With this article, we want to share our story. A story of struggles, mishaps, not so funny failures, and a lot of learning. A story where our common values unite us and propel us to build a real community that stands for sustainable forests. A story that shares our mission of building the support system that is needed to help regenerative projects scale up.

We all wanted to change the world, but usually, stop doing this the other morning

In moments of deep friendship, we sometimes develop ideas of changing the world for the better. And this is the story of OpenForests and how it all started. In a tiny kitchen, late at night, we – Stefan, Patrick, and Alexander – were discussing our concerns over the state of the world’s affairs: injustice, politics, ethics, and exploitation of nature.

(from left) Stefan, Patrick sitting together and discussing. Alexander is not on the picture as he took the photo.

The discussion amplified our perception to a stage, where we clearly visualized the unique and fragile ecosystem we are all depending on. We understood that it might fall apart if we as a society were not able to care more for it. At this moment we felt that we have to act urgently! 

Mostly after such discussions the next morning you swallow down your idealism with a good cup of coffee and go back to business as usual. 

This time was different!

We were not happy about the state of the world and how everyone was operating and searched for fields to improve

After this late-night kitchen gathering, the three of us felt the urge and inspiration to realign our personal lives and focus. But before continuing this story, we want to properly introduce ourselves and give a little bit of a context of what we did before and what motivated our decision.

Patrick holds a Ph.D. in Physics, however, could not see direct positive leverage in the scientific world and ended this career. Instead of fundamental research, he got all in and established 2009 in Dresden a festival for educating people about a more sustainable way of life. The festival is called Umundu, has become a success, and is still growing until today. Recently Patrick brought the Umundu concept also to Lisbon (Umundu Portugal). Soon as the festival was up and running, Patrick wanted to direct his enthusiasm and organizational skills to support vulnerable rural communities and grassroots initiatives. Yet he was missing the right idea of how to start.

Meanwhile, Stefan a geoecologist, and Alexander a forester with a social finance background were working for a German forest investment company in Panama and Vietnam. Their task was to conduct forest inventories, evaluate forest projects, and build forest information management systems. They started out, recently graduated from university, the pockets full of optimism, fascinated and very motivated by the idea of reforesting degraded lands such as cattle farms in Panama or converting existing Acacia monocultures in Vietnam into mixed-forest systems. This sounded like a great idea, and even better if investors could make a decent return on investment by doing good for the planet?

The simplicity of this idea, however, collided with the complex reality. Quickly they experienced what can all go wrong with foreign investments in unstable developing countries:

  • “Green” Leakage: Cattle rangers who sell their property for reforestation often use the remuneration to clear-fell another piece of adjacent pristine rainforest. For the clear-felled land they register the land titles, and sell it again to “green investors”. Besides the ecosystem destruction, land speculation is kicking in. More native rainforest (cheap land) is cleared as an effect of well-intended reforestation efforts.
  • Land grabbing: Subsistence farmers and indigenous communities, who often only have traditional land use rights but no official land titles registered, get chased out because another party officially registered the land titles and took over all tenure rights to sell the property again to “green” investors.
  • Miss management and fraud: The pledged and financed tree planting is not taking place or poor management practice is leading to high tree mortality.

During this journey of unexpected realities, Alexander and Stefan came to the conclusion that the sole monetary focus and the pure goal to scale is not sufficient to deliver any good results for sustainable reforestation. 

While Stefan and Alexander were frustrated with how investor financed reforestation can be mismanaged and produce negative social and environmental impacts in the countries of the global south, Patrick was already looking out for possibilities to have the impact he intended.

We came together to start on our own, united by friendship and a common vision for more transparency

The next morning after our late night gathering it turned out that none of us wanted to go back to his previous life. Patrick faded out of his engagement with the Umundu festival and Stefan and Alexander quitted their regular jobs.

We understood and agreed that forests are a key to a future worth living in. And we wanted this future for us, our friends, family, and for generations to come! We wanted to do it better and leverage our positive impact! 

(from left to right) Patrick, Alexander, and Stefan sitting in a little park in Bonn and planning what their newly founded company OpenForests shall become.

In 2011 we founded OpenForests, our ecosystem of like-minded people who believe that another forestry is possible. Our goal is to open the forestry sector for new ideas and bring radical transparency to all stakeholders. We wanted to empower people to deeply connect with nature and to make more biodiverse, more sustainable, more social, more resilient, better forest projects.

