Speech | 26 Mar, 2019

Nature – The Fertile Ground for Geopolitics and Sustainable Development

IUCN Director General Inger Andersen's speech to the WildCRU Conservation Geopolitics Forum, Sultan Nazrin Shah Centre, Worcester College, Oxford, United Kingdom, 19 March, 2019 

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Photo: Giovanni Marcello / Pixabay

Let me begin with a reflection.

In the 1980s – the not-too distant past – an iron fisted dictator, a leader of a regime wanted to decrease its reliance on the outside world, ensuring that it remained insulated and isolated from dependence on that outside world.


The country’s leader, of course: Hafez al-Assad.

As part of this strategy, Al-Assad wanted to increase Syria’s food production, and embarked on an ambitious but catastrophic journey.

His government led policies to expand farmland, from one and a half million acres in the mid-1980s to three million acres by 2000. From the 1970s to the end of the 90s, farmers drilled hundreds of wells and massively expanded irrigated areas by groundwater. And this was coupled with a massive expansion of irrigated agriculture from rivers.

This was a geopolitical move to safeguard the nation’s food security. And because of the geopolitical decision that he made, agricultural output boomed. Syria became self-sufficient in cereals for more than a decade and exported wheat to Egypt and Jordan. It became known as the region’s agricultural powerhouse. An astounding success!

But all was not well.

Because in the mid-1990s, I remember my many trips driving across Syria from Amman, Jordan, to Aleppo where I, at that time, was working with ICARDA, the drylands agricultural research centre. And along the literally hundreds of kilometres that I drove, I saw salt-encrusted earth and former grazing lands. I saw these fragile rangelands dead. I saw the Fertile Crescent going infertile before my very eyes.

The geopolitical decision taken by the Assad regime ignored the ecological reality of the region. More than half of Syria is covered by steppes – a fragile, semi-arid land that, despite its vulnerability, is home to rich flora and fauna, and which of course also provides the livelihood for millions of people who live there.

It is a land used to arid conditions and drought, but one in which people had thrived for millennia. It is the land that makes up the cradle of civilisation.

And then unsustainable agriculture began. Livestock was allowed to graze at uncontrolled levels, a problem that the Food and Agriculture Organisation recognised as early as the 1990s. This, coupled with badly managed flood irrigation caused extensive salinity and loss of soil fertility.

Remember those hundreds of wells that the farmers drilled? Unlike the hand dug shallow wells of the past that were easily replenished by rainwater, these were powered by diesel motor pumps, plunging deep into the earth. And their numbers skyrocketed, beyond hundreds. In 1999 there were around 135,000 wells. In 2010, that had boomed to 225,000 wells in these very fragile lands.

Across Syria, the water table plunged, up to 40 metres.

And what happened when these agricultural investments, driven by geopolitical decisions, meet the natural phenomenon that this rich and fertile, but arid and semi-arid region is known for? What happens when we have the rainfall failure and drought that happens regularly?

Behind me is Palmyra in the height of the drought that struck between 2006 and 2011, the worst Syria had faced in 900 years. To the left was land where normal agriculture took place, and you can see the degradation. To the right you can see where for 10 years, limited and controlled grazing was practiced.

This happened in the middle of an extreme weather event exacerbated, of course, by climate change. This is land that can survive when given a chance to.

From 2006 to 2011 Syria experienced this devastating drought. The worst in a millennium. Two to three million people driven into extreme poverty. About one million people internally displaced. All this in a country already coping with a large influx of Iraqi refugees following that crisis and the associated strains and tensions that that had led to. And all of this in a country with an insulated regime and an agricultural investment policy that was doomed before it even started. A policy that disturbed fragile soils, a policy that failed to understand how long a time arid and semi-arid ecosystems need to recover once they have been disturbed.

And in March 2011, the Syrian uprising began. It began in Dara’a, the region where agricultural failure had been the most pronounced. Where the most people had been displaced. Exactly eight bloody years later, this devastating toll now lies at 560,000 deaths and 12 million people displaced. A geopolitical conflict of huge proportions.

