Guardians of the Rainforest: Protecting the Planet by Defending Work for the Rainforest’s People

Reading time: 8 minutes

Cultures that evolved in the Rainforest have survived because their work allows the biosphere to flourish. Supporting work that allows people in the Rainforest to survive in harmony with their habitat is key to saving the earth’s last wild places.


One might be forgiven for wanting to distract oneself from the nightmare of deforestation. It feels easier to lose oneself in tasks that seem required of us rather than to think about the loss of the great ecosystems that sustain us. Work can function as a means of facilitating such distraction: after all, regular work is necessary to sustain ourselves and our family, and it would seem to make little sense to focus on events that appear to be beyond our control.

Clearcutting in the Amazon to make way for an oil palm plantation.

And yet there are alternative paths.

For some, the path becomes visible once “success” by conventional standards is achieved.  A new sense of freedom can then be felt which gives rise to a sense of purposefulness whose source has little to do with money, status, or fame.  

The founder of Nature and Culture International , Ivan Gayler, discovered such a path. Deep concern about deforestation dawned on Gayler in 1989 after he sold a Commercial Real Estate Development for over 36 million dollars.

Success, when measured in terms of dollars, status, or fame, typically requires a narrowing of attention that tends to exclude all that does not pertain to the objectives by which it is measured. Gayler alludes to a sense of openness that can arise after significant success in business is achieved: “I essentially went on a walkabout after I finished the (development) … to look at my life and my skills and what was happening in our era”.1


While almost everyone has the capacity to start something new, such potential often goes unrealized. For those who do act, emotional and cognitive processes that precede action often proceed slowly and are unaccompanied by expectations of a specific outcome. While significant mental work is occurring at this stage, there is no expectation of where one’s thoughts and experiences might lead. Only in  retrospect – i.e., after the path is embarked upon – does it appear as if the mind was preparing itself. Experience and knowledge of an important problem can accumulate over months, years, or even decades before a catalyzing realization occurs.

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

A key experience of sudden and profound insight then occurs. The experience is deeply moving: a penetrating understanding suddenly bursts forth that makes sense of and encompasses all that has presented itself. Disparate threads of knowledge and experience suddenly become coherent in a cognitively, emotionally and existentially transformative experience.2 One may feel extremes of emotion: sadness or elation may prevail, depending on the insight’s implications.

A guiding purpose, or path, then emerges: the path leads not only to the future but also extends backwards to the past. Prior experience suddenly seems to have had the epiphany – and the call to Action arising from it –  as its culmination and purpose. Perceptions, emotions, and knowledge that have accumulated over months, years, or decades suddenly “make sense” and seem relevant with reference to the realization.  

Nature and Culture International was conceived in the context of such an epiphany.  Gayler recalls the organization’s genesis:

“I was taking my 19 y/o daughter around the world to see the ecosystems of the world or what was left of them because I wanted her to know them because you can’t save what you don’t know. . . On our way back I was flying…over Brazil. And it seemed like all I saw was logging roads and land clearing fires…It was so profound that I began crying…I was in tears for a couple hours, seeing the last great ecosystem of our planet disappearing before my eyes.” 3

The sense of being “called” to action has deep roots in the cultural and religious history of the West. For Martin Luther, John Calvin and other architects of the Protestant work ethic, work was literally a “calling”: the English word (as well as its German and Dutch cognates “Beruf” and “Beroep”) mean “work”.4  Yet the themes that inform the content of an epiphany – and the calling that derives from it –  are often rooted in in ideas and traditions that preceded the industrial revolution by millennia and that are found in Civilization’s foundational texts.

“If Not Me, Who? If Not Now, When?”: 5 Transforming Despair into Action

While Epiphany generates an unprecedented sense of clarity regarding a problem – and leaves a sense of “calling” in its wake – in order for Action to occur the subject must experience a powerful sense of personal responsibility for addressing the insight afforded by the epiphany.

Gayler began by speaking with conservationists in South America.  He developed a vision focused on protecting the rainforest by developing working partnerships with indigenous and local people who resided on threatened land. Nature and Culture International developed a unique approach to saving the worlds’ most biologically diverse regions. The organization’s work is informed by the following principles and processes:6

  • Solutions Originate in the goals of local and indigenous people. Although all of us are ultimately endangered by deforestation,  supporting sustainable livelihoods for people who reside in the Rain Forest is key to the success of Nature and Culture International’s conservation efforts.
  • A screening process is conducted to ensure feasibility and success.  Effective action requires clear-eyed awareness of the way things really are rather than how we might want things to be. Facts on the ground imply that it will be impossible to curtail as much of the destructiveness as we would like: Estimates consistently indicate that the world is losing approximately 2.5% of its rain forests every year. Gayler analogizes our situation with that faced by an Emergency Physician during a massive casualty event: the Rain Forest is “going away so fast that I think we have to do triage on what we save.” 7 Yet we have the ability to protect at least some of the biosphere if our approach is reality-based and strategic.

