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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.
For people, for nature, forever
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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