Getting it together

Maritta Koch-Weser
talks to Geoffrey Lean about why conservationists have so far failed to get to grips with the extinction crisis, and outlines her plans for change

Maritta von Bieberstein Koch-Weser is the chief custodian of what she calls ‘the saddest phone books on Earth’. The three thick volumes of the Red Data Books, compiled by IUCN–The World Conservation Union, where she is Director General, list over 40,000 species of animals and plants in danger of extinction.

‘Despite the detailed research that has gone into compiling the books, they contain only a tiny fraction of the species being driven to oblivion around the world,’ says Dr. Koch-Weser, an anthropologist and former senior official at the World Bank, who became head of the world’s largest and longest-established conservation organization a year ago. ‘We are losing species at up to 10,000 times the natural rate of extinction – more than was needed to wipe out the dinosaurs during the great extinction episode of 70 million years ago.’

And it is getting worse. ‘Are we turning the corner? We are not. We continue to lose species faster than ever. There are a lot of people doing good work, and a lot of good laws. But it’s just not coming together.’

Why not? One reason, she says, is that most conservation initiatives are individual projects, and do not bring about structural change. ‘There are lots of good ones, but they are often recent, relatively small, and underfunded.’ The establishment of parks and other protected areas are often ‘one-off gestures of goodwill’, with no real follow through.

Paper parks
‘In all 9.6 per cent of the Earth is now under some declared form of protection. That is a lot of our one and only globe. But show me where is the system to maintain these as more than paper parks.

‘Basically we do not have the same quality of thinking as in other sectors. In any infrastructure programme – even when people put in electric power lines – they think about operational maintenance in the long run. You don’t have this in most environmental projects. You may find rhetoric; everybody has to say in their project justification that, after some international aid, the local government has signed on the dotted line that they are committed to something. But we are talking about long-term tasks.

‘Environmental management does not involve huge investments up front. It takes small amounts of money and continuous sustained presence over long periods of time. But our systems of responsibility and funding don’t work that way. Government budgets and administrative time frames are short term.’

Wasted resources
So it is not enough, she concludes, to blame a failure of political will for the accelerating loss of species. ‘It is also the lack of a system. We don’t have an operational and maintenance system for the environment. And without it we are putting money for protecting biodiversity into a black hole.’

At the same time, environmentalists need to get much more involved right at the other end of the process – at the earliest stage of planning developments. Instead of complaining about a dam, for example, once it has been approved, funded or built, they should be talking far sooner to the people who have to plan how to meet their countries’ needs for energy and infrastructure.

‘Normally there are different options and some are better than others,’ she says. ‘But if you come too late with your other options you miss the boat. Even organizations like the World Bank often come into the game too late, because banks are approached for funding when projects already exist. If we could get into so-called “upstream” dialogue with the people who drive investment – and thereby determine what happens on Earth – we could do a lot for long-term sustainable management of environmental resources. It is very important to get into discussions at this stage.’

IUCN has not done these things enough, she says, but is now putting this right. It is uniquely well placed because it brings together 76 governments, 104 government agencies, 755 non-governmental organizations and affiliates, and some 10,000 individual scientists and experts – and spans 181 countries. Dr. Koch-Weser comes fresh to the organization – from being the Bank’s Director of Environmentally Sustainable Development for Latin America and the Caribbean – but has a long history of environmental commitment.

Life-long interest
This began, she recalls, in the early 1970s when she and her husband Caio, currently State Secretary in the German Finance Ministry, went as a young married couple to do research for their Ph.D.s together in Brazil. She studied Afro-Brazilian religious traditions, working in the poverty of the favelas for two years, while her husband concentrated on the effects of the vast infrastructure programme then being implemented by the country’s military Government.

‘We saw the beginnings of the Transamazon Highway. We went all over, in a little car, and we looked at the places where this infrastructure was being built. I learned a lot and got very involved. I became very interested in the social side of development planning and, very early on, in the environmental dimension.’

She taught at George Washington University and then in 1980 became one of the first anthropologists hired by the World Bank, becoming ‘the kid’ in a small, pioneering team of just two social scientists and ‘three people who worried about the environment’.

‘Out of that group grew the rules and framework that the World Bank set itself – and later its borrowers – on what constitutes reasonable environmental and social conduct. We also built up the first environmental lending programme and worked on the creation of special funds, like the Global Environment Facility.

‘But a public bureaucracy, however dedicated, is obliged only to work with the public sector. In this uneven race we are in, where some of the runners are very big and fast and environmental action tends to be very underfunded and much slower, we have to operate at all levels. The power to do things more quickly now lies with civil society and the business community.’
The world is full of organizations doing good work

So she is excited by the potential of IUCN’s unique network, which combines the knowledge of the world’s top scientists in the field, the authority and experience of all those governments and official bodies, and the flair and passion of a huge variety of pressure groups. She has spent the last year working out how it can be most effective, and will present proposals to the next IUCN Congress to be held in Amman, Jordan, this autumn.

Hitting the right note
‘We need to reassess what we do as part of an orchestra. In 1948, when we began, there was nobody else: we played the only tune. Now the world is full of organizations doing good work: there is a large orchestra. What is our comparative advantage? What are the instruments we should play?’

One, she says, is continuing to deliver knowledge on species and what is happening to them through IUCN’s expert commissions of top specialists. Another is to focus on governance, working out the practical measures that bring change: IUCN has already helped 75 countries to draw up environmental legislation and national biodiversity strategies. A third is to use the strength of its union of interests to push for international conventions to be agreed and implemented.

Yet another is to capitalize on the diversity of IUCN’s network to provide a forum where the different actors can meet and thrash out solutions. This, she explains, can also help ensure that environmental interests are considered early enough in the planning process, and that projects are followed up with proper environmental management.

And the chances of success? ‘They have to be good. There is no alternative. If we do not succeed the future will be bleak. But if they are to be good, we in the environmental community will have to become much more proactive.’

PHOTOGRAPH: Mike Kolloffel/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Critical crossroads | Genetically engineered crops... | Sustainable solutions | Protect elephants | Getting it together | CITES: 2000 and beyond | At a glance | Competition | Interpol alert | Deep waters, high stakes | Tall trees and bottom lines | Globalizing solutions | Global Biodiversity... | Walking on the wild side... | Voices of the Earth | Millennium massacre

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Looking Forward 1999, including
Claude Martin: Millennial warning
Edgardo Gomez: Fragile coasts (Oceans) 1998
Andrew Hamilton: A vulnerable global heritage (Freshwater) 1998
Rudolf Dolzer: Time for change (The Way Ahead) 1997
Vernon Heywood: Mapping the way of life (UNEP 25) 1997