In selecting sites, a region’s biological and cultural diversity is considered.  The imminence of threats to which the site is exposed is assessed, as is the potential cost of conserving it. The success of  a potential project is to a large extent contingent upon whether it can employ local partners: if local people can be employed, the project is most likely to be embraced locally.  The Staff then executes a strategy that engages local and indigenous people in work that culminates in conservation of large areas of Rainforest.

  • Each area is unique and presents its own set of conditions, situations, challenges and opportunities. There is no “one size fits all” approach to conservation. If sufficient local talent and support for a project can be identified, then Nature and Culture executes the strategy that makes the most sense the specific situation that prevails for the particular area under consideration.


Since Nature and Culture’s founding in the early 1990’s, 21 million acres of Rainforest have been preserved. Sustainable livelihoods of 32 indigenous peoples (whose work and culture are inextricably woven into the fabric of the biosphere) have also been supported.

The combined land mass that has been conserved in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico equates to about 33,000 square miles, or a combined land mass that is more than three times larger than Massachusetts and more than half the size of New York state.8

Deforestation eliminates not only biodiversity but also destroys the astonishing cultural diversity that has thrived in the Rainforest for thousands of years. Protecting the Rain Forest entails protecting the peoples and cultures that live within it. The distinct cultures and work of 32 indigenous peoples have been supported through Nature and Culture’s efforts. Some of the indigenous languages used by peoples in the regions protected by Nature and Culture have fewer than 100 speakers.9 Each of these cultures is unique and has evolved in harmony with the ecosystem of which it is a part.

Left to right: The Guaraní, The Shipibo-Conibo, and the Shuar.

“This Work Might Be the Most Valuable Thing Any of Us Can Do” 10

“…if we don’t work now, we can lose these forests in a few years. The objective is to make sure these forests are saved.” 

Paul John Viñas Olaya, Former NW Peru Program Coordinator

“This work might be the most valuable thing any of us can do. We want to have a safe world, we want to have a thriving world, and we want to have a beautiful world.”

David Welborn, Board Chairman

“We have a time limit. We’re trying to save one of the most important resources on the planet…My vision for the future is, in 20 years we can look back and feel confident that we DID EVERYTHING  WE COULD TO SAVE THOSE CRITICAL ECOSYSTEMS, NOT JUST FOR THE PEOPLE LIVING THERE BUT FOR ALL OF US.”

Jill Gartman, Nature and Culture Supporter

Statistics are often frustrating because they don’t reveal the whole story: We want to know the story behind the numbers. Similarly, the sources of an individual’s or organization’s success are often intangible: a system or process that functions well can owe its success to qualities that can be neither concretized nor quantified, but from which the most profound and inexhaustible human energies can flow. Such work typically proceeds in the presence of what William Blake called firm persuasion, the feeling that “what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the same exact time”.11 Such work confers rewards that cannot be reduced to numbers or even facts.  An observer, impressed with the magnitude of the organization’s impact, captured the immeasurable nature of such rewards when he remarked:

“The joy of protecting these unbelievably rich and rare ecosystems, and in some cases the indigenous communities inside them, never goes away.” 12  

Immeasurable joy is facilitated by work that is conceived in freedom but that is consolidated through dedication. When we have work that is challenging and enlarging and that seems to be doing something for others, it is as if, in the words of William Blake, we can “move mountains”. Such work has been accurately described as “one of the great triumphs of human existence.” 13


1.  “Local Conservationist Acts Globally”. San Diego Union Tribune, February 6th, 2012.

2. For many, the experience conforms closely to “conversion”  as described by William James in his classic study, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Penguin, 1982 (Originally published in 1902).

3. “Local Conservationist Acts Globally”. San Diego Union Tribune, February 6th, 2012.

4.Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Penguin, 2002 (Originally published in 1905): “Now it is unmistakable that the German word “Beruf”, and even more clearly the English word “calling”, carry at least some religious connotations – namely, those of a task set by God…”

5. A similar quotation is attributed to Hillel the Elder, a Jewish sage born in Babylon in 110 B.C.:   “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”


7. Gayler, Ivan: Visionaries (Public Television Series).  



10.  Welborn, Visionaries (Public Television Series).

11. See discussion of William Blake in David Whyte’s Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. Riverhead Books. New York. 2001.  

12. Peter Zahn, CEO, Moxie Foundation.

13. Whyte, David. Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity.  Riverhead Books. New York. 2001.

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