Mongabay Features

Despite COVID, political divides, conservation can advance: Hansjörg Wyss

2020 was supposed to be the year that the world assessed progress on a decade’s worth of effort to stave off the sixth mass extinction — the first extinction driven by the activities of a single species — and set ambitious new targets for conservation. But the COVID-19 pandemic intervened, leading to postponement of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the IUCN World Conservation Congress, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, among other high-level meetings. Nonetheless, conservationists have continued to press forward with initiatives aiming to preserve habitat for wildlife, including the “30×30” target, which aims to conserve 30% of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030.

One of the biggest champions for the 30×30 goal is the Wyss Campaign for Nature, which launched two years ago thanks to a billion dollar commitment from Hansjörg Wyss, a medical device entrepreneur who has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into conservation globally over the past 20 years. Since its inception, the Wyss Campaign for Nature has put more that $350 million into projects that have protected nearly 18 million acres of land and over 160,000 square kilometers of the ocean.

Wyss, who in a 2017 interview with Mongabay said that his love of nature was born out of experiences he had in the wilds of the American West in the 1950s, says the current campaign is focusing support for “locally-driven, place-based conservation efforts” in geographies where there is the greatest opportunity for impact as well as building political consensus for the 30×30 target.

“Establishing the 30×30 goal offers a benchmark for communities to work towards and helps inspire all of us into action – individuals, philanthropy, civil society, the business community, and government,” Wyss told Mongabay during an October 2020 interview. “For our planet to remain livable over the long-term, it is going to take thousands of place-based conservation efforts, led by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, to protect and restore lands, waters, and the ocean.”

The pandemic, says Wyss, has “complicated progress” but it has not diminished the urgency of addressing the extinction crisis.

“I’m hopeful that it will also galvanize the international community to act ambitiously,” Wyss told Mongabay. “Both in the United States and internationally, there’s an historic opportunity to direct the trillions of dollars that will flow into COVID relief to build back better by directing resources into sustainable economic sectors. The European Union has already committed to positioning conservation as a central focus of its COVID recovery plans, committing to direct relief into supporting an expanded network of protected and conserved areas across the European continent.”

“The pandemic has only proven how vitally important our work is to the future of the planet.”

Coastline off Hawaii. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Coastline off Hawaii. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Beyond the opportunity for transformational shifts arising from the pandemic, Wyss is also hopeful that traditional bipartisan support for conservation will enable it to advance despite current bitter political divides on many other issues.

“Conservation, public lands, and wilderness in the United States still enjoy broad-based, bipartisan appeal. Two of the very few bipartisan bills that have passed through Congress over the last two years were big and bold conservation bills,” he said. “Politics in the U.S. has become all consuming, with folks going to their partisan corners on almost every issue. It remains our job, and the job of conservation advocates, to continue supporting locally-driven conservation efforts and demonstrating to decision makers that these efforts enjoy overwhelming support from the American public, regardless of their political ideology.”

Wyss talked about these issues and more during an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.