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Patricia Zurita: “We need a new economic system based on nature”

The head of BirdLife International on why safeguarding other species is inseparable from ensuring humanity’s own survival.

By India Bourke

In 1995, a young Patricia Zurita was researching freshwater dolphins in the Andean mountains when the latest bout of border violence erupted between her home nation of Ecuador and neighbouring Peru. Her team’s conservation work was thrown into disarray. Soon after, however, those same efforts helped settle the decades-long dispute – through a peace agreement rooted in the creation of two cross-border ecological parks.

Now chief executive of BirdLife International, the world’s largest conservation partnership, Zurita passionately believes that safeguarding other species is inseparable from ensuring humanity’s own survival. “You cannot rip one strand from a cobweb without destroying the whole,” she will tell delegates in a speech at this week’s COP15 biodiversity summit, where a draft Paris-style agreement to save nature is at stake.

Conservation targets set at previous COPs have been missed by wide margins. New data from the UK’s Natural History Museum shows how human pressures have caused plants, fungi and animals around the world to plunge to 75 per cent of their original abundance. In Britain, the situation is worse, with half of native wildlife lost over the centuries. This means the planet has already crossed what researchers consider the safe limit for preventing “ecological meltdown”, beyond which successful pollination and harvests cannot be assured. According to last year’s WWF Living Planet report, animal populations alone plummeted by nearly two-thirds between 1970 and 2016.

When we spoke over Zoom, Zurita had just filmed a video message for the conference. Rainbow-coloured bee-eater birds were set as a screen background. Yet her own focus, she explained, was on the need for governments to replace shiny promises with concrete action and measurable results.

“We cannot set up wonderful new targets and then discover five years – or worse, ten years – down the road that we have failed,” she stressed. “It’s not about isolating biodiversity and just leaving the ‘tree-huggers’, as we’re often called, to complain. People have been paying a lot more attention to the climate crisis and don’t realise that we have actually lost loads of nature already.”

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For Zurita, an environmental economist by background, it is key that governments and the private sector now commit the necessary funding to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. That means ending support for destructive forms of infrastructure and agriculture, such as EU subsidies for monoculture crops. And it means channelling this money into incentives for projects that help people and wildlife to thrive. Economies must be transformed to become “nature-positive”, she said.

Zurita is, as she reminded me, the first woman from a developing country to lead an international conservation NGO, and acutely aware of how difficult it can be to shift economies away from dependence on extractive industries. At this week’s COP15, she hopes the launch of a new project will provide an “extraordinary test case” for the future of conservation finance. 

Under a $3bn partnership, the planet’s most threatened “flyway” – a sweep of wetlands that runs from Siberia to New Zealand, which birds use to rest and feed during their migrations – will receive scaled-up protection. Instead of continuing to build over and pollute the wetlands along the route, loans and grants will flow into projects that can help ecosystems recover and local people prepare for the challenges of climate change.

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“The flyway is an organising principle, but what we are truly doing is designing a new economic system based on nature,” Zurita explained of the partnership between BirdLife International, the Asian Development Bank and the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership. 

“Imagine you are a poor country asking for a loan from a multilateral or bilateral lending agency, they will come and assess how risky it is to give you money,” she said. “And normally that assessment is based on how much minerals, oil or agriculture you are producing – and not on how much you care about your nature or human rights.” The flyway is aiming to change that, and make conservation a factor that banks will regard as lowering the riskiness of a loan.

“I realised [conservation economics] is not necessarily about putting the perfect price on nature. It’s about understanding that we are one of millions of species the planet has and we have a responsibility to protect it.”

Zurita thinks this kind of economic approach could become “the future of development”. Yet even in conservation, bringing nations together is not without tension. Last year, BirdLife made headlines for a decision to sever ties with its partner organisation in Taiwan. The local group had refused to amend its name in accordance with Chinese policy (and UN protocol), and was holding out on signing a declaration that it would not advocate for Taiwanese independence.

“The reason why BirdLife took the decision to withdraw the Taiwan partner from the partnership was because they were not abiding by the rules that all the partnership had voted on,” Zurita said. “And those rules include making sure all partners stay apolitical. When we asked them to change their name, because their name is a political statement, this [was] not a new request.”

Can conservation organisations like BirdLife hope to stay apolitical, however, when it comes to advocating for improved land rights for indigenous peoples? “We abide by what the United Nations has agreed to use as its protocols. The United Nations says indigenous people should have the right to their land – and we are defending that.”

Securing a new plan to save all life on Earth will require setting aside short-term nationalist thinking – both at the virtual COP15 meeting this week, as well as at its face-to-face follow-up in China next April. New cross-border initiatives, like the flyway partnership, will help achieve this. But old geopolitical tensions and economic dependencies will likely play their part too. “I believe that nature heals,” Zurita said. The world can only hope she is right.

[See also: Why success at COP26 is also vital to stem biodiversity loss]