- Yolanda Kakabadse has been an environmental leader since the late 1970s; first heading up small Ecuadorian NGOs before eventually rising to senior ranks at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). She was Ecuador’s Minister of Environment from 1998 to 2000.
- In those roles, Kakabadse became used to making arguments that bring stakeholders with divergent views together around common interests. She’s currently trying to engage the Chinese government as a potential conservation partner in the Galapagos, where a Chinese fleet has been accused of unsustainable fishing practices.
- In a November 2020 interview with Mongabay, Kakabadse talked about her approaches to finding common ground, changes she’s observed in the conservation sector over the course of her career, and the opportunity to shift toward more equitable and sustainable economic models in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In August this year, a fleet of around 300 Chinese fishing vessels attracted international attention when they congregated just outside Ecuador’s territorial waters around the famed Galápagos Islands. Said to be fishing for squid, the fleet’s checkered past raised concerns about the possibility the ships were actually targeting sharks and other threatened species.
While there was great outcry over fleet’s presence so close to a renowned ecological hotspot, the legal options were limited because the activities were occurring in international waters. Accordingly, there was virtually nothing the Ecuadorian navy — or conservationists — could do. But Ecuadorian environmental leader Yolanda Kakabadse is trying to come up with a solution.
Kakabadse, who served as president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) from 1996 to 2004 and president of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) from 2010 to 2017, has a two-pronged approach that involves leveraging her experience of navigating the politics at the highest levels of civil society, government, and the private sector.
The first part of the plan involves persuading regional governments to protect the migration corridor between the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Cocos Island in Costa Rica. But most of that area is open ocean that isn’t subject to either country’s control. That’s where the second part of the plan comes in: convincing the Chinese government that it’s in the country’s interest to limit fishing in the area.
While the proposal may seem audacious, Kakabadse believes now is a unique moment for action. Specifically, the Chinese government is hosting the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) next year.
“My expectation,” she told Mongabay, “is to have China as a conservation partner in the Galapagos-Caicos corridor.”
“Why do I have this expectation? Because the Chinese people and government are also strategic in protecting their image.”
Kakabadse says the growing body of scientific evidence showing that marine protected areas can increase fish stocks can be used to make the argument that protecting the Galapagos-Cocos corridor would both bolster the biodiversity commitment and improve food security.
Kakabadse is used to making arguments that bring stakeholders with divergent views together around common interests. She’s been doing this since the very the beginning of her career, when she helped start Fundación Natura, an Ecuadorian NGO that put peoples’ quality of life at the center of efforts to address environmental problems. From there, she took her non-adversarial approach to other institutions, including Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano, IUCN, and WWF, as well as the Ecuadorian government, where she served as Minister of Environment from 1998 to 2000.
“There are always negotiated solutions that are better than keeping your position at an extreme,” she said. “Better in the sense that by working together and collaborating you can have benefits in a shorter term.”
Over the course of her 40-plus year career, Kakabadse has observed many changes in the civil society sector, including rising awareness among companies about the adverse impacts of environmental degradation, better availability of information, and an evolution in how Indigenous Peoples are involved in the environmental agenda.
“Indigenous Peoples started to have a voice in partnership with NGOs. In the beginning, NGOs dominated the agenda and interpreted the needs of local communities and indigenous people. That started to change because there was a stronger dialogue between indigenous people and some NGOs which started creating spaces for them to be represented. That evolution has been a fantastic way of driving local agendas into the global debate.”
Kakabadse talked about these topics, the opportunity to shift toward more equitable and sustainable economic models in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more during a November 2020 interview with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
Note: the transcription below has been edited for clarity.
AN INTERVIEW WITH YOLANDA KAKABADSE
Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay: I want to start out by asking, how did you get started in the environment and human rights space?
