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October 10, 2023
Clara Rowe
Nature, Privilege, and Environmental Conservation with Clara Rowe

Nature, Privilege, and Environmental Conservation with Clara Rowe

Show Notes:

In this episode, Clara Rowe, CEO of Restor, delves into the intersection of nature and social impact. She shares her personal experiences in sustainable development and conservation, emphasizing the need to address privilege and the legacy of colonialism in natural resource management. The unequal contributions to climate change and the importance of transforming how we value nature are explored, alongside the role of philanthropy and non-monetary relationships. The challenges of navigating palm oil supply chains, reforestation efforts, and the work of Restor are also discussed.

“I think it has to be a combination of, ‘are the right people using it to do the right thing, which is to get us toward that longer impact?’ and, ‘do we have clear cases of how this is making shifts not only for individuals, but for larger systems in social impact work?’”

Topics covered:

00:06:20) Challenges in Climate Change Response

(00:13:14) Navigating Palm Oil Supply Chains

(00:19:26) Lessons from Conflict Areas

(00:25:42) The Power of Reforestation

(00:32:09) Tracking Impact and Building a Global Reforestation Community

(00:39:08) Measuring Impact and Building a Story

(00:45:38) The Future of Restor

(00:52:01) Ways to be part of the restoration movement 

Links mentioned:

Ministry for the Future book

Guest links:

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00:00:03 - Clara Rowe
Restore is a digital hub for nature. We are uniting people and projects around the world that are working to restore or conserve nature.

00:00:14 - Mike Spear
Welcome to Cause and Purpose, the show about the leaders, innovators, and change agents working on the front lines to solve some of the world's greatest social challenges. Our guest today is the founding CEO at, Clara Rowe. Restore is an innovative new nonprofit organization that drives funding to local environmental restoration projects around the world. It's a mapping and open data platform featuring projects, many of which are designed and managed by local farmers and landowners in the developing world. She has a fascinating personal backstory and has lived in some incredible places around the world. Hope you enjoy. Clara, thanks so much for joining us know enjoyed our earlier conversations and so excited to have you on the show.

00:00:56 - Clara Rowe
Thanks so much. It's really great to be here.

00:00:58 - Mike Spear
I was really excited to interview you in particular. I'm always excited about all of our guests. But you have such an interesting backstory with all the traveling you've done, the international work, and the very scientific sort of left brain approach to the impact work that you're doing. Can you give us some know where'd you grow up, how'd you come to this sort of profession?

00:01:16 - Clara Rowe
Born in New Hampshire, I was born in a really rural area, and when I was about three, my parents moved to I'm, you know, from the US. I'm A-U-S. Citizen, but spent most of my childhood in a small town in the mountains of Costa Rica called Monte Verbe. And it's this place where conservation and tourism and so thoughts around sustainable development and agriculture sort of all collide. And it's a perfect example of what it means to think about trade offs and what it means to think about embedding nature into day to day life. And that definitely shaped both the things that I love and the way that I see challenges. And of course, I grew up as this little blonde gringa in a Spanish speaking country, and that gave me a lot of perspective about how the US. Shows up in the world and what that means for the way that I show up in the world and the way that I do work. Throughout my career, I've always returned to these themes of sustainability and sustainable development and the way that people and nature intersect. And I studied biology. I was always super fascinated by the kind of mechanisms behind things and how it all works. And I really love the stories that biology helps us tell about the natural world. But I knew that I didn't want to be a researcher. I knew that I wanted to kind of get my hands dirty in the sense of what it meant to make change on the ground. And that's kind of how I set off on my career.

00:02:44 - Mike Spear
You've crafted your own identity and the way you show up in career and life around the world but it doesn't necessarily jive with how others are sort of wanting to treat you.

00:02:54 - Clara Rowe
One of the things that actually I've learned since an early age is what a big continent America is and how many countries are in it. And so I've sort of trained myself to avoid saying I'm American, although in Europe and I live in Europe now, it's different. That just means one thing for people. But if you say American in Latin America they're like hello, there's other places there. So anyway, I'm always gently reminding people like it's a big place, many countries. The thing is there's not. United States is not a great descriptor. So you don't have a lot of good choices in Spanish. You do actually estalumse is the term or gringo, if you choose to identify that way. So it works. Long way of saying know, I very much look like I am from either the US. Or Europe. That's an easy thing for people to see and there's lots of privilege that comes with that in the world and of course lots of assumptions about who you are and what you've had access to. But there's a real reality of what a US passport means and what the legacy of being from the US. Means. And so I think I used to push back against that a lot. Like I didn't want to feel like I was from the US. As a little kid because I grew up somewhere else and I felt like I was from somewhere else. And I think part of the process of living in many places and experiencing my identity through other people has been about recognizing that where you are from, although it is complex, it shapes you and your passport is a piece of that and where you are born and what you look like is a piece of that. And it's a piece of how people treat you and whether they respect you or whether they respect you immediately and what you have to do to build that. I've tried to come to peace with just knowing this is how I am first perceived in the world and then think about what that means in terms of how to use the power and privilege that comes with that.

00:04:50 - Mike Spear
When we spoke earlier, you also mentioned kind of the legacy of the US. In terms of colonialism. And naturally I'm just curious about if that connects with the social impact work that you're doing. Kind of wanting to rectify some of that or be sensitive to undoing damage that nation states do in the course of their development.

00:05:12 - Clara Rowe
I do think that's definitely a part of it. I also think that recognizing that the way that the US. And other colonial and neocolonial powers in the world are using natural resources and are influencing politics in other parts of the world and influencing how natural resources are managed through that is at the crux of our ability as humanity to tackle the challenges that we face. And so I believe it's the right thing to do because of the past and I think it's the right thing to do because of the present.

00:05:47 - Mike Spear
And having worked in climate through most of your career, climate and the environment and dealing with animals, where does that come from? I mean, certainly forward looking, being steeped in that in Costa Rica. But when we talk about climate change, that has sort of a colonial impact as.

00:06:04 - Clara Rowe
Mean, I'm reading I just started reading Ministry for the Future, which I should have read as soon as it came out. But anyway, it's a futuristic, but not so futuristic novel about climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson and it imagines basically the Ministry for the Future is this imagined body within the know, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that is tasked with respecting the rights of future generations and other beings that don't have a legal ability to advocate for themselves. So it's imagining that this sort of task force has been created and then what it does and how it works within and outside of politics to make change and gosh, how did I get off on this? Because a big piece of that book is about the unequal ways in which countries around the world have a contributed to climate change and then B, are being impacted by climate change. We know the vast majority of emissions historically have come from the US and Europe. China is catching up, but we think about the legacy and it's very clear and a lot of the ways that those emissions have been a part of development, economic development and lifting people out of poverty. And so on the one hand, we've had the ability to benefit from all of the things that we did that involved carbon as a very efficient energy source. And now we're in the position where we have to ask places in the world that haven't gone through that process yet to develop in a different way, to build a path forward that no one else has built, which means prosperity without carbon connected to energy. We just haven't done that yet. And so that's a big ask. And partly because of where in the world these places are and the simple reality of physics, and also because of vulnerability that comes from a lack of infrastructure, there are places that are going to get hit hardest. So there's kind of these double imbalances that we face together as we try to figure out what does it mean to lower emissions and ways that actually work because they're building sustainable futures for individual countries.

00:08:22 - Mike Spear
Well, as you have come to think about this stuff, does it seem like a challenge of philanthropy to you? Or is it more so making investments in green technologies that have a financial reward at the end of it?

00:08:35 - Clara Rowe
It's a challenge in everything. It is definitely not something that philanthropy can solve. It's something that philanthropy can play a small but powerful role in, especially to help very early stage initiatives get off the ground. But no, it's something that needs to be completely transformational to the way that we value nature, the way that we value everything. Because we've gotten it wrong. Clearly we've gotten it wrong. All you need to know is we're in a position where things are going in the wrong direction, and so we know that we just haven't managed to value it. Right?

00:09:10 - Mike Spear
There's some ape that took a photo of himself accidentally in some scientist camera. Does this ape have image rights to this thing where it doesn't have agency, even sentient animals?

00:09:22 - Clara Rowe
It's interesting, not on the sentience, but sort of on the intrinsic value. So it's all connected of nature. I was on a panel at south by Southwest a few months ago, and we were talking about the future of forests. We were kind of imagining a future where we had unlocked reforestation potential across the globe and what would it look like in 2050 with kind of a new, thriving economy of forests? And we as panelists were so focused on the benefits to people, right? And I think we're so trained now that that's the way that we'll convince people and we'll convince systems and governments to shift the way that we value nature is through understanding what that does for us. And someone asked at the very end, someone from the Netherlands, and they talked about the way that as a country, they're shifting the way that they think about natural beauty and having parking lots that are converted into native grasslands. And he just said, does that come into any of this, that intrinsic value and the aesthetic value? And I just thought, like, oh, my God, that drives so many people, that piece of it. And people do drive systems and no, it's not the only thing, but I think we leave that part out often. What it means to think about non human beings, what it means to think about trees and forests and rivers and tigers for the sake of them, because we feel like it's not the thing that will win the argument. And it's an impoverished view of the very, very multifaceted relationship that humans have to the natural world and that the natural world has to itself.

00:11:05 - Mike Spear
Yeah, well, it gets into sort of the zero sum fallacies and the extractive nature of how we deal with this stuff. How you're talking about it reminds me of the role of essentially pure science in the world to where you invest in pure science without any definitive outcome that you're hoping for. But then amazing things happen. Incredible innovations and inventions and all kinds of stuff comes out of just trying to learn stuff. So by giving sort of nature its own agency, who knows what comes out of that?

