Carter Roberts talks with Carlos Manuel Rodriguez about sustainable financing for conservation

Colorful bird with long tail in flight
Robert and Rodriguez sitting and talking

WWF president and CEO Carter Roberts talks with Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, CEO and chairperson of the Global Environment Facility, about sustainable financing for conservation and the importance of keeping nature in your heart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CARTER ROBERTS Carlos Manuel, it’s great to see you. Thanks for doing this. You and I have known each other a long time.

CARLOS MANUEL RODRIGUEZ It’s my pleasure, Carter. Yes, I think we met in the mid-1990s.

CR We both did similar work in Mesoamerica, but for different organizations. Then we both went on to different roles—you, among other things, to being Costa Rica’s Minister of Environment and Energy. And now you’re the head of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the largest funder of nature conservation in the world.

CMR The largest funder continues to be a drop in the ocean compared to the task in front of us. By the way, there are many others as large and impactful as the GEF. The GEF is a multilateral mechanism, based on the product of a political agreement. This makes it challenging to mobilize resources that are limited based on the mandate to generate global environmental benefits. The challenge has to do with the fact that at least 45 of the countries we provide funding to are in a critical situation in terms of capacity, particularly financial capacity. This makes it complicated to provide funding in a way that has an impact and is sustainable. I think that’s the context in which we need to see the GEF—an organization managed by countries to provide countries with the resources needed to comply with their international commitments.

CR The GEF was created at the Rio Summit, right?

CMR It was actually created a year before the Rio Summit, as a pilot program at the World Bank. But the GEF was permanently established as an independent organization at the Rio Summit in 1992. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) also came out of Rio, and the GEF was designated as the financial mechanism for the CBD—essentially, giving us a mandate to protect biodiversity. We also provide countries with the resources they need to comply with international commitments for climate change, pollution, the high seas, and other areas.

CR Does it make a difference for you, in this job, that you grew up in Costa Rica?

CMR I think so. Costa Rica has a lot of experience successfully restoring and protecting nature and using it as a driver for the stability and well-being of communities. Costa Rica did a lot of this work with support from the GEF. I saw this from several perspectives, including as a minister and a conservationist who once led Costa Rica’s national park system. My experiences in Costa Rica have allowed me to understand and lead the GEF.

CR You and I talk often about how it’s not just about the money when it comes to successful conservation. It’s making sure the money is well spent and there are institutions on the ground that can track it over time. You use the term “policy coherence” a lot.

CMR Right. I think one thing we’ve learned is, if you don’t have governments that maintain consistent policies over time and through different administrations, the markets aren’t going to work, the communities are going to be vulnerable, and natural resources will be compromised.

I think what WWF-US is doing with Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) initiatives in the Amazon, Bhutan, and elsewhere is ushering in a new era for addressing this policy coherence issue by helping countries understand that there are multiple ways to sustainably finance protected areas. At the end of the day, a protected area is really just a paper park unless there is also money attached to it—then you can invest in management and truly protect the area. It’s an exciting trend, and the GEF is glad to be a part of it.

“At the end of the day, a protected area is really just a paper park unless there is also money attached to it.”


CR I completely agree about policy coherence and the fundamental importance of government policies that are central to all that we do. And I’m immensely gratified by the partnerships that led to PFP conservation wins like Herencia Colombia, Bhutan for Life, and ARPA for Life in Brazil. We’re looking at over 150 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon conserved—roughly 15% of the Amazon and an area approximately one and a half times the size of California. And now the PFP model has expanded through the Enduring Earth partnership that is working to replicate its success across the world.

CMR We have proven that we can work through multiple governments, through multiple changes, and sustain a very strong baseline of forest cover. We need to bring this to the other large forest biomes where there’s still much to be done.

CR We’ve been talking about some really big things. Let’s talk about some smaller things now. You and I share a common love for little creatures that sing. [laughter] Think about the places that have fed your soul over time, and the creatures that you first think of when you think of nature, and name a place and a bird that come to mind.

CMR The place would be the Orosi Valley, which is in the Central Highlands of Costa Rica, where my father had a coffee farm that he inherited from his grandfather, and where we spent a lot of time when I was young. From December to the end of my school holidays in March, I would see a beautiful red bird there. It was the summer tanager that lives part of the year in Canada and the US, and then goes to Costa Rica for the winter. At the time I didn’t know that birds migrated to different places, depending on the season—I learned that many years later when I read a book in school that explained bird migration. That was a major discovery to me, that these little birds don’t spend their whole life in one place!

CR Not accidental that my home has a door knocker in the shape of a resplendent quetzal, a bird I first saw in ...

CMR [laughing] Costa Rica!

CR Costa Rica! Carlos Manuel, I’ve watched you in so many of these important global meetings and conferences, and you are the guy that everyone wants to see. You’re one of the most important individuals shaping not only the language in these global agreements, but also the solutions. How do you navigate the worlds of power and policy, and maintain your sanity and your connection to the natural world?

CMR First, thanks for your words. I think you overestimate the work that I do.

CR Maybe, but I don’t think so.

CMR At the end of the day, I’m a politician who loves nature. I know I’m not the only one. But because in my heart of hearts I consider myself a conservationist, I do my best to focus on what politicians must do to bring solutions to the critical task of protecting nature.

CR Well, we’re lucky to have you in this role. Thanks for taking the time today. May approaches, and with it the spring migration. We ought to go see some summer tanagers together. [laughing]

CMR Anytime.

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues