For people, for nature, forever

For nearly 60 years, WWF has worked in some of the most remarkable places in the world. Places where humanity lives immersed in the most magnificent and productive ecosystems on Earth. Where natural resources have been used in traditional and thoughtful ways by the people who call those landscapes home. Too often, that natural wealth has been exploited and plundered by outside forces. Too often, internal conflicts have torn those countries and regions apart. At WWF we stand side by side with the people who call the world’s most incredible natural places home. We work, together, to ensure that nature can continue to provide for us all.

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Decade WWF first began working in each country

  • 1960s
  • 1970s
  • 1980s
  • 1990s
  • 2000-2013

Conservation through community

As I write this, the world is in the midst of a pandemic. Our office, like so many others, is closed. But when we are finally able to open our doors, visitors to our headquarters in Washington, DC, will be able to walk into our conference center and see a life-size photograph of our founder and chair emeritus, Russell E. Train. And behind him, a wall of profiles celebrating just a handful of the more than 2,700 recipients of a conservation leadership scholarship WWF created in his name. Because Russ Train believed strongly that the most important thing that could be done for conservation worldwide was to invest in the training of men and women to manage their own natural resources.

He understood instinctively that the conservation of the world’s most important places would only be possible if the communities who lived on—and from—those lands were involved every step of the way. And while the prevailing thinking of the time advised that natural areas should be cordoned off to be protected, Train had a more forward-looking approach: In 1961, in addition to helping found WWF, he helped create the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation to help build the capacity of Africans to steward their own natural resources.

Over the years, Train’s conservation ethos has guided us toward a deeper understanding of what landscapes are—that they are more than beautiful vistas teeming with wildlife. These places are the landscapes of people’s lives, and we have learned to value nature for what it means to people’s livelihoods, cultures, and hearts. We have also come to understand that conservation will not last without the engine of local communities—the people who benefit most directly from these places in providing for their families and their future.

Several years ago I found myself in western Namibia. Awakening before dawn, I sat on a rocky escarpment with Chris Weaver and surveyed the early morning signs of life in a remote valley. For decades, Chris helped Namibia create a national system of community conservancies that became a catalyst for both conservation and improved livelihoods for people. As we watched a string of ghostly desert elephants make their way through a distant scrap of green, I asked him where the people were. He gestured toward the left and said, “The people live over there.” But then he spread his arms wide and said, “But this—this is their wealth.”

More recently, I’ve seen our work in the Northern Great Plains come alive as South Dakota ranchers pioneer the most ingenious forms of sustainable rotation agriculture and ranching. And I’ve seen Native American tribes restore their prairie and the bison that occupy a special role deep in the heart of their traditional culture.

Just this year, we were privileged to support the Rosebud Sioux as they committed 28,000 acres of their territory for native grassland and a new herd of 1,500 plains bison. Once completed, their Wolakota Buffalo Range will be home to North America’s largest Native American-owned and managed bison herd, and should continue to provide economic and cultural benefits for years to come.

When it comes to conservation, communities—particularly those in countries that support the rights of communities to manage local natural resources—are as resilient as some of the prairie grasses found on the Northern Great Plains. They may experience the destruction of periodic fires, be they political, economic, environmental, or otherwise. But after the fires sweep through, they have a tremendous ability to renew themselves, sending out shoots of new growth and ensuring the continuity of their landscapes and their people over time.

Which is why it is essential to make sure communities have a seat at the table when decisions are made, and play a leading role in executing and evaluating conservation programs. Successful conservation rests on ensuring that the rights of communities are respected, and that they have the ability not just to manage their own landscapes but also to benefit from those landscapes.

Fully understanding this has been a journey for me personally, and for WWF as an organization. Having worked in this field for 30 years, learning from my elders’ and from my mistakes, I’ve seen how conservation projects can falter when governments change or when short-term philanthropic funding dissipates. I’ve learned that the work we do with communities, if done right, is the form of conservation most likely to endure.

We will know we have been successful when we are no longer needed in places like Nepal and Namibia and Colombia. We will know we are closer to achieving our mission when the will of the people to manage and benefit from their resources is enshrined in every national constitution and made real throughout the land. Until then, we will listen to communities, help them build a more sustainable future, and step by step deliver on Russell Train’s vision of a future in which people and nature both thrive.

Carter Roberts
President and CEO



Patricia Skyer started working in community-based natural resource management in her home country of Namibia in 1996. Since WWF began working in Namibia shortly after the country gained independence, more than 80 community-led conservancies have been recognized by the national government, granting legal status to numerous communities and directly involving more than 227,802 people in the management of more than 64,000 square miles. Patricia is grateful to have played a small part in a shared movement where conservation gains hinge on people’s success.

It’s important to me that the world understands what rural communities that live with wildlife are willing to sacrifice, not just to benefit themselves, but for all of us. After more than 25 years of working in Namibia and other southern African countries, I understand the challenges and benefits of community-based natural resource management quite well. But it’s the people living in these communities who understand it best. By protecting lions, elephants, and cheetahs, they are managing a global resource. They carry a global responsibility. These are not easy animals to live with, and yet communities shoulder this commitment willingly. I see my job as helping the people of Namibia do that. Often that simply means being a good listener and communicator and encouraging partnerships within and between communities, nonprofit groups, the government, and the private sector. Following this path, I have seen real transformation in people’s lives: community members becoming parliamentarians, women assuming more leadership roles in conservation, and populations of threatened species thriving—not because WWF thinks they are important, but because the people of Namibia value them. That’s because the benefits of conservation extend well beyond just preserving biodiversity and increasing people’s material wealth. They also build and support equality. I am proud of what Namibia as a country has achieved since we emerged from a long independence battle and enshrined community rights in our constitution. Granting rights to communities really changes the relationship between people and conservation. It’s not without challenges. Sometimes individual farmers and community members pay the price for the collective gains of conservation when they come into conflict with wildlife. We need to find ways to support them and honor their sacrifices. Our work, as you’ll read in the two stories that follow, must always keep people at the center of what we do. We must make conservation less about us, and more about them. Together, we can build on the gains we’ve made, to the benefit of all.
“In Namibia, democracy at the grassroots level is critically important for the work we do with communities. It is enshrined in the nation’s constitution. Because ultimately it is the individuals that matter when it comes to conservation, not just committees or leadership offices.”

Read stories from Namibia:

  • A promising future for Africa's wildlife
    In a vast African landscape where many people wish travelers “safe journeys” instead of “goodbye,” a burgeoning cross-pollination of ideas, people, and wildlife is making the future of the world’s largest terrestrial protected area bright

  • Health service
    How statistics helped uncover a hidden benefit of Namibia's communal conservancies

Congo Basin

Alice Ruhweza joined WWF as regional director for Africa in July 2019, building on her extensive Africa-wide experience with Conservation International and the United Nations Development Program. She has spent more than 20 years working at the nexus of conservation and development, connecting people and planet in ways that promote human well-being and drive sustainable opportunity for all.

My father, who led the Uganda Wildlife Service when I was growing up, had a saying that “wildlife and people must be friends.” He said this because we are not separate from wildlife and should not think of ourselves as something apart from nature. It’s something I’ve never forgotten. And even though he is gone, the truth of his message is still relevant. Nobody knows that more than the Indigenous people of central Africa, whose livelihoods depend on natural resources. I am very much aware, as someone who’s been working in the region for the last 20 years, that these places are difficult to work in. They are fragile states. And while my father’s words still ring true, the context of conservation work has changed dramatically in recent decades. Just look at the pages that follow and see the gains we’ve helped women make in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rather than being discouraged by the difficulties of doing conservation work in countries like the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and others, I’ve embraced the challenge of establishing a new, inclusive conservation model for the region, much like what you’ll read about in our story on Dzanga-Sangha. Part of this approach involves tapping into the knowledge and the cultures of Indigenous people so we can change the way we work because of what we learn from them. It’s a process of continuous listening. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that conservationists today need to understand that their role extends beyond biology to include things like food security, access to healthcare, girls’ education, and the empowerment of women. So the question I always ask myself is how do we expand conservation to include everybody and all these things in a meaningful way? Central African countries can be a challenge because they don’t all have tourism economies. They don’t always have strong governance or the capacity to effectively ensure human rights. So at WWF, we must make sure we first understand the challenges faced by the people we work with—and work together with them to ensure human rights are respected, protected, and fulfilled. Then we must work with communities, governments, and human rights–focused partners to make those rights central to every aspect of conservation, and to every project we take on.
“Women interact with nature all the time. They know how to protect it, but Sometimes they don’t have land tenure or rights. They don’t have a voice. We must empower all the people who are the real stewards of our natural resources.”

Read stories from the Congo Basin:

  • Women rising
    Notching wins and making gains, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are improving their lives while protecting nature

  • Safe zone
    For people as well as elephants and gorillas, a haven in the heart of Africa


With a background in law, Cinthia Mongylardi has spent the last two decades working on rights for Indigenous populations. From within the framework of forest conservation processes, she has strengthened environmental governance policies and supported the development of economic activities that provide reliable, long-term opportunity for people and are compatible with a healthy environment.

I studied to be a lawyer, but what I can tell you is that when it comes to community-based conservation, the law is only one tool. You also need to build relationships with people, and to understand their relationships with nature. When working with people who live deep in the Amazon—people whose very lives depend on the forest—those relationships need to be transparent and authentic. Indigenous communities were marginalized and ignored in decision-making about their world in the past—even, sometimes, by conservation organizations. I am happy to say that this continues to change. In my role at WWF, I work with between 250 and 300 Indigenous communities and 25 ethnic groups through 17 Indigenous organizations at the local and regional level, and two Indigenous organizations at the national level. A community can be 10 people or 100, each one with its customs, its traditions, and often its own language. Community interests are not all the same, but their members are all affected by the laws that are made in the centers of power, far from where they hunt, gather, and fish to sustain themselves. For these Indigenous people, the forest is their home, their holy place, their classroom, and their hospital. We can learn so much from them about sustaining it because for them it is everything. Early in my career, I saw for myself how development plans for the Peruvian Amazon were written at desks in the city—far from the people, trees, rivers, and wildlife they affected. Policy-makers didn’t consider what Indigenous peoples wanted, needed, or thought. But over the last several decades, those policy-makers—and conservation groups like WWF, as you’ll see on the following pages—have learned to listen better. We didn’t always get it right—not all conservation decisions protected or benefited the most vulnerable in the past—but we learned to listen to them. We knew we had to do better. Because it is the right thing to do. This means that now the people who use and protect natural resources have a growing say in how those resources are managed. And as we build trust with Indigenous communities, we move closer to our goal of having their worldview be central to laws about the development of the Amazon. Sometimes this involves trying to reconcile very differing ideologies. But at the end of the day, the people of the Amazon don’t need additional rights. They just need recognition of the rights that, no matter the upheaval or politics of the time, should never have been compromised to begin with.
“I firmly believe that Indigenous peoples, who are the ones who live in these spaces, who benefit from nature and the conservation of the Amazon, are the ones who should participate in decision-making about what is done in these spaces.”

Read a story from Peru:

  • Deforestation in Peru
    How indigenous communities, government agencies, nonprofits and businesses work together to stop the clearing of forests


Carmen Candelo has 22 years of experience working to build capacity with Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and rural communities in Colombia. She supports their efforts to effectively take part in, and influence, local government decision-making—to make sure their voices are heard. Her work involves promoting conflict resolution by supporting human rights and biodiversity conservation through dialogue and collective action.

In Colombia, biodiversity and people’s well-being are as tangled together as the vines in the forest. In nature there is food, there is wisdom, there is everything. But nature is also a site of one of our greatest sources of conflict: access to land. As Colombia emerges from decades of fighting, we continue to face great inequities. In the past, economic activity was heavily based on extracting, burning, and destroying resources. Now our economy is supplemented by tourism, the cultivation of blackberries and other forest products, and the raising of domestic animals. And it is only by managing this complex transition that we’ll find a path to lasting peace. Here, WWF has played an important and supportive role. While WWF has contributed to the implementation of the peace agreement signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government (described in “Heritage Colombia” on the following pages), there is still a long road ahead. In some regions we have to move very carefully, because there are still flare-ups of conflict. We try to act within the possibilities, getting people to talk to each other and helping identify the interests at play. Mostly, people want the landscapes they love to exist and people to thrive, but they disagree on how to achieve these goals. So we’ve learned to start with what they have in common—and what we have in common with them. And we always aim to strengthen governance and Indigenous rights, especially around how Indigenous peoples are consulted, and their right to free, prior, and informed consent. Too often, people’s rights have been sacrificed to the conflict, but we’re committed to empowering communities so their views inform decisions about resource or land use that may impact them. Despite the many challenges of working in this context, we're building trust. The changes I see in how communities exercise their rights motivate me. I am from a marginalized community myself, and I understand their struggles. I also understand the harmony between Indigenous peoples and the resources they rely on. By helping to develop approaches that respect their identities as custodians of nature, I know we’re protecting so much more than just biodiversity.
“Indigenous communities rely on nature, so when we work with them, we conserve biodiversity. in fact, we have learned so much from those communities about both ancestral, traditional practices and their current, comprehensive understanding of their lands.”

Read stories from Colombia:


Christy Williams has over two decades of experience working with diverse teams of WWF staff, partner groups, government officials, and donors across 15 countries. His work has involved identifying nontraditional opportunities to further conservation, negotiating tricky and complex political situations in conflict zones, and protecting Indigenous peoples’ right to manage their own resources.

The unbroken canopy of the Dawna Tenasserim forest extends as far as the eye can see, from Myanmar into Thailand, covering almost 70,000 square miles. The forest is home to tigers, elephants, gaur, leopards, and over 500 bird species. It’s also home to the Karen, an Indigenous community that lives in this forest at the heart of Southeast Asia, in the world’s most populous region. This forested expanse is a national, cultural, and geographic crossroads, where the traditions of Indigenous communities intersect with the demands of a rapidly changing world. When WWF opened an office in Myanmar in 2014, it was with a deep understanding of the many challenges and opportunities ahead. The Karen, for example, still manage their land, forests, and rivers in the traditional way. But for how long? Across Myanmar, development is altering people’s ways of life. In many ways, that change is for the better; in others it is less so: Deforestation, poaching, and river pollution threaten traditional lifestyles and Myanmar’s long-held approach to living in balance with nature. Supporting Karen communities as they protect their forest is essential but challenging, not least because of the area’s history of conflict. There is lingering mistrust among the various people tasked with deciding how to manage this forest for the future. After months of meetings and hours of travel deep within the Dawna Tenasserim to meet local authorities and Karen communities, we at WWF were able to build the trust needed to support inclusive planning for the region’s biodiversity. And by consistently listening to the communities, we’ve been able to work alongside them as partners. I can honestly say that signing an agreement with the Karen community was one of the proudest moments of my career. Three years on, we’re still listening and still learning. Our work in the Dawna Tenasserim region spans biodiversity monitoring, enterprise and livelihood development, and renewable energy. The story you are about to read—“Night Bright”—touches on that last point and is one small example of the power of such partnerships to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems.
“The ancient forests of Myanmar are a global treasure which we all have a responsibility to protect. I am so grateful to the Karen people for letting us play a small part in making their home a sustainable treasure for us all.”

Read a story from Myanmar:


For over 25 years, Ghana Gurung has used a people-centric natural resource management approach to protect Nepal’s natural resources and biodiversity. He is one of the early architects of both the community-based and landscape-level conservation approaches in Nepal, making the role of holistic, inclusive conservation a centerpiece of his work.

A snow leopard cannot change its spots, but we can change how we protect them. The seed of this lesson is rooted in my childhood in a village in Nepal. Born a Buddhist, I learned about the interdependence and interconnectedness of all life at an early age. As a young boy following the mountain paths, guarding my flock from snow leopards, I developed strong legs and a passion for conservation. Those legs have taken me all over the world to study and learn more about this topic. Ultimately though, I’ve circled back to where I began. Except now, my job goes beyond protecting my flock, to respecting, appreciating, and helping to protect all life in Nepal—a kind of interconnectedness that runs through the climate- and community-focused story you’ll read here. My empathy for my people, the people of Nepal, is like muscle memory. It allows me to walk difficult paths in their shoes. And at the same time, I understand the value of the snow leopards I used to fear. That balance grew out of my nearly 25-year conservation career. WWF’s work in Nepal began in the Chitwan Valley in 1967. In those early days, there was often heavy-handed conservation rhetoric, and traditional community needs were sometimes ignored. But just as our country has grown through civil unrest, changing governments, and sometimes violent uprisings, our approach to conservation has evolved. Now, we listen and consult. We learn from community values, which are so intricately linked with nature, and we integrate them into the work we do. We know, as you’ll see on the following pages, that conservation works only if it is truly inclusive of all the people affected by it. It works only when we place local knowledge and values on equal footing with international conventions and conservation needs. For me, listening is the beginning of trust. I try to listen with an open mind and a humble heart. I can do the work I do, in the way I do it, only because of the boy I was.
“Once you’ve seen people’s resilience and their dedication to bettering their lives and the health and productivity of the places they live, you see that there is nothing more powerful than doing conservation in partnership with communities.”

Read stories from Nepal: