Stronger Connected: 5 Young Leaders in Conservation Share their Recipes for Success


Nia Gorbunova & Veronica Rebollo

March 12, 2021

Stronger Connected: 5 Young Leaders in Conservation Share their Recipes for Success
“At some point, most of us were told to respect our elders. Please do so. But respect does not mean to simply stand by. Demand to be listened to. Raise your voice and demand action. Go lead. Activate and let others join you.”

These were the words Niyanta Spelman, CEO of Rainforest Partnership, used to kick off the U.N. Youth Environment Assembly partner event, “Stronger connected-– youth leadership and collaboration for powerful conservation impacts”.

Rainforest Partnership and HIRED Consult, a Ghana-based social enterprise with expertise in management and consultancy, joined forces to present this event, with the mission of celebrating the visionary leadership of young people in catalyzing global conservation and climate action.

Five panelists representing youth-powered environmental initiatives shared their experiences as young leaders, creators, builders, and advocates in a time when youth leadership is stronger and more important than ever.

Speaking to the panel and audience, John Aggrey, founder of HIRED Consult, announced:

“It is time to join forces with other committed young leaders and advocates around the world. That is why you are here. For us to listen to you. For us to connect. For us to act together..”

And connect we did.

Throughout the event, audience members were introduced to four exciting organizations powered by young pioneers championing environmental and climate solutions. The entirely unique experience of each panelist highlighted their diverse skills, hurdles, stories, and ambitions, and provided a holistic view into how youth-led organizations are leading tangible conservation action and fighting to save the planet for those who call it home– from birds, to coral reefs, forests, or communities around the world.

A Deep Dive into the Panelists’ Work

Gen Z for the Trees: Roshan Khan

Roshan Khan quote
Roshan Khan quote

Who are they?

Roshan Khan, at only 19 years old, is leading Gen Z for the Trees, Rainforest Partnership’s youth branch and a community of young people working to combat deforestation from all angles to achieve their bold goal of global net zero deforestation by 2030.

How are they creating climate and environmental solutions?

Their work revolves around three pillars to encourage youth to take action to protect rainforests: education, inspiration and change.

The young students and leaders from Gen Z for the Trees have been conducting extensive research on palm oil mills with the intention of uncovering unregistered, and therefore unaccountable, mills. Palm oil plantations are a major driver of deforestation in the tropics.

To date, Gen Z for the Trees has uncovered and mapped 300 of these unregistered mills, by delving into exposés and reports published by companies detailing the source of their palm oil – and comparing these with the international mill list published by Global Forest Watch. In their months-long research campaign, the team found many gaps in the system, and are advocating for stronger accountability for these unregistered mills, which are difficult, if not impossible, to monitor and hold accountable for any unsustainable practices.

Thriving Corals

Zuzanna Witek quote
Zuzanna Witek quote

Who are they?

Disturbed by the lack of updated and relevant environmental education in high school curricula, Zuzanna Witek, a high school sophomore in Poland, founded Thriving Corals. Initially an art project created to raise awareness about degradation of marine ecosystems, the project evolved into a virtual education center fostering environmental awareness, particularly on coral reefs, for young people online.

How are they creating climate and environmental solutions?

This creative education initiative brings the reality of the state of the coral communities to high schoolers eager to learn. The Thriving Corals team prepares educational materials for teachers as well as online courses and workshops, to facilitate learning and youth leadership in the world of marine conservation and sustainability.

Though they are based in Poland, they are hungry to expand their reach by partnering with schools globally and translating their resources to expand accessibility and reach more young people around the world.

Amigos de Sian Ka’an: Mireya Carrillo and Nori Velazquez

Mireya Carrillo quote
Mireya Carrillo quote

Who are they?

Amigos de Sian Ka’an, a Mexican NGO in the state of Quintana Roo, leads biodiversity conservation, sustainable management, and local economic and educational programs with local communities in the region. They are dedicated to the conservation of the largest tropical rainforest in Mexico, the most important wetlands in Mesoamerica, the second largest coral reef on the planet, as well as the sustainable development of communities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.

How are they creating climate and environmental solutions?

Critical to their efforts is the element of youth-led Citizen Science:

“Our first approach has always been with the vision of linking youth, as well as adults, with water related issues in the region  that they already know and can relate to. We support them in developing their own monitoring systems and to use the data generated to inform decision-making for the conservation of their karst-sinkholes (cenotes) and their water sources. In this way, young people can take ownership of these projects, and we’re motivating them to participate and increasing their commitment to water conservation.”

