- One of the dominant trends in conservation over the past 20 years has been growing recognition of the contributions Indigenous peoples have made toward conservationists’ goals of protecting biodiversity, wild places, and ecosystem functions.
- This view is a departure from historical conservation approaches, which have tended to marginalize, undervalue, or even criminalize Indigenous peoples. The transition unfolding across conservation is an important development for the sector, but going from talking about change to actually implementing meaningful reforms will be a challenge.
- For these reasons, Peter Seligmann – one of the best-known and most influential figures in conservation – is an important figure to watch. In 2017 Seligmann launched a new organization called Nia Tero that puts Indigenous peoples at the center of its strategy: “For us, it was clear that humanity’s fate is directly dependent upon the ability of nations, and the public, to support Indigenous territorial rights and embrace Indigenous peoples’ belief in the reciprocal relationship between all beings and the Earth.“
- Seligmann spoke about Nia Tero’s ambitions in a February 2021 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
One of the dominant trends in conservation over the past 20 years has been growing recognition of the contributions Indigenous peoples have made toward conservationists’ goals of protecting biodiversity, wild places, and ecosystem functions. Lands stewarded by Indigenous peoples and local communities sequester at least a sixth of forest carbon and house 80% of terrestrial species. Most of the world’s largest intact landscapes — from the Amazon rainforest to the island of New Guinea — have a long history of human inhabitation and today have substantial Indigenous populations.
This view is a departure from historical conservation approaches, which have tended to marginalize, undervalue, or even criminalize Indigenous peoples, whose traditional homelands were at the same time being bulldozed for plantations and ranches; torn up for ore, minerals, and oil; poisoned by industrial waste and pollution; and invaded by speculators. Historically, Indigenous peoples’ contributions haven’t been compensated by the outside world; in fact, there are many documented cases where in the name of establishing strict protected areas they have been forced from the lands they’ve traditionally stewarded or had the activities they’ve practiced for generations restricted.
The transition unfolding across conservation is an important development for the sector, but going from talking about change to actually implementing meaningful reforms will be a challenge. It requires earnestly listening to criticism, engaging and empowering stakeholders who’ve been traditionally ignored or marginalized, reevaluating legacy relationships, and upending power structures, among other measures.
For these reasons, Peter Seligmann is an important figure to watch. Seligmann is one of the best-known and most influential figures in conservation. After beginning his career at The Nature Conservancy, Seligmann co-founded Conservation International (CI) in 1987. Seligmann grew CI into a conservation giant that won the backing of high-profile celebrities, business executives, and political leaders as it expanded into some of the world’s most biologically and culturally diverse areas.
One of CI’s core conservation approaches has been establishing protected areas. This process typically includes scientists and other experts identifying biodiverse areas for potential protection, then working with host governments to establish protected areas, often with funding from multilateral development agencies, donor governments, philanthropic foundations, and wealthy individuals. Implementation of a protected area usually involves a number of partners, from host government agencies to local NGOs and communities. But survey the conservation field and many actors would probably cite CI’s relationships with large companies or governments before they cite CI’s work with Indigenous peoples and local communities.
Seligmann officially stepped down as CEO of CI on July 1, 2017 (he remains chairman of the board), and launched a new organization called Nia Tero that puts Indigenous peoples at the center of its strategy. Nia Tero means “our Earth” in Esperanto, a language created in the late 19th century to serve as a universal language for all people.
Nia Tero’s tagline is “securing Indigenous guardianship of vital ecosystems,” which means it “exists to ensure that Indigenous peoples have the economic power and cultural independence to steward, support, and protect their livelihoods and territories they call home.” Nia Tero proclaims full support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a resolution adopted by the United Nations in 2007 that’s become central to efforts to secure and assert Indigenous rights in countries around the world, as well as the principles of free prior and informed consent (FPIC). To ensure representation of Indigenous values and worldviews, more than half of Nia Tero’s advisory council, board, and senior staff are Indigenous.
“The founders of Nia Tero are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” Seligmann told Mongabay. “From our earliest conversations, we committed to building an organization with multiple perspectives and multiple cultures. In our charter, we call for Indigenous leadership on both the board and staff.
