- Over the past few years, Mighty Earth has emerged as one of the most influential advocacy groups when it comes pushing companies to clean up their supply chains. The group, has targeted companies that produce, trade, and source deforestation-risk commodities like beef, palm oil, cocoa, rubber, and soy.
- Mighty Earth is led by Glenn Hurowitz, an activist who has spent the better part of the past 20 years advocating for forests and forest-dependent communities. In that capacity, Hurowitz has played a central role in pressing some of the world’s largest companies to adopt zero deforestation, peatlands, and exploitation (ZDPE) commitments.
- Might Earth’s strategy is built on what Hurowitz calls the “Perfect Storm” approach: “We work to bring pressure on a target from multiple different angles in a relatively compressed time period to the point that it becomes irresistible: their customers, financiers, media, grassroots, digital, direct engagement with the company,” he explained. “It’s an application of the basic principles of classical military strategy, combined with social change theory and a lot of hard-won experience to the field of environmental campaigning.
- Hurowitz spoke about how to drive change, the evolution of environmental activism, and a range of other topics during an August 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
Over the past five years, Mighty Earth has emerged as one of the most influential advocacy groups when it comes pushing companies to clean up their supply chains. The group, which had its origins as the Forest Heroes campaign before evolving into a standalone non-profit organization, has targeted companies that produce, trade, and source deforestation-risk commodities like beef, palm oil, cocoa, rubber, and soy.
Mighty Earth’s approach typically starts with research and analysis of how commodities move through supply chains. From there, the group creates colorful and hard-hitting campaigns that usually take aim at consumer-facing companies, like Kellogg or Burger King, or firms that sell to them, like American agribusiness giant Cargill or Indonesia’s Korindo. Mighty Earth will often collaborate with activist investors, like Green Century Capital Management, and leverage connections with media outlets to amplify the impact of its campaigns.
Mighty Earth is led by Glenn Hurowitz, an activist who has spent the better part of the past 20 years advocating for forests and forest-dependent communities. In that capacity, Hurowitz has played a central role in pressing some of the world’s largest companies to adopt zero deforestation, peatlands, and exploitation (ZDPE) commitments.
Arguably Hurowitz’s biggest “win” came in 2013, when he persuaded Kuok Khoon Hong, the CEO of Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil trader, to meet with NGOs about its sourcing practices. Already under pressure from a range of campaigners, financiers, and other actors at the time, Wilmar eventually would go on to establish a ZDPE policy that ushered in a wave of commitments from other players in the sector.
“The successful negotiations with Wilmar were really just the culmination of a broader strategy and campaign that spanned the world,” Hurowitz told Mongabay. “Choosing Wilmar as the key target wasn’t the automatic decision it might seem now. Many people thought at the time that they were too big, too conservative, and too opaque to change.”
“But the most important factor was their size – they were the biggest, and therefore had the potential to unlock the transformation of the whole industry,” he continued. “Change Wilmar, you change the whole industry. As the biggest, they also had greater freedom to set the standard within the industry without worrying so much that their competitors would undermine them.”
Getting Wilmar to begin the shift away from business-as-usual practices involved what Hurowitz calls the “Perfect Storm” approach.
“We work to bring pressure on a target from multiple different angles in a relatively compressed time period to the point that it becomes irresistible: their customers, financiers, media, grassroots, digital, direct engagement with the company,” he explained. “It’s an application of the basic principles of classical military strategy, combined with social change theory and a lot of hard-won experience to the field of environmental campaigning. We apply principles like concentration of force, agility, and momentum to our campaigns, and our effort to change Wilmar and the whole of commodity agriculture industry really followed those principles.”
That being said, eight years on, there remains a gap between Wilmar’s ambitions — represented by its commitment — and the actual implementation of its policies: Like other companies that have adopted ZDPE commitments, Wilmar still has deforestation in its supply chain.
“[Wilmar] hasn’t always been a leader in every aspect of NDPE implementation,” said Hurowitz. “While they have helped lead the other companies to make enforcement of their palm oil policies much more rapid, they and others have not fulfilled repeated commitments to create a transparent industry-wide deforestation and human rights monitoring system. As a result, it still falls to our Rapid Response system and other NGO efforts to police Wilmar and its industry peers. With the industry’s vastly greater resources, that’s just not right.”
Hurowitz spoke about how to drive change, the evolution of environmental activism, and a range of other topics during an August 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
AN INTERVIEW WITH GLENN HUROWITZ
What inspired your interest in environmental issues? And what keeps you motivated?
From a very early age, I’ve had a deep love of animals and Nature. I grew up in the Hudson Valley in New York State, one of the cradles of America’s early conservation movement. The river is three miles wide in my hometown. Most evenings, I got to watch the sun go down behind the red cliffs of the Palisades, one of the most stunning sites in Nature. Indeed, views like those were the inspiration for the famed Hudson River School of early American naturalist, romantic painting that itself helped inspire early American conservation.
