“Reluctant Stewards of Public Trust”… The Need for Corporate Awakening

Jun 25 • Environmental • 3634 Views • No Comments on “Reluctant Stewards of Public Trust”… The Need for Corporate Awakening

Waking at six a.m. on the last day of our trip into the Amazon River basin and the Peruvian rainforest was both exciting and sad. My wife and I jumped out of bed and ran to the board ramps for the skiffs to begin our last expedition of the trip. We didn’t want it to end, but knew that we needed to drink in the world around us one last time.

We and 25 other passengers had spent 8 days aboard a small river boat to search out and witness life and biodiversity in this amazing place. Our expectations had not only been surpassed, but they were blown out of the water.  The sounds of the rainforest are incredible. I relish the scents, the sounds, the feeling…a remarkable experience. Each day, we spent 6-8 hours in skiffs, riding through the estuaries and tributaries, walking through the rainforest, and watching for signs of prey and predator alike. My mind ran through the myriad experiences we had and what this rainforest, and others like it, represent to the world.

The rainforests of the Amazon River basin, covering 9 countries, produce 15% of the world’s oxygen—second only to the oceans of the world. It also represents one-third of the remaining forests of the world.  Oh, and let’s not forget the biodiversity. One-fifth of all the birds in the world and 2500 species of reptiles find a home in the rainforests of the Amazon River basin. Too, the river itself supports over 2500 species of fish. Can you imagine? A study done in 2001 measured a 1 square kilometer area of the rainforest and found 1000 separate types of trees. I couldn’t believe that I was there, witnessing this abundance of life and biodiversity.

And of course, there is the Amazon River itself. The Amazon River is nearly 4,000 miles long, stretching from its beginning—60 miles east of the Pacific Ocean in the Peruvian Andes—and emptying into the Atlantic. One day of water passing through the Amazon would meet the needs of the entire state of New York for a full year! Truly amazing! 

But it doesn’t stop with wildlife biodiversity. The river and forest people are wonderful. They are physically beautiful and friendly, nearly naïve in the way they accept outsiders. They are extraordinarily resourceful, using the land, its biodiversity, its wildlife, and the water to live, to eat, and to thrive. From the palm wood to build their homes, to the fish and animals to eat, these people owe their lives to Mother Earth or Pachamama, as the Incas say. The government of Peru invests in the education of its people, including the river and forest people. Every small village has a state-funded school to educate the children through eighth grade. In fact, the literacy of the river and forest people is nearly 98%. If they wish to continue their education, they must travel to and stay in a city with a high school.  Yet, many do, seeking more education and more opportunities for prosperity. As their knowledge of the world grows, their own desires change, encouraging them to look for more opportunity. More than anything, the people of Peru are its greatest resource.

But as I reflect on the entire experience, I’m struck by another fact: all of this miraculous, diverse habitat, and its wonderful people, face unprecedented challenges ahead.  Yes, they are threatened in ways we can’t even imagine. Beginning with its natural habitat, the biodiversity of this area is under attack. Between climate change, deforestation, commercial farming, city growth and overcrowding, pharmaceutical harvesting, and commercial fishing, the world in the Amazon River basin is being exploited. Since 1970, the Brazilian rainforest alone has lost 230,000 square miles of rainforest due to deforestation, stripping away remedies of illness, species of fish and wildlife. Although there is a goal of zero net deforestation for the Amazon rainforests by 2020, it is still a very long way off.

And the people continue to move to the city by the thousands, seeking more education and opportunities for prosperity. Globally, about 51% of the population lives in cities, a first for mankind. In Peru, however, 77% of its 28 million residents live in cities, and the influx to the cities is growing. 50% of the people are poor by UN standards.  By 2050, projections indicate that Peru will have a population of nearly 48 million. The cities for 2050 have yet to be built. In fact, Peru is not alone with this challenge. If we continue to grow as it is now projected, 2050 will dawn with a demand for resources twice the capacity of the planet Earth. Urban populations also mean a tremendous demand for clean drinking water and sanitation facilities. What a complex model this is!

It is unsettling for me, but I don’t want to appear that it is all gloom and doom. Yes, as I digest and think through the implications of what I saw in the Peruvian rainforests, and what will happen, I am worried. I remember what Peter Senge meant when he shared, in his book The Necessary Revolution, that this situation needed a true revolution, a massive change for all of us. He predicted that this was the end of the Industrial Age and that survivors will need new strategies and new stewardship.

So who can we trust as the caretaker?  Who will address this dilemma as the world moves toward significant overpopulation, with a natural resource demand outstripping the supply on the planet? Will it be individuals, the governments of the world, the United Nations, NGOs, companies, or coalitions among all? Well, probably all will have a role to play in this.  However, the entity that will have the biggest part to play in solving our planetary challenges will be what I call the “reluctant stewards of our public trust”: the companies, organizations, and manufacturers of the world. These entities have the wherewithal and capability to navigate through this dilemma and address these looming challenges.

Many companies are already doing it. From the beginning, these companies were created by visionaries who were conscious of the impact that their companies would have on communities and the environment in which they live.  They built their organizations with shared community values, and sustainability integral to their corporate strategy. Companies like Whole Foods were founded on the need for sustainable farming. Patagonia, The Container Store, and IKEA have all seen the need to do what the Incas have as part of their culture: when you take something from Mother Earth, you must pay it back. They have built companies that share community values to protect and nurture people and the planet.  These “conscious” companies are growing in number as a new, conscious leadership emerges.

However, it is not only new and emergent companies that have moved in this direction. Large, multi-national enterprises like Coca-Cola have begun to change their strategies. Coke has set a goal of zero net water usage in the production of its bottles, throughout the value chain and life cycle of its products, within the next 10 years. This is groundbreaking and could revolutionize the bottling industry worldwide and help sustain the limited water supply we have in the world today Nokia saw the challenge and need for recycled and recyclable telecommunications products, and were the first telecommunications company to come out with a fully recyclable product as well as a product manufactured from nearly all recycled materials. Home Depot now refuses to purchase and sell any wood products that come from a mill or forester that does not have a sustainable reforestation plan.

Companies like Unilever and Hewlett-Packard (HP) have also embraced this social sensitivity as the need to guarantee high-quality working conditions and education to the people in their supply chains around the world. HP drove significant change in all of their suppliers as they designed a new model and assessment process for ethical supply chains. Caring for the people in their supplier facilities around the world became an entry-level criterion for being part of their product portfolio. Unilever has not only worked on assessing and reducing its impact on the rainforest, but working with OXFAM International, they have assessed their impact on poverty in Indonesia and invested in improving local communities.  I can go on with the awakening and consciousness that is happening in industry today. It is both exciting and encouraging to see; however, it is neither widespread enough to be comprehensive in any one sector, nor is it at the solution stage yet. Much has to be done, and quickly. In order to be good stewards of our public trust to solve this problem, companies need to act now—today—and abandon reluctance due to doubt or ignorance. Frankly, if companies and organizations don’t act, they will be out of business in the next 20 years. It is a strategic imperative for the sustainability of the companies themselves, and for us and the planet.

So, I will not forget that cup of coffee I had the first day I awoke in the Peruvian rainforest, or the moment of my last skiff ride on the Amazon. I will not forget the magnificent biodiversity and the people I witnessed. And now more than ever, I will not back down on the need for all industries to become conscious of their impact on our planet, and the role that they can play in solving our most critical problems.


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