Words by Rosie Cattrell
Working alongside rainforest communities to halt deforestation and make a change for good.
The state of the Earth is in decline, a solemn fact that we’ve all had to come to terms with in recent years, and it only seems to be getting worse. However, the team at Cool Earth (who work from Cornwall, Peru and the US) are well aware of the key to climate change, and have an answer to the ever-growing global crisis – the rainforest.
While we ponder all the ways in which we might bring these green lungs of the Earth back from the brink to breathe fresh life into our world, what is often overlooked are the people who call these rainforests home, where the lush green canopies and the harmonious symphony of wildlife form the borders of their lives. Described as “effective biodiversity and conservation managers”, and the “primary custodians of most of the world’s remaining tropical forests and biodiversity hotspots” in a letter from the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people in 2019, those that call the rainforest home are fundamental to its recovery and protection, and Cool Earth recognise the key part they play in our world’s future.
Looking back on a year behind the lens in 2019, Cool Earth’s in-house photographer Lewis Gillingham reflects on what he saw first-hand along the way, and the effects that climate change is having on the people least equipped to manage it: “Along the coastline of Papua New Guinea are stark reminders that many are living with the effects of climate breakdown every day, and the difficult choices that are having to be made as a result. The most rewarding part of visiting rainforest communities is meeting and learning from the people that live there. It’s easy to think of rainforest as a pristine and untouched Eden, but the reality is often far from that. Vital to remember is that those who call rainforest home play a key part in conservation. They are contemporary societies in a modern world with a rich cultural history and the knowledge to live in harmony with the forest.”
“Meeting rainforest communities around the world, the most obvious thing is not their differences, but their striking similarities, not only to one another but to communities and societies away from the tropics. Regardless of language, country or climate, we all have the same basic needs and necessities, we all have hopes, dreams and fears. It’s clear that we have a duty to support the entrepreneurial, determined people who defend humanity’s very lifelines yet face disastrous effects of our carbon emissions.”
While Lewis’ work cannot make you feel the change in the Earth’s atmosphere, it can unveil the harsh effect it’s having on the people who are most at risk with the work of his lens and shutter: “What makes the extent and severity of climate breakdown difficult to grasp, is that it is, for the most part, invisible. We cannot feel rising atmospheric carbon levels. This intangibility makes raising awareness a challenge for photographers and climate change communicators. However, what we can see, and capture, are the effects that a changing climate is having on people and places right around the world.”
In response to a landmark deforestation pledge announced in November at COP26 to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, with £8.75 billion of public funds committed to protect and restore forests, alongside £5.3 billion of private investment, Cool Earth’s Director Matthew Owen made sure to make the charity’s priorities heard. “Today’s deal for forests at COP26 will make zero difference unless it gets behind the real climate crisis experts; people who live in rainforests.
The G20 has spent a decade ignoring, marginalising, or tapping indigenous peoples for cheap carbon offsets. If global leaders are really serious about ending deforestation by 2030, the promised billions need to go direct to communities on the ground. Cool Earth has been backing indigenous people and local communities for 15 years and has shown it is the most effective, scalable, and just way of keeping trees standing. If we want to get real about rainforest rather than just repeat the false promises of COP21 in Paris, we need to start by addressing social and climate injustices for people who live there.”
By supporting local and indigenous knowledge to develop innovative ways to address threats to the forest while making communities stronger and more resilient, Cool Earth are able to share the best ways to protect the rainforest through their firmly established network of partnerships around the world.