Yolanda Kakabadse: By accident, really. It wasn’t planned. I had studied educational psychology and I was quite happy doing that, mainly focusing on children with learning disabilities. And it was at the same time that we started a group in Ecuador, an NGO, we didn’t know at that time what NGO was. So, that is a name given to it much later, but this was ‘78-’79. And I started volunteering with some time to write letters to very strange organizations called IUCN and WWF that we had identified in writing letters, saying, ”This is a group of Ecuadorians, we need information, can you send us some of your publications?”
I started with that volunteer time and then the person who was chairing this group asked me one day, why don’t I work for this full time? And I said, yes, but not because I knew anything about environment, or I suspected what was ahead but I suppose I just thought this is an interesting change. And that’s how I started understanding and learning the names of the issues that we were concerned about. These group of friends that got together to create this organization Fundación Natura just knew that something was wrong, that the beautiful places that we had visited and loved since our childhood, were not the same anymore. That traffic was frightening in terms of the amount of smog that we saw in the cities, that the beaches that we loved and rivers that we cared for were full of polluting items, that cities and towns were not taking care of garbage. So, it was concerns but no more than that, in terms of knowing that there was an agenda, that it was an important agenda and that we wanted to do something about it.
Mongabay: You started this small NGO and then eventually became a leader at some of the biggest environmental institutions of the world, like WWF, IUCN, and others. How did your career path develop?
Kakabadse: I would say that the most important achievement was creating a very solid institution in Ecuador that became one of the most important ones in Latin America. So, that I think was important because of several things, Rhett. One was that it was not concentrated on conservation, it was an environmental NGO. At that moment, we made it clear that the most important thing for us was the human being and the quality of life of a human being, and in this case, initially Ecuadorians and later on Latin Americans. Number two, this was an organization that was not created to fight against government and the business sector, but to discuss with government and the business sector how to improve Ecuador and the quality of life of Ecuadorians from their own sectors. Number three, that we were there to talk and negotiate. Attack was the last instance of our dialogue and we didn’t start with that because we believed that everybody had an interest in having a better world than the one that we were looking at.
So, probably because of these three conditions of being a non-government that working for the country, not against the other sectors of the country, working for the human being and in the relationship with nature. And the other element of considering that the lines in the map that created or defined the territory of Ecuador were not as important as the sharing of ecosystems with other countries. So, we started working for Amazonia for the Andes for the Pacific Coast. And that immediately led us into creating alliances with other organizations in the rest of the continent, that was important. And later on, of course, our volunteers were much larger because it was the planet.
We found the organizations in the US, Europe, Africa, and Asia that shared the same ambition of dealing with problems and improving the conditions of this planet. And that’s why we started connecting with these international organizations, initially WWF, who was working already in Ecuador in supporting three protected areas, and when we let them know that we had created, they immediately invited us to be their representative in Ecuador for conservation.
Later on, IUCN is an organization that was also looking for opportunities to have groups in different countries around the world that would contribute to their agenda. So, the linkages were not difficult to make because both WWF and IUCN were trying to identify partners in Ecuador and in Latin America. And the snowball started rolling and growing. And we started identifying also organizations and people that shared the same vision and the same ambition of creating a common agenda.
Mongabay: You spoke about alliance-building and coalition building. A lot of your work seems to finding shared values that may be come from different perspectives. In today’s political climate, there seems to be a lot of divisiveness, at least in the United States around environmental issues. How does the situation now compare to the past? And are there certain issues that are more crosscutting to unify some of those divides?
Kakabadse: I have seen it a wonderful evolution of the environmental agenda, where we clearly see that things are not black and white, that there is a gray zone for many of us to share, discuss, agree. This is 40 years ago, Rhett, and I remember Greenpeace was sort of at the other end of the spectrum with a very clear style of attack. And I remember a beautiful moment when I was the president of IUCN, where we had World Congress on protected areas in South Africa, in Durban, where I organized a panel with all the oil companies in IUCN and Greenpeace. It was the first time we were sitting together in a panel, discussing the challenges for the oil companies and for conservation, the middle ground and the extreme. It was a beautiful moment of a confluence of positions that had been at the radical end before, and that suddenly were discussing the potential of collaboration.