“To serve our mission, this commitment to diversity is essential. Our organization’s DNA must be aligned with the communities and cultures we support.”
Seligmann says the impetus for starting Nia Tero emerged from research in the mid-2010s that found Indigenous peoples and local communities steward vast areas of intact landscapes, while their lands have lower rates of deforestation and fire than many protected areas.
“As a whole, we have not fully appreciated the extraordinary resilience of Indigenous peoples. Despite 500 years of colonization, Indigenous peoples still inhabit, and formally or informally govern, more than 40% of the Earth,” Seligmann said. “Thanks to their guardianship, most of these lands have retained their ecological vitality and diversity. Indigenous peoples have not achieved this by fencing off their territories but through their way of life. Many Indigenous peoples commit their lives to their traditional lands and waters through a foundational belief in reciprocity — the way of life centered in mutual exchange and sharing among all beings, seen and unseen, and the Earth.
“In 2017, a small group of us decided to launch a new organization devoted to supporting Indigenous peoples in their efforts to protect their ways of life and their territories. For us, it was clear that humanity’s fate is directly dependent upon the ability of nations, and the public, to support Indigenous territorial rights and embrace Indigenous peoples’ belief in the reciprocal relationship between all beings and the Earth. We were determined to shape our organization around our shared belief in reciprocity as a foundational principle for all human societies.”
Given Seligmann’s prominence in the conservation sector, there was an immediate buzz and much speculation around Nia Tero when it formed. But the organization largely operated under the radar for its first three years while it quietly raised funds, recruited its team, devised its strategy through a consultative process, and began establishing partnerships with Indigenous communities. Nia Tero is now becoming more public facing, with an updated website, events, and unveiling a program to help Indigenous peoples tell their stories.
Nia Tero is now also engaging with other conservation organizations about becoming more inclusive of Indigenous peoples in their leadership and how to decolonize legacy institutions, practices, and approaches, according to Seligmann.
“For conservation groups to work effectively with Indigenous peoples, they must first support Indigenous peoples’ quest for rights and self-governance,” he said. “But the basic understanding of what that means has to come first.”
Seligmann spoke with Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett A. Butler about Nia Tero’s mission, broader issues in the conservation sector, and more during a February 2021 conversation.
AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER SELIGMANN
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in nature and conservation?
Peter Seligmann: As a young boy, my parents took me for walks in the Watchung Hills of central New Jersey. Back then, I collected salamanders and frogs, and fished in streams and ponds. When I was 13, my grandmother brought all 16 of her grandchildren to a ranch in Wyoming. Gathering us together was her way of reuniting our family, which had been dispersed when fleeing Nazi Germany. While my cousins hiked in the Tetons, I worked for the rancher, irrigating pasture. I observed birds, insects, and coyotes and watched the clouds drift over the mountains while I worked. At the age of 18, I began working as an intern for Frank and John Craighead on their grizzly and raptor studies in the Tetons and Yellowstone. It was at this point that I consciously realized my life’s journey had to focus on the interrelationship between humans and the natural world.
I have since come to understand and acknowledge that my childhood home in New Jersey is on the traditional lands of the Lenni Lenape peoples; and the lands of Wyoming that made such a tremendous impact on my life are the traditional territories of the Blackfeet and Shoshone peoples; and that these are and have been Indigenous lands since time immemorial.
My career focuses on listening to and learning from Indigenous individuals and communities. I’m deeply conscious of the urgency to acknowledge the wisdom of Indigenous cultures and address the distortions and limits of capitalism. I’ve made mistakes and stepped on many rakes. It’s been a humbling experience. But it’s also been incredibly rewarding.
You are best known for co-founding Conservation International (CI), where you continue to serve as Chairman of the Board. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the conservation realm since starting CI in the mid-1980s until now?
Today, unlike 40 years ago, there’s global recognition that environmental degradation is a social-justice issue. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are assuming leadership roles, have a greater voice, and are shaping the environmental dialogue to a degree that was unheard of in the mid 1980s.
