CEF Spotlight

Lessons from the Amazon Rainforest

Earlier this year, ten outstanding leaders from CEF member companies were chosen from a highly competitive field of over 150 applicants from around the world to embark on a life-changing sustainability leadership development program in the Amazon Rainforest this summer with world-renowned ecologist Dr. Thomas Lovejoy. The winners were deemed by the selection jury as being at “an inflection point in their lives or careers with regard to sustainability—ready and eager to take their sustainability leadership to the next level within their communities and/or organizations—as well as being strong team players accomplished in setting ambitious goals and getting results.”

The winners flew to Manaus then traveled to “Camp 41”– an off-the-grid research camp situated 100 kilometers into primary forest. From there, the team participated in treks to learn from veteran scientists about the intricacies of the Amazon ecosystem. After three nights in the forest, the group ventured to study complex ecosystems in and around the Amazon River and Rio Negro. This field experience created a unique to stimulate group thinking about company strategies and spur new ideas. Here are some of the personal reflections from the winners:

Johnathan DiMuro, Project Manager, The Dow Chemical Company

Camp 41 is a special place in the heart of an extraordinary land, where time gets lost in the enormity of nature.  Today, when access to everything is measured in minutes, it’s easy to forget that time is also measured in decades, score and millennia.  I expected to find a highly complex ecosystem in the Amazon, but I was overwhelmed by the effort involved to understand even the most fundamental truths.  As a chemical engineer, I’m comfortable thinking about systems, inputs, intermediate states and outputs.  Chemists can predict endpoints partially because hypotheses can be tested and verified against empirical evidence.  Perturbations in reactions can be modeled and understood because they are observable and measurable.  But, what if the perturbation was on the temporal scale of a tree’s lifespan?  Could we observe it even if we hypothesized that it might exist?  How many generations of researchers would it take to construct and verify a model of a natural ecosystem with empirical evidence?  When, if ever, will we be able to model nature and verify outcomes?  I’m not qualified to answer this, and I wonder whether I am qualified to even ask the right questions.

My experiences, discussions and thoughts gave me an appreciation for the ultra-complexity and unpredictability of ecological systems.  We may be living in the Anthropocene, where human activity is the largest driving force on the planet–but our ability to observe, model and understand our planet and the ecosystems on it is nascent.  The entirety of Camp 41, its founders, supporters, stewards, and the multitude of researchers studying there is critical to our understanding.  I left with renewed energy for the work yet to be done by all who look to the future.

Phillip Kong, Consulting Manager, Hewlett Packard

The CEF Amazon experience was a life defining journey, never have I felt so strong in my convictions than now. The time spent with the others in the CEF group played a significant part of this journey, the group of passionate individuals with broad experiences and skills made a huge difference to what I experienced.

Learning, experiencing and actually seeing the interdependencies and symbiotic relationships that exist in the Amazon really brings home the message that the changes we make will have wider and typically unplanned (or unexpected) implications, in the Amazon the linkages are often very direct and thus very clear. When we are sitting at home with all the lights on, driving around in a big “gas guzzler”, or just sitting at work making decisions, we are often oblivious to what impact our actions have on the environment around us, yet the choices we all make as individuals now, will determine the shape of our environment in the future.

The value of the Amazon and it’s biodiversity is immeasurable and the cost of losing it is unfathomable. As individuals we can help by continuing the drive for greater sustainability in our lifestyle and in our workplaces.

You can read my detailed reflections here 

James McGrath, AIA, ASLA, LEED, Urban Designer, CH2M HILL

The value of biodiversity goes beyond any conventional wisdom – each species and sub-species represents a unique solution to a contextual problem – therefore the Amazon is vaster than the library of Alexandria – a pharmacopeia, a compendium of ingenuity and precedent.  The interconnected, fine grain solution that speciation in the Amazon represents, can be a template for creating similar interlocked solutions in high-performance urban ecodistricts – the relationship between energy, water, waste infrastructure and buildings/uses can replicate the integrated system of the rainforest.

I’m focusing on thoughts surrounding the ‘drivers of biodiversity” conversation we had on the trail and thereafter –  and how that relates to sustainable settlement patterns and integrated urban infrastructure, as well as organizational structure and incentivizing frameworks. Some of the catch phrases I’ve been returning to include: Constancy of favorable conditions; Library of integrated adaptations; Richness in diversity not fecundity;  Super-organisms – the power of one(s).

Sridhar Chakravarthi Mulakaluri, Director of Operations, CA Technologies

I am back in office and back to the routine stuff. However, I am going to add a lot of non-routine stuff my routine, thanks to the great experience and trip. I will be addressing the local CSR and Sustainability Forum of the IT Industry association and explaining my trip and learning to some of the senior sustainability leaders in Hyderabad. I am looking forward to do more such sessions in various forums. I greatly appreciate the sheer amount of info and knowledge we have received in such a short time. All this has provided a little hope and a lot of energy to join the ranks and march on this crusade. What matters is the journey and the quality of the journey. Let us leave the results to God.

Simon Perry, Sourcing Manager, Johnson & Johnson

The CEF 2012 Amazon Challenge was a truly unique and once in a life time experience. Reflecting on the trip, there were so many wonderful experiences. It was incredible to spend time with Dr. Tom Lovejoy, and Mario and share the groups passion to learn more about the ecology and bio-diversity of this unique environment.

