Building the Campaign for Nature: Q&A with Brian O'Donnell – Mongabay.com

In 2018, philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss put $1 billion toward initiatives to help a range of stakeholders conserve 30% of the planet in its natural state by 2030 via protected areas, other effective conservation measures (OECMs), and Indigenous- and community-led conservation. One of the products of that commitment is the Campaign for Nature, an advocacy, communications, and alliance-building effort to turn that 30×30 target into a reality.
The Director of Campaign for Nature is Brian O’Donnell, who previously headed the Conservation Lands Foundation and worked as the Public Lands Director of Trout Unlimited. O’Donnell told Mongabay that in the three years since its launch, more than 70 countries have endorsed the “30×30” goal, ranging from G7 nations to Costa Rica. Those endorsements have been supported by the development of sub-initiatives and alliances, including the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People and Global Oceans Alliance.
And critically, says O’Donnell, one of the key tenets of the campaign — centering conservation efforts around the rights of Indigenous Peoples — has continued to gain traction and prominence in 30×30 discussions.
“Campaign for Nature seeks to ensure that Indigenous and local community rights are advanced in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, as Indigenous peoples and local communities have demonstrated that they are incredibly effective stewards of biodiversity and success for a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will rely on this,” O’Donnell told Mongabay.
“The 30×30 target provides an opportunity to recognize, fund and prioritize Indigenous and community-led conservation, to learn from the diverse and effective approaches of Indigenous peoples and local communities, and to advance land tenure and conservation simultaneously. Without Indigenous peoples and local communities as full partners, and without their rights respected, the 30×30 target won’t succeed. Working together we can advance human rights and address the environmental crises facing our planet.”
One of other priorities for the campaign is securing finance to support conservation. This involves building and communicating a case for nature conservation in terms that companies and various levels of government understand: The benefits afforded to society by healthy and productive ecosystems.
“Protecting at least 30% of the world’s lands, freshwater and oceans will help prevent extinctions, provide clean water to communities, reduce the impacts of storms, and improve the health of the world’s oceans,” he told Mongabay.
But making this case will require overcoming the apathy that high level decision-makers have often had when it comes to biodiversity.
“Global leaders have not given biodiversity the attention it warrants,” O’Donnell said. “Most global leaders do not fully understand or value the importance of biodiversity, and are not aware of the scale of the current crisis facing biodiversity.”
O’Donnell says the pandemic and the increasingly severe impacts of environmental degradation should be “a constant reminder that life on earth can be fragile, and that we cannot continue to be reckless with how we treat our planet.”
O’Donnell spoke about the Campaign for Nature, conservation finance, and other issues during an August 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
Brian O'Donnell
What inspired your interest in nature and the environment?
Brian O’Donnell: I have always had a passion for nature and a love of wildlife, natural areas, and spending time outdoors. It feels hard wired into me, not something that arrived based on one specific event. I have many great memories of fishing with my mom, my grandfather and my brothers on lakes in the northeastern U.S. and camping with my family in the desert in Egypt, where I lived for six years growing up.
My outside walks often get slowed down because I’m taking pictures of butterflies, birds, or lizards that pass. I love the scenic beauty of nature, and even the harshness of it at times. I am in constant awe of the diversity of species – how each one has such a unique approach to survival.   Even in the most concrete-filled urban area, you can witness birds or insects putting on a display that reminds you how connected we all are to nature. I have a special fondness for deserts. It’s easy to love a rainforest, but I like to find appreciation for some of the hardest climates for plants and animals to survive (and thrive), and the open views that deserts offer are spectacular.
My interest in nature conservation as a life-long endeavor was also inspired the people involved. I am constantly motivated and educated by the diverse array of incredibly passionate people who work so hard to advocate for natural areas near them. They work tirelessly to defend natural areas that their communities, cultures, and livelihoods depend on.
Mongabay: What is your role at the Campaign for Nature and how is the initiative progressing?
Brian O’Donnell: I am the director of Campaign for Nature, which is an initiative with three overarching goals.
First, we are working to protect and conserve at least 30% of the world’s lands, freshwater and oceans by 2030, through a system of protected areas, other effective conservation measures (OECMs) and Indigenous and community led conservation approaches. We are pursuing this under the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
Second, Campaign for Nature seeks to ensure that Indigenous and local community rights are advanced in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, as Indigenous peoples and local communities have demonstrated that they are incredibly effective stewards of biodiversity and success for a Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework will rely on this.
Third, the Campaign for Nature is working to significantly increase finance for the conservation of nature, especially for developing countries, where much of the world’s biodiversity and intact natural areas are located.
The 30×30 goal seeks to address two major drivers of biodiversity decline, habitat loss, (primarily on land) and overexploitation (primarily in the oceans). It is also clear that the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement cannot be met without maintaining our intact natural areas that play a key role in sequestering carbon, especially primary forests, mangroves, peatlands, and kelp beds. To be clear, 30% is the minimum amount of land and ocean required to be conserved, many scientists and have stated that a larger goal of 50% is needed. Campaign for Nature seeks an “at least” 30% target with a 2030 timeline.
