Johanna Wehkamp, 26
Nominated by: Rebecka Jonsson
Johanna Wehkamp was only a child when she first became interested in the world’s forests.
It was the day she realised that, if their habitats weren’t protected, the world would lose many of her favourite animals. She has dedicated her life to fighting deforestation ever since.
Currently she is doing her PhD in Economics of Climate Change at the Technical University of Berlin on the protection of tropical rainforests. She previously studied International Affairs at Sciences Po in Paris which is where she met fellow Friday Bester’s Rebecka Jonsson and Marta So.
While still a student Johanna worked together with her friends on forest protection in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and later in Washington, Kenya and Nigeria for the World Bank and the United Nations on a program called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).
Johanna is softly spoken but fiercely intelligent and passionate on her topic. She believes that the better the questions, the better the answers, so don’t be afraid to ask, ask, ask!
Can you tell us how you became interested in deforestation specifically?
I think my personal access to the topic was through biodiversity loss. When I was a child we used to have a collection of books on most of the known animals in the world and I realized that many of them are in the tropics and will be gone, as soon as the tropics will be gone! I found that terrifying.
Forests also have various important ecosystem functions. Once trees are chopped down the local effects can be very dramatic. It can put drinking water supplies at risk and lead to soil erosion or infertile soils.
Forests stock large amounts of carbon so deforestation is responsible for about 10 to 15 % of global greenhouse gas emissions, so slowing down deforestation is a very effective way to address climate change.
At the same time as all this, many tropical countries are still struggling to lift large parts of their population out of poverty and there are only very few examples where societies have managed to become richer, without destroying major parts of their natural resources—including forests. We have no right to prescribe forest protection to tropical countries and we have to respect their economic aspirations. So I find that a very interesting and important challenge.
Do you have hope for the way humanity is going to deal with climate change long term? Do you think we’re going in the right direction, globally?
Right direction? Certainly not yet. We are still totally underperforming compared to what we might need to do to live truly sustainable lives or at least avoid making our planet a much less livable place. But I wouldn’t still be working on this topic if I was not optimistic that there are solutions. I think that one opportunity is to identify policies that allow reconciling economic needs with climate change mitigation. A huge part of the world’s population wants to become as rich as the other part. If we come up with solutions that ignore that then we cannot get very far.
Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
I don’t know yet. I could very well imagine going back to a tropical country for a while and working more on the ground. I could also imagine working for an environmental NGO here in Germany or for some kind of international organization. There are so many things that need to get done!
And who better to do them! Have you ever felt like fraud or felt like you didn’t belong in the area that you specialize in? I only ask because we’ve had a lot of women featured on Friday Best who have had to fight against those kinds of feelings
I don’t think so. Somehow I don’t question myself too much when I’m working on this topic, it just feel like it’s something that I need to do. Of course, I question myself sometimes about the actual work I am doing and whether the way I decide to address a problem is really the best but never about the topic itself. It’s too important.
Somebody once said to me that research is basically about feeling stupid all the time. The more you feel stupid, the better are the questions you ask, and the more you can find out.
What would you say then you are most grateful for in your life?
I most enjoy the moments when I work together with friends, with people that I find inspiring and smart, on a common project. I think that that can mobilise a lot of energy. These are the best moments.
One of these is a project called 24gooddeeds that I have set up together with my brother and one of my best friends four years ago. It is an advent calendar that collects donations. It’s called 24gooddeeds. There is a small donation for a different project behind every door. So there is, for instance, soup for a homeless person in Germany behind one door, or a tree planted somewhere behind another door. My brother had the idea. We have collected half a million euros through the project.
Then of course I am grateful for my family, my boyfriend and my friends like Marta and Rebecka. I think I was very lucky in general. I had the best childhood one can imagine. I have had so much luck all my life. I had a lot of great teachers and I always felt like at the right moment I encountered somebody that helped me to follow through with what I felt was important. I’m so grateful for many, many things.
Speaking of people helping you, have you had any mentors or role models?
Many. First I think my brothers!
But I also think a very important role model for me was a friend of my parents who worked at the local station for biodiversity conservation in my home town. He encouraged me very much to work on environmental questions. Then of course, also my parents, because they haven’t stopped fighting for cultural diversity in our hometown (which has made some very bad decisions in the past in this regard).
There are also a couple of very impressive environmentalist women that I find very inspiring. Like Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough who is a Zimbabwean woman working on environmental issues and development at the World Bank. She lent me a bike once!
Then there is Christiana Figueres, the executive Secretary of the UN framework Convention on Climate Change, or Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist.
Maybe that’s the major thing…people shouldn’t be discouraged by not being good at certain things. What can possibly go wrong?
There are lots of inspiring women in your field! What has been the greatest challenge in your adult life so far?
There was one moment, when I worked for the UN-REDD Programme in Nigeria as a consultant. I felt very honoured to be entrusted with such a mission. I had to work with people from the national Ministry of Environment, the forestry department and civil society members to develop a strategy for REDD+. So there were about one hundred people, half of them from the government and the other half from the community and I had to help coordinate that workshop. That day I got malaria. It was a little bit tough because I didn’t want to give up on the mission. I didn’t know I had malaria at first but I was very, very, very sick. It all went well in the end but that day wasn’t very easy.
There are also many moments in my current research work that I find quite challenging. Somebody once said to me that research is basically about feeling stupid all the time. The more you feel stupid, the better are the questions you ask, and the more you can find out.
I love that! What have you learnt along the way with regards to these challenges?
Sometimes it just takes a little bit more time to work things through. It will eventually all be fine but one just sometimes has to wait a little bit longer. So it is important not to panic too much in the moment and think ‘Okay, it’s beyond me now so I just have to accept it the way it is.’
One question we always ask everyone at the end of the interview is what do you think we should be talking more about?
Climate change and deforestation. A lot of people are probably aware of these problems, but they just put it somewhere into the corner of things that they should maybe care about. There’s so much more we can do and so much more we can demand of our policy makers that they should do. It’s something we need to act on very soon because it won’t become easier with time. The idea that humanity can come together and find ways to live sustainably on this planet is really inspiring to me. That’s what we should be talking more about.
Any advice for our young women readers?
I think they should always follow what they are most interested in and feel passionate about. Okay, that’s probably not very original. But yes, they should pursue these things even though in the first place they might seem odd or they might not seem to fit in with what they’ve done before or what they’re good at. Maybe that’s the major thing. I think people shouldn’t be discouraged by not being good at certain things. What can possibly go wrong?
One last question. What do you think the main ingredients to happiness are?
Doing something you really care about with people you really like. That’s all you need in the end I think.
I agree! Thank-you!
Things I Love
All the great people I have had the luck to be surrounded by in my life so far!
My favourite thing!
Especially playing soccer with the little kids from around the corner