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The Origin Story of Rooted in Ethics. An Interview with Andy Egan

Andy Egan is the former CEO of the International Tree Foundation, Director of the Fellowship of the Trees, and now Head of Conservation Policy at the Woodland Trust.

TreeSisters Manager of Research and Relationships Suzi sat down with him to discuss how the idea that reforestation NGOs needed a code of ethics began a five-year journey that resulted in the publication of Rooted in Ethics: The Community Tree Stewardship Framework. 

Andy facilitated the first iteration of ethics with a working group after gathering tree-oriented NGOs in Oxford in May 2019, co-hosted by TreeSisters and the International Tree Foundation. Five years later, on May 22 2024, TreeSisters and the Fountain are co-publishing the first edition of this new guide to land, forest and community care that respects the rights of Nature. 

All of us at TreeSisters would like to express our enormous gratitude to Andy, the Mother Earth Delegation of United Original Nations representatives and the many others who have contributed to this effort. 

You can join the launch and panel event on Wednesday, May 22, at 6pm UK time, 10am California time. More information and registration details are available here.

Suzi: What made you think of a code of ethics for tree planting?

Andy: That takes me back six and a half years to November 2017 in Glastonbury at the Tree Conference, before the pandemic when the world was so different. The idea arose because I was in a creative, reflective, and inspirational environment. Your introductory talk about what the trees are showing us inspired me. It gave us permission to connect to the wonder of trees. That sets your mind thinking differently to the practical, pragmatic way you think when you've got your 'work head' on.

The tree conference brought together so many amazing people who love trees. It allowed you to go into those spaces where you could think a bit differently and try to develop some new ideas. 

I worked for an NGO that supported community-led reforestation, forest protection, and agroforestry. It was very much about supporting local communities. It was also about trees as part of the cultural, social, and economic landscape and recognising that we needed to restore our relationship with trees and forests. There was an issue of what is restorative there, so that's the environment that allowed my thinking to come forward.

Why did you feel we needed a code?

We need some ethical code for tree growing because many different things are happening, and tree planting was a bit of a Wild West. There was no regulation. You have all these NGOs. They could do what they like, let alone other players in the broader reforestation sector. It doesn't have any real sense of agreed or shared values, ethics, or standards. There wasn't anything like fair trade or even the Forest Stewardship Council regarding timber. There was nothing. 

Many of the international NGOs' motivations came from the right place. We'd want something like a code so that the communities we're working with in the global South have assurance and agency. It was crucial for me that local communities have something by which they could differentiate all these different NGOs from the global North wanting to come and plant trees with them or around them.

How would a code of ethics support people donating to charities? 

Signing up to this code would assure people they supported something ethical and not exploitative. It's a bit like fair trade, so you know what you're buying or what you're supporting. I thought it would be quite a good unifying thing to have some kind of collective standard that would guarantee ethical standards around relationships with local communities and relationships with trees and forests. There are so many different aspects of that. 

Often, international NGOs were not all acknowledging the consequences that have arisen from an extractive economy that has caused mass deforestation for both Nature and people. We're saying, "Oh, we can help you replant some of these trees that have been lost", but it feels that you need the whole story. Organisations had taken a history and value-free approach. Like "We're on a mission. We want to help reforest and stop deforestation", but not necessarily acknowledging what's created that deforestation. We have to recognise that we are both. We might be providing and seeking to offer a solution, but we are part of those societies that have created the problem in the first place. 

How do you feel evolving an agreed and shared way of working with communities addresses those issues?

That whole colonial legacy has a very powerful impact on the power dynamics involved in any relationship, particularly when one side is bringing in money and offering something to communities that tend not to have access to a lot of easy cash or resources. It's essential to explore all of those aspects and to have some process by which we could set some standards about how things should operate and balance up some of those imbalances of power and relationships. 

It would help give local communities some form of agency to say," Well, hang on. We will only work with organisations who've signed up for this set of ethics and values, and they can be held accountable for that." It seemed odd that we didn't already have that in place. In a way, part of the explanation is colonial history because there is a lack of accountability. 

People have always felt that, whether motivated by an extractive capitalist approach or by philanthropy and solidarity, there's still an assumed right that you can go and do that because you have the resources and the capacity to do that. It's an integral part of it. These were things that had been emerging that were on my mind.

Could it also help address greenwashing?

The obvious one is that a lot of northern NGOs could, in the worst case, be providing a greenwashing service to companies that were culpable for deforestation or responsible for the climate crisis, which disproportionately impacts the global South. Around this time, our board had to decide whether or not we would accept an offer of funding from a fossil fuel company. Why don't we have some standards or ethics that would help guide and inform us of those decisions rather than coming down to a few, not particularly diverse, people sitting in a boardroom?