So, in 40 years, things have evolved in a positive way. Because we see, number one, that there are always negotiated solutions that are better than keeping your position at an extreme, better in the sense that by working together and collaborating you can have benefits in a shorter term, that information availability allows all sectors to begin discussing the same things and not a hidden agenda.
Hidden agendas at this moment are much more difficult than they were a couple of decades before. And then your territory which used to be very institutional has become global, that you see that other countries and other peoples are being affected by the same issues, by the same threats, and therefore, building solutions that are more global than institutional is where the big challenges are today. So, a positive change, a wonderful change, and I would say new challenges, the challenges that used to be sort of Ecuador, the Andean countries, Latin America, are now global in every sense.
Mongabay: What are some of the other big changes that you’ve seen in the last 40 years working in this space?
Kakabadse: The challenges, I think, today are the importance of recognizing the institution of the environment. We have had in the last 40 years, up and downs in the creation of strong ministries, for example. And the ups and downs now depend on the political orientation of the government. Some of them will give more attention to the environmental agenda, while others will try to diminish the importance of the environmental agenda. That is an issue of today, worldwide, in the U.S., Ecuador, France, the UK, or the Philippines. It is a trend now of governments to strengthen or weaken the opposition. And I mean, the opposition is in environmental agenda that is much clearer now of what needs to be done, and therefore, tougher in terms of taking decisions for change.
I think another very important change is the role of the private sector in the environmental agenda. I don’t know if you’re aware, I’m a member of the B-Team, which is 30 or 40 very strong people who believe in sustainability, and who are beyond just making public statements. They are really acting and doing and implementing changes in their own fields that have a role to play in the world.
The other thing is that there is this linkage between your habits and behaviors with the environment are much clearer today than they were 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and for example, I cared a lot, Rhett, about food loss and waste. 20 years ago, that was not an issue. And today, there are groups like Champions 12.3 that I also belong to, which is, we need to reduce food waste and the members of these groups are food producers, agricultural producers, transportation, refrigeration, consumer organizations and all of us are working towards changing the behavior of how do we harvest and bring food to the table that is ethical, that is rational, that is economic driven because you cannot have 800 million people being hungry, and at the same time saying that you’re expanding the agricultural frontier when a third of the food we produce in the world never reaches the consumer.
So, those issues are totally new behaviors of companies that are aware of carbon emissions today are fully behind practices that reduce emissions and that are more coherent with the state of the planet. And that is from extractive industry, in the ocean, and in the forest, in the valleys and in nanotechnology, all of them are being driven by the need of having an impact, a positive impact in the planet, and that’s new.
Mongabay: So, what you’re saying is there seem to be more voices at the table these days, including the private sector in these conservation discussions. Historically, the conservation agenda has often been driven by large institutions in the global north, where leadership disproportionately tends to be North American or European. Have you noticed changes in that area as well, where you have more voices that are coming from the global south, and communities that tend to be underrepresented in management or leadership roles?
Kakabadse: Yeah, there is more diversity today. I tend, Rhett, not to look at the past and point fingers at the past because everything is permanently evolving. What I see today is that there is more diversity of north, south, east, and west, the level of partnerships. And I speak for WWF, for example, it continues to be a northern organization in the sense that it was created in the north and every European country has a WWF. But now, you see that the leadership of the organization is represented by people of Indonesia, Brazil, India, Kenya, South Africa which used to be recipients of the donor organizations to invest in their own agenda. Today, it is a group of people who discuss the planet where the main needs and actions should be taken today if that is agreed by north and south and east and west. It didn’t happen 20 years ago, or 15 years ago, that is new. So, it’s beautiful to see that Colombia is represented in a leadership of 10 or eight people in Colombia, Kenya, South Africa, Malaysia, that’s new.
Mongabay: And over the past decade, there’s been growing recognition of the importance of helping Indigenous Peoples and local communities secure rights to the land that traditionally manage. Why do you think that is? Is the increasing diversity you mentioned a factor in that trend?
