Shortly after graduating from college, a burgeoning young filmmaker found his way to the Painted Desert near the Grand Canyon where he began documenting the impacts of mining pollution on local ecosystems and communities. For the next 10 years, Randy Hayes lived off and on among The Hopi, inspired by their embodiment of long-term sustainability that had enabled them to live off the land for more than 10,000 years. It was there that he was introduced to Indigenous leaders from around the world who filled his imagination with pictures of tropical rainforests teeming with life as well as stories of their rampant destruction and the displacement of rainforest peoples. Along the way, author Edward Abbey introduced Hayes to environmental activist Mike Roselle. Through these eye-opening years and new friendships, Randy learned a pivotal lesson that would forever shape the course of his life and his work: “Those who live lightly on the land do not need our charity; they need us to remove our foot from the throat of the land.”
It was this principle that led Hayes and Roselle, two emerging luminaries of the environmental movement, to found what would become the Rainforest Action Network – a group seated in a grassroots movement strong enough to remove the industrial footprint from the world’s tropical rainforests by challenging the root causes of their systematic destruction.
At the first organizing conference upon which Rainforest Action Network was founded in November, 1985, it was clear that RAN was going to be something different. Raising the profile of tropical rainforests was a significant departure from traditional conservation strategies, which tended to focus on charismatic species or distinct places rather than whole environments. Connecting the urgency of saving rainforests to human and ecological imperatives for planetary survival was seemingly more complex. It was going to entail a holistic approach connecting complex issues such as climate destabilization, global poverty, economic development and global trade with the destruction of irreplaceable ecosystems, species extinction and Indigenous rights.
Hayes and Roselle were determined to make saving tropical rainforests the most important ecological issue of the decade and immediately outlined a bold strategy that could respond to imminent threats while maintaining a sharp focus on necessary long-term systemic changes. They quickly established an international network of activists, organizations, scientists and academics that could communicate vital information, coordinate strategy and activate grassroots networks from all corners of the globe. They leaned on the advice of other eco-luminaries such as David Brower, Gary Snyder, Herb Gunther, Catherine Caufield and Peter Coyote.
Within the first year, RAN helped kick off an international campaign highlighting the World Bank’s role in tropical rainforest destruction. By bankrolling mega-projects in the world’s most sensitive ecosystems, the World Bank was paving the way for irresponsible development and imposing mountains of debt on the world’s poorest countries. In September, 1986, RAN convened a Citizen’s Conference followed by an International Day of Demonstrations at the World Bank’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. The conference culminated in a dramatic action—the first act of civil disobedience at the World Bank and the hanging of RAN’s first banner—establishing RAN as a major force on the environmental movement’s stage and serving as a launch pad for grassroots actions to take place inside the U.S. to help protect rainforests around the world.
Simultaneously, RAN mobilized its first corporate campaign in 1987, utilizing a grassroots network of Rainforest Action Groups (RAGs) to take action against U.S. fast-food chain Burger King for its role in converting Costa Rica’s tropical rainforests into cattle ranches. Those actions resulted in Burger King canceling $35 million worth of rainforest beef contracts—a major milestone against a leading driver of tropical deforestation. Similar campaigns would begin to mobilize thousands of RAN members to take action opposing destructive dams, pulp mills and other projects threatening to destroy rainforest ecosystems and displace Indigenous communities.
The seeds of a movement were beginning to grow. As the number of RAGs forming across the globe began to take flight, corporations and policy-makers began to take notice. In October, 1987, The New York Times published an article with the headline “Concern for Rain Forest Has Begun to Blossom.” RAN’s vision of bringing the plight of tropical rainforests to American hearts and minds was clearly gaining momentum, and it was just the beginning.