President's Letter: Looking at the whole

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF-US

I’m often asked if I have a guiding philosophy when it comes to conservation. While our work, by necessity, is an evolving discipline, there is a mindset that serves as a constant for me.

It came from my dear friend, the late Tom Lovejoy. Tom was the first scientist WWF hired. He became a legend in the conservation community and spent decades working in and studying some of the most remote areas in the Amazon. The first time I visited the Amazon with Tom, he shared some simple but ultimately profound advice—that in order to understand and protect a place, “Do whatever you can to look at the whole.”

By which he meant: Look at the birds, look at the trees, look at the bodies of water, look at the people and how they live on the land. Look at everything that makes a place tick. Don’t just arrive with a chosen solution in hand and see everything through that lens. Because only by understanding the entirety of a place can you understand what it needs to thrive.

Some call this system-level thinking. I think it’s far clearer to think of it as seeing the whole, understanding the whole, and then determining the best ways to keep the whole intact.

Tom believed—and I do as well, thanks to his influence—that it is important to take the time to fully consider the entirety of the place, whether a landscape or a seascape or a watershed, to understand the genius of an ecosystem. In the Amazon, that means understanding the hydrological cycle that provides rainwater to a landscape that contains one in 10 known species on Earth. It means understanding the needs of hundreds of Indigenous groups as well as the economy, politics, infrastructure, and livelihoods that define the world’s largest rain forest.

“It is important to take the time to fully consider the entirety of the place. . . . to understand the genius of an ecosystem.”

Carter Roberts

In the pages of this issue, you’ll find an in-depth look at Peru’s Madre de Dios. It’s a glorious place—considered the country’s biodiversity capital, encompassing 12% of the Peruvian Amazon. Madre de Dios is also home to nearly 190,000 people, including 37 Indigenous communities. Around 45% of its area is designated as Natural Protected Areas (ANPs), and Madre de Dios maintains at least 92% of its original forest cover. But despite having five ANPs and one of the largest Forest Stewardship Council®-certified managed forest areas in Peru, this region is still threatened—as are many in the area—by illegal mining and logging, expanding agriculture, extreme weather events, and more.

Our work in Madre de Dios exemplifies the need to tackle conservation with a holistic view.

The most lasting forms of conservation thoughtfully consider the many tools of our trade and deploy them in a coordinated fashion so that they endure. And its long-term success will depend on leaders who can connect the dots between disciplines to find the most effective solutions for nature and for people.

We owe it to our friend Tom Lovejoy to listen to his words. And we owe it to extraordinary places like Madre de Dios to consider the genius of a whole system, and with that understanding, move heaven and Earth to keep it intact.

Carter Roberts

President & CEO

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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.

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