In 1995, a young Patricia Zurita was researching freshwater dolphins in the Andean mountains when the last episode of border violence erupted between her home country, Ecuador, and neighboring Peru. The conservation work of his team has been turned upside down. Soon after, however, those same efforts helped settle the decades-long dispute – thanks to a peace deal based on 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 human survival. “You can’t tear a strand of a spider’s web without destroying it all,” she told delegates in a speech at this week’s COP15 biodiversity summit, where a draft Parisian-style agreement to save nature is at stake.
Preservation the targets set at previous COPs have been largely missed. New data from the UK’s Natural History Museum shows how human pressures have plunged plants, fungi and animals around the world to 75% of their original abundance. In Britain the situation is worse, with half of the native fauna lost over the centuries. This means that the planet has already crossed what researchers see as the safe limit to prevent “ecological meltdown”, beyond which successful pollination and harvesting 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-eaters have been set as wallpaper. Yet she explained that she was focusing on the need for governments to replace brilliant promises with concrete actions and measurable results.
“We cannot set new wonderful goals and then find out five years – or worse, ten years – later that we have failed,” she said. “It’s not about isolating biodiversity and letting the“ green people ”, as we are often called, complain. People have paid a lot more attention to the climate crisis and don’t realize 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 funding to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. This means ending support for destructive forms of infrastructure and agriculture, such as EU subsidies for monocultures. And that means funneling that money into incentives for projects that help people and wildlife thrive. Economies must be transformed to become “natural positive,” she said.
As she reminded me, Zurita is the first woman from a developing country to lead an international conservation NGO, and she is well aware of the difficulty of lifting economies out of dependence on extractive industries. . At this week’s COP15, she hopes that launching a new project will provide an “extraordinary test case” for the future of conservation funding.
In a $ 3 billion partnership, the world’s most endangered ‘flyway’ – a stretch of wetlands stretching from Siberia to New Zealand, which birds use for shelter. rest and feed during their migrations – will benefit from enhanced protection. Instead of continuing to build and pollute the wetlands along the road, loans and grants will go to projects that can help ecosystems recover and local people prepare for the challenges of climate change.
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“The flyway is an organizing principle, but what we’re 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 that you are a poor country asking 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 you care about your nature or human rights.” The Flyway aims to change that and make retention 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 is about understanding that we are one of the millions of species on the planet and that we have a responsibility to protect it.
Zurita believes that this kind of economic approach could become “the future of development”. Yet even in the field 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 reluctant to sign a declaration that it would not advocate for Taiwan independence.
“The reason BirdLife made the decision to pull the Taiwanese partner out of the partnership was because they were not following the rules the whole partnership voted on,” said Zurita. “And these rules are to ensure that all partners remain apolitical. When we asked them to change their name, because their name is a political statement, this [was] not a new request.
Can conservation organizations like BirdLife, however, 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 up for it. “
Obtaining a new plan to save all life on Earth will require putting aside nationalist thinking in the short term – both in the virtual COP15 meeting this week, as well as in its face-to-face follow-up. in China next April. New cross-border initiatives, such as the Flyways Partnership, will help to achieve this. But old geopolitical tensions and economic dependencies will probably play their part as well. “I believe nature heals,” said Zurita. The world can only hope she is right.
[See also: Why success at COP26 is also vital to stem biodiversity loss]