Kakabadse: I think that these new voices, like Indigenous Peoples, didn’t have a voice 20 years ago. I can follow the track of Latin America that has had a fantastic evolution in that sense.
Indigenous Peoples started to have a voice in partnership with NGOs. In the beginning, NGOs dominated the agenda and interpreted the needs of local communities and Indigenous People. That started to change because there was a stronger dialogue between Indigenous People and some NGOs which started creating spaces for them to be represented. That evolution has been a fantastic way of driving local agendas into the global debate. And again, it has happened as a result of more information being available and more players at the table at the national level, and therefore, regional and global levels. And it has brought diversity. It has brought very often new and different discussions and that has strengthened everybody. Some people say, “It has displaced NGOs that before were representing Indigenous Peoples.” I don’t think it displaced. Displaced has a meaning of putting away or moving out. I think it has replaced but without displacing the other, but bringing the other onto the table to have more fertile stronger discussions.
Mongabay: Picking up on the idea of creating spaces for historically marginalized and underrepresented groups in the conservation and environmental space: there’s currently a debate in Latin America about a treaty that recognizes the duty of states to protect environmental defenders and Ecuador is one of the countries that’s ratified it, but other countries have not or are considering ratifying it. Do you have a take on the situation?
Kakabadse: Yes and no. I don’t follow in detail the Escazu agreement. I was in a discussion in Guatemala last year, probably October, November, where most of the countries were represented, and at that moment, we were quite optimistic of governments ratifying the Escazu agreement. I can see why some countries, some governments, some sectors are afraid of ratifying that agreement. It is not new, that discussion started in 1992, with the Earth Summit in the importance of consulting local communities. So, it has been a discussion that has been rolling for 20 years.
Where do I see the main obstacle, Rhett? I think in the extractive industry. There is not yet a full understanding that on the part of the extractive industry and on the part of society, that there is no sustainable mining. There is responsible mining, but not sustainable, and the same thing with fishing, and the same thing with the oil industry. I don’t think there has been enough discussion and space for coming to an agreement, even though I see that the mining industry, for example, is evolving in a fantastic way, in developing new standards, in coming to an agreement with a government about how to take decisions about the mining industry, but it is a very small group of industries that is moving into that direction but not all the industry has agreed on how to be more responsible. I think it’s them. I’m not sure it’s only them but those are some of the actors that are putting pressure on the government to stop these dialogues and to stop these ratifications of agreements as important as Escazu.
It will take some more years. I believe this new trend is unstoppable and it will happen soon. But obviously, what we see during these last two to three and probably two more, or three more years is this fear that by signing Escazu, there will be no space for the extractive industry. And I think it’s just a matter of changing the rules of the game, but not stopping it. I think mining, in some cases, is very important, and it can be done but with different rules.
Mongabay: You mentioned fishing. There’s been an issue that’s gotten a lot of attention the past month or two: the large Chinese fishing fleet off the coast of South America that has been fishing around the Galapagos. It seems like a really challenging issue to address since it is happening in international waters. Given you’re on the government commission to help protect the Galapagos, what do you see as a productive path forward in addressing this issue?
Kakabadse: It is a complex issue. It is a fleet of about 350 ships. And the first guess that you have is that this fleet is coming to this area of South America because the marine life in their own region has been depleted. Otherwise, why would they come this far? That’s the first question. I don’t know the answer. But obviously, they are looking for areas in the ocean everywhere else where they can harvest as much as they did in their own seats in the past. Having 350 ships in an area is crazy. I would say it is not sustainable in any way. Those ships are not all Chinese, the majority are. And some other nations use that move to insert themselves and catch as much as they can. It is very difficult for Ecuador to control the area as much as we should in the sense that we can see them when they are connected to satellite, that they are not in the economic zone of Ecuador but we have no capacity to detect whether they are using a long line for example, and that long line is extended into the economic zone of Ecuador. We have no capacity to supervise that. But what is more important, Rhett, is that fish move, fish migrate. You cannot keep them in the Galapagos or in the economic zone, they move all the way through.