Protecting at least 30% of the world’s lands, freshwater and oceans will help prevent extinctions, provide clean water to communities, reduce the impacts of storms, and improve the health of the world’s oceans.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the 30% target can’t be seen in isolation of other targets on restoration, or securing human rights, or targets that address pollution, subsidies, and agricultural practices and other drivers of biodiversity loss. With limited capacity, Campaign for Nature’s works hard to be focused without being myopic. We rely on partners who are working on other aspects of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework that are outside our capacity or expertise.
Campaign for Nature has seen some important success since its launch in 2018. More than 70 nations have endorsed the “30×30” goal and have organized themselves in a High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People which is co-chaired by Costa Rica, France and the UK, and a Global Oceans Alliance led by the UK. G7 nations endorsed the 30×30 goal as part of a major “Nature Compact” announced in Cornwall, England in June.
Mongabay: Well before the emergence of the pandemic, it was clear the world was going to miss Aichi biodiversity targets. Why do you think that was the case?
Brian O’Donnell: Global leaders have not given biodiversity the attention it warrants. Most global leaders do not fully understand or value the importance of biodiversity, and are not aware of the scale of the current crisis facing biodiversity. The IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services should be required reading for all policymakers.
For the past decade, the global environmental focus has been on climate change. It’s hard for leaders to contemplate addressing two (interrelated) major crises at once. Environmental organizations, foundations and the media have also not given as much priority to biodiversity as they should have in the last decade.
The Aichi targets in many ways were overly broad and hard to measure, which contributed to the failure to achieve them. Additionally, Indigenous peoples and local communities’ approaches and priorities weren’t adequately reflected in the Aichi targets.
Perhaps the biggest reason why the Aichi targets were missed was a lack of funding. There was a significant lag between the time the targets were agreed upon and the development of implementation plans and finance plans.
Mongabay: Do you see any opportunities arising out of COVID in terms of recognition of the importance of biodiversity or impetus for shifting away from business as usual approaches?
Brian O’Donnell: To some degree the pandemic has brought increased attention to the importance of biodiversity, and the risks facing all of us when we continue to destroy habitat and don’t curtail the massive amount of wildlife trafficking that is taking place.
Unfortunately, if you look at economic stimulus bills and recovery packages, they are mostly seeking to “get back to normal.” I haven’t seen a major or even moderate shift in resources towards habitat protection as a strategy to help prevent future pandemics.
However, if you take a broad view, COVID, and the fires, floods and storms that have been exacerbated by climate change in recent months have served as a constant reminder that life on earth can be fragile, and that we cannot continue to be reckless with how we treat our planet.
Mongabay: Climate commitments from governments and companies are gaining momentum in many parts of the world. But biodiversity seems to garner less attention, especially in the U.S. Why is that and do you see this situation changing in the near term?
Brian O’Donnell: Most of the media attention on environmental issues focuses on climate. I am happy to see climate becoming a much higher political priority. It needs to be. But, solving the climate crisis will not fully address the equally important biodiversity crisis, we need to act on both of these with equal urgency and political will. They are in some ways interrelated, but not completely. I would much prefer to see an integrated approach as world-leading scientists have recommended in the recent joint IPBES-IPCC report.
In terms of biodiversity commitments from corporations, there has been a rapid move towards “ESG” (Environmental, Social and Governance) principles and the hiring of ESG executives and sustainability officers. If you look at the numbers though, most corporations only have put tiny amounts of money (or action) into biodiversity conservation. It’s admirable that some corporations are acknowledging and wanting to reduce their impact – companies like Patagonia and Taylor Guitars are examples of what companies can do to not only reduce the negative impacts of their supply chains, but to also contribute to positive outcomes for nature.
Governments have, in recent years, begun making more tangible biodiversity commitments, including pledges to reduce harmful subsidies. Most have not been followed through. To truly solve the biodiversity crisis, subsidies on fossil fuels and industrial scale agriculture need to be reformed.
The United States has been a laggard when it comes to international biodiversity leadership in recent years. We are the only nation that is not party to the CBD and we invest well below our fair share of money to the developing world to safeguard nature, especially given the size of our impact on nature around the world from our consumption. There is time for the U.S. to re-emerge as a global biodiversity conservation leader, but to date, the Biden Administration has been almost exclusively focused on climate without much attention to biodiversity. I’m hopeful that will change soon, as there are some strong conservationists in key positions in the Biden Administration.
Mongabay: For climate change mitigation, there are clearly defined targets being adopted by companies and governments. But this is harder to do with biodiversity. What do you expect a target for the biodiversity crisis to look like? As we head into the next CBD, what do you see as the key priorities?
