As conservationists we often face accusations of being a bit “doom and gloom”. Sure enough, there are lots of challenges facing WWF and other conservation organizations and, as our recent Living Planet Report suggested, now is a critical time for us if we’re to secure a healthy future for our one and only planet. Happily, there are grounds for optimism, green shoots, reasons to be cheerful.
Last week we spent two days in Dulwich, London with like-minded folk from all around the world at the inaugural Conservation Optimism conference with other Earth Optimism conferences also taking place simultaneously around the world. With all the negative and miserable news we hear in the media about declines in ecosystem health and biodiversity it is tough for even the most passionate and positive souls not to get disheartened. So one of the main purposes of this event was to inspire and uplift current and future conservationists as well as motivate the public, business and government that their actions can make a difference. At WWF of course we strongly believe that positive change is possible and has been delighted to support the event.
By the end of the conference we certainly came out feeling excited and optimistic. In order to bring about the change we need it is clearly critical to engage those with different agendas, but it is also important for those with similar goals to come and share success stories and useful lessons and inspire! Across the two days we heard numerous positive stories including how faith and conservation can bring success, about the importance of nature for mental health (hosted by WWF’s Will Ashley Cantello), about how to use marketing tactics from the for-profit world to inspire change, and we also heard from a lady whose performed under the job title of Chief Mermaid and Executive Director who had done some incredible work in the Philippine Sea. Perhaps the one thread that ran through most of the presentations was the need for good, plentiful and healthy food – the common denominator that can bring everyone together! I am happy to report that lunch was satisfying.
Of course, we at WWF towers have successes to share too. So we organised a “chat show” during which our wonderful colleagues Emma, Debbie, Jamie, Cat and Chris – ably martialed by our “host”, Will Day – entertained the audience with the great work they and colleagues have done to change key decisions which affect the environment. In our current strategy we set out an aim to understand and influence how such decisions are made – by governments, companies or by groups of stakeholders. From this, we’ve honed different tactics which can be deployed according to circumstance.
To kick off, Chris shared insights from the great campaign WWF colleagues ran to stave off the most immediate threat of oil exploration which risked damaging Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park and a World Heritage Site. With invaluable support from our supporters, WWF made it clear to senior company executives and shareholders in Soco that places like Virunga were “no go” for such risky activities. Soco decided to pull out of Virunga and made a commitment not to go into any other World Heritage sites or their buffer zones.
Emma lifted spirits further with her reflections on how we have encouraged government, business and NGOs to come together and voluntarily agree to a permanent moratorium on harvesting soy from newly deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon. Since the moratorium has been in place, less than 1% of soy now comes from newly deforested land, and have set new standards for mitigating impacts on tropical forest habitats and species such as Orangutan.
However, sometimes a co-operative approach isn’t enough. We’ve taken governments to court previously where we’ve concluded that their policies are not only damaging to the environment but unlawful to boot. Debbie talked about the cases we’ve taken to Judicial Review in response to inadequate Whitehall plans for safeguarding our wonderful rivers. There is always a danger that a judge will disagree, but Debbie highlighted one recent instance where thanks to WWF, the UK Government was deemed to have been acting unlawfully in protecting rivers under EU law which led to a consent order for the government to improve strategy.
Supporting communities is a key element of WWF’s work around the world. Jamie told the audience about the proposed Pasto Mocoa road scheme planned to stretch across most biodiverse forests in the Amazon. Our relationship with local communities in the region helped bring them to the negotiating table and broker an agreement with the Colombia government and the Inter-America Development bank for a road which is more sustainable and doubles the protected area surrounding it.
Finally, WWF has long set its stall as a science-based organisation. Having good evidence and data on the environmental and social implications and trade-offs of different economic development options underpins our work. Such information can be powerful. Cat highlighted a particularly impressive example involving the world’s biggest dam in China. Through close collaboration with eminent Chinese scientists, WWF has been able to persuade the operators of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River to change the times when the sluice gates open so that water flows downstream at the right time to benefit fish populations. Meanwhile WWF-China gives coverage to the first eflow release in 2011.
There’s always more work to do at WWF. But doom and gloom? Pah! We prefer to grin and share it.
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Co-written by Dave Tickner, Chief Adviser – Freshwater, Science and Policy