In 1995, a young Patricia Zurita was researching freshwater dolphins in the Andean mountains when the latest bout of border violence erupted between her home country of Ecuador and neighboring Peru. His team’s conservation work has been turned upside down. Soon after, however, those same efforts helped settle the decades-long dispute — through a peace deal anchored in the creation of two cross-border ecological parks.
Now CEO of BirdLife International, the world’s largest conservation partnership, Zurita passionately believes that saving other species is inseparable from ensuring human survival. “You can’t tear a strand out of a spider’s web without destroying the whole thing,” she told delegates during a speech at this week’s COP15 biodiversity summit, where a project to Parisian-style deal to save nature is at stake.
Preservation the objectives set at previous COPs have been lack by wide margins. New Data from the UK’s Natural History Museum shows how human pressures have caused plants, fungi and animals around the world to plummet to 75% of their original abundance. In Britain, the situation is worse, with half of the native fauna has disappeared through the centuries. This means that the planet has already passed what researchers consider the safe limit to prevent “ecological meltdown”, beyond which successful pollination and harvests cannot be assured. According to last year’s WWF Living Planet Report, animal populations alone fell by nearly two-thirds between 1970 and 2016.
When we spoke on Zoom, Zurita had just filmed a video message for the conference. Rainbow colored bee-eater birds have been set as wallpaper. Yet her own focus, she explained, was the need for governments to replace shiny promises with concrete actions and measurable results.
“We can’t set wonderful new goals and then find out five years – or worse, ten years – that we’ve failed,” she stressed. “It’s not about isolating biodiversity and just letting the ‘greens’, as we’re often called, complain. People are paying much more attention to the climate crisis and not realizing that we have already lost a lot of nature. »
For Zurita, an environmental economist by training, it is essential that governments and the private sector now commit the necessary financing to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity. This means ending support for destructive forms of infrastructure and agriculture, such as EU grants for monocultures. And that means funneling that money into incentives for projects that help people and wildlife thrive. Economies must be transformed to become “nature-friendly”, she said.
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Zurita is, as she reminded me, the first woman from a developing country to lead an international conservation NGO, and keenly aware of the difficulty that can be in moving economies away from dependence on extractive industries. . At this week’s COP15, she hopes the launch of a new project will provide an “extraordinary test case” for the future of conservation funding.
As part of a $3 billion partnership, the planet’s most threatened ‘flyway’ – a collection of wetlands stretching from Siberia to New Zealand that birds use to to rest and feed during their migrations – will benefit from increased protection. Instead of continuing to build and pollute wetlands along the route, loans and grants will go to projects that can help ecosystems recover and local people prepare for the challenges of climate change.
“The flyway is an organizing principle, but what we are really doing is designing a new nature-based economic system,” Zurita explained of the partnership between BirdLife International, the Asian Development Bank and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership.
“Imagine you are a poor country applying for a loan from a multilateral or bilateral lending agency, they will come and assess how risky it is to give you money,” she said. “And normally that valuation is based on how much minerals, oil or agriculture you produce – not how much importance you place on your nature or human rights.” The migration path aims to change that and make custody a factor that banks will see as reducing the risk of a loan.
“I realized [conservation economics] is not necessarily about putting the perfect price on nature. It’s about understanding that we are one of millions of species on the planet and that we have a responsibility to protect it.
Zurita believes that this type of economic approach could become “the future of development”. Yet even in the realm of conservation, bringing nations together is not without tension. Last year, BirdLife made headlines for its decision to sever ties with its partner organization in Taiwan. The local group had refused to change its name in accordance with Chinese policy (and UN protocol) and was withholding signing a statement that it would not advocate for Taiwan independence.
“The reason BirdLife made the decision to remove the Taiwanese partner from the partnership was that it did not follow the rules that all partners voted on,” Zurita said. “And those rules include ensuring that all partners remain apolitical. When we asked them to change their name, because their name is a political statement, it [was] not a new request.
But can conservation organizations like BirdLife hope to remain apolitical when it comes to advocating for improved land rights for indigenous peoples? “We respect what the United Nations has agreed to use as protocols. The United Nations says Indigenous peoples should have the right to their land – and we stand for that.
Securing a new plan to save all life on Earth will require setting aside short-term nationalist thinking – both at the virtual COP15 meeting this week, as well as its face-to-face follow-up in China next April. New cross-border initiatives, such as the Flyway Partnership, will help achieve this goal. But old geopolitical tensions and economic dependencies will also likely play their part. “I believe nature heals,” Zurita said. The world can only hope that she is right.
[See also: Why success at COP26 is also vital to stem biodiversity loss]