00:11:36 - Clara Rowe
It's now become very, very clear in the literature. Of course, we need to wait for scientific literature to tell us something that some people knew for a very long time, that indigenous communities protect the most amount of forest around the globe. And they're not doing it because they've priced out every tree and decided that this is the most valuable thing that they can do with plants. They do it because of a suite of long cultural values and a relationship that many of us have lost. And so there's just so many examples of the non monetary relationship to nature and how that drives real change that has real impact.

00:12:18 - Mike Spear
Tell me about the earthworm foundation. I have to know what this is all about.

00:12:23 - Clara Rowe
There's lots in there. That was one of my favorite jobs. Earthworm foundation used to be called the forest trust. And I have to say I'm quite partial to the forest trust as a name, but I understand some of the shifts. And the earthworm foundation is focused on supporting companies who are going through the journey of changing their impact, I mean, ultimately on land and people, so through the products that they purchase, changing the negative impact into a positive one. And most often that's focused on agricultural commodities, and it's focused on protecting forests, and it's focused on protecting human rights. And so right after grad school, I started working in their Seattle office. And the supply chains of a lot of the big consumer goods companies that we were working with ended up in Latin America. And we didn't have a lot of Latin America work there yet. And so I started spending more and more time in Mexico and in Guatemala and ended up moving down to Mexico to open an office there for them and growing a team and really digging into palm oil supply chains and a suite of environmental and social issues. In palm oil supply chains, the work is all about what does it mean to take big lofty commitments made by companies often driven because greenpeace has campaigned for a few years, really made them feel the pain. And then they said, okay, you're right, we need to make a change. And then they would come to Earthworm foundation and say, well, how do we do that? What does it mean to actually, okay, we committed to no deforestation, but how do we do that? And so we would trace supply chains and we would talk to their first supplier and the next supplier, and we'd end up on the ground with a small farmer or with a large plantation owner. And we'd try to figure out what were the practices that were happening, what was happening from a labor perspective, what was happening from a community perspective, what was happening from an environmental I mean, I could spend hours talking about some of the work in Guatemala that we did around social conflict and kind of conflict between companies and communities associated with environmental pollution associated with human rights. Defenders and attacks against human rights defenders. But the work was really about being a connector and helping to kind of bridge these worlds of a KitKat bar from Nestle and what's actually happening on the ground to put that all together.

00:14:47 - Mike Spear
We talk a lot about human centered design, participatory design, but I think not enough time talking about how stakeholders work together to come to something that's mutually beneficial or at least tolerable by all parties.

00:15:00 - Clara Rowe
I'll take this case in Guatemala, in the north of the country. It's an area that used to be all forest. A lot of deforestation happened for cattle ranching and other agricultural expansion and palm oil actually really came in afterwards. It wasn't the driver of deforestation in that place, the way that we think of it as a driver of deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, 2030 years there's been palm oil in that part of the world. A lot of it is owned by a few families. There's a few families in that part of the world that are the large AG producers. And so they might have 25,000 palm and 5000 workers in a single plantation in 2015 ish or a little bit before there were some high level accusations of human rights abuse and environmental contamination that started to emerge. Concerns about palm oil, mill effluent, basically all the waste spilling into a river and a huge damage to fish populations and local water sources there. And then when there were local protests, allegations that the company was involved in the murder of an activist and the kidnapping of activists. And so this made its way into the news and came to the attention of a number of international companies who, it turned out, were sourcing directly and indirectly from this Palmwell company. My first six months on the job with Earthworm Foundation was going down to Guatemala. We hired a professional mediator who got sick, by the way, during my very first trip. So I ran the whole scoping exercise alone. It's one of the hardest things I've ever done. We went up and we sat with people whose families had been impacted. We sat with people from the company, we sat with the local mayor and just listened to their stories and tried to understand their perspective. And that was the beginning of it. We talked to as many people as we could. Some people didn't want to talk to us because they thought that we were there to represent the company interests. And so it was a very interesting navigation process to say just how do we gather as much information as we can both about what's happened, but mostly about how people feel about it and what they would like to see change? And then how do we start building a roadmap? And I spent five years on it and it's still ongoing, but a lot has changed. A roadmap that the local company could buy into, that the community could buy into, that the big international companies could buy into, that the organizations campaigning against them could buy into. And it was two steps forward, one step back. And the thing is, everyone feels judged by someone. Everyone feels like people think I'm doing something wrong, and I'm just trying to do the best thing that I can. And so one of the big things that I learned is even if I had an opinion about what was right or wrong, I had to come in and sit with people and hear them where they were and assume that they were where they are and then figure out what does it mean to get them one step further so that we get toward problem solving. And it's slow and it's painful. It feels like it's just happened like this, and it's so obvious. But it really taught me about kind of the power of finding common ground and how hard that is. But also it makes me think so much about the political situation the US. Is in today. In a future career, I'd love to figure out if there's ways to take some of the kind of consensus building and conflict resolution that I did in the supply chain space and think about what it means to bring that to US. Politics. I don't know.

00:18:38 - Mike Spear
You're sort of new in this position or new in the space, and the person who's supposed to guide these very high stakes conversations, all of a sudden, you're just thrust into the middle of it, and it's on you. How did you approach it strategically? Like, what was your first effort with that?