In our case, it is already started and we have documented that the native species of Galapagos are also native to Caicos. So, there is a movement between Cocos Island and Galapagos that is very clear, that has been studied and documented. Protecting the Galapagos means also protecting this corridor towards and up to Cocos Island. Costa Rica is interested in the creation of this formal corridor, it would be a very strategic move for Ecuador and for Costa Rica, and for the species. It’s not just a nation thing. It is the fisheries and those species that are within this corridor. The ambition is to have a protected area with Panama and Colombia also in their islands. But the most important move at the moment would be Cocos / Costa Rica and Galapagos / Ecuador. Where are the challenges that we have ahead of us? That is ensuring the fishery sector of Ecuador and Costa Rica, that they would benefit by this consideration, the spillover effect that has already been demonstrating in Ecuador when we created the protected area of the Galapagos is clear. And the fishery sector of Ecuador, they recognize that their fisheries improved by the creation of the protected areas. So, we need to go into that dialogue and have all sectors accept that if we create this corridor, Ecuador to the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica, the same effect will benefit them. And that’s where we are at the moment, in that discussion, in that negotiation, and we hope it can happen as soon as possible.
The other part is the negotiation with China. Because those are international waters, we have no capacity to forbid them and block their entrance into this corridor between the two economic zones of Ecuador. And my expectation, Rhett, is to have China as a conservation partner in the Galapagos-Cocos corridor. And why do I have this expectation? Because the Chinese people and government are also strategic in protecting their image. They are going to be the host of the next CBD, the Convention of Biodiversity, COP. The 2020 COP that was meant to take place now and that will be taking place sometime next year. At the COP I would love to have a joint declaration between China and Ecuador, where they [declare] the strategic importance of this Caicos-Galapagos corridor for the world, not only for Ecuador, not only for the Galapagos. If we want to keep feeding the human population with marine species, we need to protect and this challenge of protecting 30-30, 30% of the ocean by 2030, is something that challenges all countries, all governments in the whole planet. It’s not only in the Ecuadorian wishful thinking. It is something that we all need to invest in.
So, that’s where I’m driving at now, in building connections with Chinese decision-makers for the COP, that we can make this announcement sometime next year, hopefully, let’s cross our fingers. But it also requires working together with all the other governments of South America, from Costa Rica, in Panama, in Central America to all the countries on the coast of the Pacific, we all need to have a common front, a common policy and strategy to protect our resources, and I say the planet’s resources. I think we are well protected by the 200 economic zone that we have in the region. But it means more than that, it means having a policy where we protect the ecosystem that is more destroyed at the moment, which is the ocean. And obviously, when it is a forest with a helicopter, we can take photos and stop. When it is the ocean, we only know we have to act when it is depleted when the fishing boats come back with empty nets, and that’s too late, of course.
Mongabay: Picking up on the regional aspect of what you just mentioned. Latin Americans have been hit very hard by the pandemic. A few months ago, you’re one of the co-authors on this interesting document called “principles for a sustainable future for Latin America in times of pandemic and global crisis” which talks about the unique threats that Latin America is facing with COVID and also proposed a way to shift away from business usual approaches that got us into this mess in the first place. Do you think COVID is causing leaders and societies to actually reevaluate our relationship with nature? And what would you see as being the best opportunities for real transformative change as we seek to recover from the pandemic?
Kakabadse: There is a fantastic lesson from COVID: we cannot have a healthy human society on an unhealthy planet. In a way, I find this one of the positive results of COVID because we haven’t given much attention in the past to the importance of this link. An ecosystem that is healthy—be it the ocean, the forest, the paramos of Ecuador, or the coastal areas or the valleys and meadows—none of them can be your life insurance if we don’t care for them. So, security and health are interlinked, are dependent on the quality of the planet. So, this challenge of investing in restoration, investing in the regeneration of ecosystems, is the immediate and very strong message that comes out of COVID.
