. Our short-term corporate thinking is the opposite, unnatural in comparison: if stock prices plummet and don’t improve within a week or two, we panic.
I was also reminded of the poetic justice of adaptation. For urbanites, time spent in the Peruvian rainforest means exposure to challenging conditions. It means no climate control for over a week in hot weather, no electricity, surrounded by insects. Your resolve is tested; you think: “I wouldn’t survive this if I didn't have my gear, my mosquito net...” We acknowledged that we have not learned to adapt to the natural environment.
Then we met individuals from the Ese-Eja indigenous community, which resides on the banks of the Tambopata River. They live in harmony with nature — drawing on its bounty for survival, but not taking more than they need. In contrast, in modern capitalist societies we have forced the environment to fit a manmade ideal by cutting down trees, hunting species to extinction and paving cement roads. Our relationship with nature has to be reconciled if we intend to sustain it as a resource in the long term while maintaining vibrant life – and not just human – on the planet.
As these natural settings are increasingly degraded by human activity, we must quickly repair this relationship. At the current rate of endangerment, in five years, some of the creatures we met in that Peruvian rainforest might no longer exist. At CDP, we understand the immense value of our precious forests. It’s why our 20-year call for corporate disclosure on climate change led organically to an expansion into disclosure on water security and deforestation. They are intertwined parts of the ecosystem, each begetting and maintaining the health of the others. Disclosure allows the world to see how resources are being extracted from lands like the Tambopata National Reserve, where native residents are pivoting to sustainable production of palm oil – a key deforestation-linked commodity CDP explored in research this year.
Back home in New York, I feel called to spend more time in nature, to remind myself that nature doesn't always serve us in the way we want it to and that we must stop trying to bend it to our will. As 2019 closes and environmental advocates leave COP25 frustrated by lack of governmental action, I’d like to challenge other corporate sustainability professionals to think beyond climate change and carbon accounting as they pertain to our day jobs. Sustainability isn't just a paper exercise – the Ese-Eja and other indigenous groups depend on the health of our rainforests, and all people need these natural environments to flourish.
Collective action is our only way forward. Activists argue there are no jobs on a dead planet, but my view is: people and business thrive in an environment that thrives. Consider what this means for you and your company: whether it’s committing to 100% renewable energy or setting a science-based target, engaging with your supply chain to enhance sustainability or joining the CDP ecosystem by disclosing on Climate, Water and Forests. These steps contribute to collective restorative action while making your company more profitable and resilient.
I’ll close with a stand-out memory from my trip. Throughout the week we all hoped to catch a glimpse of a jaguar, but they remained elusive, as their numbers have dwindled in large part due to commodity-driven deforestation in the Amazon. On our very last day, while making our way down the river, we spotted a beautiful female jaguar resting just 30 meters away. She looked inquisitive and wise, as if she were questioning whether to trust us or not.
Her appearance seemed like a ray of hope. It was a reminder that considering how hard we have hit our environment, it continues to provide for us, to regenerate. But for how much longer, and at what cost?