00:18:53 - Clara Rowe
I got a lot of advice from the guy who had to stay in Guatemala City because he was sick. So we kind of talked through how we would structure interviews. We already had the interviews in place. I had a local facilitator there with me who knew some of the actors already, and so we brainstormed around that, and I think I was able to show up in these interviews with empathy. I speak Spanish, even though I don't look like I'm from there. And it's clear I'm not from there. And I just approached it in terms of how do I hear you, how do I understand you, and how do I capture as much of that as I can? And I'm not here to tell you anything. I'm here to listen. And then often I would go to the hotel at the end of the night, and I would cry because it was so much facilitators hold a lot. There's kind of a therapy or a therapist aspect to that, but you haven't been trained to do that. Right? And I think that's what happened is I just took it all on, all of the things that I was hearing about what had happened in this huge conflict area.

00:19:59 - Mike Spear
What were your main takeaways from that? How did that inform the rest of your time at Earthworm and what you're doing now.

00:20:05 - Clara Rowe
It taught me to almost never see things in black and white. I think there's a role for black and white, and I guess that's another one of my take homes is like, change requires a whole ecosystem. And I was able to do my work because of the green pieces of the world, right? Because they helped create the conditions for companies to decide they want to change and really respecting each of those actors in the ecosystem. Even if they make your life difficult, even if it was like sitting down with a local group who just wouldn't accept the compromise that the company was coming up with again and again and again, but really having to recognize, okay, this is going to be a part of the long term change. So, yeah, it's an ecosystem of change. There's so much gray space. If you're patient, things will come back around. Like some of the early conversations I had, five years later, it would be like, I just got an email from someone saying, we can't wait to work with you. And originally they were saying, like, get out of my office. I never want to be there. But it comes back around. The change comes back around. And I think what I described in terms of just being able to sit with people without judgment, not let that make you feel like you have weak conviction or you don't have morals or you don't have values, right. If you're sitting with someone whose company has potentially murdered someone and who aren't giving their workers clean drinking water every day, the initial reaction is to think that that is an evil person sitting across from you and not acting like that. And being able to sit there and sit there with someone who you think has done some bad things and have that not be about you. Right. I think that's often why we find tension in situations like that, because we feel like we have to say what we think to prove that we're not like someone else. And sometimes there is absolutely a role for that. But when you're trying to make this kind of change, there's also a role for being able to just understand where someone is and work towards differences. And that has been a huge learning for me in terms of how I understand myself and how I'm able to show up in those kinds of situations.

00:22:28 - Mike Spear
One of the things I've enjoyed about your story is you seem to be mostly willingly a fish out of water in a lot of these situations. What is that about?

00:22:39 - Clara Rowe
I really enjoy doing new things. I do enjoy challenge. I enjoy figuring out what it means to navigate things that are really different and kind of ending up. So, yeah, I love the way that you put that. But yeah, I think sometimes it's just like I'm willing to bang my head against a wall for longer than many.

00:22:56 - Mike Spear
People might be I am the guy that just wants to show up in a really hard, unique situation and try to solve it. It's like, if it's not challenging to that level, I have a hard time staying engaged with it for whatever reason.

00:23:10 - Clara Rowe

00:23:10 - Mike Spear
I'm curious how you knew that it was time to leave Earthworm, and what drew you to restore what was that transition like for you?

00:23:20 - Clara Rowe
It was mid pandemic, and I think this was part of what contributed to my being ready to think about a change, because I used to travel all the time. I'd be in the field. I was in the south of Mexico and Chiapas visiting farmers. I was in Guatemala. And then that stopped during the pandemic, and it was just a it was hard for the organization because a lot of the work that we were doing wasn't happening. And so it was a hard financial situation, and yeah, I wasn't getting to do all the things that I loved as much, and I was managing a field team that couldn't go into the field, and that was so hard. So that's definitely a piece of it. But I got this email out of the blue in I think it was July of 2020, june or July of 2020 from Tom Crowder, who I'd gone to graduate school with at the Yale School of the Environment. And he was like he started this email, and I've teased him about this afterwards with a very half truth, maybe quarter truth, and he goes, Cristiano Figueras and I are starting an NGO, and Christiana Figueras is the person who led the negotiations of the Know. She's and she's costa Rican. She's a total badass. So that immediately caught my attention. And he goes on to, like, we have this idea for and lays out some of the big picture vision of it. And he's like, I can't think of anyone better to lead. Like, would you be willing to do it? And so do really I really like my job, but I know Tom, and I know when Tom gets excited about things, there's usually a good reason for it. And cristiano Figuera is okay. So I called him up, and I had a call. I was also seeing in my work. So the other piece of it is that I was doing lots of work with companies originally on protecting forests and protecting human rights. But as more and more companies started having carbon neutrality commitments, for AG companies, that means insetting, that means figuring out ways to actually bring more trees and other ways of sequestering carbon into agricultural landscapes, into their supply chains. So more and more we were actually seeing companies asking for reforestation and seeing companies asking for agroforestry and thinking about landscapes and the ways that nature would help capture carbon and that would contribute. And so I was starting to get involved in reforestation because of that shift that was happening in the industry. So when tom reached out about an idea that was focused on restoration and reforestation. Those things sort of clicked for me in terms of what I was seeing in the space and what was needed to be able to start scaling the way that reforestation was happening and this idea that Tom had. So that's how the ball started rolling.