And though conflict never has one single cause, and we should not oversimplify, somewhere in the mix, looming large over the scene, is the natural world.

A Syrian farmer, displaced by the violence, said: “The drought and unemployment were important in pushing people toward revolution. When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years, and then we said, ‘It’s enough’.”

So ladies and gentlemen, I opened with this reflection on nature and geopolitics, and how they are intertwined.

But this awful example is indicative of a larger flaw of humanity, one that is ironically also one of our greatest strengths.

Fragmenting how we see the world.

We as humans have a strong tendency to view the world in a compartmentalised fashion, through the eyes of specialisation. This is a great strength, because the world is overloaded with information, and becoming increasingly so as we get more connected, as technology advances, as population grows.

But without the ability to focus, we would be completely swamped, bombarded and drowned by information when we are trying to solve problems.

So, at this point, this ability to focus underlies the whole notion of expertise. Dr Itiel Dror, in the book entitled the Paradoxical Brain, presents a chapter titled “The paradox of human expertise: why experts get it wrong”. Here he succinctly argues that with expertise comes the ability to handle “large amounts of information, make sense of signals and patterns even when they are obscured by noise”.

And it is the deep, quick, focused skills gained from expertise that make us trust in surgeons, forensic examiners, our researchers.

Yet these characteristics that underpin expertise, they are at the very same time those that can lead to deep loss of breadth. For the flip-side of “deep and focused” is “tunnel vision”. The risk, of course, is that the individual single-topic expert will use her vision to address the problem, risking rigid and narrow solutions. Essentially, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Now imagine what happens when we integrate those tunnel vision approaches into the very institutions that govern the world? We get fragmented institutions to deal with an interlinked world. We get silos, individual ministries, individual organisations – like mine, non-governmental organisations that altogether look at the world, in a way that is not quite “all together”.

So let me try to push that a little bit further. A few years ago Christine Lagarde said: “The world has become a hum of interconnected voices and a hive of interlinked lives.”

And yet what happens when you use siloed institutions to deal with the problems of a world that is increasingly intertwined, increasingly complicated, where a trading crisis in one country unleashes tidal waves that engulf our entire financial system?

What happens when multiple institutions view, with blinkered vision, a vast world that needs vast approaches?

Blinkered vision can be catastrophic. In April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, sending shockwaves through the world.

One of the main causes of the disaster was a silo mentality. Gillian Tett, a Financial Times editor, noted that BP was beset by numerous silos, with technocratic geeks scurrying around in their own fields and not working together. And unbelievably, the safety monitoring team was not connected to the team that handled day-to-day operations on that ill-fated oil rig.

And the result: 11 victims lost their lives, almost 800 million litres of oil spilled into the seas and onto the coasts of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, possibly causing permanent damage to those fragile lands.

The worst oil spill in United States history.

So what of the greatest catastrophe of all? The collapse of the natural world that we are causing, the impacts of which are now lashing at millions of people? A chronic catastrophe years, decades, centuries in the making? We are in middle of the sixth extinction crisis. We are pushing beyond the planetary boundaries. Are we joined up enough to address these? Do we have the institutions that can connect us?

Because this requires broad thinking, much broader than anything else we have done before. We will not solve the world’s largest problems if we do not lift our sight and look deeper into the horizon and figure out how we are going to connect ourselves into that bigger landscape. That is the challenge before us.

I used to work at The World Bank. And the Bank started out by working on infrastructure and rebuilding, as everyone knows, in the post-Second World War era. At some point it turned its attention to infrastructure in the Americas, Africa and Asia. And at some point it realised infrastructure was not enough and it needed to bring more social development and health education, and it began to hire people beyond economists, it began to hire people from the social sciences. And slowly but surely it moved ahead so that it could get there.

But this is just one institution. How about getting the whole of society’s vision away from that narrower line? That is why we need to push humanity to join the dots.