Another aspect, which was a more immediate recent concern at the time, was that there were new entrants to the tree planting sector who, on the face of it, were quite eco and radical—doing interesting things and having exciting models. But at the same time, the primary motivation for wanting to plant trees in the global South was that it was cheaper.

They may be able to plant a tree for the equivalent of 10p, but if they were doing that in the global North, it might cost £10 or even over £200 for urban-standard trees. They didn't demonstrate an understanding that the lower cost resulted from using cheap, free, or even child labour and did not have any mechanisms to ensure that wasn't happening. Those things weren't all often very transparent or clear, but they were always there.

Part of articulating what's involved in supporting reforestation guided by and lifting up communities?

Something needs to differentiate organisations, genuinely trying to ensure local communities are always engaged and in the lead. For example, guaranteeing suitable tree species are being planted with recognition of other issues regarding gender and intergenerational work and supporting local people's livelihoods in all aspects. 

A code could promote some of these positive actions and identify practices that shouldn't be taking place.

You and I moved forward with the idea of a tree planting code when TreeSisters and ITF held a day-long event for various tree NGOs on May 1, 2019, in Oxford. Interestingly, we had a session that day listening to what the trees say through us individually.

About 18 months after that initial idea, there was an opportunity to bring it forward, share it with others, and see how that would feel. We spent time with a tree, and then, in pairs, one of us had to speak on behalf of the tree, speaking as the tree they'd identified. I still share that exercise today to try to find the voice of trees and vocalise it. It is powerful and useful because trees have been here much longer than we have. It is helpful to tap into the wisdom that trees have in their kinds of networks and lifespan. And consider how that might be vocalised.

While it's a vocalisation, it's more about listening and hearing beings. The oldest beings in Europe are yew trees. Listening to what Nature might be telling us is really important and a way of working in some cultures. It has been lost or drowned out in the noise of technology. We may not connect with it enough even when we spend time in Nature.

What do you think is important now and for future generations?

One thing that was really powerful or different about the Tree Conference was that it felt more about people than the organisations they were from. Having something like that that gets people out of the confines of the organisation they're working in around a bigger idea is invaluable.

Creating those spaces is important as a starting point. It comes back to the ethical tree code because it's about ideas. It's about ethics and values. So it's something that people can come together around and unify. If we can shift our thinking to be more around being, learning, being connected to and learning from the rest of Nature. Working in solidarity globally towards restoring living systems and transitioning to Nature, climate and people-friendly economic systems, ultimately that's what we have to do. We need different ways of thinking. 

You need hope, energy and optimism. And to be radical and to have enough time to sit with the roots of your landscape.

The beautiful thing you've done is to make that happen at a global level. It is fantastic the journey that the code, then the Framework, has been on for the last five years since that initial gathering.

We changed the name to Rooted in Ethics: The Community Tree Stewardship Framework because, after the listening process and the changes brought forward by Mindahi Bastida from the Otomi Toltec in the land called Mexico, it was clear that communities needed to be in the title for it to be more explicit about what was in the Framework.

Yeah, you know it was always about ethics, so the fact that it's rooted in that is great!

It's become much more than I ever imagined initially. It's me who should thank you. The fact that it's developed in that way and become so much more—I think it is just brilliant. I've just played a little tiny role after the initial flutter of its wings.

The most important thing is that it has found resonance with First Nations, Original Peoples and Nations, and indigenous communities and has been shaped and guided by them.

It's been an incredible honour and privilege. Of all the learning we've received, the most outstanding is that the cultural relationship between humans and trees, as conscious, intelligent beings of Nature, is represented on every continent apart from Antarctica.

This relationship between people and trees is evident and part of traditional ecological knowledge and bicultural protocols. It's really important to understand those cultural relationships and the stories and languages that come from them share practical ways of safeguarding land, forests, waters and all life. It's phenomenal and incredibly exciting to reflect that back into UK culture to support people's permission to think that way.

Yes, we think in very functional ways and need to look at the whole, fluid, dynamic Earth system. 

Thank you for everything and for being so flexible in continuing to support TreeSisters and the Fountain as we sat with that seed of an ethical code, listened to what the Mother Earth Delegation of the United Original Nations asked for, changed it, pruned it, and re-wove the idea into something that feels very timely. 


Join the Rooted in Ethics launch and panel event on Wednesday, May 22, at 6pm UK time and 10am California time. More information and registration details are available here.


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