00:26:09 - Mike Spear
What was the half truth?

00:26:11 - Clara Rowe
So the half truth was fieres has definitely been an enthusiast, a part time advisor of the work, but she has no legal role in the so it's very much like he said the thing that he knew he needed to say to get me to give him a call. And I have since gotten to meet Cristiana Fierce. On a few different occasions, she's shared work about Restore. That's been an incredible piece of it. And I told her when I first met her, I said, Cristiana, you don't know this, but you're the reason I'm working for this organization that you didn't start.

00:26:47 - Mike Spear
So give us the pitch. What is restore? What's it all about? And I don't think we've actually said your role there.

00:26:55 - Clara Rowe
Yeah. So I'm the founding CEO. I came on board just as we were spinning off from Tom's lab. So Tom Crowther, who reached out in the summer of 2020, he's a professor of ecosystem ecology. He studies the way that ecosystems function globally, and he's published many high impact papers and has this knack for framing science in a way that makes it into the public discourse. This is a long way to answer your question, but I will get there in 2015 was his kind of big, first breakthrough paper, actually, when we were at Yale, which was counting all the trees on Earth, estimating the number of trees on Earth. And this made the COVID of Nature, which know, big, high impact science journal. And he came up with this big number, 3 trillion. There are 3 trillion trees on Earth. Scientists originally were like, well, that's not that interesting. We know how many hectares there are because we can see that from space. Who cares about how many trees? But it really captured the public imagination because we can understand numbers to some extent, and then you can start making comparisons and being like, there are more trees on Earth than there are stars in the like, that's a beautiful thing to start to visualize. And so that made headlines, and I think that really taught Tom. And he had this intuition that the way that we talk about science impacts what happens next, and does it make it into the broader world. But he published this paper in 2019, kind of a follow up to that estimate of how many trees there are that was estimating how many more trees there could be if we restored forests in areas where there's degradation but where there's not agriculture, where we're not competing directly with human needs. Today, he came up with this number, 1 trillion. So we could have an additional trillion trees, and those trees would sequester about 30% of the carbon that we've put into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, which I was just doing these numbers to try to root this a bit more. That amount of carbon is about the impact. If we took all the planes on Earth today that fly in any given year and we grounded them for 200 years, that's how much carbon we're talking about. So it's a huge number. And it really helped catalyze the global debate around and conversation around the power of restoration and reforestation for climate. And it also led to a whole bunch of debates around what it means to do it well, what it means not to distract from larger decarbonization efforts, how do we ensure ecological quality, but also involvement of local communities, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But it basically resulted in all of these government and company pledges saying, like, we want to restore a trillion trees, let's make this happen. But it turns out that turning those big commitments into bottom up action is easier said than done. And that's basically where Restore comes in. So Restore is a digital hub for nature. We are uniting people and projects around the world that are working to restore or conserve nature. And I'll actually just talk you through, like, a user journey, because without seeing it, it's hard, I think, to visualize it.

00:30:24 - Mike Spear
You said one of my favorite phrases, which is user journey. I would love for you just to explain what that is and how you go about doing it. Then we'll dive into what it means on the site.