It’s not enough yet, but many of us are promoting this discussion and it’s triggering more and more debate amongst governments of how important it is not enough to invest in aspirations; we need to invest in preventive actions for human health. And we need to discuss this now because the next virus is going to be even worse. And we need to discuss the impact of the climate crisis, it’s going to be dozens of times more destructive. And we need to discuss that and overcome what I find has been two failings of our public speech in the last 20 years. First, we don’t give enough attention to biodiversity. Second, when we speak about climate change, we speak for the privileged probably 0.1% of the population of the world who can understand it. It is a language that nobody understands. I think I am well informed and I have no idea what do we mean by one ton of carbon. When we should be saying and speaking about health security and about hunger, and about food production and about food waste.
That is the agenda that we need to discuss and propose to the common citizen, people like me. I’m so passionate about food loss and waste because I understand it. And millions of others in every single country need to take part in the solutions because they understand what the threats are. But when we talk about carbon emissions and who knows what that means for my quality of life? Very few. So, in this agenda that we have built to promote discussion in the region, we speak about solidarity, for example, solidarity between generations, between urban and rural, between nations, neighboring nations and the rest of the planet, between Indigenous People in the business sector, the private sector. So, those things have a sense of what we need to do, that we need to foster that. And we need to alert people that unless we do something for the health of ecosystems, nothing will change. Rhett, I don’t know if you have seen a film called Kiss the Ground?
Kakabadse: The message is terribly clear. Agriculture can absorb, maybe capture, much more in terms of carbon than the ocean. So, let’s put our hands into that and start mobilizing the technologies that we use for agriculture that presently are so destructive. COVID has given us a fantastic signal of how much we depend on family farming near the cities and the towns and how much they have been non-recognized in the past. We only think that agriculture comes from the very large ones. No, we suddenly discovered that the small farmers and the family farmers can provide us with what we need. And that linkage is beautiful, and it’s strong, and it’s given us a new message of the importance of working together.
Mongabay: So, these ideas are resonating with young people but at the same time, I think a lot of young people are really concerned about sort of the state of the planet and the direction we’re headed in. So, what is it that you would say to young people, so millennials and people born since 2000, who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Kakabadse: They are already moving and I love that in food, loss, and waste, they immediately get the sense and start acting. Start acting in the cafeteria of their college or university, in their family, in the way they shop, in the way they eat. That is a clear example that young people can mobilize and do things much faster and with personal involvement. And when you speak a language that they can understand, they immediately react, which we don’t. In my generation, we are always asking many more questions and putting some doubt. But young people get it, they create apps that you can use in your phone that tell you where does this food come from? How was it produced? Whether it is sustainable or not? And they use those apps. We don’t.
Mongabay: I have one other question from my Latam team. It’s very specific to Ecuador: some people are concerned about the merger between the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Water in Ecuador, specifically that the merger has weakened the institutions. I’d be interested in your take on that.
Kakabadse: Absolutely. There is no ministry. You don’t hear about it. You don’t have any signals about policies that are being proposed. And what is worse, the mind of the decision-makers is that when you are in an economic crisis, you have to cut down on things like the environment, when it should be obvious that you should strengthen that ministry because it’s the one that can bring solutions to the crisis. So, we have completely lost track of the importance of the Ministry of the Environment of the institutionality of water that used to deal with water management and the quality and quantity. It’s not there. It is not in the map, and the institutionality of the two sectors, the environment and water is completely destroyed, and that includes protected areas and biodiversity.
Mongabay: So, is there a path to either restoring that institutionality?
Yolanda: We will have a new government elected in February; they will take over in May. So, let’s hope that the next government will do something about it. But the basic issue here, Rhett, is that public policy is the result of social pressure. Public policy, when you build it from the top without measuring the need for that in society, it doesn’t work. I’m always promoting the discussion and the importance about the society creating the agenda. That’s when the decision-makers and policy-makers and politicians respond. So, that is something that cannot stop, that we need to continue working on mobilizing society, in all sectors: school, urban and rural areas, universities, family groups.