As an international non-profit organization, Rainforest Partnership works with with many different cultures. In this week’s webcast, the Excutive Director talks about her experience with our partner communities in South America and how critical it is to see things from their perspective in order to create the most effectual and reformative projects.

Niyanta Spelman: I’m Niyanta Spelman and I’m the Executive Director of Rainforest Partnership. Rainforest Partnership is an international non-profit organization that works on protecting and regenerating tropical rainforests. We do this by working directly with rainforest communities, helping them make the income that allows them to protect their forests. And of course, there’s the other side of the equation, which is all of us that live in all parts of the world, and it’s what we do that also helps protect those forests.

Cheyenne Rohmann: Great. And so a key aspect of that is that you’re a global organization, so what are some of the countries or locations that you’ve gotten to travel to [as part of Rainforest Partnership]?

NS: So, yes we are an international non-profit organization with a global mission. The reason being that the less than 2% of surface area of our planet that makes up tropical rainforests affects everything on our planet, as I look at my map — my world map. So we work in Educador and Peru, but before we started we looked at all the rainforest countries around the world and we started looking at four as our first potential ones to work at, and that was Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama, in that order. And so of course we have gone to those countries. And then as observer delegates to the UN’s climate conference, as part of the UNFCCC, we’ve gone to several countries starting with Copenhagen which was COP15 — everybody heard about that — and then Cancun which was COP16, and COP17 was in Durban. Didn’t go to Warsaw and Qatar, but then of course the next one was in Lima and then Paris. So all of those countries as part of our work. And then other members of our team have gone other places, including board members who’ve basically represented us, and that’s included Australia, England, parts of Asia, and many more countries that I can’t think of right now.

CR: What did you see or learn about cross-cultural communication and interaction while you were in those countries and working with the local population?

NS: Two sets of answers for that. One being that our work itself is with communities that are indigenous to the forest, and you’ve got a lot of people who study this, and for me personally there were people who would say, “What did you learn? How did you learn?” You know, regardless of what people think, the most important thing in my opinion — and not just for me, but also our team members whether they’re local Peruvians or Ecuadorians or South Americans or Europeans, Chinese; we’ve had folks from all over the world. Humility is the most important thing. If you go to communities and to these parts of the world with humility and know that you know a lot, but they know a lot and they may know things differently. They may not have formal education but they have education and an understanding of the forest and much more in ways that we’ll never understand. When you go as equals, rather than as somebody who has got all the answers and is going to try to impose something, then you connect at a very different level. And so, for me, what I sometimes say is that I am a very, very fortunate person that I get to connect with somebody and bond with somebody at a human level by sitting on the floor of somebody’s hut in the middle of the jungle, and two days later I may be meeting with a minister or somebody who is CEO of a multinational [corporation], and I get to scale that and bond at each end at a human level and communicate.

So, where does that come from? I reckon — and this is something that I just came to understand not that long ago — that it’s personality-based, it’s the fact that I’ve lived in many continents, I have been around people of all kinds. And when you don’t think of yourself as different and when you think of yourself as a human being first, then it opens up the world to you in a very different way and you learn and communicate, and what happens is with every person you meet you see similarities rather than differences. Even as you know and celebrate the differences, the idea of finding the common bond is actually embedded in this idea of finding what’s common between us and the other person, and that’s how the human bonds are connected and created. It’s, you know, she’s a mother, I’m a mother or I’m a wife and she’s a wife, [or] I grew up in this way and she grew up this way. This was how my father was or my mother was or my sister was. This is what I did when I went to school, or I climbed this, or I wore this a certain way; things like that, small things, and you’d be amazed how we’re far more similar, no matter where we are in this world or where we live or what kind of backgrounds we have, than we’re different.

CR: Do you have a specific example or story that comes to mind when you think about this topic?

NS: So there are two things I will tell you and both are striking. It was on the same trip actually. I was staying with somebody in our Gibraltar community in their house, and I looked at the house and I thought, “gosh, this is so beautiful, what a lovely house, it’s so beautifully built and they’re really proud of it,” and she served us the meal and it was beautifully done, beautifully set on the little table, but the floor is a mud floor. Upstairs it was made of wood and such, but it didn’t have running water, didn’t have a toilet, but what I realized was that what I was seeing when I looked at that house was how beautiful it was and how well-built it was, and I was looking at everything from a point of view of how lovely it was, and I thought, “What would somebody in Austin think? What would somebody in London think? Or New York?” The idea of living like that is so at odds with how we, in the west, think. And yet, you know, when you can see soemthing and you don’t see a hut, but you see somebody’s home and you see the beauty in that… And as I slept there those two nights it’s how I felt about it is what made me think about that; instead of focusing on how things look or feel, what comes across is just seeing the beauty in it.

Then the second example was [when] we were in this community in Ecuador in the middle of the jungle, and we went to this one house and it was just really dirty with clothes lying everywhere and everything lying everywhere. Then we went to another one — and this is the middle of the jungle, right? — and beautifully, everything is very well arranged and tidy and clean, and they even had a little garden because even in the jungle, why wouldn’t you? And I thought, “Of course, we’re all the same everywhere around the world.” You know, some of us are tidy, some of us are not, and it makes no difference whether I live somewhere like in Austin or I lived in London, or East Africa in Tanzania where I grew up or [where] I went to school in India. It doesn’t matter where. You look at how human beings are, we’re all very different and in our minds often we think, “Oh the people who live in the jungle.” No, they’re more similar in terms of personality, in terms of how this person behaves this way and this one behaves that way.

And one other quick example I’ll give you as well; When I was in Sani Isla with the Ecuador community, and I was looking at the women and I thought, “Gosh, why are they working? Why are they doing what they’re doing?” and I thought they were no different than my own mother, who made a decision to send my sister and I away to boarding school, so we could have a good education because we lived somewhere where there weren’t good schools, and that’s what my parents did. They chose to send us away to another country so that we would have good education, and these women were doing the same thing. Because their kids couldn’t have education in the jungle, they were trying to earn money so their kids — including the daughters — could go to a school in a nearby jungle town in Coca, and I thought, “They’re so much like my own mother, and they’re making decisions the same way.” They wanted what my mother wanted for us which was good education for us, and making those sacrifices. So yeah, more similarities than otherwise I would say.

CS: So, bringing it back to the work you’re doing here, how would you say that having those experiences and realizing all those different things, how does it inform the work that you’re doing here with Rainforest Partnership?

NS: When you do the work we do, one of the things you learn is the more you think you know, the more you realize how little you know. The world is vast. There’s so much we don’t know and so much we don’t understand. So, even as I talk about the things that bring us together and the bonds we create with others as human beings, there’s so much out there to learn, even about human interactions and so much more. If we keep that humility and openness to learning and evolving and adapting, then that’s what’s so important, and that has to be fundamental and at the center of what we do and how we do it; that we remain open, that we remain collaborative, that we remain humble in how we view our work and the people we work with, and we see what we can do together. So, the more I see this, it’s both seeing the similarities but then also seeing, acknowledging, and understanding that there’s so much we don’t know and that allows us to constantly evolve and adapt and meet the challenges we face on a daily basis with seeing them as opportunities for doing better and moving us forward.
*Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.