Conservation news

Despite COVID, political divides, conservation can advance: Hansjörg Wyss

Frigatebird displaying in the Galapagos. The Wyss Campaign for Nature partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to strengthen the management of the 138,872 square kilometer Galapagos Marine Reserve. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Frigatebird displaying in the Galapagos. The Wyss Campaign for Nature partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation to strengthen the management of the 138,872 square kilometer Galapagos Marine Reserve. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • 2020 was supposed to be the year that the world assessed progress on a decade’s worth of effort to stave off the sixth mass extinction and set ambitious new targets for conservation. But the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, leading to postponement of key high-level meetings.
  • Nonetheless, conservationists have continued to press forward with initiatives aiming to preserve habitat for wildlife, including the “30×30” target, which aims to conserve 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030.
  • One of the biggest champions for the 30×30 goal is the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which launched two years ago thanks to a billion dollar commitment from Hansjörg Wyss, a medical device entrepreneur and philanthropist. Since its inception, the Wyss Campaign for Nature has put more that $350 million into projects that have protected nearly 18 million acres of land and over 160,000 square kilometers of the ocean.
  • Wyss talked about the campaign, the impact of COVID on biodiversity conservation goals, and broad public support for wild places and wildlife during an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

2020 was supposed to be the year that the world assessed progress on a decade’s worth of effort to stave off the sixth mass extinction — the first extinction driven by the activities of a single species — and set ambitious new targets for conservation. But the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, leading to postponement of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the IUCN World Conservation Congress, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, among other high-level meetings. Nonetheless, conservationists have continued to press forward with initiatives aiming to preserve habitat for wildlife, including the “30×30” target, which aims to conserve 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030.

One of the biggest champions for the 30×30 goal is the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which launched two years ago thanks to a billion dollar commitment from Hansjörg Wyss, a medical device entrepreneur who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into conservation globally over the past 20 years. Since its inception, the Wyss Campaign for Nature has put more that $350 million into projects that have protected nearly 18 million acres of land and over 160,000 square kilometers of the ocean.

Wyss, who in a 2017 interview with Mongabay said that his love of nature was born out of experiences he had in the wilds of the American West in the 1950s, says the current campaign is focusing support for “locally-driven, place-based conservation efforts” in geographies where there is the greatest opportunity for impact as well as building political consensus for the 30×30 target.

“Establishing the 30×30 goal offers a benchmark for communities to work towards and helps inspire all of us into action – individuals, philanthropy, civil society, the business community, and government,” Wyss told Mongabay during an October 2020 interview. “For our planet to remain livable over the long-term, it is going to take thousands of place-based conservation efforts, led by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, to protect and restore lands, waters, and the ocean.”

The pandemic, says Wyss, has “complicated progress” but it has not diminished the urgency of addressing the extinction crisis.

“I’m hopeful that it will also galvanize the international community to act ambitiously,” Wyss told Mongabay. “Both in the United States and internationally, there’s an historic opportunity to direct the trillions of dollars that will flow into COVID relief to build back better by directing resources into sustainable economic sectors. The European Union has already committed to positioning conservation as a central focus of its COVID recovery plans, committing to direct relief into supporting an expanded network of protected and conserved areas across the European continent.”

“The pandemic has only proven how vitally important our work is to the future of the planet.”

Coastline off Hawaii. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Beyond the opportunity for transformational shifts arising from the pandemic, Wyss is also hopeful that traditional bipartisan support for conservation will enable it to advance despite current bitter political divides on many other issues.

“Conservation, public lands, and wilderness in the United States still enjoy broad-based, bipartisan appeal. Two of the very few bipartisan bills that have passed through Congress over the last two years were big and bold conservation bills,” he said. “Politics in the U.S. has become all consuming, with folks going to their partisan corners on almost every issue. It remains our job, and the job of conservation advocates, to continue supporting locally-driven conservation efforts and demonstrating to decision makers that these efforts enjoy overwhelming support from the American public, regardless of their political ideology.”

Wyss talked about these issues and more during an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.

AN INTERVIEW WITH HANSJORG WYSS

 

Mongabay: When we last spoke in 2017, you were in the midst of expanding the geographic scope of your conservation work abroad and about a year before the launch of the Wyss Campaign for Nature. Could you give our readers an update on how these efforts, including the Campaign for Nature, are progressing?

Wyss: The scope of my conservation philanthropy has grown significantly since my early years of funding land protection efforts in the Intermountain Western United States. Almost a decade ago, the Wyss Foundation began supporting conservation efforts outside of the U.S., slowly expanding the places we work based on the opportunities presented by specific projects. While our geographic scope has grown significantly over the years, our approach to conservation has remained constant. No matter where we’re working, whether the project is in Montana’s Swan Valley or the Outback of Australia, the efforts we support are led by local communities and Indigenous Peoples – those who have a direct tie to the land they are advocating to get permanently protected.

