M. SANJAYAN: What would it take to stem the loss of biodiversity?

M. Sanjayan
PHOTO BY AMI VITALE

We’re rapidly losing ground when it comes to saving species and their habitats. Beyond efforts to improve what’s already being done, are there any bold new ideas brewing in the conservation community?

Two big models have dominated conservation for the past 60 years. One is using private capital in order to buy land for conservation, and the other is using policy in order to restrict or ban activities – like shark finning – or to declare a national park. The problem is that neither of these models is able to keep up with today’s pace of change.

So what I'm very excited about, and what the conservancy is now moving into, are alternate models which are less reliant on private capital and less reliant on legislation, but are still highly effective. The simplest case is payments for services around water. For example, a beer bottling company pays people to protect the watershed in the upper Andes, using private money. Another example is what Indonesians call “fish banks.” (We call them "marine protected areas.") The fish-banking idea is spreading from village to village across Indonesia, not because there's a ton of conservation money going into it, but because local communities understand its value. These alternate models don't protect everything—you can protect the watershed and still lose the Andean bear—so you do still need proactive conservation in the traditional sense. But these new alternative models, I think, carry the biggest hope for future progress.

In the case of the payments for water services, who provides the funding?

When the project was first started in Quito, Ecuador, the Nature Conservancy seeded it. But now the funds come from the people who use most of the water: the beer-bottling companies and the Coca-Cola bottling companies. Most of the money—about $800,000 a year—goes to the local communities as an incentive for them to protect these grasslands that act like a big sponge for water. We’re now spreading it out to 30 other cities in Latin America, including Cali and Bogotá and Mexico City.

Bringing more people into the fold of the “conservation movement” seems like an important future challenge as well. Do you agree?

Absolutely. There are three constituencies that we have either ignored, despised, or just looked away from. First is the youth. When there is a 21-year old kid on the front page of the Economist because of the protests on Wall Street, you realize the power of youth today. The second is the business community. We've long been supportive of “green businesses” like Patagonia. But today mainstream companies are getting in on conservation, not because they necessarily want to be good citizens, but because they're dealing with the biggest uncertainty of all, the uncertainty of raw materials. The third constituency is the poor. The ultimate model for conservation relies on the rural poor, the people who live most closely to the places we want to conserve.

In terms of engaging these constituencies, how can organizations like The Nature Conservancy help?

There are some specific things the Nature Conservancy has been doing—using technology, for example, in order to get science content into classrooms. We're now getting some of our best conservation content into classrooms around the world using existing interactive digital platforms. I can say the same things for the other constituencies as well. Another is that we're a part of network called the Corporate Eco Forum, and we're part of the Clinton Global Initiative. The CGI encourages companies to find unlikely partners in order to meet better goals for sustainability, and it's effective because CGI verifies that they actually do it.

Beyond these targeted efforts, what is one thing that everyone can do to help conserve nature?

Practice empathy. Empathy, I believe, means that you make yourself uncomfortable by talking to and listening to people who are unlike yourself. This is a piece that is undermining a lot of what we do in conservation today. We tend to frame things as “The War on Nature” or “The Planet in Peril.” In so doing, we polarize the conversation, creating an “us versus them” mentality. And it becomes very, very hard to actually hear what the “them” is saying.

Probably that's why I live where I live—in Montana. Because I know if I lived in New York or in D.C., it would be much too easy for me not to hear other voices. I have a cabin in a place you could best describe as “Ron Paul country.” I like being there because there I hear the echoes of voices very much unlike those of my oldest and closest friends. It teaches me a lot more about empathy and love and how we can find a common way of looking at a shared landscape.

My neighbor doesn't ask me whether I’m a Republican or a Democrat. He knows I drive a Prius, I'm sure he makes assumptions. But when a tree falls across my driveway, he goes out there and chops it up and stacks it without even asking me. You realize that’s the way it is in most communities and in most places around the world, including this country. People aren’t just polarized—they somehow get along and make things happen. So why can’t we get along as well on this most important issue, which is what’s going to happen to the one planet we all live in?

Global Ecologist M. SANJAYAN

It takes a preternatural optimist to see a silver lining in current biodiversity trends: The decline in global biodiversity continues at a rate of roughly 30 percent each year, and recent studies predict continuing loss over the 21st century. Thankfully, conservation has found a postmodern Pollyanna in the form of M. SANJAYAN, a Sri Lankan–born, African-raised ecologist.

As lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s largest conservation organizations, Sanjayan juggles roles as public speaker, blogger, wildlife ecologist and media figure on a wide array of conservation issues. We spoke with Sanjayan about what it will take to save biodiversity against the steep odds that science now suggests.


Published Interview

Read the interview with M. Sanjayan as it appeared in the print version of Momentum.


Momentum Event

Join us in Minneapolis May 10 as M. Sanjayan shares his vision for biodiversity as part of the Momentum 2012 event series


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  • Momentum 2011
    The Momentum event series brings today’s leading environmental visionaries to the Twin Cities to deliver thought-provoking presentations.