And that is where perhaps the Sustainable Development Goals are important, because they provide an excellent example of the ambition that the world’s leaders have come around and agreed to in 2015. These 17 goals that lay out what the world could look like. They are intertwined, each goal is linked to others, and we cannot achieve one if we don’t work on all of them.

Just one example: Goal 6, providing clean water and sanitation for all, for instance. Sounds easy. Water stress affects over 2 billion people, and this number will only increase as global population grows and climate change becomes more extreme.

And what accounts for 70% of the world’s water withdrawal? Agriculture – we all have to eat. This of course will only become ever more intense as more people demand their protein from more water-intense ways. And so for humanity to meet the needs of a growing population, to ensure that we achieve zero hunger, we need to increase pressure on water.

But what supplies the water? The world’s forests, the watersheds and the wetlands. And that is Goal 15: protecting life on land. That is biodiversity.

So slice and dice the Sustainable Development Goals any way you want, and you will find brightly coloured paths tying each goal, and each target to many others, coming together in this tapestry of hope and optimism that the world is striving to complete by 2030.

Yet 2030 is only 11 years away, just over a decade. And that makes me extremely nervous.

Because let me take you back 10 years, to 2009. The United States was basking in the glow of electing Barack Obama, its first African-American president. The science-fiction blockbuster Avatar burst onto cinema screens worldwide. And the world met in Copenhagen for COP15 seeking to hammer out a binding climate deal. I was there. I remember the banners welcoming us to Hopenhagen. As the negotiations went on we began to joke that we were going for Brokenhagen.

And this was averted with the non-binding agreement that settled on 2 degrees and US$100 billion a year by 2020. The Maldivian Prime Minister gave a moving and very emotional speech, declaring that “We are all Maldivians”. As the masses were leaving, Copenhagen received a massive snowstorm, covering my city with a billion diamonds glinting in the sun and thus returning to what we refer to as Snowpenhagen. To me, these 10 years seem like just yesterday. Time flies. In the blink of an eye.

So what were you doing 10 years ago? What momentous thing happened in your life? And how quickly these 120 months have flown by?

And that’s what worries me because in another 10 years we are supposed to end poverty? We are supposed to end hunger? Everyone in the world will have access to clean water, good health and wellbeing, and our oceans and seas will be forever safe and secure in sustainable development?

I think you can see why I’m nervous.

And if we do not get nature right, if we do not have the right relationship with the natural world, if we do not protect our environment, how can we possibly ensure that ecosystems produce sufficient food to end world hunger? How can we produce and deliver water to those that are today unserved?  How can we secure life below water and life on land? How will our crops be pollinated? How will we protect coastal communities from rising waters and ever more intense storms? How can we create stable and peaceful societies that do not live on the edge of existence one bad harvest away from calamity?

Without nature, without nature’s infrastructure – its forests, its wetlands, its species – this is simply not possible.

But that’s the thing: If we want to achieve the 2030 goals, we have a powerful friend. And that is nature. That is our ally. That is nature itself.

Nature nurtures us. Nature feeds us. Nature quenches our thirst. Nature entertains us.

We need nature. Nature does not need us.

If we get nature right, it will help provide decent work and prosperity for thousands of small- and large-scale communities around the world.

As WWF’s Living Planet Index last year showed us, nature is worth an estimated US$125 trillion, something we cannot even imagine. But if we compare that with the US$80 trillion that made up Gross World Product in 2017, it begins to tell us something. Indeed, on a global scale, about half of the world’s population relies on nature for their jobs and their livelihoods.

So if we get nature right, it will deliver stability and growth.

Deloitte found that the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is worth AUD$56 billion to the Australian economy. It employs 39,000 people, and it is linked to another 25,000 jobs upstream and downstream.

So nature gives us our jobs.

And if we get nature right, we have immeasurable assistance in getting climate mitigation and adaptation right during the transformation period when we are getting out of hydrocarbons.

