Tensie Whelan | Seeing the Rainforest and the Trees

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Tensie (pronounced TAWN-see) Whelan has been the executive director of the Rainforest Alliance since 2000.  Whelan is a member of the advisory board for corporate social responsibility at Fortis, as well as the sustainable agriculture advisory board for Unilever.  She holds an M.A. in International Communication from American University's School of International  Service and a B.A. in Political Science from New York University. Whelan's published  work includes one of the first books on eco-friendly tourism, Nature Tourism: Managing for the Environment (1991, Island Press).

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I am not so sure when the dream started.  Perhaps as young teenager on a canoe trip with my family in the Quebec wilderness listening to loons and wolves sing a duo across the lake.  Or perhaps as a 10-year old visiting my grandparents in Mexico and seeing poverty like I had never seen before, even growing up in the streets of New York City.  Or perhaps it was just being the bossy older sister who needed to find something meaningful to do after her younger siblings grew up.

But my dream has always been to make a difference—in a big way.  In what way, was not clear at the beginning, but I knew I wanted to work in another country. Learn about other ways of doing things.  Learn what mattered.  Why people do what they do.  And what my place in it all would be.

Rainforest guatemala Source:  Rainforest Alliance

While I always cared about environmental issues, and found my first job after graduate school working for World Wildlife Fund in DC and then as an environmental journalist in Sweden and Central America, it was not until my husband, an environmental economist, died in a car crash at 27, that I decided that I was going to go for making a difference for the planet in a big way.  My husband could no longer do it.  So I would do it for him.

Funny thing about surviving a tragedy like having your husband die after 6 months of marriage AND being three months pregnant—you realize you can do anything.  Really, anything.

Tensie Lora-Faye
Tensie and her daughter Lora-Faye photo by J. Henry Fair

So I went after the dream.  His dream.  Our dream.  My dream.  To radically transform how we interact with the environment in order to create a better world for our children and their children, but also all the beautiful plants and animals that share this amazing place with us.

Today, I am the President of the Rainforest Alliance, an international organization that works in 70 countries to transform how we interact with nature and each other.  (And the mother of a lovely 21-year old daughter who looks a lot like her father.) We work with millions of small producers of crops like chocolate, tea, and bananas, with CEOs of big companies, and with consumers, to transform standard business practices.

Tensie Whelan LeavesPhoto courtesy of J. Henry Fair

So what does that mean exactly?  It means that farmers, foresters, hotel managers change their environmental, social and economic practices to comply with our sustainable management standard, and we audit them in the field annually.  Lipton has committed to take all of their tea Rainforest Alliance certified (12% of the world’s tea).  Mars has committed to take all of their cocoa sustainable.  Chiquita has had all of their bananas certified by us.  And thus, the farms these companies buy from have protected wildlife and their habitat, reforested native trees, reduced chemical use, improved worker housing and working conditions—and increased their yields in the process!

Tensie_j_henry_fair_kenya Tensie Whelan photographed by J. Henry Fair

That is the other part of the dream—we are improving conditions for people as well as the planet.  I have never believed you can separate the two.  And the gratification is instant.  When I visit a Rainforest Alliance certified operation, the people working there are incredibly proud of all they have accomplished.  Their farms or forests or hotels look very different than the norm.  And people around them begin to copy them!  On one of my visits to Colombia, a group of macho coffee farmers wielding machetes began to compete with each other over how many migratory bird species they had identified on their respective farms.   That would so not have happened before Rainforest Alliance came into their lives!

So the dream is one that many others are now dreaming with me.  Together we are translating our dreams into reality.  It's exhausting.  But it feels really, really good.

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I love Tensie's line, “My husband could no longer do it.  So I would do it for him.”  Have you had an experience where you hadn't planned to step up, but when you had to, you found you could?

Tensie's dream is to find a win-win for people and for the physical world in which we live.  What kind of win-wins can you find as you dream?  Where is the win-win to be found in attending to loved ones and to ourselves?

For more on what we can do to encourage our children in their philanthropic pursuits, and in particular saving the rainforest where many of their favorite animals live, or even to find helps for a school project, click here.

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