The Hudson River itself is a big part of why I’m an environmentalist, and why I can maintain hope even in the face of great adversity. When I was a kid, the Hudson was beloved, but also seen as dirty and dangerous to swim in or eat fish from. It suffered from more than a century of industrial abuse, especially from General Electric and Monsanto’s dumping of PCBs and other toxic pollutants until 1977. The Indian Point nuclear power plant just miles from my home sucked up billions of fish and other organisms every year as part of its antiquated cooling system. I woke up every morning to a view of the Hudson, and I would think about how amazing it was, but also about the pollution.
But over the course of my childhood, I saw the fruits of citizens organizing to protect the environment. Folk singer Pete Seeger had launched the sloop Clearwater in the 1960s to bring attention to the river; his small band of citizens galvanized a movement that pressured the government to clean up the river. Under sustained pressure from the Riverkeeper organization and others, the federal government forced a clean-up of the PCBs. It took decades, but it succeeded. And just this year, after decades of citizen organizing and sustained pressure, the Indian Point nuclear power plant shut down. It’s now a real thrill for me to go swimming in the Hudson River, and know that doing so is safe. It’s pretty common to see bald eagles on the banks of the river, and even whales now visit the lower part of the river again.
So, I had the great benefit in my own community of being able to see that citizen organizing could make the impossible reality. I’ve really just tried to make that happen over and over again.
There were other personal experiences that probably had a big impact and maybe helped draw me to agricultural issues like going every summer to visit my grandparents and cousins in the small village in rural Ireland where my mom grew up. I got to work with my grandfather in his small farm and turf bog. I probably had more exposure to agriculture and rural life than most Americans.
The other major event in my early life that launched me on the trajectory I’m on today was more political: global warming hitting the headlines for the first time in a big way when I was 10 years old. James Hansen’s Congressional testimony about the existential perils of climate change got lots of attention. I became really distressed about it to the point that I would be in the middle of a sports game and instead of focusing on whacking the ball, would start to think about global warming.
Instead of plunging into despair, I decided to do something about it – and started lugging a giant trash bag around with me, collecting cans to recycle. I was always trying to encourage recycling at school, camp, and in different places. I’m not sure other kids quite knew what to make of me: I played sports, did all sorts of regular kid activities, dressed kind of preppy, but then would also have a big trash bag trailing me at times. I guess I was kind of like a little Greta Thunberg without the global following.
I also learned at school about how important rainforests were, and it really grabbed me. When I was in middle school, we had a “Run for the Rainforest.” The kids asked parents, friends, and others to sponsor them for a certain amount per lap run around the school playground. I dived into the fundraising with great gusto and ran my heart out, and we raised several thousand dollars for rainforest conservation. I didn’t really know what else to do about the rainforest, but from then on, I always read avidly about it and thought a lot about what was happening to the rainforest.
I went to Yale for college and pursued a strong interest in journalism by writing for The Yale Daily News. It was a wonderful learning experience in so many ways. I covered loads of topics, but tried to mix in environmental coverage whenever I could. I thought that exposing environmental issues through writing about them would lead to change. I wrote about inefficient buildings, pollution at Connecticut power plants, the impact of meat eating, gaps in environmental education, and other topics. But it was pretty hard for me to detect much concrete impact from my writing. So, my senior year, I got involved with the Yale Student Environmental Coalition and worked on campaigns to green our campus and make Big Oil’s campus recruiting efforts toxic. After graduating, I went overseas for a year and, among other things, lived on a farm working in organic agriculture. But then George W. Bush got elected, and I decided I should move back to the United States to try to help save the planet from him in some small way. The only problem was that I had no idea how to do it.
I called an organizer who had worked with our campus group and told her what I wanted to do. She recommended that I apply for a year-long environmental organizing fellowship called Green Corps. It takes recent college graduates and trains them in all the skills you need to run and win environmental campaigns from grassroots recruitment to working with the media to building coalitions. I remember going to the interview weekend, and being pretty sure I wouldn’t get in. There were so many people who had far more experience than I did in environmental organizing. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what “organizing” really meant. But they took a chance on me, and it turned out to be the most important year of my career.
The other fellows and I did a month of training at the beginning of the year in Boston in the basics of organizing and campaigning, and then were sent out to different states to help local campaigns on behalf of national or state environmental organizations. For my first assignment, I went to California with eight other Green Corps organizers to support a Greenpeace campaign with a goal of securing $2 billion from the State of California and community college districts to shift funds away from natural gas and towards clean energy.