One of their programs, a bird-watching and education initiative targeted specifically at children, youth, and women, was responsible for identifying a Lapland Longspur. Though impressive, this discovery was not groundbreaking in itself – until, that is, they realized this was the southernmost point in the Western Hemisphere these birds have ever been sighted.

This “very important contribution to the study of bird distribution”, was made by Gilda, a local woman, and her young son, Gilberto.

World Rainforest Day: Nia Gorbunova

Nia Gorbunova quote
Nia Gorbunova quote

Who are they?

World Rainforest Day is a global initiative created by Rainforest Partnership in 2017 to celebrate the importance and diversity of rainforests, foster a sense of shared, global responsibility and stewardship, and ignite collective action to protect tropical rainforests around the world.

How are they creating climate and environmental solutions?

Through its global platform, the organization provides empowerment, information, and most of all, community.

World Rainforest Day creates gathering spaces to meet others with the same concerns and hopes, connect with people around the world tackling the same issues, link businesses, organizations, policymakers and open up space for dialogue about where we stand, how we can do better, and how to get there together.

In 2020, for example, World Rainforest Day educated, engaged, and energized people around the world to take action to protect the world’s rainforests. Partnering with over 100 organizations and inspiring others to join in the celebration, World Rainforest Day reached people from 131 countries across six continents.

WRD’s wide network of partners and independent participants activated and engaged 29 million people through online and in-person rainforest-themed workshops, film screenings, meditations, and fundraisers.

It is through World Rainforest Day’s vast network of partners that all organizations present at the panel were identified and invited to participate.

From Inspiration to Action: advice from experienced young leaders and founders

In sharing their own journeys, the panelists were able to outline not just the ingredients necessary for a successful initiative, but the baby steps one has to take before they can excel in their missions.

“First of all, figure out how you want to make the difference,” advised Niyanta (Rainforest Partnership). “What are your best opportunities? Creating something new takes a lot of work, but you don’t have to do that.”

Find the right partners.

Gen Z for the Trees is a youth-led branch of Rainforest Partnership and builds off the resources provided by a larger, well-established organization. This approach is an easy way to get a movement off the ground. “But if you do that, ask yourself these questions: are you really going to be empowered? Are you going to be given the space and opportunities to do the work you would like to do?” Don’t settle for a partner who doesn’t value your voice or your work, Niyanta urged.

Look to your own community.

Zuzanna (Thriving Corals) spoke about the importance of building a network from the resources you have available, especially as a youth-led organization. “If you’re just starting out… look around you and see if anyone is interested. I’m in high school, [so I went to] my biology teacher, thinking maybe she knows more teachers – she probably does.”

In looking to her personal support systems, Zuzanna was able to connect with others passionate about the focus of her work, and create a community dedicated to doing the work necessary to create the change they deemed vital. Sometimes the changemakers are right in your backyard (or classroom).

Collaboration is Key.

And perhaps most critical to the session, and to the initiatives of the panelists, is the element of collaboration-– tapping into the potential and resources harbored by other groups around the world, working towards a similar goal or guided by the same ambitions.

Operating in a silo might not yield global, long-term results, and it will certainly not allow access to the vast resources accessible through partnerships and strategic cooperation. And this, of course, relies on openness, flexibility, and the honest desire to understand the experiences of others.

John (HIRED Consult) summed it up when he said:

“Learning from others is extremely valuable. To be fully engaged you need to be present. Communication is important. Be open to the others. Practice active listening. What is the situation of others on the ground?“

To wrap up the session, Niyanta and John addressed the youth directly, inviting them to be activated and empowered, to lead the change that is needed to put our planet first, and to not shy away from global decision-making, even if it is traditionally considered a role for adults and experienced professionals.

It is time for the youth to claim their space and hold governments and leaders accountable for their promises to the people and the planet.

So let’s collaborate.

If you would like to get in touch with any of the speakers– to discuss collaboration opportunities, help broaden their reach, or learn more about their initiatives – please see contact details below.

Roshan Khan – Team Leader, Gen Z for the Trees

Zuzanna Witek – Founder, Thriving Corals

Mireya Carrillo and Nori Velazquez – Amigos de Sian Ka’an
Contact them here.

Nia Gorbunova – Coordinator, World Rainforest Day

John Aggrey – Founder, HIRED Consult

Niyanta Spelman – CEO, Rainforest Partnership