Unlikely partners: how teaming up with ‘nature’s enemies’ could boost the impact of conservation


Nature, where everything is interconnected, is a shining example of the strength and brilliance of the collective. The conservation community should look to the natural world for inspiration when striving for success and impact, moving beyond its silos and proactively engaging even the most unlikely partners, including business and industry – writes founder and president of the Arcus Foundation, and an IUCN Patron of Nature, Jon Stryker.

Conservation organizations are working together to protect forests and wildlife in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If we are to achieve our shared objective of conserving nature and living sustainably on the planet, the international conservation movement will need to up its collective game.

While our actions as individual conservationists and non-governmental organizations are important, it is likely we could achieve greater impact if we connected our work and resources more effectively with those of others. By ‘others’ I refer not only to other conservationists. I also mean indigenous communities, advocates and even potential industrial partners.

The dire situation we face means that we need to become more pragmatic about choosing collaborators.

While it may feel uncomfortable to include some whom we have historically perceived as the problems themselves or as impediments to resolving the mounting conflict between human economic interests and nature, the dire situation we face means that we need to become more pragmatic about choosing collaborators.

I have come to feel strongly about this over the more than two decades during which I have devoted significant time and resources to ape conservation both personally and through my role as founder and president of the Arcus Foundation. Quite often, I see projects operating in isolation – projects mounted alone by one person or organization – and I wonder whether coordination with collaborators or even some unlikely partners might have yielded better results and achieved greater impact.

In aggregate, we must constantly ask ourselves whether, as a movement, we are spreading our resources too thin, acting without the benefit of insights that might have been available through a different partner, duplicating efforts or even impeding the success of other worthy projects. The obstacles we face will not be overcome if we continue to pursue our work in silos even when our projects are clustered in the same geographic location.

Choosing partners

There has long been a reticence in our movement to working with certain types of partners whom history and perception have cast as nature’s enemies, or who see the world through a very different lens. Many companies and organizations see the exploitation of natural resources as essential to their business models and economic gain. This has often led to an aversion to engaging with business and industry.

By ignoring opportunities to engage with business, we have at times left companies stunned, uninformed and too defensive to be good partners.

Some see any engagement with business as the enablement of ‘greenwashing’. But clearly, it is simply not realistic to imagine a world in which humans take nothing from nature to feed their families, heat their homes or move themselves and things across countries and continents.

Humans must consume to survive, and by unnecessarily vilifying or ignoring opportunities to engage with business interests, we have at times left companies stunned, uninformed and/or too defensive to be good partners.

When we do engage, good things can happen, such as the food giant Danone announcing its ambition to become a net zero carbon company across its supply chain, Bridgestone committing to a ‘No Deforestation, No Exploitation’ policy, and Cargill’s promise to “accelerate progress toward a transparent global cocoa supply chain and enable farmers and their communities to achieve better incomes and living standards, and deliver a sustainable supply of cocoa and chocolate products”.

Partnering with business can help to ensure the supply chains of commodities such as cocoa are more sustainable. Partnering with business can help to ensure the supply chains of commodities such as cocoa are more sustainable.  Photo: Irene Scott/AusAID CC2.0

The illegal trade in live apes is part of the challenge for their conservation in Africa and parts of Asia. Young apes are captured from wild populations, often with numerous casualties to the group, and transported to remote areas (including in China, Viet Nam, the Middle East and parts of eastern Europe) to serve as pets, exhibits in non-accredited zoos, or in the entertainment industry.

Although the emphasis in conservation has appropriately been on halting the illegal capture and trade of apes (all apes are protected and their killing or capture is forbidden by law), few efforts have focused on improving the care of apes in such facilities and educating the public about the harm and suffering the animals endure. It is unlikely that this lucrative trade will slow down until demand is stopped. Doing so will require new partners and partnerships.

Addressing the challenge that infrastructure proliferation presents to sustainability will require similar radical thinking. Infrastructure (such as roads and dams) is the fastest encroaching threat to the environment on which the survival of thousands of species, including humans, depends. To address this threat, we will have to marshal a multifaceted matrix of engagements as complex as the system that generates and perpetuates the problem.

This means that we must be in dialogue with the world’s economic ministers, private infrastructure investors, and financial institutions such as The World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the multitude of other lending banks. These engagements may not be popular with everyone in our movement, but we must find the courage to inform and engage these influential actors.

Addressing the impacts of infrastructure development requires an open dialogue between many stakeholders. Addressing the impacts of infrastructure development requires an open dialogue between many stakeholders. Photo: CC0

Connecting dots

As activists and funders, we must be transparent and open about our work so that we can all learn from one another and seize opportunities to coordinate.

As a leading ape conservation funder, our foundation has often been approached by multiple conservation organizations that are all trying to solve the same problems, yet are not working together.

Knowingly or not, organizations hoping to achieve the same impact are competing for funding and missing the opportunity to propel each other’s work by sharing data and insights. The foundation now routinely commits resources to bringing disparate groups together just so they can be fully aware of one another’s work and identify opportunities to accelerate their progress by working together.

Our foundation has often been approached by multiple conservation organizations that are all trying to solve the same problems, yet are not working together.

We’ve even funded some of the collective work that came from this kind of dialogue. A case in point is the Conservation Action Plan (CAP) developed for the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which brings together 10 different conservation stakeholders, as well as local communities, protected area authorities and other government institutions.

The CAP was funded by Arcus in collaboration with The World We Want, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to support coordinated and collaborative work to protect forests and wildlife, as well as contribute to the empowerment of, and sustainable livelihoods for, local communities living in and near the forest.

We can look to nature itself as a model for how to grow the impact of our conservation work, i.e., there is nothing in nature that is not interconnected.

Our ability – and that of many other species – to survive across centuries through plagues, famines, revolutions, colonialism and war is grounded in the genius of complex ecosystems, food chains, cyclical migrations and services provided by nature. Each one of these forces is a study in the brilliance of the collective, illustrating how collaboration and coordination are at the center of nearly everything on earth that is successful or resilient.

The natural world shows us how we should be thinking and acting as conservationists if we want our movement to be effective in the long run. The challenges we face are huge and so much bigger than any one of us individually can solve. Our only hope is to compound the impact of our work through strategic collective action of partnerships and networks – great, small and even unlikely.  

Sustainable development

Jon Stryker

Jon Stryker is founder and president of the Arcus Foundation, a private, global grant-making organization with headquarters in New York City and Cambridge, UK.  Founded in 2000, Arcus is dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world. The foundation supports the advancement of LGBTQ human rights, and conservation of the world's great apes and gibbons. Mr Stryker is a founding board member of the Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya and Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce, Florida. He also serves on the boards of The Museum of Modern Art, Kalamazoo College and Friends of the High Line, a non-profit organization that funds the maintenance and operations of the High Line park in New York City.  


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