The core of the job was getting people involved at the grassroots. That meant giving them a sense of their own potential to make a difference on really big issues. I quickly saw evidence that it worked. One of my jobs was to help organize a lobby day at the State Capitol in Sacramento where we asked the volunteers we’d recruited to meet with their representatives. We held more than sixty meetings. At the end of the day, we gathered with our volunteers in the hallways of the State Capitol to recap and celebrate the day. While we were cheering and chanting, California’s Energy Czar, our main target, sought us out in the hallways to debate us for an hour. It struck me that the fact that he was talking to us seemed to bode well even if he was arguing with us. The very next week, California announced its first big investment in clean energy. Ultimately, our organizing and Greenpeace’s continued efforts secured way more than the $2 billion we were initially seeking. That was one of the early large investments in solar that helped drive lower costs around the world.
One of the great things about Green Corps was it gave you the opportunity to work in a really diverse array of communities. I worked for a while in Watts and East Los Angeles to recruit community college students to advocate for solar in their campuses; later, I went to Miami, and then North Dakota and Pittsburgh – so I had the opportunity to work in majority Black and Chicano communities, but also almost completely rural Great Plains communities. I must say that what struck me in those experiences was the commonality between different communities’ struggle to protect their environments, not the differences. Sure, there were different contexts, characters, histories, and issues. But for the most part I found that the fights were fundamentally between people of compassion and the capacity to imagine that things might not be always as they were working to overcome greed, fear, and more than anything inertia inside big institutions. This conflict is often expressed as “organized people vs. organized money,” and it is that. But it’s as often as much a battle of conviction, will, and backbone.
Organizing is hard work and full of challenges, and I was just learning how to do it. But it was worth it when people got involved in a really deep way, sometimes making a lifelong commitment to the environment. It was thrilling when people would overcome their fears and speak at a government meeting, or even just take a small step like writing a letter. Those first steps sometimes led to a lifetime of activism. I think one of the things I’ve found most exciting about my career as an organizer is when you meet up with a volunteer years later and find out that they’re still involved. If you can identify with that excitement, and have a passion for the planet, you might want to consider a career in organizing.
Since finishing Green Corps, I’ve worked on state, national, and international campaigns. Mostly, I’m just applying those very basic lessons of environmental organizing I learned in Green Corps at a grander scale.
Has environmental activism changed in terms of its approach or tactics since you got your start?
I believe that the principles of successful activism and organizing are essentially timeless. Depth over breadth. Commitment over flash. Strategy over tactics.
Of course, the tools of organizing have changed to an extent. When I first started organizing, I did have a cell phone and mainly used email, but a lot of reporters and politicians still used fax machines. Text messaging and social media are more important, but a challenge with most digital organizing at this stage is that for many targets, high volumes of communication alone aren’t likely to change them. Politicians and big companies are somewhat inured to traditional email petitions.
There are of course instances of social media contributing to campaign wins. Most companies and politicians are sensitive to their online image, though some are developing a bit more of a thick cyber-skin.
I believe that activism, including digital activism, carries great power and great responsibility. A 22-year-old organizer can recruit a handful of volunteers and change a senator’s vote, or a small NGO can do an exposé that sparks the transformation of an industry. But like any form of power, it can be abused. There’s a risk of crossing the line from movement to mob. I think because the barrier to entry is so low, social media can breed irresponsibility in activism that can be turned towards bullying. For instance, we’re working on deadly serious life and death issues: the survival of an endangered species, an Indigenous community whose defenders are threatened with murder, child and slave labor, the fate of the planet. We know the stakes are high.
And yet, we very rarely call for anybody to be fired. We pursue transformation, not just a temporarily satisfying change in personnel. Online, it sometimes feels like calling for someone to be fired is the first step. I find that even with the most serious issues, changing a CEO or politician through organizing can create long-term transformation. In our work, we’re also tackling companies far down the supply chain, and governments that may not have the same sensitivities to elite Western cultural morays. We’re not shy about applying intense pressure, but our aim ultimately is not just the fleeting satisfaction of accountability – it’s change.
You’ve played a leading role in the push to get companies to adopt No deforestation (NDPE) policies. A 2015 Grist article provided very good background on your pivotal meeting with Wilmar’s CEO Kuok Khoon Hong in 2013. Can you re-cap the approach you took in persuading Kuok?
The successful negotiations with Wilmar were really just the culmination of a broader strategy and campaign that spanned the world. Choosing Wilmar as the key target wasn’t the automatic decision it might seem now. Many people thought at the time that they were too big, too conservative, and too opaque to change. They’re the world’s largest palm oil trader. Asia’s largest agribusinesses, are owned by one of the wealthiest families in the world, and the dossier of their environmental and human rights issues was thick. Based on research and interactions with the company, we felt that although that description was accurate, ultimately, they were a professional and dynamic company focused on their business. But the most important factor was their size – they were the biggest, and therefore had the potential to unlock the transformation of the whole industry. More than 80% of palm oil producers sold to them. Change Wilmar, you change the whole industry. As the biggest, they also had greater freedom to set the standard within the industry without worrying so much that their competitors would undermine them.
