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WWF works to sustain the natural world for the benefit of people and wildlife, collaborating with partners from local to global levels in nearly 100 countries.
Seventy-four-year-old Ap Trongchu squints into the morning glare as his yaks graze on the mountain slope. The grizzled herder’s gho, the traditional knee-length robe worn by Bhutanese men, peeks out from under the extra layers of fleece he’s added to protect against the biting wind. Here in Bhutan’s Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park, climate change has forced pastoralists like Trongchu to adapt by guiding their herds to ever-higher altitudes. And yet, despite the many challenges, Trongchu is optimistic about the future.
“I feel blessed,” he says. “We’ve replaced the wooden shingles on herders’ huts with more durable roofing materials and installed pipes for easier access to drinking water. These improvements make our lives more comfortable when we have to migrate our herds to grazing ranges that are often more than 12,000 feet above sea level.”
It was a program called Bhutan for Life, which launched in 2018, that made those improvements possible. Bhutan for Life is an innovative funding initiative that aims to permanently protect the nation’s 5 million-acre network of protected areas and biological corridors; it is also the first such project in all of Asia. The approach used in Bhutan—as well as Brazil and Peru—has proven to be such a success that WWF has now partnered with several other groups to help governments replicate it in other areas around the world.
The groundbreaking new partnership, called Enduring Earth, aims to secure permanent protected status for over 2 million square miles of land, freshwater, and ocean habitats—a portion of the Earth’s surface roughly equivalent to three times the size of Mexico—and to do so in a way that secures the clear consent of the Indigenous peoples who live on and rightfully manage many of those spaces.
In the process, the hope is to conserve vital ecosystems and iconic species, reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and deliver lasting benefits to Indigenous peoples and local communities in some of the most ecologically important places in the world. And the partnership comes at a critical time.
Creating and managing protected and conserved areas—from national parks to Indigenous reserves and managed forests—is an incredibly effective way to reverse the loss of biodiversity and stabilize the climate. Not only do protected areas provide real, material benefits for the people who live in and around them—and upon whose stewardship they depend—but these places are often havens for rare species and store large quantities of carbon safely out of the atmosphere. Expanding protections that help end deforestation and adopting more sustainable land use practices can achieve about a quarter of the emissions reductions needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
And yet, only about 17% of land and 7% of oceans are currently reported as protected and conserved. That could soon change. This year, world leaders will consider a new global agreement to secure protected status for at least 30% of Earth’s lands, freshwater, and seas by 2030. The adoption of this “30x30” goal would help deliver on many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, poverty alleviation, food security, and water quality. The 30x30 goal will be pursued through an equitable and inclusive process that respects the rights of the people who control much of that land.
Doubling Earth’s protected and conserved areas would be no small feat, and it’s worth noting that existing protected areas are already woefully underfunded. If world leaders are going to commit to expanding protections for nature, those protections have to amount to something more than words on paper. “We can’t just hope for the best,” explains Carter Roberts, CEO and president of WWF. “We have to plan for durability.”
“The first step,” Roberts says, “is to thoughtfully look at critical conservation landscapes as a whole and determine what these parts of the world need to remain healthy and intact. Then ask, what do they need in terms of protected areas and policy support? What do they need in terms of durable, local institutions that can monitor and deliver on performance-based funding? We need to engage Indigenous people and local communities and take time to listen. And understand how they want to see their knowledge and their relationships to nature reflected in the plans.”
“Finally,” he continues, “we need to take the long view, and to keep foremost in our minds the North Star that this mechanism moves us stepwise towards. And that is the vision of a future in which governments and communities within those areas are able to permanently manage them on their own.”
By working with WWF and other conservation groups to answer these questions, a government can create a road map to that self-sufficiency. Through the Bhutan for Life initiative, the Royal Government of Bhutan was able to develop just such a road map—complete with timetables, benchmarks for progress, and itemized costs—and present it to outside donors who ranged from individuals to foundations to other governments and multilateral institutions.