Another bright spot is that now most nation states, schools, and businesses have embraced sustainability initiatives. The United Nations has led global commitments to climate, biodiversity, and sustainable development goals. Interest in environmental solutions across philanthropy, government, and finance is dramatically higher.
What gives me the greatest hope is how young people across the planet are demanding that all businesses and governments take urgent action on behalf of the Earth.
Public perception of CI is it traditionally takes a top-down approach to conservation, but Nia Tero’s philosophy seems like a departure from this. What inspired you to start Nia Tero? And what is Nia Tero’s mission and strategy?
I am aware of the public perception. From the beginning, I’ve thought of CI’s approach as “Head in the Sky and Feet in the Mud”. We attempted to link community-based conservation with national and global policy reform. A good example was the creation of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF). In 2000, CI designed and launched the CEPF in collaboration with the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility, and the government of Japan. This was the first time the World Bank made a major environmental commitment to give grants to local organizations, as opposed to loans to governments. The CEPF has expanded to include the European Union and the government of France. Over the course of the past 20 years, CEPF has granted $242,000,000 to 2,500 civil society organizations and individuals. More than 3,500 communities have benefited directly, and more than 70,000,000 hectares of key biodiversity areas across the Earth have gained improved protection.
The inspiration for launching Nia Tero emerged in 2015, as scientists began to recognize the important role our natural world plays in capturing and sequestering carbon. When mapping the most significant locations for nature-based climate solutions, we learned that more than 40 percent of the Earth is under the guardianship of Indigenous peoples, and at least one third of the above-ground carbon is on their territories—along with 80 percent of global biodiversity and 40 percent of the Earth’s healthy ecosystems.
This understanding led to numerous conversations and learning between Indigenous and non-Indigenous friends. Five hundred years ago, Western societies began to aggressively colonize Indigenous lands. In 1452, the Pope issued a papal bull that granted the “princes of Europe” the right to conquer and kill non-Christians and take their territories. This edict was, essentially, the beginning of a colonization nightmare that continues to the present day.
As a whole, we have not fully appreciated the extraordinary resilience of Indigenous peoples. Despite 500 years of colonization, Indigenous peoples still inhabit, and formally or informally govern, more than 40 percent of the Earth. Thanks to their guardianship, most of these lands have retained their ecological vitality and diversity. Indigenous peoples have not achieved this by fencing off their territories but through their way of life. Many Indigenous peoples commit their lives to their traditional lands and waters through a foundational belief in reciprocity—the way of life centered in mutual exchange and sharing among all beings, seen and unseen, and the Earth.
In 2017, a small group of us decided to launch a new organization devoted to supporting Indigenous peoples in their efforts to protect their ways of life and their territories. For us, it was clear that humanity’s fate is directly dependent upon the ability of nations, and the public, to support Indigenous territorial rights and embrace Indigenous peoples’ belief in the reciprocal relationship between all beings and the Earth. We were determined to shape our organization around our shared belief in reciprocity as a foundational principle for all human societies. We named the new organization Nia Tero, which in Esperanto means our Earth, with our referring to all beings, human and non-human.
To achieve our mission, Nia Tero has established a core principle of embracing and honoring this spiritual connection between humanity and all other beings. We have a commitment to serve Indigenous communities in their self-determined pathways. This journey is not short. It requires endurance. Also fundamental to our organization is a commitment to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples, including the right to self-governance of traditional territories. To be both a strong ally and an effective bridge among contrasting cultures, Nia Tero has built a board of directors and a staff that are and will continue to be at least 50 percent Indigenous.
We are fortunate to be guided by a remarkable board of directors, chaired by Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, a Kankana-ey Igorot leader from the Cordillera of the Philippines. Vicky is joined by six other Indigenous leaders representing a diversity of cultures, including the Waorani of the Ecuadorian Amazon, the Māori of Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Dene of the Northwest Territories of Canada, the Miskita of Nicaragua, the Eastern Band of Cherokee of the United States, and the Kanaka Maoli of Hawai’i. They are joined by five uniquely qualified non-Indigenous leaders from business, philanthropy, and academia. Our board ensures that we stay true to our mission and our commitment to being a bridge between cultures and a strong ally to Indigenous peoples.