Once we identified them as the target, we had to figure out how to change them – and do so in a way that would create momentum for the transformation of the palm oil industry and commodity agriculture more broadly. The approach we used with Wilmar and Kuok was the same one we’ve used over and over again with dozens of palm oil, rubber, chocolate, steel, and meat companies: what we call our Perfect Storm approach. We work to bring pressure on a target from multiple different angles in a relatively compressed time period to the point that it becomes irresistible: their customers, financiers, media, grassroots, digital, direct engagement with the company. It’s an application of the basic principles of classical military strategy, combined with social change theory and a lot of hard-won experience to the field of environmental campaigning. We apply principles like concentration of force, agility, and momentum to our campaigns, and our effort to change Wilmar and the whole of commodity agriculture industry really followed those principles.
Many organizations contributed to creating this perfect storm with Wilmar. Rainforest Foundation Norway persuaded Nordic investors to divest from Wilmar and other palm oil companies. Previously, most institutional investors had just politely urged Wilmar and other companies to consider perhaps not engaging in quite such egregious destruction. Once divestment started, the palm oil companies started to take other investors more seriously and worry that they couldn’t just wine and dine them in Singapore and tell them how much they loved Mother Earth.
One of the most important investor actors was Green Century Capital Management, which has a strategic sense of how to use financial influence to change companies and industries. Their shareholder advocate joined an earnings call with the CEO of Kellogg, one of Wilmar’s joint venture partners, and asked the Kellogg CEO why he was jeopardizing his multi-billion-dollar brand by partnering with one of the world’s great forest destroyers. It made the financial press, and Kellogg’s CEO started asking Wilmar’s CEO the same questions.
Grassroots work made a big difference. Our organizers also went to Michigan where Kellogg’s was based to recruit volunteers on campus and in neighborhoods with lots of Kellogg’s employees to ask why Kellogg’s was partnering with a company that destroyed Sumatran tiger habitat when its mascot was Tony the Tiger. Soon, hundreds of students were asking Kellogg’s recruiter the same question. And finally, when haze from deforestation linked to palm oil hit Singapore, we went on television to tell people in Singapore and across the region that the haze wasn’t just a phenomenon for which society as a whole was responsible, but that Wilmar held outsized responsibility.
Faced with this pressure, Wilmar’s CEO Khoon Hong wrote me a letter which was fairly defensive. I saw it as an opportunity. I wrote back and told him he had played such a leading role in Asia’s economic success, but that now he had a unique opportunity to play an equally leading role in protecting Asia’s environment. Pretty soon, we were emailing back and forth, and he invited me to Singapore to meet him.
When we met at Wilmar’s headquarters, he delivered a 15-minute diatribe about how unfair NGOs were. I couldn’t believe I’d flown for 24 hours to Singapore to listen to that. But once he got that off his chest, he was very open-minded when we talked about solutions – and in particular the potential of the palm oil industry to focus future expansion on the tens of millions of acres of previously deforested degraded lands instead of on pristine rainforest and carbon-rich peatland. We also talked about how this wasn’t just about commitments, but about implementation – and that to succeed they would need an expert implementation partner. We urged them to bring in The Forest Trust, TFT (now Earthworm Foundation), which had already worked with another major palm oil company, GAR and Greenpeace to develop the High Carbon Stock methodology to channel development onto previously deforested lands. We felt that unless they had a credible implementation partner, any commitment would be meaningless. They were skeptical, but I kept at it, and finally persuaded them to talk to TFT’s then-Executive Director Scott Poynton. I had to keep banging the drum and flew to Singapore again but felt that when Khoon Hong agreed to have Scott join our conversations, it meant they were serious and that we were likely to succeed.
Even with that, it was still a roller coaster of negotiations. I flew to Singapore five times that year to work through the issues and seal the deal. Khoon Hong was understandably nervous that his competitors wouldn’t join them. We worked with Wilmar, Earthworm and Unilever to convene a meeting with all the major competitors, and the competitors just reinforced that fear by refusing to go along. We ultimately had to persuade Khoon Hong to take a leap of faith.
It was touch and go but helped by the fact that other organizations like Greenpeace and SumOfUS were also beginning to add pressure. The pressure from investors was also resonating. And at a key moment, I was able to send him photos of a huge crowd of our volunteers protesting outside Kellogg’s headquarters in Battle Creek, Michigan in the middle of a very cold weekday in November. Despite the understandable fear Wilmar had about changing the way they did business, the combined pressure also created risk for them of not acting.
