Many Australians are probably unaware that their home country is on the WWF’s global list of current deforestation fronts.

Including countries such as Brazil, Peru, Cambodia and Indonesia, the index identifies areas where deforestation is significantly increasing – with Australia the only developed nation on the list.

Determined to help accelerate the transition toward a green economy in Australia both for the environment and those who rely on it for a living, former UN Sustainability and Communications consultant, Rebecca Lake, decided a Full-Time MBA from AGSM @ UNSW Business School was the first step toward making an impact.

“Australia has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Yet, in places like Tasmania, where forestry and mining contribute to regional employment, the short-term need for jobs often trumps the protection of ancient and irreplaceable ecosystems,” Rebecca says.

Coming from a rural town in Victoria that’s dependent on natural resource intensive industries, Rebecca knew first-hand the devastating impact change without support can have on communities.

“That’s why I’m completing my AGSM MBA, to help design solutions and opportunities for rural communities like my own. It’s the only way forward,” she says.

“My childhood was shaped around the tension between jobs and economic development versus conservation. It’s why I really sympathise with the plight of Tasmania’s rural communities, who aren’t given many other options but to continue clearing some of the oldest and ecologically important temperate rainforest in the world.”

After living in Jakarta, Indonesia, for five years, and working for over seven years with the United Nations, Rebecca had the rare opportunity to dive deep into the complex and contentious issues of environmental sustainability and deforestation.

Today, she wants to use her insights and developing skills to help slow the destruction of the country’s largest temperate rainforest, the Tarkine in Tasmania.

Seeing the forest for the trees

Originally moving to Jakarta as a journalist, Rebecca wrote extensively about environmental issues, while building connections at the UN. Then the opportunity for a career shift presented itself.

“When the opportunity came up to work at the UN, it wasn’t what I had originally planned for my career, but because I knew the community living in Jakarta, and I could speak their language, it seemed like a good career move. And it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Rebecca says she became obsessed with the issues she was working on. Her first project centred around the far-reaching impact of palm oil production. She worked with Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture before working on other global programs focusing on worldwide drivers of deforestation like cocoa in Africa and beef in Latin America.

“I soon realised how contentious and political it is. But it wasn’t until I was able to get out into the field in places like Sumatra, and Borneo and speak to the farmers directly, that I really understood the Indonesian perspective of this issue,” she says.

“I saw how important it was to ensure that the millions of people who depend on this industry, like small scale farmers trying to put food on the table for their families, maintain their livelihood. And I realised pretty quickly that just boycotting palm oil or getting on your high horse as a ‘Westerner’ is quite easy to do. But this is such a complex issue and requires a complex solution to fix it.”

As her role evolved, Rebecca had to bring together stakeholders from different industries to collaborate on solutions, which was a new approach at the time, nearly a decade ago.

“You could sit in a room with an activist from Greenpeace and an executive from a multinational food company for example. They’d never had the opportunity to actually sit together and listen to each other before. That was the idea of these programs, to bring people together to agree on a more sustainable path forward,” Rebecca says.

“Of course, taking deforestation out of commodity supply chains is a lot easier said than done. But the first step is to get people with opposing goals or views to find a way to have common ground.”

Rebecca Lake speaking with local oil palm farmers in Central Sumatra, Indonesia (Photo supplied by UNDP).

Returning home to make an impact on Australia’s green economy

After seeing the impact of other nations’ commitments to strong environmental sustainability goals and action points, Rebecca was disappointed about what was happening back home in Australia. She felt like a hypocrite helping other countries improve the planet while her home country fell further behind.

“I’m working in these developing countries, helping them change their policy and telling them what to do. But I realised there was still a lot of work to do in my own country,” she says. “That was a big part of the reason I wanted to come back to Australia and contribute to redesigning the way we do business here.”

Rebecca’s time at the UN had given her invaluable insight and experience. But she also wanted to develop skills in global business strategy, finance principles and innovative problem solving so she could have an impactful seat at the table.

So, she made the decision to take a career break, move back to Australia and enrol in the Full-Time MBA program at AGSM. While studying the new Responsible Management curriculum, Rebecca saw enormous potential in sharing a classroom with the next crop of global leaders, hailing from varying industries.

“These people are going to be the future leaders in boardrooms, or in government departments who are going to be making the decisions around how public and private funds are used to drive a more sustainable economy. I think it's so important for these future decision makers to be exposed to all the realities of the challenges we're facing from a responsible management perspective,” she says.

“The responsible management curriculum invites discussion that questions ‘is this best way forward, or is there a better way?’ We don't have to accept how things are just because that's how we've done business for 100 years.”

AGSM MBA 2022 students (from left) Enzo Canessa, Rebecca Lake, Marco Brozzetti, Jose Mecha Mateos and Roy Ramsical training in Centennial Park, Sydney.

Heading to Tasmania to save the Tarkine

Starting her final semester in 2022, Rebecca is taking on another challenge with her MBA cohort – running the 26km Takayna Trail to help save the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania from unsustainable logging, mining and off-road vehicle damage.

“I sent a message to our class WhatsApp group about the event, not thinking anyone would take it seriously. The next day, pretty much half of the class had signed up to come to Tasmania with me and I was really humbled by it,” Rebecca says.

With 12 people running in the race, the rest of the cohort are volunteering and supporting the team in other ways.

Rebecca is excited to be taking this diverse group to the frontline of Australia’s deforestation crisis. Not only are AGSM Students taking to the trail with Rebecca, but AGSM is also supporting the team with accommodation and car hire on the ground through AGSM Student Association (ASA) funding.

As a board member of the Bob Brown Foundation, where funds for the run are being donated, Rebecca is very excited for her classmates and fellow foundation members to engage with each other when the team head to Tassie in February, 2022.

“I look forward to seeing Bob Brown speaking with our diverse team of runners who range from investment bankers and scientists to engineers and management consultants. That's the kind of conversation that needs to happen to genuinely change things,” she says.

“To get to the change we need, you’ve got to talk about more than just the importance of protecting wildlife and trees. You've got to talk about what it means to people and protecting those who are going to be caught up in this transition.”

“If you can't convince the local Tarkine community that we will prioritise their livelihoods and their economy for the future, then you're never going to win people over.”

Whether it’s running a marathon with her classmates or building her skillset to help drive change in a boardroom, Rebecca is committed to making a difference to Australia’s approach to a sustainable future.

“I’m really looking forward to working with companies that are pushing the sustainability agenda in Australia. But I’m also not afraid of working alongside the fossil fuel sector or other big industries and multinational companies that are ready and eager to truly invest in the changes that are required,” she says.

“I think that's important. I don't want to work on the sidelines anymore. I want to work amongst it.”

A forest campaigner calls for the protection of Tasmania's vast Tarkine wilderness, home to one of the last undisturbed tracts of Gondwanan rainforest in the world, and one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal archaeology in the hemisphere. (Photo supplied by the Bob Brown Foundation).

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You can view the team’s fundraising page here: