- Issue: Winter 2020
I was on track to go to law school when a graduate research trip to Belize changed my life. I was part of a multidisciplinary team of young academics when I met several WWF staff members and was astounded to learn that conservation was an actual career. Back in Washington, DC, I headed to WWF to ask for an internship.
What fired my imagination in Belize still drives me today. For the last 20 years, I’ve been working to ensure biologists, civil society organizations, and communities around the world have the resources they need to achieve their long-term conservation goals.
The truth is, conservation has become even more complex than it was a couple of decades ago. We are depleting our natural resources faster than we can restore them. But many developing nations appreciate how protected areas help conserve biodiversity by storing and sequestering greenhouse gases and providing income, fuel, water, and food to more than a billion people worldwide.
Funding the protection of these areas in developing countries is a massive challenge, with an estimated $2.5 billion needed annually to effectively manage their existing protected areas and only about $800 million on hand.
I believe WWF’s Earth for Life initiative represents our best chance to close that funding gap and protect what’s left of these intact natural systems in ways that benefit and support the rights of communities and Indigenous peoples. The program structures deals, usually in partnership with national and/or local governments, to finance long-term conservation outcomes. Drawing on lessons from the finance sector, future costs are modeled, commitments are made, and once a deal is struck financial pledges become legally binding. And theoretically, Earth for Life guarantees such protections forever.
This approach helps minimize the risk of large conservation projects being derailed by shifting agendas. It also empowers the community of donors. Smaller investors know their money will be effectively used, with fewer surprises down the line. And their donations give larger investors the confidence to make bigger contributions. All parties know that the funds they pledge will help protect nature beyond the lifetime of an individual and that the money will be managed transparently according to pre-negotiated rules.
WWF is the first organization to create a program dedicated to setting up, testing, and replicating this financing model to achieve globally significant conservation goals. And I spend most of my days actively building partnerships to do this at increasingly large scales.
In practice, closing these deals is complicated and must be driven by a country’s vision. Bhutan is a perfect example. They enshrined conservation goals in their constitution, balancing development objectives with sustainability. Working with WWF, they raised funds to support their conservation goals for a period of 15 years, when they anticipate being able to fund these efforts themselves. Though Bhutan is a tiny country, Bhutan for Life has paved the way for Earth for Life, challenging other countries to adopt the same approach.
This approach also worked in the Amazon, with the Amazon Region Protected Areas for Life program, a $215 million deal to secure over 148 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon against threats like unsustainable logging and climate change. It worked in Peru. And we’re going to be working with Namibia soon.
Of course, COVID-19 has pushed conservation and climate change lower on countries’ political agendas. So we are reassessing our assumptions about future tourism revenues for conservation and introducing other kinds of economic activities near protected areas. We don’t have all the answers yet, but experts, governments, communities, and scientists are collaborating to figure out answers.
My hope is that as we continue to grow the community of experts working across organizations, and across vast, transboundary landscapes, we can make an evermore convincing case that conservation and economic development can—and must—be reconciled.