00:30:35 - Clara Rowe
Yeah. So the user journey is how do they find you, and then what do they do as they work their way through your product and really understanding that path, that literal journey. And it can be different for different kinds of users. And the journey that I'll tell you is very much the perfect journey. Right? And that's not true for every single user. There are other things that end up happening. There are other needs they have or other things that they find first. So we still have a lot of work to do on that. Right. But I can tell, you know, what that kind of perfect journey looks like. And this is actually a real case. This is based on a real site. I'm just saying it doesn't always happen like that for every person. So I'll give you the example of Melvin. He is a farmer in Costa Rica. So part of the reason that I'm particularly interested in his case and his use of Restore, he has this old kind of cattle farm, and recently he's been involved in this community project that exists to build a trail that goes all the way from the central mountain range in Costa Rica down the slope. And it's a very deforested slope. There's been a lot of cattle ranching in the past. And basically this community project of the trail, they're bringing rural tourism to the area to bring income. And the goal is also to have that incentivize reforestation along the way. Melvin's been one of the leaders in this project and he's been interested in, well, how do I actually fund the transition from pasture to forest? So he goes on to Restore. He draws a boundary around his pasture land. He can literally do that with the click of an arrow. And then Restore gives him scientific data that's associated with that particular boundary. That includes things like native trees and shrubs. It includes estimates of current biodiversity, it includes estimates of carbon sequestration potential over time. It includes information around water cycling, so a range of different data sets Melvin can then register. He's drawn that boundary and now he can register his site. He can add photos so people have a sense of what's there. He can give a description of the work that he's doing, he can list a suite of goals that he's working toward, and he can register the kind of support he needs, in this case, financial support. But he could list monitoring support or technical support, or collaboration. And so he's now left his site on Restore and has a public face. Then Melvin can explore other sites that have also been published in the region. And so he can go to a neighbor that's 10 km down the road and discover that Josephina has actually been doing reforestation on her land and she's been doing this for longer. And so they can connect and have a conversation about the things she's learned around fencing versus planting trees, around drought resistance, et cetera. And so he now has access to a larger network to learn and to collaborate with. And then because his work has been published and he said, I need financial support, we come into the kind of funding side of it. So what we've done, we now have over 100,000 different sites like Melvin's on the platform. That means that it's really hard to find that one site that you want to look for. And so we've built a search algorithm that allows funders to look for projects by criteria of interest. And it's pretty simple right now, but as we can talk about later, there's more and more complexity we can build into that. But that's how Melvin got found. And he was found by a Swiss company that was interested in supporting organizations that not only sequester carbon, but also have a community benefit and are important from a biodiversity perspective. And in this case, it's critical habitat for an endangered species of bird. And so it really fit the bill. And they funded the initial reforestation work for this. They what Melvin determined with support of other groups in the region who have done this in the past, is that actually his best option because there's nearby forest patches, he doesn't actually need to plant trees on most of the land. What he needs to do is put up a fence so that cows can't get in and graze down the seedlings that are coming up. And that's actually the most cost effective way for him to move this site into a path towards reforestation. So that's the journey for Melvin and I wove in there the journey of a funder as well, which we can pick apart. But then what we're doing at Restore is multiplying that times ten, times 100, times 1000, so that we can have millions of Melvins eventually around the world who are getting supported to do their work. And so that the projects that are already out there and already exist, anyone can see, anyone can look at the quality of those projects. Anyone can see who's involved. Anyone can think about how they might get involved too. And so we're building up this huge community of the reforestation movement, of the restoration movement around the globe.

00:35:58 - Mike Spear
How does Restore think about or quantify and report the impact that they have on their unique site? And how does it think about the impact that it's having as a whole.

00:36:09 - Clara Rowe
Organization for that individual site? What I always say is Restore helps track change and track impact. We aren't a monitoring, reporting, and verification platform, so we know measuring change against a specific standard. But we've built in a whole bunch of existing scientific data sets into our platform that help detect change. And that's how Melvin can see and his funders can see, and anyone else can see what's happening. Some of those are things like a NASA data set that uses satellite imagery to calculate from that visual and multispectral image carbon accumulation over time. It might be just a visual data set, like we stitch together high resolution imagery so that you can really see that change. But that's the way kind of site by site, we can look at that and then you can imagine just summing that across all of the different areas. And that's the way to look at the impact of the organizations and sites and individuals who have joined Restore now, measuring our own impact in this, right? What role did we play? It's hard, and especially right now, it's really hard. We have so many testimonials from projects who tell us either, I had no idea where to start. I recently purchased 100 land, I found Restore, I contacted a neighbor, and now I'm starting to reforest my land. We have organizations who said we've been struggling to show our funders that we're progressing. Now we have. And we've been able to scale up our work because we're getting additional support. We have the Melvins who have actually found new funders through Restore. So we hear this from projects over and over and over again, but we don't have right now a quantitative way of saying for each and every site, what was the percentage difference we made? We're playing this kind of infrastructure role. In some ways it's like asking like what does the road network contribute to your livelihood in a given day? Right? So there's that kind of degree of basic infrastructure democratizing access to data, making it easier for people to learn from each other. So that measurement piece is a challenge.

00:38:35 - Mike Spear
How should we be looking at impact of capacity building and infrastructure? Do we just divide the impact by however much and take partial credit? What's the right answer there for me.

00:38:46 - Clara Rowe
In terms of the ultimate impact is do we actually manage to reverse the trend of deforestation that's happening globally and restore more than we are losing? That is the big thing that we need to hold ourselves accountable to and everyone else working towards this needs to be thinking about that end goal. For me, the simplest way for us to measure are we a part of that? Is the user interactions that we have. So we need to know are people coming to the platform? Are they coming back to the platform? Have they found someone else on the platform? We can start building in some better analytics around the way that connection happens and then we can look at each of those sites and we can measure change over time. And I don't think we'll ever be able to perfectly say this site would have been whatever 70% less reforested because of restore. But if we know that we are something that is being used over and over again by the people who are making a change, I think that that is the biggest test. And then I think we just pull out anecdotes and they can be very powerful anecdotes. Maybe we help a country change their payment for ecosystem services scheme because we help them find the right farmers to support right? And that becomes a really powerful story of impact based on the way that we can share data. So I think it has to be a combination of are the right people using it to do the right thing? Which is to get us toward that longer impact? And do we have clear cases of how this is making shifts not only for individuals, but for larger systems in social impact work?