Though climate change wreaks havoc on biodiversity, strong and healthy ecosystems help us fight the worst of its effects. Seagrass meadows, for example, do not just serve as crucial nurseries for young marine life, they are also the world’s second-most efficient ecosystems at storing carbon.

So nature protects us from climate change.

And if we get nature right we would have moved so much closer to making cities sustainable. Take a look at the Brazilian city of Curitiba, which has been studied for many years by urban planners. From the 1970s onwards, mayors of Curitiba have experimented with ways to get nature right. They have invested in green spaces for the city of 1.8 million. They have invested in green spaces that provide flood protection at times of high rain. They have invested in recycling and bus rapid transit, and much more.

So nature makes cities liveable, healthier and safer. And as children grow up with access to green spaces, their cognitive skills get stronger.

And of course, nature is behind geopolitics too, as a threat, as a multiplier, but also as a cure, and as a friend.

If we get nature wrong, conflict goes up, such as what we have seen in Syria with catastrophic consequences. On the most basic level, abnormal fluctuations in temperature – which the world is seeing with ever increasing frequency thanks to climate change – are linked with increased incidences of war and conflict.

According to researchers from universities including Stanford and UC Berkeley, a warming climate coupled with the associated droughts, harvest failures, population movements and competition for natural resources, could potentially mean that conflicts in Africa could claim an additional 400,000 lives by 2030.

And because we are getting nature wrong, waves of people are being pushed against their will from their homes and their livelihoods, causing great geopolitical instability. Climate-related catastrophes that we know have risen in prominence and now account for more than 80% of all major reported disasters worldwide, with drought itself causing over 80% of the damage and losses suffered by the agricultural sector.

So that does not bode well for the world – or for world peace – when after we have seen global hunger go down for the longest time, it has increased once more. From 784 million in 2014 to 821 million in 2017 – around one person of every nine on this planet going to bed hungry. 

That increase of 37 million is almost equal to the entire population of Poland going hungry, added to the already 784 million in 2014.

The 2011 East Africa Drought led to desperate southern Somalians fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, with many families split, lives broken and extreme hardship suffered by so many.

Climate-related disasters forced 18 million people to leave their homes in 2017, either displacing them within their countries or forcing them to become refugees elsewhere.

But nature is also tied to other factors that cause people to move against their will, that push disagreement over the edge and ordinary people and families — just like you and me — to flee, or to pick up arms to defend their communities.

According to the UN Environment Programme, up to 60% of civil wars fought since 1955 were associated with natural resources. And since 1990, at least eighteen violent conflicts find their roots in natural resources.

And, of course, natural resources such as rare timber, and extractives such as oil, minerals and gems, have also been the cause of conflict, but not only are they the cause, they are also often that which fuels conflicts by buying more bullets and more guns and prolonging the suffering.

In some cases, it doesn’t even have to be the income brought by natural resources, but the promise of income that is enough. Civil war ended in Côte d’Ivoire in 2011. But in the years since, deforestation rates in the country – which holds the highest biodiversity in West Africa – shot up.

Deforestation rates surged from an average of 110,000 hectares a year to 200,000 hectares a year. And some local communities found themselves overwhelmed by armed intruders who took possession of forested land, to clear them for cocoa plantations, and in so doing, restricting access to the resources these communities needed for their survival.

It may be tempting at this juncture to point fingers at nature and its various disasters and ills, but I encourage everyone to look instead at how we as humans interact with nature. It is we who manage our relationship with the natural world, and the manner in which we manage that hugely determines how nature impacts us.

Essentially, nature is a very effective multiplier of services. If we fail to look after nature, it will send us its invoices. And these invoices are coming with ever more frequency. We get the invoices in the form of devastating droughts, inundation and floods, ever more intense storms, forest fires on a scale never seen before, rising seas that engulf our coastal communities, and so on. These invoices will be received when we fail to manage and interact with nature in a reasonable way.

And this is where I would like to say that nature is also kind, nature is forgiving, and nature keeps us safe – if only we let it. And nature forgives us our trespasses maybe more than we know. Give nature half the chance and it will bounce back, it will keep us secure. In Ethiopia, increased biodiversity in wheat farms also led to increased productivity and increased resilience to crop failure.