At the end of the day, however, adopting such a strong environmental and human rights policy, applying it to Wilmar’s hundreds of suppliers, and investing millions of dollars in implementation was an act of courage. I think Khoon Hong deserves enormous credit for it. He didn’t go for half steps, and he almost immediately made implementation of their sustainability policy a priority within the company. That set the stage for progress across the industry.
Of course since then, like most other big agribusiness companies, Wilmar has struggled to implement its NDPE. How would you characterize the progress Wilmar in terms of where you expected it to be by this point in time? And what is still left for it to do?
In many ways, Wilmar continued to be a leader in the industry. Their forest and human rights commitment laid down the gauntlet for the industry to adopt Wilmar’s No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) policy. Within months, they went further and completely disrupted commodity agriculture’s tradition of opacity by posting the identity and location of their suppliers online, creating pressure on their major competitors to do the same. And they’ve been willing, with pushing from us and others, to take leadership on other key implementation issues. At some level, to paraphrase Joe Biden, ‘we shouldn’t compare them to the Almighty, but to the alternative’. It’s difficult for me to imagine the enormous progress in the palm oil industry without Wilmar. Most recently, they were the only major palm oil trader to join the Rimba Collective, in which major companies in the palm oil supply chain finally stepped up to not just avoid deforestation, but to invest in conservation and restoration over the long term. It took many years to convince the industry to go this next step, and typically Wilmar was the first one willing to take a leap of faith.
While that’s the big picture, Wilmar has been far from perfect – and hasn’t always been a leader in every aspect of NDPE implementation. Most of its challenges are ones it has shared with pretty much every other palm oil company, but that’s not necessarily an excuse for a company with its financial resources. While they have helped lead the other companies to make enforcement of their palm oil policies much more rapid, they and others have not fulfilled repeated commitments to create a transparent industry-wide deforestation and human rights monitoring system. As a result, it still falls to our Rapid Response system and other NGO efforts to police Wilmar and its industry peers. With the industry’s vastly greater resources, that’s just not right.
Despite years of advocacy, as far as we can tell, Wilmar has done almost nothing to advance forest and human rights protection in the soy supply chain. That’s a real failure for one of the biggest soy importers to Asia. They’ve made billions of dollars in profit off their soy imports. They know how to transform industries. Merely extending enforcement of the scope of its NDPE policy to soy would have a similar transformative effect as in palm oil.
One of the other areas where they lag is in extending the scope of its NDPE policy to all business activities of the groups they buy from. We have filed repeated grievances with Wilmar for sourcing from groups that continue to clear rainforests for other commodities. They refused to act on the deforestation because it wasn’t directly for palm oil, for example – they simply classify such cases as ‘ineligible grievances’ on its website.
One of Wilmar’s largest palm oil suppliers is Astra Agro Lestari, part of the Astra Group which is owned by the British conglomerate Jardines Matheson. We found that a gold mining division of Astra, only bought in late 2018, is actively destroying the rainforest habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan, the most endangered great ape species in the world. This is disappointing on its own merit, and also because several other companies that source palm from Astra such as Hershey’s, PZ Cussons, Unilever, COFCO International, Oleon, for example, are pressuring the group even if they don’t buy gold from its mine. For example, Unilever grievance log states: ‘we have stated our concerns on the allegations to the company and encouraged to halt developments before HCS/HCV assessments have been completed and submitted for independent review’.
Wilmar needs to urgent extend the scope of its NDPE policy across all commodities and to all business activities of the groups they source from. When that happens, we could see greater ambition from its industry peers.
What has been the biggest lesson for you after a decade or so of NDPE engagement with companies?
Enforcement, enforcement, enforcement. I don’t think the companies would have done anywhere near as much as they did without monitoring and real sustained campaign and commercial pressure. One of the ways we’ve worked to drive industry-wide implementation of these commitments is through our Rapid Response monitoring system. Our team continually monitors approximately 30 million hectares of land in Southeast Asia for deforestation and we do similar monitoring of the meat industry in South America. We then file alerts with the agribusinesses alerting them to instances of deforestation. The good news is they respond. The program has driven more than 250 supply chain discontinuations in palm oil, and dozens of new forest and human rights policies by palm oil producers.
We believe this program is a major driver of the extraordinary success in reducing deforestation for palm oil, and in Southeast Asia more broadly. The other important ingredient is campaigns that we and allies have done, particularly in Asian markets for palm oil. Many of the remaining rogue actors who have resisted pressure from the mainstream traders, consumer companies, and financiers thought they could continue business as usual because they served mainly Asian markets. That’s been a myth. The reality is that the public in many Asian markets is at least as concerned as Westerners about these issues, and we’ve seen great success in changing companies there too.