Almost 10 years later we wrote down in our Manifesto how we envision this better future.

The growth of our vision is rooted in the unique talent of everyone on the team

The three of us started out like this: As a drone pilot, geo-data manager, and forester. Instead of launching our own reforestation project, we decided to work with existing projects leveraging their impact. By introducing geo-information technology we strengthened forest management and decision making.

In the team, Patrick helped projects to map and analyze changes in the forest cover with open-source drone systems, whereas Stefan designed forest information systems to connect and process all available data. Alexander, with his forestry and finance background, assisted sustainable ventures with impact reporting and finding the right partners and support.

Seemingly well equipped with our previous job experiences, and our new glider drone we took on our first significant consulting work, mapping forests in Suriname, But despite our optimism, we almost screwed this important engagement. On day one, flight one, in front of all clients, our relatively costly drone crashed into a tree and was badly damaged. It took us three weeks to carry out repairs, only to run into repeated problems with take-off in a dense forest. To avoid yet another crash, we managed to haul the drone above the canopy, using a helicopter drone and a rope, thus securing a safe take-off for the drone and our initial consulting business (read the full story of our initial learning process).

Mounting the fixed-wing glider drone with a copter drone in Suriname.

Many challenges followed such as surviving on little money while finding the right clients which shared our vision of more disclosure and rigorous transparency. However, our joy to also solve the difficult things has turned into a fortune of many practical learning experiences.

We assisted organizations in Latin America, Africa, and South-East-Asia to make better internal decisions and helped to build the needed trust with external stakeholders.

In our role as consultants, we enabled a distinct number of projects to become more social, resilient, biodiverse, transparent, and economically sustainable. 

We increased transparency with data-based insights such as high-resolution aerial imagery, tree inventory data, and interactive maps. This helped investors and supporters to see beyond ROI and glossy CSR campaigns. Investors understood better how they could best help regenerate landscapes into flourishing ecosystems that create habitat for animals and plants while generating the necessary income for local communities.

But we realized that we need to scale up to make our impact significant

Loving our work and being thankful for this exciting adventure, we were frustrated to observing beautiful forests – once places for animals, plants, and indigenous communities – being systematically exploited and degraded towards cattle farms or large-scale monoculture plantations. The following screencast gives an impression of the scale and velocity of destruction that is taking place.

Screen cast from the Global Forest Watch platform.The pink color shows deforestation in Manaus rain forest Brazil from 2001 – 2019.

The impact of our work appeared marginal. We understood that we needed and wanted to scale our approach to address systemic destruction and to enable more people to make better forest projects.

The seeds of experience take root, expansion of the team, the birth of explorer.land

It has become obvious that for launching our next “expedition” into a new and unknown territory we had to grow our own ecosystem – the OpenForests team – with outstanding skilled and passionate members. We did this by bringing together a diversity of skills and experiences covering forest domain knowledge, computer and data science, forest policy, economics, natural resources management, sustainable development, and communications. All of us united by the vision of a better future, and more beautiful and healthy forest landscapes.

In 2018 we pulled together our experience, and resources and started with a large software building project. We named it explorer.land. explorer.land has become a map-based platform to offer our most valuable consulting services at scale and accessible for any forest and conservation project.

Search page of explorer.land.

This is what we do today

Started out as a specialized forest information consulting company, today with the explorer.land OpenForests has become a platform with the goal to democratize access to forest project mapping, monitoring, reporting, and storytelling tools. With these user-friendly tools, we address millions of small and medium forest and conservation projects. For them, we built a place to make their work and inspiring impact visible to the right partners such as investors, sustainable forest product purchasers, and volunteers.

Today about 200 projects have already joined explorer.land.

This is what we want to become

We are not only building the tools, but we are laying the foundation for a different kind of culture: Instead of encouraging competition for visibility and investments among projects, we are holding space for collaboration, co-creation, peer learning, and strong community. We want to build trust and empathy, encourage diversity, empower the bottoms-up approach. We believe sharing, not sparing will help our society to transition towards more harmony and caring for the world.

We build explorer.land as the platform for all small to medium land stewards who believe that better land management is possible.

The ultimate goal is to give back voices to the people and give faces to their projects.

Emilia Schmidt-Pramova

We connect people and forests and empower everyone to make more regenerative forest projects. How we doing this? You can read in our article explorer.land values!