Guided by our board as well as an exceptional Indigenous Advisory Council, our strategy has evolved into two different but interconnected streams.
A cornerstone of our strategy is to focus on specific, large-scale mosaics of territories under the care of Indigenous peoples and of global significance in terms of climate security and biodiversity. In these territories, we collaborate with and support Indigenous peoples and their chosen allies. We have started by focusing on three core regions: the boreal forests of Canada, the tropical forests of the northern Amazon, and the islands and oceans of the western and central Pacific. Going forward, we hope to be able to build partnerships with Indigenous communities in Africa, Asia, and beyond.
In these major place-based initiatives, we support Indigenous partners in a variety of ways, such as granting short and long-term operating funds and technical support for the implementation of their collective vision of well-being. These engagements vary based on the requests of the communities and the realities of each territory. They include ensuring the security of Indigenous leaders; monitoring and protecting their territories from invasion; enhancing political and legal frameworks for rights and self-governance; innovating technology breakthroughs for energy and food sovereignty; increasing self-defined enterprise and livelihood opportunities; and expanding the public’s support of Indigenous guardianship.
This second strategy concentrates on initiatives that are not focused on specific territories. Instead, they are regional and global interventions with the purpose of supporting Indigenous guardianship of territory across all continents. We invest where we believe the impacts of partnership are precedent-setting and will have a scalable effect. Across every one of these initiatives is the determination to support and strengthen the capacities of Indigenous peoples and address the diversity of racist challenges and obstacles they continue to face as they seek to secure their traditional homelands, communities, and cultures.
Our primary amplification and scaling approaches include supporting Indigenous peoples’ efforts to transform policies and legal frameworks impacting territorial self-governance; increasing Indigenous peoples’ access to financial, enterprise, and technical resources for territorial guardianship, including the elevation of Indigenous technologies; expanding public understanding and commitment to Indigenous guardianship and wisdom through communications and storytelling; and addressing the threats to Indigenous leaders from illegal and corrupt governments and industries. And, for the past year, we have supported Indigenous communities across the globe in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.
It might be helpful to give a few examples of our policy and storytelling engagements.
With major support from nation states, foundations, and conservation organizations, the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity has been pushing a concept called 30X30. The idea is simple: place 30 percent of the Earth into some form of permanent protected status by 2030. Since well over 30 percent of the Earth is under the control of Indigenous peoples, much of the effort has been focused on placing Indigenous territories into protected status. We believe no decisions affecting Indigenous territories should be made without Indigenous peoples’ participation and agreement, following the principles of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). For this reason, we have actively supported the participation by Indigenous leaders and Indigenous policy experts in these negotiations.
Another dimension of Nia Tero’s policy engagement is to support, formulate, and enable breakthroughs in policy concepts. An example of this is our collaborative work with partners on Ocean Kinship, which endeavors to establish legal standing for oceans, rivers, and mountains within national legal systems. This concept draws upon the groundbreaking precedent of legal personhood for the Wanganui River in New Zealand. Personhood of lands and waters is a core part of the worldview of all Indigenous peoples and is essential for moving towards a reciprocal relationship with the Earth. However, it is still, for now, a foreign concept to most contemporary Western frameworks.
Our storytelling program has a similar range of purposes. In our core regions, storytelling elevates and amplifies the power and voices of Indigenous peoples for the purpose of furthering Indigenous guardianship. At the regional and global scale, our storytelling work aims to elevate the appreciation and grasp of Indigenous ways and means among targeted audiences and the broader public. The simple truth is that Indigenous ideas, and the Indigenous voices that can genuinely share them, have been throttled and oppressed for centuries. Nia Tero actively supports and amplifies these voices and seeks to engage other partners in this endeavor.
These two approaches, place-based and amplifying, are interconnected and have shaped our structure, the choreography of our investments, our selection of partners, and our staffing. They have also shaped our principles and strategies to support the influence and contribution of Indigenous peoples at global scales.