Overall, the combination of monitoring and campaigns has made a major contribution to success in reducing deforestation for palm oil. In Indonesia, deforestation has declined from about one million acres per year in 2014 to 93,900 in 2020, the fourth straight year it was less than 250,000 acres. If sustained over ten years, this reduction translates to about 1.6 gigatons of reduced pollution – and there are thousands of orangutans, tree kangaroos, and birds of paradise alive today because of it. This decline in deforestation in the palm oil industry, complemented by some governmental actions, have contributed to an overall decline in deforestation for palm oil to its lowest level in more than 30 years. I hope the monitoring and campaigns can continue.
It’s a huge environmental and climate success and one that’s gotten too little attention. That’s a shame because there are major lessons for changing other industries too. We’ve seen huge progress in palm oil, pulp and paper and rubber, and the beginnings of action in cocoa. But the meat industry is a bigger driver of deforestation than all of the other commodities combined. We’ve tried to bring the successful model to the meat industry, but there’s been relatively little funding for advocacy to drive that transformation. We are seeing growing interest in this area from our NGO allies, especially after the raging Amazon fires of the past few years, but there just needs to be an order of magnitude more funding for this work.
Over the past decade, there seems to be much greater awareness in the conservation sector about the contributions Indigenous peoples and local communities have made toward achieving conservation outcomes. What has driven this shift?
There are a lot of studies that show clearly in many places that Indigenous communities are the best defenders of the forests. It makes sense: there’s just no substitute for having a community that cares so much about the place they live that they’re willing to fight and in all too many cases die for it. I think most people will understand that. In our work, where local communities are ready to fight for their land, we usually see industrial deforestation projects run into huge obstacles from the resistance from local communities. We try to make sure the voices of those communities are heard – and that impacts on them are documented.
Of course, on the ground, defining who is Indigenous and local can be complicated. There are Indigenous groups who live a fairly traditional lifestyle, depend on the forest and its bounty for their livelihood and culture. Most people would agree that they’re an Indigenous community. But there are often groups of illegal miners, ranchers, loggers, and wildlife traffickers, sometimes with the backing of major financial interests or governments, who claim the mantle of Indigenous or local communities. Sometimes we also find that there are Indigenous and local communities on different sides of an issue. And there are differences between Indigenous and local communities’ legal rights, modes of organization, and culture across regions, religions, and countries. So, it requires a lot of local knowledge and partnership to get this right. But the good news is that there is much more attention being paid to it by civil society at least. There needs to be way more attention to it from companies and governments.
We’ve heard a lot more about stakeholder inclusivity in recent years, especially in the context of the past year between the social justice movement in the U.S. and criticisms of colonial practices among some big NGOs. How is this manifesting in the work you do?
First off, the opinion that really matters here in how common this phenomenon is those of truly impacted communities, so I’d defer to them.
But from my personal perspective, it’s worth saying: the colonial and exploitative behavior we see every day in our work comes primarily from big agribusinesses. It just doesn’t compare to any mistakes big NGOs may make. Cargill, JBS, and other meat companies are still driving deforestation on a vast scale. Their suppliers have burned and bulldozed millions of acres of ancient rainforest and savannah to make way for giant plantations and ranches, dispossessed Indigenous communities, and then export that meat and feed to be sold in supermarkets like Tesco, Carrefour and Stop & Shop. Agribusiness interests in Brazil are advancing legislation to make land-grabbing even easier. I’ve heard executives inside the Jardine Matheson conglomerate express utter contempt for the aspirations of Indigenous communities who had been displaced by their palm oil operations to get just a small fraction of their land back. The chocolate industry continues to blithely buy cocoa from suppliers in Côte d’Ivoire whose farmers make an average of less than a dollar a day, child labor is widespread, and there has been repeated use slavery. Cargill and Nestle just argued in the Supreme Court that even if they had profited off of slavery in their supply chain, they shouldn’t be held responsible under US law. That is true colonialism and exploitation.
Having said that, big NGOs and little NGOs must make sure they’re inclusive too, and I include us in that group. It’s probably worth saying: We’re not a big NGO, but we navigate these issues too. The biggest challenge we face here is that it’s a lot easier to be inclusive and show inclusivity when operating in a relatively free society. Even where democracy and civil liberties are not fully developed, if there’s a measure of freedom, our campaigns can open doors for local civil society and Indigenous communities through international campaigns on big corporate interests.
One of my proudest moments at Mighty Earth was when I visited Gabon in 2017 after our campaign to persuade Olam to stop deforestation for palm oil and rubber in the country and more broadly throughout its global supply chains. We’d worked to persuade the Singapore sovereign wealth fund, its owners, other Asian financial institutions, and customers of Olam in Europe and elsewhere to persuade the company to stop destroying forests. We also filed a complaint against Olam with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The strategy worked. Olam agreed to stop deforestation. But there was a lot more to address a range of issues affecting local communities, and ensure a more broadly supportive context for conservation in the industry. The company was very reluctant to meet with our civil society allies and local community representatives. They tried to confine our meetings with government ministers and members of the parliament to me. But of course, I insisted that I would head home without meeting the ministers if our local allies couldn’t join. Pretty quickly, the invitation was extended to include them. And I think the government at least was glad that it was. Our local partners were unsurprisingly able to bring a level of knowledge far deeper than what I had about sustainable development in Gabon with everyone from the Agriculture to Defense ministers far deeper than what I was. We were able to help bring international commercial leverage to open doors for them. But once the doors were open, they knew way more about local issues in Gabon than we did. We were able to step back and let them lead.
