- As the world works to emerge from the devastation and hardship brought by the pandemic, there has been much talk about the recovery being an opportunity to drive transformative change toward a more sustainable, equitable society that recognizes that human well-being is underpinned by a healthy planet.
- Much of the focus on this concept has been on cutting carbon emissions from transportation and energy production. There’s been less emphasis on protecting and restoring nature, but the “Nature Positive” campaign is working to change that. WWF, which is arguably the best known conservation group in the world, is among the NGOs leading the charge on Nature Positive.
- Marco Lambertini, the director-general of WWF International, says we’re well past the time for taking action on the loss of nature: ““Science has been telling us for decades that our activities are destroying nature at a rate far faster than it can replenish itself… Tackling nature loss requires us to fundamentally transform our productive sectors, but to do that we need a clear time-bound goal that drives ambition and that governments, businesses and consumers can all contribute to achieving and be held accountable to.”
- Lambertini discussed the Nature Positive movement, the need for change, and several other topics during a February 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
As the world works to emerge from the devastation and hardship brought by the pandemic, there has been much talk about the recovery being an opportunity to drive transformative change toward a more sustainable, equitable society that recognizes that human well-being is underpinned by a healthy planet. Much of the focus on this concept has been on cutting carbon emissions from transportation and energy production. There’s been less emphasis on protecting and restoring nature. But there’s a growing movement to push governments, corporations and other entities to frame goals around the idea of becoming “Nature Positive,” which goes well beyond achieving carbon neutrality. Nature Positive aims to protect and restore critical habitats, stave off species extinction, and maintain healthy and productive ecosystems.
The Nature Positive movement counts several of the world’s most prominent environmental NGOs among its charter supporters, including the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), or the World Wildlife Fund as it is known in Canada and the United States.
That WWF is playing a central role in promoting Nature Positive shouldn’t be surprising given its stated mission to protect the natural environment and shift humanity toward a more sustainable future, as well as its considerable clout: With an operational presence in nearly 100 countries via program offices and affiliates, 5 million supporters and 30 million social media followers, and an $800 million annual operating budget globally, WWF is a behemoth when it comes to influencing environmental policy at a variety of levels, from national governments to corporate boardrooms to international development institutions.
Marco Lambertini, the director-general of WWF International, the Switzerland-based secretariat that coordinates WWF’s network of offices around the world, says that like climate change mitigation, the world has a short time frame for taking effective action on biodiversity conservation.
“Science has been telling us for decades that our activities are destroying nature at a rate far faster than it can replenish itself. Yet, we have failed again and again to change course,” Lambertini told Mongabay. “Tackling nature loss requires us to fundamentally transform our productive sectors, but to do that we need a clear time-bound goal that drives ambition and that governments, businesses and consumers can all contribute to achieving and be held accountable to.
“The most expensive thing we can do in recovery from COVID-19 is go back to business as usual. Increasing public and private investment in nature-based solutions which help mitigate climate change and reduce nature loss is critical. Climate and nature positive goals need to be at the center of how decisions are made by businesses and policymakers.”
But “business as usual” could also be applied to the practice of conservation. Since WWF’s founding in 1961, the conservation sector itself has had to reckon with calls for change, which has especially accelerated in the past 20 years as pushback against old approaches, including legacies of colonialism and forcing local peoples from the lands they’ve traditionally stewarded, has grown. For WWF, these issues hit close to home: in 2019 Buzzfeed published a series of stories on longstanding allegations of abusive practices by rangers and park guards trained by, or associated with, WWF.
“Every crisis hides an opportunity for change — if one is willing to learn and act,” Lambertini said. “Human rights abuses are never acceptable under any circumstances and this is why WWF commissioned local investigations and a comprehensive independent review to assess our approach to ensuring human rights standards are upheld by the governments whose rangers we support, and assess how we can better embed them in nature conservation.”
Lambertini discussed these issues and more during a February 2021 interview with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler.
Interview with Marco Lambertini
Mongabay: What is your background and what inspired your interest in environmental issues?
Marco Lambertini: I was undeniably born with a deep passion, fascination and empathy for nature’s amazing diversity of life. My earliest memory, still vivid today, is of myself, age four, visiting a stream near my home with my grandmother and rescuing a group of tadpoles trapped in a pool of water that was drying up. Even before that, my mother told me that she discovered in my bedroom closet a “museum” of dead bugs, stones, leaves and all sorts of natural things that I would collect in the garden. Throughout my early childhood my favorite times were collecting shells and sea creatures on the beach with my mother, or endlessly visiting the local natural history museum and aquarium. I went on rescuing all sorts of animals, most notably Pietro, an octopus I found almost dead on the beach after a storm and who became an unlikely but close “friend” for almost a year (that’s the lifespan of a Mediterranean octopus). What an amazing and unexpectedly complex creature he was!