One of the major criticisms of “Big Conservation” is it has often failed to be inclusive, especially of historically marginalized communities. Is that changing? And what is Nia Tero doing to change the status quo?
The large conservation organizations have varying origins. Some evolved from European efforts to protect certain species of plants and animals, while others emerged in the mid-20th century from local efforts to protect beautiful places. All these various organizations carried different missions and worked with a wide variety of different communities. CI, the one I know best, was born in the late 1980s with a focus on the interdependence of humans and healthy ecosystems. However, they all selected from similar hiring pools, which were disproportionately white and male. These organizations’ lack of diversity was a missed opportunity on their part. It was also a reflection of deep, systemic racism and inequality in the US and Europe.
This is changing. Today, environmentalism is seen as more than the protection of nature and natural resources. A healthy environment is finally being recognized as a basic right for all people. Fortunately, as more Black, Indigenous, and People of Color enter the field of conservation, they are bringing with them a desperately needed awareness of the broad crises of environmental justice.
We have recommended to all of these large organizations that their boards and staff include Indigenous leaders. We also recommend decolonization workshops led by Indigenous peoples. For conservation groups to work effectively with Indigenous peoples, they must first support Indigenous peoples’ quest for rights and self-governance. But the basic understanding of what that means has to come first.
The founders of Nia Tero are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. From our earliest conversations, we committed to building an organization with multiple perspectives and multiple cultures. In our charter, we call for Indigenous leadership on both the board and staff. We have achieved that. As I mentioned earlier, our board chair is Indigenous, and over half of our board identifies as Indigenous. Our staff embodies a similar mix of cultures and identities. While the CEO is non-Indigenous (that’s me), I have made the commitment that my successor will be of Indigenous identity.
To serve our mission, this commitment to diversity is essential. Our organization’s DNA must be aligned with the communities and cultures we support. Our program leads are predominantly Indigenous, as are our core partners. Most of our resources go either to Indigenous organizations or to the allies that Indigenous organizations select. For example, in Brazil’s Vale do Javarí, the home of an estimated 16 Indigenous communities in voluntary isolation, our work has been to support an Indigenous-led NGO that supports the rights and security of the people of this very large and roadless region. In the boreal forests of the Northwest Territories of Canada, our support goes to the Indigenous Leadership Initiative, a First Nations initiative that is dedicated to strengthening Indigenous nationhood for the fulfillment of Indigenous cultural responsibilities to their lands. And in Pasifika (Oceania), Nia Tero works with traditional leaders of the Pacific Island nations in pursuit of sovereignty over their ocean territories.
The future of all humanity depends upon the health of the Earth. Indigenous peoples have the cultures, ancestral knowledge, lived experience and territories essential for humanity to escape the current global ecological crisis. Yet the efforts of Indigenous peoples to maintain these interconnected assets are constantly under threat.
To address these threats, governments, bilateral institutions, and other funders must vastly increase the financial assets flowing to Indigenous leaders. And they must do so in flexible, respectful ways that strengthen Indigenous peoples’ organizations, without layers and layers of bureaucracy.
We support and elevate the passing of experience, training, and capacity to the next generation of Indigenous peoples and their chosen allies. We believe in fellowships that provide openings and opportunity for Indigenous peoples. We believe all decisions and policies that affect Indigenous peoples and their territories must be made with Indigenous peoples present, which is why we work to strengthen the legal and policy skills of our Indigenous partners. And we believe Indigenous peoples must be heard and included in all instances following principles of self-determination and Free Prior and Informed Consent.
We are committed to elevating and amplifying Indigenous voices whose stories can share ideas of reciprocity and right relationship between humanity and nature. These personal narratives—shared through film, radio, poetry, dance, song, visual art, and written stories—have the power to inspire millions of people around the world.
Another criticism of some big conservation groups is the perceived coziness with big corporations, some of which have significant environmental footprints. The argument is often made that engagement is an effective strategy for driving change, but in the context of Indigenous Peoples who’ve at times been victimized by these companies, the dynamics are different. So on that front, how is Nia Tero going about finding resources for its work?