When I joined our local partners on a visit to Olam’s plantations, one of them said to me “You know, we’ve been trying to raise these issues with Olam and the government for years, but they wouldn’t listen. You’re based in Washington, DC, you’re working in Singapore and Europe, and somehow now they’ll listen.” That was really encouraging to hear; I felt like we were doing our job.
In many countries, however, working with local civil society became more challenging during the Trump era. There has been a tidal wave of nationalistic authoritarianism sweeping many of the countries we work in. The United States, while imperfect and with a troubling record in many countries, had also acted as a constraint on the more authoritarian impulses of many governments. The Trump administration’s retreat from issues of human rights and democracy gave many governments what they perceived to be a blank check to do to do what’s convenient for them towards civil society groups in their own countries, as well as their international allies.
For us, this has meant navigating a much more complex landscape. Civil society organizations and Indigenous communities that once felt free to speak up now face real pressure from companies and governments alike. In this context, it falls paradoxically much more to international organizations like us to try and use our influence with the private sector, international governments, and the public to continue to represent the voices of local communities even when they are constrained in their ability to speak up themselves. This can lead to accusations of international interference from the likes of Bolsonaro. But it is sadly necessary when government intimidates its own citizens.
Although the United States has a dramatically better government now, and the Biden administration has exceeded our expectations on so many fronts, it will likely take some time to restore America’s credibility as a reliable advocate for basic civil liberties.
Shifting gears a bit, I’d like to ask about Mighty Earth, which you started. What have been the biggest lessons for you in the journey of starting and growing a non-profit?
In general, the more you can do to decide what kind of culture you want or need and make sure you’re both hiring for those qualities and cultivating them are critical.
It’s important to be really clear about what you really value. For us, we’re obsessed with impact, and aren’t shy about that. We want to make the most impact per dollar of any organization in the world. To achieve impact, we believe we need to be principled, agile, and entrepreneurial. We need people who are just thrilled to work at a place with those qualities. We want people who thrive in a culture of freedom and responsibility. It’s not for everyone, but we believe it drives outsized change.
This approach goes beyond “Values.” You can go to almost any company or non-profit organization and see values up on the wall like integrity and respect. That’s great. I share those values, and I think most people in our organization do too and try to live them. But they’re not what distinguishes us. What we hope distinguishes us above all else is impact.
There are three books I recommend for any organizational leaders, whether you’re the CEO or a manager: Good to Great by Jim Collins; No Rules Rules by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer; and The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni. We aspire to live up to the models in those books.
Our greatest challenge is funding. There’s an incredibly insightful line from Tom Tierney of the Bridgespan Group that’s quoted in Good to Great for the Social Sector, a monograph that accompanies the original: “the social sectors do not have rational capital markets that deliver resources to those who deliver the best results.” Success in our work doesn’t necessarily translate into more funding.
For us, we’ve definitely encountered this challenge. I think we’ve had a great track record of translating relatively limited resources into gigaton-scale results. But we’ve relied mainly on big institutional donors, and that can come with some baggage. Since we started pretty small, it’s an efficient way of raising money – especially for us, where we work on issues that are of outsized importance, but may not have yet hit the same chord with general funders or the public yet.
For instance, we work on Nature conservation which represents one third of the near-term solution to climate change, but gets less than two percent of the funding of that goes towards energy. We work on heavy industry decarbonization, which represents a quarter of global climate pollution, but which has received almost no attention. The institutional funders are the ones that tend to be aware of those issues and interested in sophisticated solutions.
However, while some of our donors embrace advocacy, some of the larger funders have a temperamental discomfort with it. They love the transformative results, but don’t like the messiness: they value academic dispassion, and activists are passionate. Companies and governments can get mad when they’re attacked. They’d be way happier if just developing a new technology or a really smart policy was enough. Those things can definitely help, but they’re not enough. It’s a rare technology that can reach economies of scale without companies and governments facing pressure to deploy it. Sometimes, even when the economics work, inertia prevent its deployment. I would even argue that advocacy can be a way more efficient way to get governments and the private sector to themselves develop new technologies or policy solutions, rather than have philanthropies with more limited resources try to do it themselves.
Ultimately, I agree with the idea that philanthropy do more to fund successful organizations, and not just projects. Philanthropy gives that concept a lot of lip service, but there are relatively few funders that actually follow it. I think we’re starting to see some donors who are actually starting to shift in that direction, but there needs to be more.
