Voice for the Rainforest
Release Date: 01-16-2009
John-O Niles tours a patch of devastated forest in Mozambique with Francisco Samacho, a local community leader. (Photo: Philip Powell)
"People have been saying, 'Save the rainforest, man,' for years," John-O Niles '91 says, doing his best to lend the right hippie dude inflection to the well-worn phrase. But in 2005, sparked by the catalyst of the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the world started to put significant funding and action behind the bumper-sticker sentiment. As director of the non-profit Tropical Forest Group, Niles built on that opportunity, leading efforts to spur new and better conservation policy and implement programs to conserve and restore forest. Uganda, Nigeria, Mozambique — Niles and his TFG colleagues often focus their work in areas where human conflict has ravaged forests.
Niles makes the complex simple when he calls the rainforest "this green, moist sponge that circles the equator" and rattles off the reasons why saving these ecosystems is the right thing to do. As the planet warms, there's one particular reason, Niles says, that has grabbed the attention of world leaders — twenty percent of greenhouse gases are due to tropical deforestation.
Though his rainforest work traces back to before climate change was the hottest issue, that part of the planet has intrigued him even longer, all the way back to his days at UVM. Niles laughs and swears he's not making it up when he describes the post-graduation path he envisioned then traveled with astonishing accuracy. Sitting on a Buell Street porch, he laid out the plan. First, travel to Alaska and make some money in commercial fishing. Hitchhike across America. Hitchhike across Africa. Get a graduate degree in the San Francisco Bay area. Work on international rainforest issues.
He's made good on every one of those Burlington dreams. The rainforest work continued to keep him on the road often, racking up visits to twenty-five countries in one recent year. These days, Niles travels a good deal less. He lives in California, where he and his wife, a professor of ecology at the University of California-San Diego, are raising their two young sons.
Niles's eco-advocacy is strongly rooted in his UVM undergraduate years, when he earned his bachelor's in resource economics and was a driving force behind forming the Vermont Student Environmental Program. VSTEP pushed the university to establish its first recycling programs and, among other creative efforts, made a chunky reusable cup hanging off a backpack a ubiquitous UVM student accessory of the era.
"The experience of getting VSTEP going and gaining some successes gave me inspiration to go out and continue the work, more of that confidence that you can make a difference," Niles says.
Whether it's recycling on the UVM campus or global advocacy for conserving rainforests, Niles says "there have always been these perfect storms," times when environmental concerns, economics, and a critical mass of concerned individuals come together to push change. In his work with Tropical Forest Group, the annual UN Climate Change conventions have proven to be pivotal moments when international leaders gather to negotiate the course ahead. Niles and TFG were on hand and making their case when this year's UN event convened in Poland during December.
Niles, who has published several books on climate change and tropical forests and served as an invited advisor to the Clinton administration, brings the dual perspective of a scientist and one comfortable with creating policy. (He earned his master's in biological sciences at Stanford University and was at work on his doctorate at Cal-Berkeley before taking a leave to focus on advocacy.) Niles is frank that policy and science can be a difficult match. "It's hard to be an academic scientist and have very strong positions," he says. "It doesn't work." However, when talking with government leaders, it's helpful to be packing the credentials of a scientist. "It allows you to make quick, compelling arguments. Having that science sometimes impresses people," Niles says. "It gives you a megaphone."
More information: tropicalforestgroup.org
This article appears in the new issue of Vermont Quarterly Magazine as part of a larger piece about alumni working on climate change and other environmental issues. The full Winter 2009 issue is available on-line at alumni.uvm.edu/vq. Print copies of the magazine are mailed to all alumni and parents of current students and distributed to the campus community on a limited basis. Print copies may be requested from University Communications, (802) 656-2005, or via e-mail, email@example.com.