Sarah Cheetham

Cool Earth team member, donor, rainforest dweller, Adventurist – we’re chronicling the antics of Rainforest Revolutionaries around the world, sharing their stories so they can inspire you too. Remember, Don’t Care. Do. And together we’ll change the world.

From discovering what it really means to rally, to understanding the true ubiquity of Facebook, Cool Earth project manager Sarah Cheetham has learnt a lot during her time in the rainforest.

As an on-the-ground ‘doer’ working directly with rainforest communities to help locals – and their forests – thrive, she is at the forefront of Cool Earth’s Rainforest Revolution. We caught up with Sarah to find out more about what being in the field has taught her…

It’s harder being here than there.

“I didn’t realise how much the forest was my comfort zone until I had to spend time in an office. Before Cool Earth, I worked in the Congo and Cambodia. Now I am working in Papua New Guinea. Each has their own challenges – but I honestly find working behind a desk the most difficult of all. To really support the people who live in the rainforest to improve and grow you need to be there, building relationships and understanding the unique circumstances they live in. It’s much harder to do that remotely. On my first visit to Papua New Guinea nine months ago I was so welcomed, people were really happy to see us and when I went back it was like going to see friends. If you really get to know people it’s much easier to see what you can do to make a difference.”

Community doesn’t always mean what you think.

“In the rainforest, a village can be a handful of homes all half a day’s hike from each other – it’s very challenging to have a sense of community in that situation. Particularly in PNG, family bonds are often much stronger than community ones and even where you do have what we refer to as ‘communities’ there is no one size fits all. For example, the Gadaisu and Wabumari communities are a two-hour boat trip apart and, just like two towns in England, they are completely different. It’s all too easy to stereotype and generalise rather than see that every community is made up of individuals and families with their own cultures, environment, history and experiences.”

Technology is everywhere – but it is not our enemy.

“Before you experience life in the rainforest it’s easy to make assumptions about it. Yes, a lot of the people that live in rainforest habitats experience real poverty and challenge on a day-to-day basis, but just because they are isolated doesn’t mean they aren’t living on the same planet. It’s surprising to see how much technology has reached remote communities. In the Congo, when I arrived, pretty much everyone had a smartphone. In Cambodia people had TVs. They might not have water access but they can Facebook message me!”

“You have to re-adjust your perspective very quickly and understand the world that we live in today and the impact that has, then use it to your advantage. It’s very useful to be able to stay up to date with the people I’m working with and find out what’s going on in the community at the touch of a button. It opens up more lines of communication and helps to build relationships when we are so far away from each other.”

We are not the teachers.

“Working with project partners, we share recommendations, connections and advice to help them build the infrastructure and confidence for their community and business ideas to grow. But it’s not just about us telling them what to do. The people in each community have an incredible wealth of knowledge that we can learn from too. Firstly, living in a place that constantly throws up challenges, they know how to rally to each others’ aid when they need to. That’s something our society could really do with relearning.”

“Secondly, I’m endlessly amazed by how much they know about the environment that surrounds them – again, something our communities rarely have. Everything from different uses for trees and plants to the best place to find specific animals and how to track them – it’s unbelievable. I would be walking through the forest, completely lost, thinking ‘I have no idea how you’re finding your way right now.’ It’s unbelievably impressive.”

Being organised can change everything.

“Supporting communities to put central governance structures in place, providing financial training, helping them prioritise projects and report transparently on those projects – it might not sound glamorous but it makes a real, tangible difference. Helping communities organise themselves so they have the power to fight back against things they don’t agree with is something I am really proud of. It gives them a central voice and a strong one, with a skill set that will stay well after we leave.  So if anything does happen, external companies like loggers, or farming conglomerates coming in for example, the committee can speak up and say, “OK, the community really disagrees with this, so we need to put a case forward to not let this happen.” It could genuinely save the rainforest from destruction.”

We are all the same.

“Ultimately, my biggest takeaway from my time in the rainforest is that there is no ‘them and us,’ when it comes to climate change. We should all care about the rainforest because if these environments go, everyone will be affected. I think maybe we hear this too much in the media and people are getting deaf to it, but you can see the effects of climate change now, with flooding, with our temperatures changing. That’s happening across the planet, we’re seeing it in the UK, the Wabumari are seeing it as their seas rise.

It’s so important for everyone everywhere whether you live in a city or in an isolated rainforest – climate change is going to affect everyone. Unless we do something. And we can all do something, wherever we live and whatever we do. We’re in this together and that’s how we’ll make a difference, too.”








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