When I was finally able to venture into the “wild” of the wetlands and forests of my region, then my fascination for nature and its boundless diversity of life grew even stronger, accompanied by a strong determination to conserve it. I still feel the same urge today, intensified by the escalating tragedy of extinction, poaching, habitat loss and the unsustainable use of resources.
All became clearer when in the early ’80s I read a book called The Biophilia Hypothesis by Edward O. Wilson. It made the case that humans are fascinated by nature simply because we have been immersed in it throughout our evolution and therefore developed a strong curiosity, affiliation and empathy for it as a survival mechanism. That was me. I was definitely born deeply “biophilic”!
You are now director-general of WWF International, one of the most prominent conservation groups in the world. How did your career path unfold?
It has really been quite a fantastic journey, largely unplanned, simply driven by passion and blessed by opportunities.
I always knew I wanted to spend my energy helping to conserve the natural world, give a voice to “voiceless nature” and highlight the “silent crisis” of biodiversity. By the age of 12, collecting and keeping animals at home was no longer enough for me, and I became involved with the local branch of WWF Italy as a volunteer. I felt so excited to join an organization of like-minded people committed to the same vision and who shared the same passion at a time when awareness and sensitivity towards wildlife and nature was extremely low in the country. Soon after WWF I joined LIPU, an Italian nature conservation organization where, just before university graduation, I started my first job in conservation, leading a nationwide behavioral change campaign, before progressing to become responsible for the private nature reserve network, then director of conservation and ultimately director-general. The international chapter of my career began when I was asked to join the secretariat of BirdLife international, a large global network of local organizations, first as director of programs and network development but eventually moving up to the role of CEO. Then WWF International called and for the first time since I’d been a 12-year-old volunteer, I found myself working there again, this time as director-general. I guess that brings the story full circle!
Both as a volunteer and professionally, I have spent a lot of time in the field, nationally and internationally. It allowed me to understand so much of the “real world”, particularly the realities for people living in remote and marginalized communities. Interaction with local nature and people in many regions of the world has given me an invaluable insight into the challenges and opportunities around nature conservation and sustainable development, and provided endless inspiration and motivation. This is where you realize that the needs of nature and people are deeply intertwined — in fact, they are one and the same. Successfully managing projects, programs and campaigns requires not just understanding the theory, but also these realities on the ground — ecological, social, political, economic and emotional — as well as honoring the challenges and aspirations of the local people as the only way to achieve real and durable change on the ground. The local economy and the people who drive it often hold both the challenge and the solution to a sustainable future.
You’ve been working in conservation since the 1980s. How has conservation changed since you got your start?
The 1980s was a time of great cultural transformation in my country, and the world, with fast-growing public support for nature and wildlife. We launched public petitions that led to the first national wildlife protection and protected areas acts. I was asked to write for national newspapers and magazines and participate in primetime television programs. Suddenly I felt that the vision and values I treasured were becoming mainstream in society. More natural spaces were being protected, wildlife was starting to recover. In those years, progress seemed unstoppable. There was an island, remote and natural, whose shape over the horizon was a constant throughout my youth, which suddenly came under threat from tourism development. By mobilizing a group of young islanders through an ecotourism social enterprise, and bringing the fishermen on side by securing their exclusive fishing rights, we achieved the miracle of beating huge corporate interests and creating what was at the time the largest marine protected area in the EU. I guess those years imprinted on me a “yes we can” sense of confidence that I carry to this day. Despite many local successes, of course those were also the years when the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources began to gain pace across the world — the “Great Acceleration” that has led to the climate climate and nature loss we’re suffering today.
In the last 40 years, the whole paradigm has completely changed. Nature conservation has moved from being perceived predominantly as a moral duty, to be increasingly understood as an existential imperative for humanity, as something that’s absolutely crucial for our well-being. Today, more and more people are not just “sad” about extinction and deforestation but also “worried”, and prepared to take action. A much needed cultural revolution — in fact, the only way we can finally stop taking nature for granted, value its services and fear the consequences of its destruction.
The evidence of nature destruction and of the impact it is having on our wellbeing, economy and health, has never been stronger. Everything on this planet is connected and people are starting to realize that actually we people depend on nature more than nature depends on us.
