$5B conservation plan offers new approach, but faces hurdles

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Jeff Bezos

FILE – In this Sept. 19, 2019, file photo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks during his news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. A pledge by nine grantmakers to give $5 billion to conservation efforts that address threats to biodiversity and to help curb climate change is taking a different approach than philanthropy has embraced in the past — one that may require those organizations to do things differently. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

A pledge by nine grantmakers to give $5 billion to conservation efforts that address threats to biodiversity and to help curb climate change is taking a different approach than philanthropy has embraced in the past — one that may require those organizations to do things differently.

The announcement made last week of what the grantmakers are calling the “Protecting Our Planet Challenge” was designed to help jump-start support for the global effort, dubbed 30×30, to protect 30% of the land and 30% of oceans by 2030, which 72 countries have already signed onto. It will be discussed as a possible global goal in the Convention on Biological Diversity, a United Nations treaty similar to climate agreements.

Jeff Bezos announced last week that his new organization, the Bezos Earth Fund, will contribute $1 billion to this effort. He said previous conservation efforts had failed because they did not include local and Indigenous people. “We won’t make those same mistakes,” he said. “We’ll support a new generation of programs. They’re led by the local communities that focus on livelihoods and incentives and offer better paths to prosperity.”

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation expects to contribute $1 billion. The Rainforest Trust and Wyss Foundation each pledged $500 million. The other grant makers are Arcadia, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Nia Tero, Re:wild, and the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation. The groups have not announced which nonprofits will receive the funds, but the Earth Fund said that it will direct money to the Congo Basin, tropical Andes, and tropical Pacific Ocean.

They have all pledged to work with Indigenous and local communities in their conservation efforts. Studies have found that natural places managed by Indigenous people contain healthy ecosystems and vast biodiversity. Today there are very few areas left where people don’t live, says James Deutsch, CEO of the Rainforest Trust.

“Most of the protected areas that are created going forward will be all or partly owned and all or partly managed by local people or Indigenous people, which is a very positive development,” he says.

Supporting those groups in their effort to gain legal title to their lands and to enable them to manage and protect them in remote areas around the world is no simple task, particularly on such a scale. Some groups do not have legal entities required to receive grants. They may be hard to contact, and there may be cultural and language barriers. One answer is to work with organizations that already have ties to these places that can distribute funds to the most effective groups, says Brian O’Donnell, director of the Campaign for Nature, which advocates for the “30×30” goal.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, like many other big groups, has shifted its conservation efforts to those that include local and Indigenous residents, says the group’s CEO, Cristián Samper. But even that level of expertise will not be enough given the scale of the effort, he says. New Indigenous organizations that know and understand local leaders and communities may be needed to help disburse that money effectively.

The Earth Fund will be looking to work with groups like that. “The most important things in the world that need doing cannot be done by large organizations,” says Andrew Steer, CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund. “They will be done by many, sometimes hundreds, sometimes even thousands of smaller groups.”

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a contributor to this effort, has already been supporting indigenous communities in the Amazon. The areas managed by Indigenous communities fared better during the fires in the Amazon than other areas, says Aileen Lee, the program officer in charge of the foundation’s Environmental Conservation Program. The foundation funding not only helped conserve those areas so they continued to help absorb carbon and promote biodiversity, but they also were more resilient to the effects of climate change, she says.

Bloomberg Philanthropies, another contributor to the $5 billion effort, already works closely with local governments and some Indigenous communities to help conserve ocean ecosystems, says Melissa Wright, who leads Bloomberg’s Vibrant Oceans Initiative. It collaborated with mayors and other local leaders in Brazil, Indonesia, Micronesia, the Philippines, and other places. The foundation helps with data tracking and scientific research and helps with policy development so these communities can establish marine protections.

O’Donnell says philanthropic groups may need to accept more risk because much of the world’s biodiversity is in places where there are wars or unstable or corrupt governments — not ideal places to work. “If we just took all of those places off the table, some of the most nature-rich places on the planet would be off-limits to philanthropy. And if that happened, we would lose some of the most incredible places on the planet,” O’Donnell says. “It’s going to take a culture shift within philanthropy.”

The Earth Fund plans to embrace some risk, says Steer. “Philanthropy can and should take big, calculated risks because those will be necessary if we’re going to win the battle,” he says. But there also needs to be accountability and a willingness to learn from failures.

Despite the historic size of the announcement, much more funding is needed from government and philanthropy to meet this goal, says O’Donnell. According to a study by Cambridge University researchers and Campaign for Nature, if 30 percent of the land and seas are conserved, it will cost $140 billion a year to effectively manage those areas. Right now governments spend about $24 billion managing protected areas, mostly in the United States and Canada, he says.

Just last week the European Union announced that it would double its funding for biodiversity. In the few days since the announcement, the Earth Fund’s Steer says he has had conversations with government officials who are showing a new interest in conservation.

“The idea is to sort of create this tone of wow, actually, there are people that really care about this that are going out on a limb and are going the extra mile to put in serious resources,” he says. And that can help push governments and corporations to commit funding.

This is not the first big conservation pledge. In 2018 a group of foundations pledged $500 million, and others have come before that, says Leila Salazar-López, executive director of Amazon Watch, which funds Indigenous communities in the Amazon Rainforest. But she says the organizations she works with did not receive funds from earlier announcements.

And while the 30×30 goal is laudable, she says that the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin, a federation of Indigenous people living in the Amazon, have called for 80% of the Amazon to be conserved by 2025. In October the International Union for Conservation of Nature also adopted this position, something the Wildlife Conservation Society supports. too.

Salazar-López agrees that philanthropy has recognized that many of its past conservation approaches have failed, and she hopes that change has arrived.

“It is time for direct investment in Indigenous people’s territories, in their land conservation, in their forest management,” she says. “I hope that this pledge of $5 billion for conservation will go to the places that need it most. And to the people that need it most.”

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This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Jim Rendon is a senior writer at the Chronicle. Email: jim.rendon@philanthropy.com. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.

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