00:40:29 - Mike Spear
I think it's notoriously difficult to claim causation, but I think in some ways you're able to do it because in the interaction you just mentioned with the funder that's funding, that would not have happened otherwise, which empowered other things. What I also think I hear you saying is in some ways the individual outputs actually don't matter that much because the eye out in the prize is a binary objective of did we reverse this trend? Were we a part of this solution?

00:40:57 - Clara Rowe
In the aggregate, yes. And to play devil's advocate against myself as an impact community, there are limited resources as there are in the world and we do want to make sure that the interventions we support are ones that are moving us towards those end goals more effectively. I'm not 100% satisfied with my answer yet about how to measure impact for what we do. I think we can build up a story, we have a clear base now, we're going to keep building on that. But I need to ask myself every day, what are the things? And it can always be a combination of data and anecdotes and testimonials those things form a full picture. There's not going to be one metric, but we have to be asking ourselves that because if we really care about the end thing that we're doing, we should care about that a lot more than the particular thing that we are building and whether it succeeds.

00:41:53 - Mike Spear
Yeah, I just love the idea of saying here's where we are today and it's not where we want to be in the future, but it's what we're capable of now and we're building towards something. How has that conversation gone with the funders that Restore has?

00:42:05 - Clara Rowe
So we have a relatively small group of generous funders who I think really believe in what we're doing. And this year I am working to start diversifying and building and that is requiring me to really dig into the stories that we do have to the clear impact that we can point to and help show a clearer path to the way that that will magnify. Because I want to make sure that we broaden that tent. We can do much more work if we continue to grow our budget. It's been a learning curve for me in making sure that I meet people where they are, but also that I recognize if and when, that there's a donor who just is going to want to see a specific thing that we just aren't ready to show yet and that we don't kind of bend ourselves in weird directions to make that happen.

00:42:55 - Mike Spear
Most donations are given through emotion, at least initially, and you talk about Restore in certain contexts as being similar in many ways to Google Maps, which I definitely encourage folks to go visit the site Restore Eco. We'll plug it again later on for you, but it's not an emotionally driven experience. So how are you guys thinking about that? Do you need that? Is that the role of partnerships potentially, or is it something you're going to build towards where you have that layer of storytelling, the qualitative anecdotal evidence layered in with the data side? And has that been important to the funders?

00:43:32 - Clara Rowe
Yeah, I think we needed a lot more. We actually do have a blog page, but it's super hidden. That tells Restories, which our first ever intern came up with this idea. And we do, we interview people about the work that they do on the ground. We put together kind of simple instagram reel style pictures with a little bit of text that talk about a particular place. We used to have that closer to the top. Right now. If you go to Restore, it takes you straight to the map. And it used to be that there was a more traditional kind of landing page, and it took you through a bit of a description, but we were realizing people weren't always going and then into the platform. So we did this radical thing of totally flipping it around and putting the platform first, and then all of the context about pages you access from there. And I don't think we've nailed it yet. I think we need some compromise in the middle where we give people a little bit more storytelling, because that's always what resonates. And whenever we can talk about users, whenever we can talk about just what it means to really make change and what does that mean for people's lives, that's what resonates with donors, and I think that's ultimately what resonates with people in general, with many people. And then, yeah, they will want to know some of the numbers behind that.

00:44:56 - Mike Spear
Restore is almost exactly two years old, how's the journey been for the first two years and what's sort of next as you make this launch and cross into the next phase of growth.