In late 2018, I launched the Wyss Campaign for Nature with a ten year, $1 billion commitment to expand this support for locally-driven, place-based conservation efforts worldwide. My goal with this effort is to help protect at least 30 percent of the planet – on land and at sea – by 2030. To accomplish this, we will continue to fund efforts led by local communities, Indigenous Peoples, and nations to accelerate the pace and scale of protected area conservation in additional locations. This goal, 30×30, is one scientists have identified as critical to slowing extinction and stemming the tide of nature loss.

We all recognize that the status quo is not working. One million species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, and a huge percentage of the Earth has already been heavily modified by humans. We have to act quickly and collectively to save what’s left. Thankfully, over the last two years, nations have begun coalescing around the need to dramatically expand protections for lands and waters. A coalition of over 30 countries are currently working to establish a global 30×30 target when nations meet at next year’s Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to establish a new strategic plan for nature.

Establishing the 30×30 goal offers a benchmark for communities to work towards and helps inspire all of us into action – individuals, philanthropy, civil society, the business community, and government. For our planet to remain livable over the long-term, it is going to take thousands of place-based conservation efforts, led by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, to protect and restore lands, waters, and the ocean. Since launching the Wyss Campaign for Nature, we have disbursed and committed $350 million in grant funds. With this funding, our conservation partners have protected nearly 18 million acres of land and over 160,000 square kilometers of the ocean. That’s the equivalent of protecting over eight Yellowstone National Parks on land and nearly 18 Yellowstones at sea.

In 2017 the Wyss Foundation pledged $65M to African Parks to secure several protected areas in Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Over the remainder of this decade, I’m looking forward to continuing our work alongside Indigenous and local communities to safeguard natural areas that are important to them.

Mongabay: COVID-19 prompted the cancellation of the various high level summits this year that sought to advance progress on protecting biodiversity and addressing climate change. Has the pandemic affected your conservation strategy?

Wyss: There’s not a single person, not a single sector of the economy, not a single place on the planet that hasn’t been impacted by COVID-19. The pandemic has provided a clarifying moment for humanity: our relationship with nature is broken. Zoonotic diseases, like COVID-19, are becoming more and more prevalent as we destroy natural systems, as communities chop ecosystems into smaller and smaller pieces.

To save ourselves, we must save nature. And while the pandemic has certainly complicated progress by delaying the various international convenings, including the meetings leading up to the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, I’m hopeful that it will also galvanize the international community to act ambitiously.

The Wyss Foundation is supporting the Andes Amazon Fund to work with governments, local communities, and other stakeholders to permanently protect forests in the headwaters of the Amazon River basin. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

COVID-19 has also introduced delays into some of the place-based projects we are supporting, but far from changing our strategy of supporting local and indigenous led conservation projects, the pandemic has only proven how vitally important our work is to the future of the planet. We continue to seek out and support new projects that will help the world achieve the 30×30 target.

Mongabay: Do you see an opportunity for conservation to be part of the post-COVID economic recovery; for example, akin to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s?

Wyss: Both in the United States and internationally, there’s an historic opportunity to direct the trillions of dollars that will flow into COVID relief to build back better by directing resources into sustainable economic sectors. The European Union has already committed to positioning conservation as a central focus of its COVID recovery plans, committing to direct relief into supporting an expanded network of protected and conserved areas across the European continent.

Sea turtle in the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

It’s the same story here in the United States, where a recent economic analysis found that for every $1 million of public funds invested in conservation, upwards of 30 jobs can be created. Even small investments in conservation and restoration can put unemployed people to work restoring forests, enhancing access for all people to get outside, and establishing nature-based solutions to ameliorate the impacts of climate change. Politicians just need the political will to put these common sense solutions into action.

Mongabay: Until relatively recently, some environmental issues, like public lands and wilderness conservation, had bipartisan support. Do you see opportunities for the environment to unify politically divided Americans? And if so, what issues do you see as having the most potential to appeal to people across the political spectrum?

Wyss: Conservation, public lands, and wilderness in the United States still enjoy broad-based, bipartisan appeal. Two of the very few bipartisan bills that have passed through Congress over the last two years were big and bold conservation bills. The first – the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act of 2019 – protected 1.3 million acres of wilderness, expanded several parks, and designated multiple new national monuments. It passed both the House and Senate by broad margins. The second historic bill – the Great American Outdoors Act – passed earlier this year with overwhelming, bipartisan support as well. This bill guarantees full, permanent, and dedicated funding of $900 million for conservation every year through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and provides much needed resources to address the backlog of maintenance that is harming our ability to enjoy our public lands.

Redwood forest in Muir Woods, Marin County, California. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Politics in the U.S. has become all consuming, with folks going to their partisan corners on almost every issue. It remains our job, and the job of conservation advocates, to continue supporting locally-driven conservation efforts and demonstrating to decision makers that these efforts enjoy overwhelming support from the American public, regardless of their political ideology.

Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?

Wyss: The two most valuable commodities any single person has is their voice and their time. Use them! All the money in the world won’t solve our biggest crises, the crisis facing nature and climate, without everyone, and especially young people, speaking up, organizing, and, most importantly, voting.

Lowland gorilla in the Congo Basin. In 2017 the Wyss Foundation pledged $65M to African Parks to secure several protected areas in Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

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Header image: Frigate bird in the Galapagos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.