A Natural Connection
OpenForests is a company that implements the best of technology for the good of forests worldwide. Patrick Ribeiro is its founder with whom we discuss hot topics such as how does one find a sustainable company that really makes a difference, greenwashing and what we should do now, so we can have a „later”.
Tell us a bit about yourself and what motivates you in the quest to save nature and the climate.
There is a quote that I heard from someone explaining why he was engaged in fighting for nature protection. He said that he’s not doing it for himself or for his ego, but because he, as a human being, is an expression and extension of nature, nature trying to take care of itself. This resonates strongly with me. Doing something for fun, for money, or for a career does not. Fun in life is, of course important, but without any additional sense, without adding some deeper meaning to it, it wouldn’t be fulfilling for me.
I also frequently ask myself — unless everyone lives in the same conditions as I do, unless things are fair for other humans and for all life on Earth — how can I just go about my business? A few years ago, this question, or feeling if you wish, was not so present, but today, as I wake up to the new IPCC reports about climate change, it is burning strong. Being complicit then becomes impossible. The urge to do something also becomes impossible to ignore.
So, you were a physicist but then you made a drastic life change after your PhD, abandoning academia and establishing the Umundu sustainability festival in Dresden. How did that happen?
During my PhD, I was working in front of a crystal furnace, which I had to take care of for longer periods of up to 24 hours non-stop. And so, in order not to fall asleep during the night, I started to watch movies, mostly blockbusters initially. At some point I thought, okay, why don’t I watch some documentaries instead to give myself some food for thought? So, then I started watching different films about the environment, about nature protection, and a lot of geopolitical stuff, as this was the period of the Iraq war. At some point it struck me — there are so many essential subjects, why is nobody talking about them within my circle of friends? Why is the mainstream media not covering them?
I really started to feel like I was living in the Matrix — people going about their daily lives, like they were sleeping through their lives in some way, completely unaware of the implications of Western modernity. And that is what prompted me to start a weekly documentary evening. I wanted to be able to talk with my friends about these topics; I was really frustrated that I had nobody to discuss these issues with. I wanted to raise these issues at least in my neighbourhood, at least in my town. That was in 2007.
Gradually, new people started to arrive at these regular documentary screenings. From the beginning, I was really surprised by how clueless most people were about the presented subjects. So often, they were shocked or even revolted after seeing what the documentary was showing.
The other day I calculated — I think I showed about 300 films throughout the years. At one point it all became very frustrating. First of all, in Germany it was, and I suppose still is, illegal to hold public viewings without any official allowance. So, what I was doing was near illegal, as, although I was not publicly announcing the event, we used closed mailing lists to announce the next films-, somehow, the screenings were public, since everyone could join.
Two years after I started the documentary evenings, I met a guy who had an NGO working on sustainability issues, mainly related to consumption. I told him about this frustration, and we decided to make an official event, invite everyone, and work on some publicity for it. The idea was to have an event throughout the weekend. And since I definitively left physics a few weeks before, I had all the time in the world to prepare this event.
I was so engaged in this that, in the end, I ended up organizing an eight-day festival with more than 40 events covering dozens of different subjects which had the common thread of consumption. I thought it would be a one-time thing because at that time I wanted to leave Germany. But the feedback was so positive that we decided to do a second edition which was even more popular and successful. Different groups of people came together to discuss these topics that wouldn’t have come together otherwise.
Some people told us that the festival really changed their lives; that they made a 180-degree shift in their life plans. I believe it was so successful in Germany because it was not a top-down thing publicized by some big marketing agency like so many other festivals. Anyone who wanted to get engaged could get engaged; anyone who wanted to participate could participate, regardless of experience or previous knowledge. All this became the Umundu Festival. The first edition was in 2009, and since then, every year, the festival offers a meeting platform for the population of Dresden to reflect on the implications of how our society impacts people and nature all over the world.
The festival has grown in popularity beyond Germany, boasting a Portuguese edition as well. What challenges did you meet along the way and how did you deal with them?
The idea of organizing the Umundu Festival in Lisbon came after I moved back to Lisbon in 2019, ten years after the first edition in Germany. It was important for me to do this as the city has so much potential, so many organizations and good projects are there. But even in such a situation, the majority is doing their own stuff and people don’t come together. This was the trigger to start the festival here. The challenge in Portugal was different than in Germany. I had to coordinate and organize the festival using my free, out-of-office time, which was limited. In addition, things did not flow as easily as in Germany. The initial team of volunteers did not have much experience and the different mentality also made things harder, I suppose.
As sad as it sounds, organizing the festival felt like a struggle; like going against an insurmountable resistance for many months. As the team grew bigger, some people with a professional background joined, but also people who were difficult to deal with, making it even harder for me and some other team members on the relational and emotional level. Dealing with these personalities and running against time to organize a festival while managing my company was one of the biggest challenges in my life, I confess. To stay calm, to be diplomatic, and to make everyone happy so things would run as smoothly as possible was exhausting. Add the COVID pandemic to that and you can just imagine how challenging everything was.
Still, in 2020, amid the pandemic, we were able to organize the first Umundu festival in Portugal with about 120 events, organized in collaboration with dozens of NGOs. Considering all mentioned factors, the festival was a huge success — and almost a miracle!
The other challenge for me was not to burn too much energy, as a big chunk of my energy had to be reserved for OpenForests, still my main life project. I had a period of maybe six months where I had 12-14-hour workdays, weekends included. It was a challenge to not compromise my health in this situation. Doing a festival about sustainability and not taking care of your own sustainability, of your own health, is not good. It is contradictory.
But when work with OpenForests started demanding even more of my time, I had to pass the Umundu torch to others. Last Christmas, I really thought a lot about it and decided to leave Umundu completely.
After many late-night kitchen discussions with two good friends, you established OpenForests together, a company that develops data and storytelling tools for the management of forest and tree-related projects. What exactly do you do and what was the turning point in moving from kitchen discussions to action?
I was friends with Alex, whom I met through doing music in our neighborhood, and the so-called kitchen discussions started with him. We reflected a lot on what we could do individually, or as a team, to generate some positive impact in the world. He had a clearer path, as he was already involved with forestry and wanted to make it all more sustainable and ethical.
At one point, Alex and our other co-founder, Stephan, got quite frustrated with how things were being done in the forestry company that was employing them and they decided to quit. They wanted to do their own stuff and they wanted to go in the reforestation direction, which for me was a blank sheet.
The first time Alex asked me if I wanted to participate, I said that I was not able to distinguish between a Christmas tree and a broccoli.
But the more I thought about the possibility of creating something with Alex and Stephan, the more I started to understand the complexity surrounding forests and reforestation; how everything is linked to these ecosystems — biodiversity, people’s livelihoods, climate, water. It is the other side of the story that I was trying to tell during the festival.
But with OpenForests, I had the possibility to participate in something that could potentially have a global impact. That was also how I went from just talking about it, to saying, yeah let’s try it out and see where it leads us.
The next issue to solve was my role in the company, as I didn’t have any previous forest knowledge or experience. One thing that was quite clear to us from the start, is that transparency was a key issue for serious sustainable reforestation projects to be successful. With so many scandals being reported in the field of forest investment, especially those auto-denominated as sustainable, there was no doubt that transparency was needed to build trust among the stakeholders. During this period, new technologies for forest monitoring were being developed and people were trying out new things. Something that was still unknown at that time, was the whole situation with civil drones. So, we decided to invest in drone technology to carry out aerial photography for forest monitoring and mapping. And that is how I started with the drones, where my previous experience, and also physics, were put into use — putting together basic electronic parts and making them work for a specific objective.
Hence, the first jobs we had at OpenForests were drone jobs in tropical jungle areas. During those first years, it was the drone work that was financing everything, and I was traveling extensively through South America. Simultaneously, we had several discussions about the vision of the company and where we want to take it, with the limited resources that we had. At some point, the central question became — do we continue using up all our energy and time to achieve something for one client, something that might be small in the grander scheme of things, or do we strive to leverage a bigger impact? In other words — how do we leverage our capacities in order to have the biggest possible positive impact?
And that was how the platform explorer.land was born?
Yes, in a way, though the idea of explorer.land was somewhat present from the beginning. We were always discussing — how can we make good projects more visible and engaging so that they can get more (highly deserved) attention and funding? How can we solve the problem of transparency plighting the reforestation or tree-planting domain?
People were still using methods and ideas from the last century, and we wanted to change this.
Other industries were adopting tech tools and platforms at an unprecedented rate, but forestry was lagging behind.
The platform, which allows forest projects to be presented on interactive maps, was conceived with the goal of addressing these issues but also providing a space for reforestation actors to connect, exchange, and collaborate. Then the concept of storytelling was brought in by Alex, as we were pondering on how to move people, and how to engage them. I used to believe that if only people knew what was happening, they would react and adapt their behaviors. But then I understood that simply providing information is not enough. You need the emotional component. You need to attach the story to the data; the data alone are too abstract. So, we started to think along these lines — how do we weave together data and images with a storytelling component?
What were some of the barriers that you faced in the initial stages of building the company? For several years you didn’t have any funds or an income from OpenForests, how did you keep going?
At first, the biggest challenge was understanding how to enter the market, and how to gain visibility. We were completely unknown. So, everything was quite uncertain. We had set up several services that we wanted to offer, but we didn’t know which ones would have a market. Each service would have been enough to build a stand-alone company around it. So, we just started to offer whatever we could offer right at that moment — drone work. It was one service that was also really well received by our clients and their stakeholders. However, I wasn’t calm in the beginning. We really didn’t know if we would be able to make ends meet.
