Language Matters: Part four of spotting real impact in rainforest conservation


RP Team

August 25, 2021

Language Matters: Part four of spotting real impact in rainforest conservation

No matter what your area of interest or expertise is… we are all looking for the same thing: impact you can trust. 

Let’s explore this critical question: How do I spot and recognize organizations with the highest tangible, measurable, durable impact?

Here are four key aspects of an organization’s impact, model, values, and success to investigate and assess. 

1.    Representing impact.

2.    Transparency and accessibility.

3.    Financials.

4.    Language and relationships.

In this fourth blog of the series, we’ll explore the role language plays in revealing an organization’s impact (or lack thereof) or telling us how dedicated an organization is to environmental justice and forming genuine, equal, respectful, and real relationships with partners in local and indigenous communities. 

Language matters. Learning how to read between the lines with care is critical; to learn how to recognize greenwashing; to move conservation and NGO spaces away from patronizing, colonial, savior-esque roots and solidly into the justice-centered world we need and envision. 

What clues can language give to help us recognize real, concrete impact and thoughtful partnerships with local and indigenous people?

Language reveals a lot about an organization and its impact—from the words they choose to the messaging behind them.

The keys here are context and nuance. Seek them both vigilantly. Read between the lines, dig deeply into the language. 

For example, at Rainforest Partnership, we communicate the area of land in which we work as “acres conserved and better protected;” while often expressed as “acres saved,” the realities of on-the-ground conservation work is much more complicated than this. Creating a Protected Area in a rainforest does not necessarily mean this land is truly conserved. 

Working with local stakeholders-- communities, governments, or relevant organizations-- to implement land and natural resource management and monitoring, for example, actively ensures long term conservation of this land, better protecting what was already protected in name. 

To claim a million acres saved could mean a lot—or it could mean not very much at all. It all depends on the nuances built into the reality of the contexts on the ground, specific to the place, its stakeholders, and its history. When an organization communicates the impact its work creates, read carefully and ask questions.

What does it really mean? How can you detect substantive, tangible impact or, on the flip side, empty but flowery, exciting words?

  • For external actors like international NGOs, speaking and writing about relationships and partnerships with indigenous or local partners must be done with care, self-awareness, and humility.    
  • The colonial history of NGO to local/indigenous-community relations can still be present in language that replicates and recreates these old, exploitative and patronizing patterns. Rooting out these patterns will take a collective commitment among NGOs and partners to actively and humbly examine every choice, of words, of speakers, of script and image and caption. 

Dig past the buzzwords — is there substance beneath and behind them?  Is true and equal partnership with communities an empty expected assertion or is it demonstrated through the organization’s storytelling, uplifting of partner’s voices, or careful attention to the language they choose?

Sometimes it’s just a matter of keeping up with contemporary critical thought and language and consciously shedding language that replicates patronizing or exploitative models of non-profit work. 

Effective conservation is impossible to achieve without local and indigenous communities. Hence, the key to long-lasting and just impact in conservation is having direct and equal partnerships with local and indigenous-led projects. To make sure that the non-profit space is playing its most strategic, effective, and socially-conscious role in this work, look for language that exemplifies this commitment to actively uplifting the work of local and indigenous communities.

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly justice-conscious, especially with a growing global community of activated young people with fierce commitments to justice and climate action leading the way. In this context, there is no place for outdated practices and language that exclude, capitalize on, or patronize indigenous participation. When analyzing language and communications, read critically for these words or practices that seek to impose one culture over another.

Language matters. Read with care.


We’re all about impact, but not as a buzzword-- as an active commitment and a creed that drives and shapes our work. Check out our video podcast series: Spotting Impact in the Wild and don’t forget to check out the other three blogs in this series on Impact.