Brian O’Donnell: It is much harder to coalesce around a single “apex” target for biodiversity in the way that advocates and governments have on climate. For climate, the 1.5-degree target is clear and measurable. For nature, organizations have put forward the idea of “Nature Positive” by 2030, however, nature positive still requires some explaining as to what it means specifically. But it has provided an overarching goal, which is progress.
In some ways, I think we need to stop obsessing about finding the perfect “apex target” and instead ensure that we succeed in implementing a few essential targets. If I were to pick the essential ones, I would say, area-based conservation (30×30), securing Indigenous and community rights, removing harmful subsidies and resource mobilization (increasing finance for conservation).
Mongabay: There’s a risk that 30×30 becomes another land grab when it comes to Indigenous peoples and local communities. What would you like to see in terms of ensuring that the implementation of these targets is done collaboratively with Indigenous communities and take the subsistence needs of local populations into consideration?
Brian O’Donnell: To be successful the 30×30 target in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework needs to require a human rights-based approach to protected and conserved areas that ensures Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC), and equitable governance and benefit sharing.
One of the most important things that must occur in the next decade is securing land tenure for Indigenous peoples and local communities. This is an area that has not seen nearly enough investment from government and private donors and is critical to reaching global climate and biodiversity goals. Campaign for Nature is working with other organizations, governments and donors to increase funding in this area and to help develop finance mechanisms that can help close this gap.
The 30×30 target provides an opportunity to recognize, fund and prioritize Indigenous and community-led conservation, to learn from the diverse and effective approaches of Indigenous peoples and local communities, and to advance land tenure and conservation simultaneously. Without Indigenous peoples and local communities as full partners, and without their rights respected, the 30×30 target won’t succeed. Working together we can advance human rights and address the environmental crises facing our planet.
I have been fortunate to learn from and collaborate with the Gwich’in people in Alaska and Canada in defending the Arctic National Wildlife from oil drilling, and tribal leaders from the Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe and Hopi as they formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and advocated for the Bears Ears National Monument, so this issue is close to my heart. There is a direct correlation between the conservation of nature and the conservation of cultures, languages and traditions. With Indigenous and community leadership, the world can meet the challenges of the biodiversity crisis.
Mongabay: What would you cite as an example of success in terms of how a country approaches conservation with respect to Indigenous Peoples?
Brian O’Donnell: Namibia has developed a system of community conservancies that have benefited wildlife and local people.
Canada has, in recent years, partnered with First Nations to designate and manage new protected areas, including the recently designated Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area.
I would recommend that policy-makers, conservation advocates and donors read Rights Resources Initiative’s report, “The Opportunity Framework” which details which countries are best positioned to increase land tenure rights for Indigenous Peoples and local communities and ICCA Consortium’s Territories of Life Report, which provides a wealth of examples of successful Indigenous and Community-led conservation.
Mongabay: Conservation projects seem to often operate in a boom and bust cycle, where funding is unpredictable. What do you see as ways to make biodiversity finance more sustainable?
Brian O’Donnell: Governments and foundations should take a much more long-term approach to biodiversity conservation. Endowments for protected areas will help cover long-term management costs and allow for planning. The new Legacy Landscapes Fund takes a long-term view and is a good example. It is also an example of public and private donors collaborating more closely, which is encouraging.
The COVID pandemic has demonstrated how critical long-term approaches are. Many protected and conserved areas have relied on tourism for operating expenses, and have endured major cuts in funding over the past year and a half. Endowments can help prevent these dramatic cuts. Governments also have a responsibility to fully fund conservation as an essential component of their budgets.
Securing the land tenure rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities will also help provide a long-term approach
Mongabay: What do you recommend the average person do to help support efforts to protect biodiversity?
Brian O’Donnell: Be an active citizen: In democratic countries, vote for candidates who will prioritize protecting biodiversity, and advocate with leaders at all levels. Ask them to enact policies to protect biodiversity, and remove harmful subsidies.
Reduce your consumption: limit purchases of unnecessary products, consider the impacts your purchases and your diet are having on nature and make adjustments.
Support frontline defenders of biodiversity – many community leaders are putting their lives at risk to stand up for nature.
Spend time outdoors with your family – distill a connection and passion for nature in younger generations, who will soon be the earth’s stewards.
Be positive and hopeful and celebrate successes. There’s a lot of negative news in the environmental space, but there are still polar bears, tigers, whale sharks, rhinos, and Joshua trees, jaguars, muskox and hornbills, monarch butterflies and gila monsters that we are sharing this planet with. We are fortunate to be alive at this time!
Read related interviews:
Header image: the Ivindo River in Gabon. Photo credit: ZB.
Related interview from Mongabay’s podcast: 30×30 plans, the Indigenous role in such plans, and more, listen here:
Mongabay is a U.S.-based non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. Our EIN or tax ID is 45-3714703.

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