00:45:06 - Clara Rowe
Gosh, it has been, as with any startup, such a ride. Things change so fast. We're a team of 25. Today. About ten of those people are product developers, so design and engineers and product folks. And about ten of them are all over the world doing outreach to projects, helping them get on board, kind of an ambassador style approach. And then there's a few extra of us doing other bits and pieces, but we're really focused on what we build and who we reach. The who we Reach team has always been there, but the What We build team is only about a year old. So we actually launched a beta version of our product that was built completely externally. Google helped build the early MVP, and then we outsourced it. We put it out into the world. That was our first year. That was 2021, and we launched it at a Ted event. It was incredibly exciting. We got a bunch of projects on board ahead of time, and then we were like, Shit, we can't change it. We don't actually own this code base, or we don't know. And understand, we don't have developers on our team. If we want to build this and be nimble, we have to build ourselves as a product company, as we've talked about. Regarding my trajectory, I think it should be clear I am not a tech person. I am not a product person. I am a sustainability person. And so figuring out what it meant to hire ahead of product and what it meant to hire ahead of development, and then how to build that team, and then how that team should interact with our user team or outreach team, that was a lot of our journey. In 2022, we rebuilt the entire platform so that it would be much more scalable, much more flexible, code base, fully under our control. And known 2023 is about taking the examples, the Melvins of connectivity that we've seen and proving to ourselves that we can replicate those and scale those, that we can use our technology to make sure that more and more of those connections are happening. So search is a part of that. How do we make it easier to elevate those kinds of sites? Figuring out we still have a lot of work to do to figure out what does community mean for restore? Anytime that we know people are finding each other on the platform, but we don't yet know what the kind of connectivity roadmap will look like. Should it be chat? Should it be a forum and a messaging forum? Should it be a whole bunch of webinar groups that are focused around specific topics so that we can really help facilitate that exchange? Those are big questions that are still on that. We just need to trial and figure out what does it mean to successfully replicate and enhance those examples of kind of learning and exchange that happen between users on the platform. So that's a big thing on our mind. For 2023, we're also moving beyond restoration sites themselves. We're onboarding all the other nodes and what I've come to think of ultimately as a supply chain in the restoration space. So seed banks and nurseries and botanical gardens and drone imagery providers and the other MRV that fits into the bigger space so that we're continuing to grow what this hub looks like. We need more funder eyes on the platform to make sure that we are driving money to these projects. So that's a big piece of it. Those are the kinds of things that we're focused on moving forward. And really, because our big theory of change is by bringing people together we can move faster. By elevating small projects, we are bringing more equity to this space and we can ensure that we're embedding restoration in local communities around the world. That means that the more we grow from a community perspective, the more successful we are. And so there's also a constant push figuring out how do we reach smaller projects, how do we find people in remote parts of the world, how do we help them take advantage of our technology, how do we get found, what does it look like to do more local marketing? Those are the big things on the agenda. In our two years, we've become the largest restoration community in the world in terms of the number of restoration sites that we've brought together. And ultimately, to me, that's not about us, that's about what people need. And the fact that people want to come together and the fact that people are looking for a place to show what they're doing to connect with each other, to be seen. So that has been incredible to see. And those hundreds of thousands of sites, they're spread across 140 countries now, many, many different biomes. So it's not just forest. It's mangroves and wetlands and grasslands, all of these ecosystems that need restoring. That's my favorite part of Restore is that there's no way that I know every site that's on there. And so every time I open it up, I click on something, I'm like, oh, I had no idea. Wow, look at that. And I'll click through the satellite imagery, and I'll be like, wow, I can see the change there, or I can't see change there. I wonder what's going on in this riparian area? What kind of challenges is happening? So I think we're really excited about where we've come. And we also know that it's just the very beginning of all of it, and that there's so many opportunities in urban neighborhoods and remote landscapes to continue to do this work, and that it's good for people and it's good for the environment.

00:50:48 - Mike Spear
Well, Clara, thanks so much for all the information you've shared. It's been a really fun conversation. What's the most important cause area that humanity can be tackling right now?

00:50:57 - Clara Rowe
I'm glad you asked, because it also lets me talk about something that we've hinted at, but I haven't directly named it, which is inequality and poverty. Nature restoration actually plays a huge role in that. It turns out when we have healthy ecosystems around us, we're more likely to have other systems in place that help us to survive and to thrive. And restoration has a huge potential to increase food security for communities around the world. So I do see it as all linked, but I think that what we face globally around the massive inequities is a huge, huge challenge.

00:51:42 - Mike Spear
We talked about some of the long term vision, but what's the next immediate thing? How can people find you and support the work?

00:51:48 - Clara Rowe
So it's restore eco. You can come on board, you can donate directly to our work. You can find projects. And as we talked about, you can't donate directly on the project. But take a look. Learn what people do. See if they need volunteer help, see what's happening. If you have a backyard, think about what it means to bring native species back there, right? If you have a local park, if you work for a company that might be making commitments to climate change and biodiversity, ask them what they're doing. There are so many ways that you can in your day to day life be a part of the restoration movement.

00:52:26 - Mike Spear
Awesome. Well, Clara, thanks so much. I've really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for sharing your insights. It's great to talk with a fellow fish out of water and nothing but the best moving forward. Come back anytime. We'd love to hear the updates in the future.

00:52:38 - Clara Rowe
Thank you so much.

00:52:42 - Mike Spear
That's our show for this week. Thanks to Clara Rowe and the entire team at fast forward for helping to make this one happen. You can learn more about Clara's work at restore eco and in the Show If you enjoyed this episode, please follow, subscribe or leave a review wherever. You listen to podcasts and share a link with any friends or colleagues you think might find it interesting or valuable. Our next guest is another familiar voice at cause and purpose. The chief data officer for giving Tuesday, Woodrow Rosenbaum. Woodrow joined us in season one to talk about generosity, to talk about giving trends around the world and the Giving Tuesday movement as a whole. This time around, we get into a little bit about how those trends have evolved since COVID and why it's so important to understand the impact the organizations you support are having. Until then, Cause and Purpose is a production of On behalf of myself, Clara, and our entire team, thanks so much for listening, and look forward to speaking with you again soon.

People in this episode

Mike Spear

Social entrepreneur, consultant, and podcast producer, Spear has been a member and critic of the impact sector since 2006. His work spans product, innovation, impact advising, storytelling, and go-to-market strategies. Part of the founding team at, specializing in helping social good organizations build amazing products, increase their impact, and scale.

Clara Rowe

Sustainability Leader & Founding CEO of Restor


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