The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is one of the largest and most influential environmental funders in the world. Since its inception in 1992, the GEF has provided more than $20 billion in grants for over 4,800 projects and 170 countries, engaging some 24,000 civil society and community groups. Yet the institution remains less well known to the general public than many of the organizations and initiatives it funds.
However, that may be about to change. Over the summer, the GEF elected former Costa Rican Environment and Energy Minister Carlos Manuel Rodriguez as its CEO and Chairperson. Rodriguez served in key leadership roles when Costa Rica pioneered a payments for environmental services model that paid landowners to maintain and restore forest cover on their holdings; expanded the Central American nation’s protected areas; emerged as an ecotourism hotspot; advanced a global plan to protect tropical forests that became the political impetus for the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) program, and laid out a bold strategy to decarbonize the country’s economy. In between his periods in office, Rodriguez served for 12 years at Conservation International, a large conservation NGO.
Rodriguez joins the GEF at a pivotal moment for international efforts to combat a range of dire environmental issues, including the extinction crisis, worsening impacts from climate change, rising deforestation and incidence of forest fires, and the socio-economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has collapsed tourism-based livelihood models that underpin conservation programs in many parts of the world. 2020 was originally intended to be a critical year for meetings that would chart the future of international collaboration around environmental issues, but the postponements and cancellations of summits has instead has come to reflect the past decade’s lack of progress on key high level environmental goals, from curbing emissions to cutting deforestation from commodity supply chains to slowing species loss.
Rodriguez sees the setbacks of 2020 as an opportunity to reset society’s relationship with the environment and shift business-as-usual approaches toward more sustainable models. Speaking with Mongabay in an October 2020 interview, Rodriguez says the pandemic recovery presents a chance to rethink the economic system that “got us in this problem” through “confrontative relationships between humans and nature.”
“Even though our economic model has helped many countries in the last century to do much better in social and economic terms, it has two big problems,” he said. “One is that the economic model aims for unlimited growth focused on individual prosperity. The second is that it doesn’t recognize planetary boundaries. This economic system has put us in a very delicate situation. Today’s COVID, tomorrow is going to be climate change.”
Beyond the opportunities in post-COVID recovery efforts, Rodriquez talked with Mongabay about his background, his experience navigating political divides, and his hope that younger generations will be more thoughtful, ambitious, and dedicated than older generations in combating the ecological challenges that face the planet.