Putting myself in a certain mindset helped. I pushed myself to not just think about tomorrow, but to also think about next month, and about next year, about what we want to achieve in the long run, and about our longer-term impact. And then — what are all these smaller, more mundane things that we must do to make everything happen? Attention to the small things but without losing the broader perspective. And to believe that things will kick off eventually.
That was no easy feat as the forestry domain was difficult at that time. It was not easy to get in touch with interesting projects or organizations.
It was not easy to convince people about our vision. Often people have great ideas, but they only think big — they want a big bang from the beginning, and they forget about all the smaller things.
I had to keep reminding myself to care for the small things also, for example, the small screws in the drones that I need to take care of so that they function well. That the scattered drone work here and there was a small step of this very big thing that we are building. This holds true not only for work but also beyond, for relationships and life in general. For something to grow, you always need to plant these very small seeds first and then to nurture them.
Another thing that we decided during these starting times was to not chase a big investment at the beginning, or a loan, but to let things grow organically with a rate that we could sustain in terms of financing everything ourselves as well. And that was really tough, bordering on masochism. But in the end, it was worth it. There are many stories of startups swimming in money and then crashing because they didn’t put in hard work in the beginning, and they didn’t iron out important small details along the way.
Can you share with us some experiences from the field? Many people have a romantic perception of working in the tropics and traveling through the rainforest. What would you say to this?
First of all, let me begin by admitting that I’m a coastal person. I was born in Lisbon, and I spent all my youth just a few minutes away from the ocean. So,
the jungle terrifies me, not because I am afraid, but because of some deep sense of respect and admiration…
a reverence if you wish. I suppose I would never go into the jungle just for fun. (Although, to be honest, the same feelings hold true for the deep open ocean).
But indeed, talking about romanticizing things, you do have this presentation of local communities in the tropics, planting trees, living idyllic lives, harvesting the cocoa beans, all through these beautiful photos. There is a huge romanticization really in the way the story is told, and then urban people get this desire to have the same way of life, away from stress.
But once you are there and you dive deep into the social and environmental problems that never make it into that perfect photo or story, you see that there is almost nothing romantic about it, rather the contrary.
At least this is my experience from Borneo and South and Central America.
There are beautiful parts of the experience, of course, of nature and community life. But I always knew that I am just there for one week. Your perception changes immediately once you realize that you would be there for the long term. You see the challenges, for example, with securing drinking water daily, with having to walk several kilometers to get food while avoiding wild animals or wildfires, and so on.
That is why I really like our work with the explorer.land platform. It allows for showing the reality unfiltered, both the beautiful parts but also all the challenges that people must face. It immerses people in the reality on the ground. And it definitely helps that many from the OpenForests team have experienced this reality directly. This human experience and connection with social issues permeates the whole platform.
We are not this tech company that is detached from the lived experiences of the local communities in the places where restoration and conservation projects happen.
But unfortunately, I do not see this very often within the tech start-up scene related to carbon offsetting/ tree-planting.
More and more companies and organizations are striving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and become climate-neutral. What role do forests and trees play and can you give some examples of projects or initiatives that OpenForests has worked with?
Forests and trees play a critical role in mitigating climate change but also in helping both people and nature to adapt to climate hazards and extremes. They can store and sequester carbon very efficiently, but the benefits do not stop there — forests and trees are important for biodiversity, they regulate water flows, protect from flash floods, regenerate the soil, and provide food and income opportunities to people. However, when forests burn or are cut down, all this carbon gets released in the atmosphere.
Planting trees and reforesting or restoring ecosystems is urgent because the climate crisis is urgent. We cannot afford to be inactive anymore. But there are these two dimensions — individual tree planting and the restoration or regeneration of whole ecosystems. We should not be approaching this in a simplistic way, trees are not just carbon or just a mechanism to offset carbon emissions. Furthermore, it is also not only about the typical tree that most people in Europe might be imagining – but we should also be restoring mangroves and wetlands that sequester and store immense amounts of carbon. But apart from that, the most important thing that we should be doing right now is to stop emitting carbon in the first place.
Stopping emissions was one of the big issues during the festival as well, what to do from a consumer and industrial point of view. From this perspective, I have a rather radical view — I would immediately suggest a list of companies, activities, and stuff that should just disappear from the planet. A significant amount of the world’s total emissions would then probably also disappear, and people would not live worse than before, though obviously, one would have to get used to it and customize or change behaviors, and so on. When you use this reflection about what could and should disappear from the planet, you can really distinguish what brings value to humankind and what does not. And just as a side note: many start arguing about all the jobs that would disappear by closing down some businesses and all the social consequences, and so on. But the situation is already grim enough as it is now. The big challenge is the just transition towards a new sustainable paradigm for society, where new job opportunities will organically appear.
