Will Sheldon works with Vancouver-based not-for-profit Taking Root helping smallholder coffee, cacao and cattle farmers in the tropics improve their lives while saving the planet.

This piece is part of a series of profiles highlighting young people across the country who are addressing the climate crisis. These extraordinary humans give me hope. I write these stories to pay it forward.

Will Sheldon works with Vancouver-based non-profit Taking Root to help smallholder farmers in the tropics improve their lives while saving the planet. Photo courtesy Will Sheldon

Tell us about your work.

Coffee, cacao and cattle farming in the Global South contribute to deforestation at alarming rates. At Taking Root, we work with grassroots reforestation groups to support farmers to grow trees and use the carbon markets to ensure they get paid for doing so.

What is your role?

I am responsible for selling the carbon removals generated from our work so farmers get paid and developing new projects with our local partners. I also work with my team on our marketing and branding to make Taking Root an attractive choice for corporations and local reforestation organizations wanting to grow trees and remove carbon. My background in analytics is useful in continuously improving our mobile and remote sensing technology, which tracks tree growth and carbon reductions over time.

Will Sheldon and Taking Root's local Nicaragua technicians visit farmers restoring forests in 2019. Photo courtesy Will Sheldon

Where are your projects?

We have projects across the tropics including Nicaragua, Côte d'Ivoire and Uganda, with plans to expand in the future.

Will Sheldon works with Vancouver-based not-for-profit Taking Root helping smallholder coffee, cacao and cattle farmers in the tropics improve their lives while saving the planet. #YouthClimateActions #Trees #Farmers

What impact have you had?

Since we started in 2010, 10 million trees have been planted, which are removing more than 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — the equivalent of flying from London to Vancouver over one million times. Behind those numbers are thousands of people whose lives have been transformed with over $6 million transferred to farmers.

There is a significant economic benefit. Integrated tree planting provides shade and other benefits for their crops and cattle. Farmers who are often paid as little as $2 a day might receive more than $2,000 over time for growing trees and additional revenue from wood they harvest as they manage their forests. I have met farmers who faced a prolonged drought that wiped out their crops but they were able to recoup some of their money this way.

Trees increase ecosystem resilience by retaining water and nurturing the soil as well as increasing drought tolerance and controlling flooding. Together, our work enhances the health of the local ecosystems and the entire community.

Is there a concern about participating in offsets rather than encouraging absolute reductions?

Of course. While we have to get to absolute zero, that is not going to happen overnight. In the meantime, we are improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable.

Will Sheldon hiking Corsica's GR20. Photo courtesy Will Sheldon

What makes your work hard?

Deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change. Market incentives drive tropical smallholder farmers to cut trees, but they are also some of the most vulnerable to the resulting environmental impacts and climate change.

Helping farmers meet both short- and long term-needs is challenging. They have a lot to lose from careless change and can be resistant. When Kahlil Baker, one of the co-founders of Taking Root, started working in Nicaragua, farmers saw trees as the enemy because they take up space. But 10 years later, after just a handful of farmers took a chance with Taking Root, the benefits are evident and their perception of trees has shifted. Now farmers often recommend their neighbours grow trees, and in our Nicaragua project alone, we are working with 3,000 farmers in hundreds of communities.

How did you get involved?

Five years ago I was working in the U.K. in a successful tech analytics startup. But I was raised with an ethic of service and I needed my life to have meaning beyond just making money. I knew I wanted to work on improving sustainability, but while I wasn’t very clear about what that meant, I had always wanted to live in Vancouver and thought I might find out here.

I came for a trial six months, fell in love with it and started meeting people. Incidentally, Linda Solomon Wood, editor-in-chief of Canada’s National Observer, was one of the most helpful and encouraging. I met Kahlil Baker and joined his team. Taking Root has since grown from four of us to 25 and we are constantly looking for new talent. It's very exciting.

What gives you hope?

The climate crisis is so urgent and our work will never be big enough or grow fast enough to solve it alone. I can’t say I’m optimistic about the big picture. But seeing our work improve people’s lives is so motivating. And the smart, driven people here and the millions of others working on this issue give me hope. We are a part of the solution and we are not alone.

What would you like to say to other young people?

Focus on what you can control. It is easy to get lost in the gloom and pessimism. Taking that first small, and likely imperfect, step feels good and it all matters. If we think we need to be perfect, we will never begin.

What would you like to say to older readers?

It is so inspiring when you listen to us. Think longer term. We need you to care about the legacy you leave behind for the generations to come.