The work that Dr. Tom Lovejoy started in the late 1970’s to determine the impact of forest fragmentation on the ecology and bio-diversity of such a unique environment was truly inspiring and visionary. The fact that the project has thrived and grown into the huge success that it is today is testament to concept and foundations laid at the outset.

Given the rate and scale of deforestation, it’s ever more important to move beyond the cognitive myopia that exists today. I remain ever optimistic and convinced that change will happen, but how quickly depends on a multitude of efforts. I believe that one of the most important is how Government, industry and society collaborate to find a way to work cohesively and create lasting change. We each have a role to play in our organizations and our communities to celebrate our successes and make a difference. We have to accept the needs of today, but find a way of ensuring they don’t compromise those of the future. Another 3% of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest could create an irreversible tipping point in climate change, the consequences of which are not truly understood. Let’s not leave it to later.

Jessica Rosman, Director of Supplier Diversity and Sustainability, Caesar’s Entertainment

It was absolutely amazing and it’s a challenge to get back into the day to day. I left feeling that the importance of conserving the rainforest goes beyond an appreciation of a “foreign” forest. It’s impactful to realize how truly interconnected we are with the earth’s biodiversity, something that’s utterly apparent while in the midst of the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.

Bruno Sarda, Director of Sustainability Operations, Dell, Inc.

I am forever enriched by my experiences with the CEF group in Brazil. Much of my head and my heart are still lingering in the forest, taking a refreshing dip in the pond, and listening to nature’s message first hand. Here are some of the key takeaways for me:

  1. Everything is connected and interdependent. Everything has a place and a purpose. If you mess with one thing, you mess with everything. How do we evolve decision making and the precautionary principle to take this into account?
  2. We can all quickly adapt to less ‘modern conveniences’ and feel great about it. Good lesson as the planet just can’t afford the world’s emerging middle classes to reach for Western standard. How do we define a new standard in terms that sounds more appealing than the so-called abundance and convenience we’ve been taught to aspire to?
  3. Lessons from work on Fragments: (A) The HOW matters as much as the WHAT (in this case how we clear forests, if we must). Our tactics need to improve along with our strategies; (B) It’s important to have collaboration between society, science, business and policy. Magic happens if all can align on the problem and collaborate on solution. How do we move beyond current deadlock of endlessly debating if we even have a problem?
  4. Importance of stories. Let’s not focus on what we don’t want or what people shouldn’t do, but rather describe what we want to see happen in ways that make it a compelling choice. The world needs a better story than doom and disaster. How do we create and tell that story to all those who won’t get to walk through the rainforest with experts like Dr. Tom Lovejoy?
  5. It is critical to accelerate the process of valuing the benefits of ecosystems and the services they provide to business, cities etc… Specific takeaway for me in my industry:  How can technology play a bigger role in doing so by connecting data, insights, ideas and help guide action?

Anamica Srinivasaragavan, Sustainability Engineer, Bayer Technology Services

It was an absolute privilege and pleasure to meet so many likeminded, inspiring people. But, more importantly, the plethora of ideas resulting from our invigorating conversations will be an invaluable point of acceleration for our individual efforts. In addition, the deep connection I felt with the rainforest and our planet at large was a gift and has instilled an even greater sense of responsibility for our earth.

David Tulauskas, Director, Sustainability, General Motors Company“Have you ever seen so many shades of green?”  That was the question Dr. Tom Lovejoy asked us at 6am of our first morning as we were 30 meters up in a tower watching the rainforest wake up.  That question continues to echo in my head even after being home for nearly three weeks.  Other Amazon impressions and lessons also continue to consume my mind.  For example, specialization in the rain forest works best when conditions are relatively constant.  This and other lessons are applicable to business, and the rain forest still has more to teach us… as long as it remains intact and protected.As big and impressive as the rain forest is, it is actually a fairly fragile ecosystem.  The most important thing business can do is to use its influence to help protect this and other ecosystems so that we can continue to find new bio-solutions to a variety of challenges and diseases, and be inspired from them to innovate new technologies and business models based on collaboration and symbiotic relationships.
Peggy Ward, Director Sustainability Strategy, Kimberly-Clark CorporationThere were three key things that stood out for me in what was learned while boating on the Amazon, chasing monkeys and Harpy Eagles and learning about the vast ecosystems in the rainforest.

  1. The Amazon Rainforest is at a tipping point – studies have predicted a 20 percent threshold at which the Amazon will not be able to regenerate itself.  Currently, only 81% of the Amazon remains intact.
  2. Everything is specialized due to nearly constant climate conditions.  Nothing seems to go to waste.
  3. The Amazon basin contains 20% of the world’s fresh water, and nearly half of the rainfall in the Amazon is self-generating.

So what does this mean for us in the CEF?  We must be able to convey that it is no longer acceptable to deny the current situation in the Amazon basin.  We need to create a platform from which we can tell compelling stories about the need to care about this tipping point. Draw from all of our different industries and discuss the impact the Amazon has or could have on each of our businesses.  Companies must also value resources systems in the same way they value shareholders. It must be a business imperative to account for ecosystems.  Those of us who viewed first-hand the rainforest are forever bound and committed to engage business in not only preserving its ecosystems, but in learning all we can from it and applying those lessons.

You can read my detailed reflections here in a series of linked blog posts.

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