I agree that many corporations, driven by the need to report on quarterly earnings and the myopic focus on maximized profits, have caused very serious social and environmental damage. Fortunately, due to the power of social media and the expectations of employees, shareholders, and customers, many companies and their leadership are working hard to change their behavior. If social pressure continues, I expect this trend to accelerate and the harmful social and ecological impacts of corporations to diminish.
However, this in no way reduces the stark reality that governments and corporations, particularly those in extractive industries, have systemically exploited Indigenous peoples for centuries. Across the globe, governments and corporations have systematically confiscated the forests, minerals, fisheries, and lands of Indigenous peoples. Since the birth of the US, our government has signed and violated hundreds of treaties, murdered hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, and stolen the vast majority of their lands. Our nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans is a stain on our history.
Nia Tero strives to be a trusted and trustworthy ally to Indigenous peoples. We seek to direct financial and non-financial resources to our Indigenous partners, who strive to sustain their cultures and thriving territories. Our intention is not to compete with Indigenous organizations for scarce funds. Our work is to increase the availability of funds by securing funding from sources, or for activities, in ways that best assist our Indigenous colleagues and allies.
The financing we have received comes from philanthropists who share our commitment to Indigenous peoples. They share our belief that ensuring the rights of Indigenous peoples is absolutely essential for humanity to address climate change and to ensure the Earth retains her health, ecological diversity, and vitality for all our descendants. At this time, our organizational expenses are covered by our founding members. One hundred percent of additional funds donated to Nia Tero go directly to our Indigenous partners.
We also hope that governments will join our efforts through financial support of Indigenous guardianship, and pass legislation to ensure the rights of Indigenous peoples’ control and governance of their traditional lands and territories.
Many Indigenous communities are leveraging technologies as tools in the struggle to win recognition of the traditional lands, protect their territories, and even steward traditional knowledge. Nia Tero recently held a conference on this subject. What were the key takeaways from this meeting?
Indigenous peoples use, and have always used, all kinds of technology since time immemorial. These tools and technologies are generally derived from a deep understanding of the reciprocal existence of humanity with other beings. Technology, both ancient and contemporary, helps support reciprocity values that are vitally important for Indigenous peoples in their efforts to secure and protect thriving homes and places. At Nia Tero we are working hard to align with that wisdom.
Technologists usually deploy contemporary Western technologies on Indigenous territories without fully engaging Indigenous peoples in the co-design, adaptation, or deployment of technology. Nia Tero and our partners at The Tenure Facility seek to use the Technodigenous gathering as a way to bring Indigenous innovators together with technologists. Our hope is to create engagement that leads to better understanding around design, adaptation, and deployment of important technology with Indigenous peoples. Rather than retrofitting existing tools and platforms designed for other constituencies, the idea is for Indigenous concepts to drive innovation. The result will deliver best-in-class technological innovations that benefit us globally, born from the unique urgency of Indigenous peoples who are caring for their territories.
The first Technodigenous gathering took place in October 2020. We focused that gathering on the sovereignty of transportation, because Indigenous peoples often depend on fossil fuels for their transportation. In many places around the world, Indigenous peoples’ only access to fossil fuels is through governments, NGOs, and corporations. This adversely impacts Indigenous peoples’ freedom to achieve full self-determination and impairs their ability to protect their territories. At the virtual conference, Pasifika peoples shared how they have revived outrigger canoes, which led to them being finally recognized as outstanding navigators. Achuar People of Ecuador shared their work with Kara Solar to test different prototypes of solar-powered canoes. As a result of Technodigenous, Indigenous peoples from Amazonia and Melanesia now are working towards designing and testing their own solar-powered canoes in collaboration with Achuar and Kara Solar technicians. We expect that by the end of 2021, some of these canoes will be fully functioning and supporting Indigenous peoples’ efforts to protect their territories.