The world has had to navigate a series of crises over the past year, from the pandemic to political upheaval to devastating catastrophes. WWF itself has also had to respond to the controversy around human rights abuses by rangers associated with WWF projects. In general, how does WWF respond to crisis, whether it’s the pandemic or economic calamities? And then more specifically, how is WWF addressing the issues raised by the BuzzFeed investigation and other groups?
Every crisis hides an opportunity for change — if one is willing to learn and act. That applies to today’s global biodiversity, climate and health crisis where the evidence is so clear, and the impacts increasingly tangible, that it has triggered growing concerns and a subsequent accelerating response. The key to overcoming these challenges now lies in the scale and the speed of the response.
Human rights abuses are never acceptable under any circumstances and this is why WWF commissioned local investigations and a comprehensive independent review to assess our approach to ensuring human rights standards are upheld by the governments whose rangers we support, and assess how we can better embed them in nature conservation. The cases refer to some of the world’s most challenging sociopolitical contexts. In one of the countries, there has been a state of emergency declared and reports of incidents of fatal clashes between communities in another. The complexities and challenges in some of these regions are immense. We are addressing each of the review’s recommendations, and have already taken numerous actions to better meet our commitments to communities, and in addressing successfully the tension between individual and collective human rights, and the rights of nature. Key in all this is to ensure that communities’ concerns and aspirations are heard and acted upon; and ensure that governments do better at upholding their human right obligations. We also need to improve at sharing examples within the WWF network and with partners of best practice in our many projects with communities around the world, such as the Human Rights Center we established in the Central African Republic which is run by local Indigenous organizations.
The U.K. government published the Dasgupta Review, which effectively argues that economic expansion has come at a “devastating cost to nature”. What are your thoughts on the review, especially in terms of how we work toward transforming the economy, political systems, and institutions to more effectively address the critical environmental problems we face? And has COVID presented us with an opportunity to accelerate the transition?
The findings of the Dasgupta Review are clear: nature underpins our economy and our wellbeing. We are part of nature, not separate from it. Our failure to recognize this relationship, and take decisive and urgent steps to reverse nature loss, is costing us dearly and putting the future of humanity at risk.
At the heart of the problem are deep-rooted, widespread institutional and market failures to recognize the value of nature’s contributions to our economy, society and wellbeing, and the negative externalities related to its destruction. Mainstream economic models still view the economy as separate from the biosphere.
To safeguard our future, we must stop taking nature for granted as an expendable commodity, value its services and transform our economies and finance systems, so they are geared towards sustainably using, conserving and restoring the natural world and its resources on which we all depend.
We need to move beyond just using GDP as an indicator of wealth and economic success, and adopt more inclusive approaches such as Natural Capital Accounting which measure well-being and prosperity across generations.
We support the Dasgupta Review’s call for a new global commission on the economy and nature to help catalyze a global nature-positive economy — but we also need global standards which enable businesses and financial institutions to fully integrate nature-related risk and opportunities into their decision-making.
The most expensive thing we can do in recovery from COVID-19 is go back to business as usual. Increasing public and private investment in nature-based solutions which help mitigate climate change and reduce nature loss is critical. Climate and nature positive goals need to be at the centre of how decisions are made by businesses and policy makers.
This year governments have the opportunity to adopt a Paris-style agreement for nature with clear science-based targets to reverse nature loss and secure a nature-positive world by 2030.
WWF is part of the Global Goal for Nature group of organizations calling for “Nature Positive” by 2030. Can you explain how “Nature Positive” can be applied in practice?
Science has been telling us for decades that our activities are destroying nature at a rate far faster than it can replenish itself. Yet, we have failed again and again to change course. Tackling nature loss requires us to fundamentally transform our productive sectors, but to do that we need a clear time-bound goal that drives ambition and that governments, businesses and consumers can all contribute to achieving and be held accountable to. For climate, we have a “carbon neutral” goal, articulated in the target of “net zero emissions” by 2050. We now need governments, business and society as a whole to commit to a global goal for nature.
WWF is one of many organizations that support a goal of being nature positive by 2030. This means that we should achieve “net zero loss of nature” against a 2020 baseline and advance a net-positive restoration agenda so that by the end of this decade we will have more nature, not less. Such a goal is very ambitious, but necessary to safeguard the health of both ourselves and the planet. It calls for the world to take action now to reverse biodiversity loss and ensure that nature is in a better state in 2030 than it is now, through improvements in the health, abundance and resilience of species, populations and ecosystems.
