Having spent time in Nepal, Fiji and Papua New Guinea — where he set up Greenpeace’s local headquarters — Lafcadio Cortesi’s 25 years of negotiating resource management, community development and biodiversity conservation for both the private sector and NGOs, have taught him the significance of understanding other cultures and their connections with the natural ecological processes of the planet. It’s a way of life Lafcadio has applied back home in Berkeley, where he is surrounded by a close community of friends who share each other’s cars, food and lawnmowers.
How do you define your role at the Rainforest Action Network? My career and my passion have always been about being a bridge to different cultures. I act as a translator of global economies into local communities — cross-cultural communications. It can be defined as a bridging role. I work with people to understand and navigate new forces coming into their lives and find ways to teach them how to live with them. I’ve lived in many countries, learnt about their cultures and brought that learning back to North America to people, companies and NGOs. We can say I am also in the business of conflict resolution between cultures and between humans and nature; when you work with other cultures, you learn about yourself. In my long career, I still haven’t burnt out because I’m always working with different people, which I feel personally benefits me.
You mentioned the influence of different cultures in your life as a result of living in other countries. Where have you lived before? When I was young, I was a volunteer in Indonesia for three years — where I also have been working for over 20 years now. For the last ten years, I have spent three to four months at a time in Papua New Guinea — I started the Greenpeace office there. I’ve also lived in the Solomon Islands and in Fiji. Experiencing many different cultures influenced my decision to study anthropology at University.
Everyone has something to teach you; that is the ‘Universal Truth’.
When you look closely at your life now, are there aspects you would like to change or improve? There are so many challenges in the world and I always try to take on so many of them at once. I need to focus more, choose a few and do them better. Even in my personal life, I still haven’t yet been able apply these principles. I feel all the opportunities lying ahead and I want to do it all. I enjoy exploring the terrain, identifying opportunities and bringing back to find solutions. In my work, I tend to play the role of lead guard but I need a team to follow up to bring projects to conclusion.
I am curious how you got into what you do today… When I was 15, I volunteered in Nepal with the NGO Earthwatch Institute. We were doing research on the rhesus macaques that live in the temples of Kathmandu. This experience turned my world upside down and made me question everything about who I was, what I believed was true and made me realise my values were not necessarily real. I questioned all my existing assumptions about life after experiencing new ways of living, cultures and poverty. On my return, I decided to study critical theory, philosophy, religion and anthropology to understand what I really value and don’t value — what is important for humans overall.
What values did you identify as the most important for you? First, it was the environment. I have come to realise that ecological integrity, interestingly, is valuable to all human beings. Also, to be open with your heart, to listen and appreciate others. Everyone has something to teach you; that is the ‘Universal Truth’. There is a sacredness, consciousness and magic in exploring what is out there. Ecological processes and the natural world — these are things we need to be preserving. They have been around much longer than we have, and we need to leave space for them. I try to find ways to allow different cultures to have space, time and respect. I want to help and influence people, teaching them about what needs to be preserved, what is good to observe only from the outside, and what needs to be kept intact.
How have all these cultural experiences and places you’ve lived in influenced and changed you? They have made me less sure about what I think is true. There are many different ways of living. If we are going to make a better world, there has to be an allowance for differences, and respect for alternative ways of being. I also fully realised that ecological processes are somewhat like scientific laws in a sense. They should be seen as underpinning human life. Our culture in the West is unfortunately degrading these natural ecological values, whereas in places like Papua New Guinea, people are very respectful of them. Cultural diversity is also an experiment in how people can live in balance with their environment.
Do you think our children will live in a very different world? The world is on a pathway now where the science behind climate change is clear. There will be some very painful times for humans and other species, with the sea level rising to catastrophic events. It will bring about a crisis that will push us to change the way we live today. The big question is, how do you come out of a crisis? You can preserve biodiversity, cultural diversity and even love, so we can better bring balance to our lives within the limits of nature.
There is a sacredness, consciousness and magic to be explored in what is out there in nature.
Are you taking any daily action at a personal level to influence the future? I live in a close-knit community in Berkley, California — with ten to 15 best friends living next door to each other. We use less resources sharing and caring for each other. We feel a responsibility that goes beyond the individual.
The big question is, how do you come out of a crisis? You can preserve biodiversity, cultural diversity and even love, so we can better bring balance to our lives within the limits of nature.
Do you mean you all consciously settled at the same location to create this community lifestyle? Yes, as new houses in the neighbourhood opened up, one by one friends started moving in. We share our cars and our meals; we even have one lawnmower rather than five, so we can reduce our impact. Even in Berkeley, the setup is unique. We built our community in ten to 15 years. And now when I travel to different cultures, I bring more back to the community to share.
Did you also try to bring your values into the community? We all had these values and all of us try to live a more conscious way of life. One of our community members is Annie Leonard who created the animated film, The Story of Stuff, that addresses these very issues.
Ecological processes are somewhat like scientific laws in a sense — they should be seen as underpinning human life.
Do you have a guilty pleasure? I feel guilty about flying much too much. I love it, but it is a huge burden on the environment. I feel less guilty about enjoying good food, as I buy local products. We are privileged people, and we are able to make choices that aren’t only based on the price of a product. I look for quality first and impact second. I always buy from my local butcher where all the meat is sourced within a 100-mile radius. I am very conscious of the footprint — both social and environmental. I try to get companies to have the same way of thinking, to minimise their overall footprint. We all have to carefully evaluate our footprint to have the minimum impact with maximum benefits. We have to be respectful of biodiversity, human rights and the dignity of people.