The tap water of New York City, more than 1.2 billion litres a day gushing through the tunnels and aqueducts to the pipes of the Big Apple, is purified by the forests in the Catskill Mountains some 125 miles north of the city. Indeed, when the city of New York was contemplating how to secure the water source for New York City in 1997, rather than investing in expensive expansion of water treatment plants, and rather than having to incur continuing costs of chemical treatment at the supply end of the pipe, an innovative partnership was formed to continue to protect the upper watershed. And New York City’s drinking water supply system remains the largest unfiltered water supply in the United States (US), often being referred to as the “champagne of drinking water” in the US.  Obviously investing in nature is by far cheaper and much more sustainable.

And nature is also a conduit for peace. Since the 1980s, IUCN has worked on peace parks, which are transboundary protected areas dedicated to both conservation of biological and cultural diversity and the promotion of peace and cooperation.

We know that nature does not respect the lines drawn by humans on a map. Peace parks hold the promise of collaboration; the animals would fly or run over those lines anyway. And this has been seen in post-civil war Lebanon, across the Frontline States of southern Africa, across the east-west divide in Europe, and it holds the promise in the DMZ and in the Golan Heights. One day.

Some of you in the audience are conservationists, and some of you may know that IUCN works in nature conservation. But what does nature conservation mean? It means a more resilient world. It means a world where species are preserved and that digs itself out from the sixth mass extinction. But it also means poverty alleviation, it also means food and water security, it also means more enhanced and liveable cities. Because we protect nature. We understand, of course, the intrinsic value of nature. But in protecting it for its intrinsic value we are also protecting ourselves.

And this is where I would like take the opportunity to grab that spotlight and shine it back on conservation. So far, I have talked about the need for other disciplines to view the world through that wider lens, but we in nature also have a tendency to view the world through our own blinders.

We, too, have much to learn from disciplines like international relations, politics, economics, sociology, and of course… Geopolitics.

It was only after applying economics to conservation that we could start showing to others just how valuable the natural world is through the ecosystem services it provides, which is much rejected by some conservationists as putting dollar notes on trees. However, to many of us who instinctively know nature to be priceless, what use is our knowledge of its pricelessness if we cannot persuade those who sit in finance, policy and business on just how useful, and just what benefit nature brings in terms of dollars and cents?

Knowledge from psychology allows us to understand how humans think about the natural world, and how it influences our behaviour in turn. For instance, psychology professor Robert Cialdini recounted how officials in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park had a problem. Many park visitors were stealing bits of wood from the national park, at some points more than a ton a month. So they placed prominent signs that read: “Your heritage is being vandalised every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time.”

But if they had psychological knowhow, they would have realised that this sign, far from discouraging such behaviour, normalised it.

They allowed Cialdini and his team to test it in fact, with two different signs. One sign said: “Many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest” and the other said “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest”. And guess what? When they put up the second sign, theft dropped by five times.

So psychology and how we convey nature to nature’s visitors also matters.

And of course, I’m here in Oxford. And researchers, many of whom are very involved in this conference –  Timothy Hodgetts, Dawn Burnham, Amy Dickman, Ewan Macdonald and David Macdonald – published a paper that showed how we should understand how geopolitical issues like borders and people moving across these borders can affect conservation issues.

And they say quite rightly that combining both rich fields of knowledge, of conservation and geopolitics, would allow environmentalists to enhance our strategies when working on developing interregional and intercountry agreements.

So from a conservation point of view, how can we be part of an interconnected world for the 2030 vision, that vision of the Sustainable Development Goals? Nature, especially biodiversity, is so linked to these goals. We therefore need a biodiversity target around which the world can rally, much like how the Paris Agreement exhorts us to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and how the recent IPCC report tells us that we must limit warming to 1.5.

Here at IUCN we are working on the development of an Apex Target, which will define the safe operating space for our natural world, just as the 1.5 degrees does for the climate.