What are some areas that you’re eyeing in for future work?
Our top priority is the transformation of the global protein sector. The meat industry causes more deforestation, more climate pollution, more water pollution, and more displacement of Indigenous communities than all other agricultural industries combined. On climate alone, meat produces more pollution than the entire transportation sector. The meat industry is also responsible for slaughtering wolves, mountain lions, grizzly bears and other animals that they believe threaten their flocks. We’ve got to move away from such an unsustainable model of getting our food.
How are we doing it: We’re of course working to transform the private sector protein industry. That means getting supermarkets like Carrefour and Tesco to stop selling meat from forest destroyers and climate polluters like Cargill and JBS. But it also means persuading those supermarkets to get away from the problems with meat altogether by offering more plant-based and cultivated protein options. These are increasingly affordable and tasty, and it’s possible to envision a world where people can get protein without the destruction and suffering created by JBS and Cargill.
There is also a major role for government. In the United States, the Biden administration is doing outstanding work on so many fronts to drive a shift to clean energy. The USDA is working to protect Alaska’s Tongass Rainforest and other critical public lands. But when it comes to the meat industry, they’re still celebrating the opening of beef processing plants that not only cook the climate but were one of the early super spreaders of Covid. I wish they would put equal energy into funding a Manhattan Project-scale project to shift to plant-based and cultivated protein. There’s probably no greater step the Biden administration and Congress could take to act on climate.
What advice would you give someone who wants to get involved?
A large percentage of people care passionately about the issues we work on. Maybe they’re concerned about climate change, or they want to help species like bears, sloths and orangutans, or they’ve seen the impact plantation agriculture can have on Indigenous communities. Perhaps they’ve had a chance to travel to some amazing place either in their home country or overseas. But it’s hard to know what to do about it. And most nature and environmental films either focus on the beauty (and cuteness) of Nature or just delve into a depressing analysis of the problem. There are few that offer solutions or follow those who are working to do something about it.
Our job as organizers and campaigners is to give people something real and meaningful to do that will make a difference on the issues they care about. It can be at the most basic level giving a donation or sending a tweet. But if people want something more meaningful, they can take it to the next level and come to an in-person activist event. Of course, the next level from that is dedicating your life and career to this work. It’s the most rewarding pursuit possible.
Conservation is the only way that humans can truly brush up against the eternal. A successful company might create a fortune that lasts a few generations; a great painting might be famous for a few centuries; a statute might delight for thousands of years. But they will all perish. But saving a species or 10 species will allow life to survive and flourish for millions and billions of years. There is no other field that offers the opportunity for that kind of positive legacy.
Find something you can do to make a difference and do it. Of course, I would certainly encourage people to sign up with Mighty Earth, but there are lots of organizations from National Wildlife Federation to Sierra Club to Greenpeace to Sunrise and SumOfUs that are doing outstanding work – as well as loads of local organizations.
If you are interested in making a career of this work, there are great opportunities to get started: here in America, the Green Corps fellowship and Environment America are amazing ways to learn skills for a lifetime and enter a wonderful community. Sunrise has really created many opportunities for young people to get involved. Try and keep trying. If you are determined, you’ll find a way at the local, state, national or even global level. And there’s nothing more rewarding.
What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
First, I know how you feel. It would be insane not to feel distressed. More than a decade ago, I took time off of active organizing and campaigning to write a book about politics. The thing about writing is that you hope it will have an impact, but it’s a long time between conception and publication. It was a worthwhile project, but I remember that being away from regular involvement in advocacy made me just focus on how daunting the problems were.
But here’s the amazing thing. Getting involved in environmental campaigns can have an impact far beyond what you think possible. There’s no better medicine for distress than doing something about it. We’re not a huge organization. But in large measure because of the activist energy and power that fuels us, we’ve helped change dozens of companies and driven decarbonization of whole industries. I think there are many endangered species that are alive today because of our work. We can point to specific forests that probably would have been bulldozed if we hadn’t intervened. Companies and governments are sensitive to their image -and especially when people of courage find strategically powerful levers to influence them, it really works. We had activists show up at Mandarin Oriental hotels in elephant costumes to change the second largest palm oil company in Indonesia – and it worked.
I think one important caveat is that individuals shouldn’t try to take on the whole burden of trying to “save the planet.” It’s too overwhelming and it doesn’t make sense. No one person or organization is going to do that alone. But you can make an outsized difference on a particular forest, the survival of a particular species, or even a big company, industry, or government policy with persistence and passion. And doing that will then contribute to the planet as a whole.
Contributing to this kind of impact, or just being in the fight, eliminates the existential dread that, while entirely justifiable, can also be utterly paralyzing. Being a happy warrior is good for the soul.