Nia Tero is also working with Indigenous partners and technologists, including those with deep experience in satellite and information technology, to design what could one day become a world-class monitoring platform managed by Indigenous peoples. This land-monitoring platform, designed in close collaboration with Indigenous leaders, would help Indigenous guardians map, monitor, and protect their territories. It will help them catch emerging risks in real time; take rapid and effective action; deter future encroachment; and reduce the loss of vital habitat and biodiversity. This platform will exemplify a “biocultural” approach that puts Indigenous interests first, embraces cultural perspectives connected to territory, and recognizes mutual interdependence between diverse ecologies and human well-being.
Until relatively recently, some environmental issues, like wilderness conservation, had bipartisan support. Do you see opportunities for conservation to unify politically divided Americans?
I do not believe that wilderness conservation is going to unify a politically divided US. It will, however, be a good place for collaboration and shelter from ideological storms.
Certainly, bipartisan support for wilderness conservation will continue in the US. Both Democrats and Republicans are supportive of wilderness conservation as a concept, but we cannot let down our guard. The support for wilderness conservation breaks down when the greed starts flowing. Think about the struggle to get the Pebble Mine stopped, even when it was clear that it posed a real and present danger to the extraordinary salmon runs of Bristol Bay. And today, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is under siege from fossil fuel interests spurred on by the previous Administration.
There is a chance that the indiscriminate pain caused by climate change and environmental degradation will be so widely felt that Republican and Democratic constituencies will demand their political representatives work collaboratively towards solutions. Unfortunately, this will only occur when human suffering extends beyond Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), working class, and poor communities to affect the middle and upper classes—that is, when it can no longer be ignored by those in power.
COVID-19 has caused disruptions on a scale not seen in generations. What do you think we’ll learn from the pandemic, and does it present opportunities to shift humanity’s relationship with the world around us? Do you see an opportunity for conservation to be part of the post-COVID economic recovery?
The conversation around COVID-19 has largely glossed over the relationship between humans and dangerous viruses as well as our relationships with other species. Most of the public is far removed from the distant hotspots of commercial trade where wild live animals are sold and where dangerous viruses make the jump from animal species to humans. The danger, however, is not just from distant places. The culling of millions of COVID-19-infected minks in industrial farms in Denmark speaks to additional hazards in the way we raise animals for meat and other products. These high-density settings also present great ethical and epidemiological dangers to society. Viruses even more deadly than COVID-19 will continue to infect human populations so long as we continue to subsidize and provide other incentives to high-density animal production or trade, and so long as local communities continue to subsist off of wild animal “wet” markets for well-being.
What is absolutely clear is that economic-development strategies that do not take into account environmental health and conservation are a real and present danger to families and communities. This is why the United Nations has established the Sustainable Development Goals, which directly link health, poverty, women’s rights, food security, economic opportunity, and social justice to climate change and to the protection of Earth’s oceans, rivers, forests, ecosystems, and biodiversity.
Fortunately, there is a new generation of consumers who communicate powerfully through social media. Young people are challenging how foods are produced in terms of chemicals that impact personal health, emissions that threaten climate stability, and supply chains that destroy ecological systems and species.
And businesses and regulators are beginning to listen. They are aware that social media shines a bright light and that businesses are instantly branded as either a good partner or a predator. Companies do not want to be perceived as predators. The old argument that environmental protection undercuts economic vitality is being seen for what it has always been: self-serving and short-sighted. Asking a community or a nation to choose between environmental health or jobs is as ignorant as asking a person to choose between having a healthy heart or healthy lungs. We cannot live, let alone thrive, without both.
We are in a new era: the age of sustainability. Innovations in sustainability abound in every aspect of enterprise, from manufacturing to food production to energy development. These innovations are increasing efficiencies, reducing waste, saving money, and creating remarkable economic opportunities while improving the lives of billions of people. Our responsibility is to ensure that everyone understands how the future of humanity depends upon the natural world remaining healthy.
The US has a new President. What should be the top priorities for the Biden Administration for climate, conservation, and biodiversity?
The Biden Administration has appointed some great nominees on multiple environmental fronts. Perhaps most significant is the nomination of Deb Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo Peoples, to lead the Department of Interior. This selection acknowledges the powerful truth that there is a direct linkage between environmental security and social justice.
