When people ask me the secret to designing conservation efforts that last, I am always quick to answer: The secret is listening. It is the most important thing we do.
Too often, the environmental movement is about yelling into a megaphone at people and institutions. What we don’t do enough is pause to listen—to communities, to what nature is telling us, to partners, and to institutions far different from ours.
But we need to take that pause, because ultimately our best work builds on the genius of places and communities. Our best initiatives are built with partners. None of this diminishes the passion of our convictions or the clarity of our mission—quite the opposite. It means there’s a far greater likelihood that our work will stand the test of time.
This edition of World Wildlife brings to life several examples of WWF taking the time to listen, to great effect.
In Colombia, a peace agreement signed late last year between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ended more than a half- century of civil war. This watershed event also opened the door to developing a plan for the restoration of Colombia’s magnificent natural resources. Of particular concern is the country’s 34 million-acre network of protected areas, nearly two-thirds of which was in conflict zones. Through our Earth for Life initiative, we are working with President Santos, local stakeholders, and other key audiences to finance and sustain these critical areas in perpetuity.
Much has been written about our own watershed event here in the United States: last November’s presidential election and the many disruptions that followed. It seemed almost unfathomable that our government would signal its intention to leave the Paris Agreement, the carefully crafted international climate treaty to which every country, save two, committed. But it happened, and it is a stark reflection of the extraordinary upheaval taking place in our country.
But WWF is making sure the world knows that America remains focused on climate change—that we are more than the actions of any single individual, even when that individual occupies the White House. We listened closely to our partners and supporters, who voiced their ongoing commitment to the Paris Agreement. And we responded by working with Mayor Bloomberg, Ceres, Climate Nexus, and others to give them a platform to make their voices heard: We Are Still In, a coalition of more than 2,300 governors, mayors, businesses, and universities—representing 130 million Americans and $2.3 trillion in annual revenues—declaring its continued support of climate action to deliver on the Paris Agreement.
In Namibia, the first African country to incorporate conservation into its constitution, WWF works with communities and other stakeholders to help local citizens manage, and benefit from, the country’s wildlife by creating communal conservancies. Our work here began nearly 20 years ago, and today 82 conservancies cover 20% of the country. These conservancies provide protected space for wildlife, and also generate some $7 million annually in cash income and in-kind benefits for local people.
The money goes directly back to communities to support antipoaching operations, wildlife management, and education and health initiatives. Since the beginning, the rock-solid foundation of our success in Namibia has been listening more than we talk.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that our work is most durable when it includes partnerships that are built on trust and mutual understanding. We know that forging these types of partnerships depends on caring less about who gets the credit, and more about what communities need in order to thrive—and translating that into results.
The bottom line is that for our work to be effective, it must be relevant. It must make a difference to people, where they live. It must reflect their knowledge of a place and the wisdom of solutions they’ve invented, so that the true value of conservation is clear. And that will only happen when we listen to the voices that matter most.