To achieve this, the nature positive goal needs to be declined into targets that protect at least 30% of the planet through both governments and right-based community led initiatives, green the main economic drivers of nature loss (most notably our broken food systems), and boost green finance.
So, how do we get there? We need governments to adopt this goal in upcoming UN Convention on Biodiversity talks — scheduled to take place in Kunming, China, later this year — and drive action across sectors to move towards a nature-positive economy. Given nature’s critical role in tackling the climate crisis, action for nature must also be integrated into national climate plans under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as well as being reflected in efforts to halt degradation and promote restoration under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. This year we have the opportunity to integrate climate and nature as the foundation for achieving the Sustainable Development agenda.
The level of ambition needed to transform systems on a timeframe that’s relevant for addressing these problems means a wide range of stakeholders need to be engaged. On that front, WWF is part of the Global Commons Alliance. Could you explain WWF’s role in that initiative and how you are working to get various stakeholders on board with efforts to protect oceans, mitigate climate change, and combat the extinction crisis?
As an unprecedented partnership of leading global organizations seeking to scale science-based action to protect people and planet, the Global Commons Alliance’s main focus is to define and drive systemic change to protect and restore our “global commons.”
Amongst the various efforts of the Alliance, we’re deeply involved in the development of science-based targets for nature through the Science-Based Targets Network (SBTN), and through our own collaboration with companies and cities, are passionate advocates for sustainability commitments underpinned by science. Any large company serious about net-zero, nature-positive transformation must begin by setting science-based greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. We need to develop methodologies that allow companies to develop science-based targets to also avoid negative impacts on nature. In many instances the two are interconnected, such as in the case of deforestation-free value chains.
One of your achievements from your tenure at the head of BirdLife International was the establishment of the Harapan Rainforest initiative in Sumatra, which was Indonesia’s first ecosystem restoration concession. While the project continues to this day, it has had to deal with the loss of a major donor — the Dutch government — and ongoing encroachment for oil palm plantations. Now the Indonesian government is reportedly planning to build a road that bisects the area in order to truck coal from a mine to power stations. Harapan’s situation is not unique — many conservation areas suffer a similar fate. What do you see as the path to make conservation areas more viable in the long run?
The adoption of Ecosystem Restoration Concessions was a visionary political decision on the part of the Indonesian Government, and I hope their commitment will continue. Almost 20 years after its establishment as the first restoration concession, the Harapan Rainforest has suffered less encroachment than other forests, thanks to effective management, creative financing mechanisms, the engagement of local communities and support of donors.
Key for the long term sustainability of forests like Harapan and many others, is the development of a financing mechanism that puts value on standing forests, recognizing the many ecosystem services they provide, and enabling them to compete with market pressures for their clearance.
Do you have any advice for someone aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
There are many pathways young people can follow today, leading to the nature conservation and sustainability agendas. Not only through local and international NGOs, but also other institutions, business and public bodies. Whatever form it takes, I would encourage people to get field experience early on. Whether you are an economist or social scientist interested in sustainability, or a biologist interested in population dynamics and conservation, the first hand experience of realities on the ground, ideally in complex contexts, offers invaluable insights. The best lessons come from the “real world.”
Expose yourself to different cultures in the process, so that you also stretch your mind. Try to understand other perspectives and different realities to the ones you are familiar with. This is a great way to build connections and achieve lasting solutions.
What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Be angry about what’s happening to the planet, and its people — but also excited for the unprecedented opportunities to drive change. Turn that anger and excitement into determination and urgency, focusing on building concrete solutions through collaboration and engagement. This is often difficult, frustrating — it can fail. You may even get criticized but, in my experience, it’s the best chance to achieve durable solutions.
No matter how bad the planet’s health appears today, I have seen a lot of change for good happening in my lifetime and more is about to come and much faster — particularly the change inside our minds, seeing people value nature more fully and deeply, for its intrinsic value and the services it provides to us. While our activities are still currently driving unprecedented nature loss and climate change, I can’t remember a moment when I have been more optimistic about our ability to change course. As a society, we have started to recognize the risks environmental damage poses to us. We know the problems and the solutions. We now need to turn this new awareness into action. Speed and scale of change is what will separate failure from success in building balance between us and the planet. For this, we must focus not on what is possible to change, but on what is necessary.
Leaders are scheduled to make critical decisions later this year on climate and the environment, providing a momentous opportunity for them to deliver a New Deal for Nature and People that reverses nature loss while supporting climate action to help ensure a sustainable future for all. We all have a role to play in calling for a transformation in our relationship with the natural world.