Story | 05 Jun, 2024

Everything is Possible

Dr Grethel Agular reflects on her first months as Director General of IUCN and looks forward to the future.

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When it comes to uniting under the banner of nature conservation and leading the urgent action that the world needs, there is no better organisation suited to the task than IUCN, according to its Director General, Dr Grethel Aguilar.

Although she was appointed to her current position as recently as last October, Dr Aguilar has a long history with the Union, initially representing the Costa Rica Environmental Law Centre as an IUCN Member, and serving on the World Commission on Environmental Law for eight years. In 2005, she became IUCN’s Regional Director for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and later served as IUCN’s Deputy Director General with responsibility for Regions and Outposted Offices, as well as two stints
as Acting Director General.

“The constitution of IUCN is unique,” she says. “We have governments, we have civil society, we have Indigenous Peoples organisations and we have experts. It is a very powerful Union.”

Throughout all these years, Dr Aguilar has witnessed first-hand the passion of IUCN’s regional and national committees, the importance of Member organisations’ work on the ground, the knowledge of experts that come from the Commissions, and the impact of attending international conventions as part of an IUCN delegation.This combination of knowledge and skills, as well as local and international action, allows IUCN to be a leader in tackling the challenges confronting humanity.

“We are at a crossroads where we cannot afford to make the wrong decision,” she says. “The scale of the crisis facing the planet is of such enormity that we need to act correctly. The unique composition of IUCN ensures it is the perfect organisation to convene different voices and show
the way.”


A vision and a mission

At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille in September 2021, the Union adopted by democratic vote a programme of work for this decade, the Nature 2030 IUCN Programme. This Programme provides a call to action for people, land, water, ocean and climate.

For Dr Aguilar, this provides an important roadmap for the Union’s work.
“The Programme is clear,” she
says. “You can open the Nature 2030 Programme and see everything the Members decided IUCN needs to focus on for this period. And in 2025, at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, we will assess progress, strengthen the Programme  and agree on a 20-year strategic vision for our Union.”

Like IUCN’s Director General, the Nature 2030 Programme is ambitious and, crucially, optimistic about the potential for a better world. “We have to believe everything is possible; that change is possible and that transformation is possible,” emphasises Dr Aguilar.

“We human beings are responsible for the state of the planet today – but when I
wake up every day, I don’t think about the terrible condition of the planet – I think that we can solve the situation. Human beings have the power to transform and change – we have seen it so many times.”

Extensive experience

Born in Costa Rica, Dr Grethel Aguilar has 30 years of experience in nature conservation and sustainable development. As well as serving as a legal officer at her country’s Environmental Law Centre, she also worked at Costa Rica’s Association for the Protection of the Rivers as Executive Director. She has helped communities access clean water; advocated for environmental justice; supported Indigenous Peoples in obtaining rights to their natural resources; and championed gender equality in environmental governance.

Dr Aguilar remains passionate about the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and
has pushed for the inclusion of their knowledge and experience in mainstream conservation policy. Likewise, she is forthright that there is still a long way to go before there is anything approaching true gender equality worldwide, including in the field of nature conservation.

“I have to say that women and girls are not where we should be. There is a lot to be done. It’s true that in some countries we have advanced,” she states. “But we cannot take it for granted that the job is already accomplished and things are great. In IUCN and around the world, all of us – women and men – must continue advancing the mission of gender equality.

“I truly believe that we need to keep taking action and strengthening the role of women and girls in conservation
and, as a woman, I have a personal responsibility to do that, too. I got
where I am by working hard and being supported by other women.”

Looking to the present day, Dr Aguilar acknowledges the immense value of the high-level support she receives from IUCN President Razan Al Mubarak, as well as from the Union’s Council with representatives from across the world. As Director General, she appreciates working with conservationists, thought leaders and experts. Equally, she relishes the opportunity to engage with people from different sectors at very different stages in their lives and conservation journeys.

She recognises the need for dialogue with young people. IUCN’s role in that relationship is not just to inspire, but also to listen and learn. “Today, our most important mission is to inspire change and to work with the younger generations, to share with our teenagers, our children, that change is possible. There will be a time when they have to lead, and they therefore must believe that it is possible to create a better world,” she says.

“I take the time to meet with delegations of young people,” she explains. “I can see the future there. It’s a bright future, it’s a good future, it’s a future that they’re going to embrace.

We need to keep taking action and strengthening the role of Women and Girls in Conservation

“And for people like me who are not so young, we need to understand this is a two-way street. There is not only one way of doing things. We must respect the past, but we must be open to new and innovative possibilities. It is not just a case of us teaching them. I am willing to learn and listen, because by working as an intergenerational coalition, we will learn from each other and end up stronger.”

Grethel and Razan Dr Aguilar with IUCN President, Razan Al Mubarak

Future forward

As Dr Aguilar highlights in her introductory letter at the start of this magazine, 2024 will be a highly significant year for nature conservation and for IUCN’s role in instigating and steering important change around the world.

She is also enthusiastic about the opportunity to engage with the Union’s membership at the nine Regional Conservation Fora taking place this year (see page 24) , where IUCN will gather insights from its membership to plan activities over the next four years and prepare for next year’s World Conservation Congress. She also looks forward to welcoming Members to IUCN’s “Home of the Union” at forthcoming international convenings, such as the multiple United Nations’ Conferences of the Parties.

Considering her role as Director General of this global Union of 1,400 member organisations and 16,000 experts, Dr Aguilar concludes: “It is a big responsibility but it is also a wonderful privilege to support our Union. As

Director General, I feel surrounded and supported by incredible people who are committed, knowledgeable and inspiring, and who want to realise the goal of a healthy planet, where people can thrive in harmony with nature.”

Interview by Emily Rodway