The investors pooled their resources to establish a performance-based “bridge fund” that the Bhutanese government has been gradually drawing from as they ramp up their own financing, with the goal of eventually assuming full financial responsibility for the management of their own lands and resources. To reduce risk for investors and ensure accountability, the funds only began to flow after the government made firm commitments, and they will keep flowing only so long as the government continues to meet the agreed-upon benchmarks.
At its core, this innovative funding mechanism—known as Project Finance for Permanence (PFP)—is about matching meaningful commitments by governments and other partners with the financing needed to fulfill those commitments. When you combine those two ingredients, as Bhutan has done so successfully, you have a recipe for lasting, large-scale conservation.
Wedged between China and India, Bhutan occupies a territory smaller than Switzerland and has a population of less than 1 million. And yet, despite its diminutive size, Bhutan holds enormous importance for the future of conservation. The nation lies at the eastern edge of the Himalayas, one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. In addition, the rivers that flow through Bhutan join the Brahmaputra and Ganges river basins, which provide water to millions of people in India and Bangladesh. And the nation’s forests sequester large amounts of carbon that would end up in the atmosphere if those forests were cut down.
In 2008, the Royal Government of Bhutan took the bold step of enshrining protections for nature in its national constitution, which mandates that Bhutan conserve 60% of the country’s land as forest for all time. In the years that followed, the government fulfilled that promise: Today, roughly 72% of the nation remains under forest cover and over 51% is protected, making Bhutan the Asian country with the highest percentage of land designated as protected. What’s more, each year those forests absorb almost three times more CO2 than Bhutan emits, making it one of the few countries in the world that have managed to be carbon negative.
“Bhutan’s commitment to sustainable development is grounded in our firm belief that the prosperity of a nation and its people must be measured not just in terms of economic progress, but also in ecological diversity, community vitality, health, quality education, culture, and good governance,” says Her Majesty Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck, Kingdom of Bhutan, an Ambassador of the WWF-US Board of Directors. “These are inextricably linked, and a harmonious balance must be ensured for true prosperity to be achieved.”
Extensive community and stakeholder conversations led the Bhutan for Life program to install biogas and other alternative energy technologies in rural areas to help people reduce their dependency on forest resources, decrease carbon emissions, alleviate poverty, and improve their respiratory health. The project also provided training in conservation and waste management activities to 79% of the population living in its protected areas.
Many of these efforts have focused on training young people and expanding opportunities for women and girls—in keeping with the idea that well-conceived conservation strategies must incorporate and meet people’s needs to be truly successful.
And in just four years, Bhutan for Life has implemented SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool) technology in all of Bhutan’s protected areas and wildlife corridors. SMART software uses data provided by government ranger patrols to analyze trends in local poaching and measure the effectiveness and accountability of antipoaching efforts. This cutting-edge technology enables park offices to identify at-risk areas and allocate limited resources where they are most needed, and it provides a road map that can be used to plan, adapt, and build capacity over time.
Finally, through Bhutan for Life, the country has sequestered 5 million tons of carbon dioxide. Imagine all of the CO2 emissions released into the atmosphere to power over 500,000 homes for a year and you have a rough estimate of how much CO2 pollution this tiny nation has managed to prevent, simply by keeping its forests intact. Now imagine what might be achieved—for nature, the climate, and communities—if other, larger nations took similar steps to safeguard their natural assets.
Since the first PFP initiative was developed by First Nations, The Nature Conservancy, and other partners in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest 16 years ago, the model has been successfully replicated in Bhutan, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru, and is now being pursued in places like Belize, Colombia, and Namibia. These deals drew critical support from many generous investors (see Thank You section below), including a significant investment from the Bezos Earth Fund toward PFPs in Belize, Colombia, Namibia, and Peru.
And yet, despite the clear potential of the model, the current pace of its rollout around the world doesn’t match the speed and scale needed. In just five decades, wildlife populations monitored by WWF’s Living Planet Report have declined by an average of 68%. One million animal and plant species are now barreling toward extinction. And according to the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, our window of opportunity to cut emissions and limit planetary warming to 1.5°C is rapidly closing.