An Apex Target that combines elements such as species diversity, genetic diversity and ecosystems will be a possible reference point for the world’s understanding of safely operating and safeguarding all life on earth.

An Apex Target that is quantifiable, trackable, and measurable.

And from this Apex Target – once it is defined – IUCN will derive science-based targets, disaggregated from the grand Apex Target for actors like industrial sectors, cities, companies, and indeed, countries themselves.

These targets will all build on the Biodiversity Convention and the Aichi targets set in 2010: the 10-year plan to stabilise the earth’s ecosystems.

These targets must of course be aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals, but they should be available such that we can all track ourselves, just like we track ourselves on the Celsius scale with respect to climate change.

At this moment, in this Anthropocene, in our time, in our hands, we – the people alive today on this one planet, the only planet that we have – we hold a responsibility that has never before faced humanity. What we do, or what we do not do will forever determine the future of humankind, and of our planet.

We bypassed the 410 parts per million in 2018 and we are set to blow past 411 parts per million in 2019. Ice core drillings tell us that not since 800,000 years ago, have we seen these levels of CO2 in our atmosphere. Homo sapiens walked out of Ethiopia and Kenya 200,000 years ago. Never before have humans inhaled CO2 in concentrations this high.

The IUCN World Conservation Congress that will happen in June 2020 is the largest and most inclusive nature conservation forum in the world. We look forward to that congress. While I will not be in IUCN, I very much expect to be there nevertheless.

But the world is demanding action. Our children are demanding action. Greta Thunberg has shown this and last Friday’s strikes — on a global scale — for climate action are there for us all to see. And so, the Secretary General of the United Nations has called for a Climate Summit, that will convene Heads of State in September 2019, expressly to call for greater climate ambition.

And that ambition is demanded by our planet.

The IUCN Congress will be a critical moment when the world comes together to form alliances and allegiances around this. Here thousands of participants will converge in one city, the city of Marseille. You can go there by boat and by train if you want to follow Greta Thunberg, or you can take an EasyJet flight. But you can get there and be part of the conversations of the global conservation community.

But the IUCN Congress is not alone. Many in the environmental community are calling 2020 the “super year”. This will be the year the IUCN Congress takes place, the year when the Biodiversity COP15 will take place in China and will agree on new biodiversity targets, but it is also the year when the Paris Climate Accord comes into effect. This is our vision that we have agreed on, and our planet and its sustainability hangs in the balance.

But I stand here in Oxford because the environmental community cannot achieve this on its own. We cannot and will not realise this sustainable world if we do not engage all the players in that world. So this is where I call for action.

What do we want to achieve at this conference? We want to develop new intellectual approaches that combine conservation and geopolitics, that understand the interlinkages, that recognise the deep ties between the two fields. We want both disciplines to engage with each other, to learn from each other, to join forces and to create new knowledge together. Because we are facing an existential crisis. And to tackle this, we need everyone to engage.

And what do we want to achieve outside this conference? We want this knowledge and understanding to permeate throughout the greater world, so that it drives policy and understanding that can change society for the better. For too long we have been siloed, and that is our own fault, because we do not speak the language of those that we want to reach.

Specialisation is wonderful, it advances humanity, but we are part of that greater reality, that interconnected world, and we need to bring our lenses together so that we can see the broader beauty that is the complexity of life on this planet, with all its diverse challenges and all its diverse solutions.

All those geopolitical issues that I talked about? All that pain and suffering and conflict from our mismanaged relationship with nature? We have a chance to change it for the better, and we must, and we can and we will grab it.

I call on all of us to act together, not just to expand our own vision, but to reach beyond our disciplines, today, tomorrow, next week, next month, every day. To connect and integrate our visions, our individual fragments, to create that rich, brilliant, tapestry that is green and sustainable.

I stand before you here in Oxford, the City of Dreaming Spires. And commit to you today: We must, we can, and we will, turn our dreams of a better world into reality.

Thank you.