The Biden Administration will push hard on climate justice at home. It will work with both Democratic and Republican legislators on crafting regulatory frameworks to encourage significant reductions in CO2 emissions. The Administration will re-engage with the community of nations to drive climate targets and climate action, and it will emphasize that moments of transition offer exceptional opportunities for innovation and economic growth. In addition, the Administration will double down on biodiversity and wilderness conservation through foreign assistance and through legislative and executive action.
There will be intense policy debates for sure. But the public, especially younger voters, have already demonstrated they are a powerful force for change. They expect the Biden Administration to be equally committed to addressing social justice and environmental health.
A trend in conservation has been to put an economic value on the services afforded by healthy and productive ecosystems. This is intended to put conservation in terms that corporations and governments generally use for decision-making; however, it also leads to land being solely valued for its economic use, ignoring its spiritual, intrinsic, and cultural value as well as the rights and wellbeing of its inhabitants and the ecosystem itself. Indigenous Peoples often have a very different perspective, viewing the land they steward as a central part of their identity. In your view, what should Western society draw from this line of thinking as we work toward addressing the challenges we face?
I do not disagree with the effort by environmentalists to place an economic value on the services the natural world provides for our societal needs. Our market-based system, which focuses on short-term economic gains and quarterly returns, will certainly continue developing approaches to assess the economic value of ecosystem services, such as water and pollinators, both in terms of their contributions to the agricultural industry and in the expenses that are incurred when these services are unavailable.
However, our market-based approach is notoriously shortsighted and does not have the capacity to anticipate the costs of environmental destruction to human society, including the astronomical costs of climate change. Our Western mindset needs some framework to underscore the way all of humanity is dependent upon a healthy planet. As Biblical fires, storms, droughts, and viral plagues become our common experience across the globe, the idea that we must cherish the Earth seems as obvious as the other core principles embraced by the faiths of billions of peoples. Perhaps it would have been wise to have an 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Cherish the Earth.
And no, this idea is not novel. It is foundational for the vast majority of Indigenous peoples, who believe the fate and well-being of all life are forever intertwined. The Māori of Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Waorani of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and the Inuit of Greenland are just a few Indigenous cultures throughout the world who share the deep belief that all beings and all life are relatives.
In 2019, Donald Trump made a bid to buy Greenland. When Greenland’s Inuit Premier, Kim Kielsen, was asked about this bid by a business journalist from Bloomberg, he responded that he thought the offer was a joke. When pressed on why, Premier Kielsen responded that the land of the Inuit was a relative to the people, and the offer was akin to asking them to sell their sister, their brother, or their mother. He went on to say that the Inuit, like most other Indigenous peoples, do not see their land or any of her creatures as commodities to be sold. They are relations.
Just imagine if Western society took the same approach. We wouldn’t monetize every acre on Earth. Instead, we would cherish each place and give thanks for the gifts of sustenance that the Earth and her inhabitants provide for our families and our children.
What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
I share young people’s concern about the inhumanity of careless destruction and damage to the planet. I’ve devoted my entire professional career to help turn us away from that destructive path. With these efforts and experience, I come away optimistic and feel a deep and abiding respect for Earth and her amazing resilience. My message to young people is to stay concerned, get engaged, and hold onto your hope. Mother Earth will survive. Of course, an important question for humanity is: Will we? So I say, “hang in there.” Humanity is not done yet. We have the ability and the wisdom to change how we relate to Earth. Take the time to learn from Indigenous cultures.
Youth have the innovative spirit and the open mindedness to challenge conventional wisdom and to ensure the health of our Earth is not sacrificed for short-term economic benefits for the few.
To all young people reading this, I say: You have the platforms and the power of the purse now and in the future to force companies to change how they operate. Your collective power is in your energy and dedication to transform the DNA of companies so they no longer harm the Earth and communities in the years to come. Keep the pressure on. Use your voice and your vote to hold politicians accountable for their votes, their statements, and their behavior. You have the numbers, when collectively deployed, to ensure that politicians make wise decisions about our collective future.
AND REMEMBER: BE VIGILANT! STAY RESILIENT!!
Correction: The original version of this post erroneously stated the interview took place in February 2020, rather than February 2021