So instead of developing PFPs one region or one country at a time, we must develop an entire portfolio of initiatives that encompass whole systems of protected areas and, in some cases, span multiple countries.
Of course, that level of ambition requires a degree of expertise, experience, relationships, and resources that no single individual, organization, or government can muster on its own. That’s why the Enduring Earth collaborative is poised to be such a game-changer.
Enduring Earth was born out of a partnership between The Nature Conservancy; The Pew Charitable Trusts; WWF; and ZOMALAB, the family office of Ben and Lucy Ana Walton. Together, these partners aim to accelerate the expansion of the PFP approach around the world, with a goal of delivering 20 PFP conservation deals by 2030.
Enduring Earth’s founders have already committed a combined total of $250 million to the effort and are in talks with a wide range of individuals and institutions to raise another $550 million that will help finance multiple PFP deals over the course of the partnership’s first five years—a vital infusion of resources that will help bridge the gap as PFP countries develop and deliver the domestic resources necessary to power their programs long term.
By joining forces, these groups hope to leverage their complementary skill sets, diverse funding sources, and broad geographic reach. In doing so, they can accelerate the development of these large-scale, long-lasting conservation programs, while also upholding the rights of people and creating opportunities for sustainable economic growth.
Working on multiple PFPs at once can also make that process more effective. In the past, the pursuit of one PFP initiative at a time meant that each effort involved a different team. It was challenging to apply lessons learned on the fly. But with multiple deals in the pipeline at the same time, and a hub of talent from multiple partners overseeing it all, the Enduring Earth collaborative believes it can spur the innovation needed to give PFP work a massive boost.
Of course, finances are not the full story. Success also depends upon building appreciation, knowledge, and support for protected area systems within each country. That means bringing all the key players in a country together—to honor the good work they’re already doing, find ways to incorporate that work into the PFP model, and ensure that people whose lives and livelihoods are inextricably tied to natural resources have a voice and a stake in conserving them.
Historically, local communities—especially Indigenous peoples—have been excluded from most decisions about their territories and denied the right to control the resources and benefits that flow from those lands. It’s understandable that many of these same communities are now concerned that the implementation of a global strategy to protect large swaths of ecologically important natural places could repeat the wrongs of earlier forms of conservation and ignore their needs, rights, and aspirations, thereby deepening long-standing social and economic inequities.
That’s why the need for trusting relationships in which communities take the lead is a cornerstone of the Enduring Earth approach.
The future of conservation will require strong partnerships with Indigenous peoples, for the simple reason that they tend to live in and look after the remaining areas of the world that contain intact forests and other critical ecosystems. In many cases these communities have stewarded and protected their lands for generations, accumulating knowledge and experience that will ensure the proper management of protected areas. At the same time, many people living on the edges of protected areas struggle just to get by. If the international community wants to achieve its climate and conservation goals, it also has to ensure that local communities can derive economic benefits from the wild places they are being asked to help protect.
As Zdenka Piskulich, managing director of Enduring Earth, describes it, “Effective conservation is not only about the power to protect biodiversity, but also the power to support people’s livelihoods, needs, and rights.”
Therein lies the fundamental philosophy behind Enduring Earth. In order to protect nature, people have to do a better job of protecting and empowering each other. And in order to make those protections durable, we must work together at a scale and speed unlike anything we’ve done before. Communities in nations as far-flung as Bhutan and Costa Rica are already leading the way—and providing a road map for how our shared, global community can chart a future in which, through the protection of nature, more people have the chance to thrive.
WWF is grateful to the myriad supporters dedicated to our shared vision for the planet’s future. Thanks to all of those listed below, and many others, who helped bring the PFP model to life in Brazil, Bhutan, and Peru, we are advancing an innovative approach to conservation that will help secure a brighter, healthier future for wildlife, people, and the planet.