The deep, guttural roar of howler monkeys reverberated across the conference hall. They were the sounds of dawn in a rainforest in Costa Rica, recorded on the mobile phone of the youngest keynote speaker to ever open an RSPO conference, Roshan Khan.
“The rainforest is a very interesting place,” she said, as she shared her visceral experience across Costa Rican jungles, plantations, rivers and cloud forests, with hundreds of participants of the first RSPO Inter-American Conference held in Miami last May.
That memorable experience on a study abroad trip as a 17-year-old student was what first awakened her deep appreciation for the rainforest. Years later, to mark World Rainforest Day in 2020, Roshan co-founded Gen Z for the Trees (Z4T), the youth branch of Rainforest Partnership, focused on educating her generation on the drivers of deforestation. The group has embarked on impactful campaigns pushing for better policies for forest preservation and protection of Indigenous Peoples. That same year, they initiated the Palm Oil Project where they investigated palm oil supply chains, one corporation at a time, like diligent environmental detectives.
A recent graduate of the University of Texas, Austin, Roshan finished with a quintuple major, and is set to move to China to earn a Master of Environmental Policy in Duke Kunshan University.
RSPO caught up with Roshan to discuss Z4T’s findings of their palm oil research, how she encourages Gen Z to promote and support sustainable palm oil, and her advice for the media on telling the sustainable palm oil story better.
What drove you to co-found the youth branch of Rainforest Partnership?
When I joined Rainforest Partnership (RP) in 2020 with a background in research and environmental activism, I was brought on to assist the Ecuador team. Upon joining, the CEO Niyanta Spelman asked me if I could spearhead a youth initiative within RP. I recruited other young interns into a small team, and we launched Gen Z for the Trees on World Rainforest Day (22 June 2020).
Could you tell us more about Gen Z for the Trees (Z4T) and what you’ve accomplished so far?
Our vision is to end deforestation by 2030. We launched with this vision in 2020, and that was a year and a half before that goal was adopted by world leaders at COP26.
Our mission can be described by our three pillars: Educate, Inspire, and Change. We work to educate Gen Z on the drivers of deforestation and economic, political forces and Indigenous perspectives and the side of the history that we aren’t taught in school. We inspire Gen Z to combat climate anxiety. We have change campaigns that take an analytical supply chain approach to pushing for better policies for the forest and all the people of the forest.
What are the main advantages of Z4T being a youth-driven project?
Some advantages of Z4T being driven by people of our age group include that we’re digital natives, super comfortable working with data, and used to working remotely in collaboration with people in different locations.
In 2020, Z4T began the Palm Oil Project, what made you interested in palm oil and pushing for a more sustainable industry?
I was encouraged by the amount of information our team could access through online research about palm oil compared to other industries. Being able to successfully self-educate within the Z4T team was rewarding. We collected dozens of articles and links until we were familiar with major names, concepts, and challenges in the industry.
We read the entire methodology of the Universal Mill List. We explored readings on beef, soy, and timber at the same time, but there was so much more information to explore on palm oil. After we published a blog about data we’d uncovered from companies’ published mill lists, we were discovered by Cameron Plese, RSPO’s Head of North America, and were able to ask even more questions about palm oil.
What actions did the project findings lead to?
We shared our data with Global Forest Watch, and their team compared it against their database of mill names, coordinates, and also checked satellite images. Of the over 300 mills we identified lacking a Universal Mill List ID number, there were 31 mills that needed to be added to the list. Those additional pins on the map are valuable for deforestation or fire alerts to function as an accountability tool, because of the radius around any mill that overlaps land where palm oil fruit must be sourced from. As I like to say, transparency is a prerequisite for accountability.
What are your own personal action points and commitments that were borne from this project?
I always check ingredient lists for palm oil derivatives and whether there’s an RSPO certified label. I also educate all my friends about palm oil, so their awareness isn’t solely from news about habitat destruction for plantations. I tell them about the initiatives that have come from this industry, and remind my friends to consider livelihoods, land efficiency, and methods of cultivation.
Beyond that, everything I learned in this process helped shape my desired career path, which is to work at the intersection of rainforest conservation, international trade, and China’s environmental policies. With my background knowledge, and since I’m half Chinese and speak Mandarin, I’m prepared to pursue this niche intersectional career.
From your in-depth palm oil research, how would you help tell the story of sustainable palm oil better?
The biggest challenge to the story of sustainable palm oil is the public thinking “palm oil” is synonymous with “unsustainable.” But there’s a reason for that. For many companies, “business as usual” is deadly and abusive. I would advise companies to emphasise transparency, partnership with communities to meet their needs and conserve their territories, and storytelling of these actions in every single part of their marketing, until palm oil’s role in sustainability cannot be ignored. Only if the good work is real, of course. Gen Z is good at spotting greenwashing.
What advice would you give the media on reporting about sustainable palm oil?
I would ask the media to do better than always only amplifying negative stories and not fact-checking or adding nuance. For example, I don’t think the average person in the USA or Europe heard the news that deforestation from palm oil has been declining in recent years, while deforestation from beef has not. This incomplete information leads many people to villainize the crop so long as they only know 80% of the picture. The media can help change that.
What would you like to encourage Gen Z to promote and support sustainable palm oil?
I would encourage all of Gen Z to get educated on sustainable palm oil, as well as agriculture, international trade, colonialism, imperialism, and Indigenous nations, cultures, and land tenure. We need to have context for the issues around unsustainable palm oil. I would then encourage us to help increase demand for sustainability by engaging with companies, schools, financial institutions, and governments.
Finally, we’d love to hear about how you felt after giving the keynote address in the RSPO Inter-American Conference?
The reactions were all positive—people kept coming up to me throughout the two days to shake my hand and say they appreciated the speech. Listening to the panellists and having discussions with people was very insightful, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with those I met. I felt energised and grateful for being invited to take part in the conference.
I was happy I got to open my keynote by playing an audio recording of howler monkeys from my phone. It confused and then captivated everyone in the audience, and made it memorable because those sounds reminded us of why we were there: our rainforests are alive and irreplaceable.