Yes, companies can try to offset or compensate for the negative environmental impacts that they cause but wouldn’t it be better to just get rid of certain industries and production and consumption practices altogether? Of course, there are essential emissions that cannot be avoided and must be compensated. Offsetting or compensating is hence not necessarily a bad thing if done well.
But before companies, organizations, or even individuals start thinking of offsetting with forest or tree projects, they should first strive to reduce emissions and any type of negative ecosystem impacts as much as possible.
Then another big issue is the fact that most of these forest projects are implemented in the Global South, to offset emissions from the Global North. This inherently leads to fundamental questions of justice and equity, of perpetuating colonial dependencies. But these issues are too big and complex to develop in one interview.
We understand that you are driven by strong values in everything that you do. Have you experienced any conflicts with organizations that want to do greenwashing? How did you deal with them?
It is actually very difficult for organizations to do greenwashing on the platform explorer.land because they become exposed in a way. It is all about transparency. All posted content is geolocated, restoration or conservation boundaries are clearly marked on the map, and all users can then check if any deforestation has happened in the recent years, they can check the forest cover change, and so on, depending on what kind of aerial imagery or data the user has chosen to see. It is a platform for documenting, demonstrating, and communicating impact. And you want this impact to be positive, right? Eventually, it becomes apparent who is doing greenwashing and who is not.
Explorer.land is a platform for transparency and those organizations that are consciously greenwashing will quite probably not want to get on it. It would be like shooting your own foot.
Are we on a good path towards solving the climate crisis? What are some of the most urgent actions that need to happen in your opinion?
Well, I don’t think we are anywhere close to where we must be. I mean, you see how economic interests continue to get prioritized over everything else. And then there are the issues of political cycles and market trends. The current systems are clearly not working for the well-being of both people and the planet.
There are reasons to be optimistic though and this is mainly because of the younger generation, like Fridays for Future. This generation is really going after governments and people in power. They are suing governments in several countries because they have failed to act. They have failed their own children. There are also beautiful restoration and conservation projects around the world that are also socially just. You can find many such projects on explorer.land. However, we should not get too comfortable. We need to drastically reduce emissions — truly reduce, not offset — and we need to do this now.
And we need to keep pressuring those in power for systemic change, as this is bigger than the behavior of individual consumers like you and me.
What does the future hold for you? What do you aspire to personally?
In both my work life and personal life, I will continue to strive for a good balance between the small stuff and the big stuff, as we discussed earlier. Like working between a microscope and a telescope with different zoom levels. And strive for a better balance between work and my personal life. For example, dedicating more time to music, physical exercise, and social encounters, something that has been difficult lately due to the pandemic.
Meditation also helps in this regard. During the challenging phase I mentioned previously in the preparation of the first Umundu Festival in Lisbon, I discovered Sam Harris and his meditation app. Sam has really taught me to be more in the present moment, giving full attention to the experience at each moment. For example, being 100% conscious about how the food tastes, and what its texture is. And you can do this with everything. Everything you do in life, even washing your clothes, can be done in this way, by giving it your full attention. And this can be an incredibly powerful experience. Like with the microscope that we just discussed — really focusing on the moments and enjoying being aware of them, enjoying independently of what it is.
But then you also need to be able to zoom out, otherwise, small things might feel like a disaster. Imagine you have lost something that has an emotional value to you. You might experience it as a terrible thing. You can spend the rest of your day or week being sad and frustrated. Or you can zoom out to the span of your lifetime and relativize it — how relevant was it and is it key to achieving a fulfilling life? I bet, probably not at all. And this Gedankenexperiment can be extended to everything in your life, even the toughest challenges.
And I learned the hard way how important this balance is. In the not-so-distant past, I had trouble sleeping, I was anxious due to different issues in my personal life; for a long time, I would only reach a maximum of four hours a night if lucky. At the same time, I was giving all I had to advance with work, not finding time to decelerate. The whole thing culminated with a broken artery in my head, which, ironically, was quite probably caused by some hardcore yoga classes I started to take at the time. But I believe it was my body saying: “have a break, Patrick!”. In the end I was very lucky, the doctors said. Thanks to my healthy eating habits, and not being a smoker, I was spared from more profound brain damage. After six days in the intensive unit, and another six months of strong head and facial pain, it was clear that things had to change in the way I was doing things and dealing with reality. Anxiety profoundly changes the physiology of your body, making it more susceptible to damage. Being much more mindful and meditating regularly combined with the zooming in and out practice has really helped me to become more peaceful and calmer. And considering the dramatic and maybe even horrific changes we might be experiencing with climate change if we don’t alter our course, that might be the most valuable asset one can have.