Daniel Pye on the “Protecting Our Planet” Challenge

Backed by some of the world’s wealthiest people like Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg, the Protecting our Planet (POP) campaign has a mission to ensure the protection of 30% of the world’s land and seas by 2030. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Mongabay reporter Daniel Pye to learn more about this bold initiative. We check in on the progress of the group two years into its launch, look deeper into its finances, and discuss the realistic expectations for what POP might be able to accomplish.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:21 Daniel Pye (DP) – There’s definitely going to be a bit of a tussle going on there with people trying to persuade and nudge these organizations in the right direction and I guess it just remains to be seen who wins that struggle.

00:36 Narrator – Backed by some of the world’s wealthiest people like Jeff Bezos and Michael Bloomberg, the Protecting our Planet (POP) campaign has a mission to ensure the protection of 30% of the world’s land and seas by 2030. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Mongabay reporter Daniel Pye to learn more about this bold initiative. We check in on the progress of the group two years into its launch, look deeper into its finances, and discuss the realistic expectations for what POP might be able to accomplish.

01:44 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Daniel Pye. Dan is a investigations editor at Mongabay. Dan, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:54 Daniel Pye (DP) – Thanks for having me.

01:55 Alex Wise (AW) – So you’ve done a lot of pieces for Mongabay on palm oil, which is an area that I know Mongabay has focused on over the years but I I wanted to turn to your most recent piece entitled “Bankrolling Biodiversity: how are private philanthropists investing in nature?” It really unpacks the POP, the Protecting our Planet campaign, which sprung out of the 2021 COP summit. Why don’t you explain what the Protecting our Planet campaign is all about.

02:32 DP – Sure. So the Protecting our Planet Campaign was a campaign launched by a group of private philanthropist, primarily and various conservation groups in 2021. And this was just ahead of the COP 15 conference in Montreal which was where parties to the conference were negotiating and discussing passing a new global biodiversity framework, which essentially is a kind of Paris agreement style international agreement, which involves governments and private interests, conservation  groups and you know, various in the jargon stakeholders of the that world, you know the idea was that this would be a kind of counterpart to the very, you know heavily reported 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, but specifically for biodiversity.

03:34 AW – Hit upon this when it was first signed, but now we’ve seen a couple of years of implementation of this campaign. What were you able to glean from your research, Dan?

03:47 DP – So I should have mentioned before, but the point of this global biodiversity framework is to implement the overarching idea was to implement a policy of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans and land and, you know, conserving that amount of the entire territory of the…

04:09 AW – And to put that into context, what are the current rates? They’re far below 30% obviously.

04:15 DP – They are. It’s currently roughly 17% of the world’s land and about 7% of its marine area, so that includes oceans and seas and so on is officially protected, which was the result of a previous biodiversity agreement and it was one of the many, you know, targets of, of a previous agreement that this, this new global biodiversity framework has.

04:42 AW – One would assume that most of these monies would be put to enforcing these protected areas. Is that what’s going to happen, or I mean, if you’re talking about 30% of the world’s oceans that’s a pretty big capital outlay, I imagine.

04:57 DP – It sounds enormous. They’re protecting our planet. Pledge specifically is a $5 billion pledge or campaign. It’s kind of an informal grouping of various philanthropists such as you know, Jeff Bezos, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Arcadia, which is a large philanthropic organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, you know, Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropic arm of his organization. And yeah, this is it’s a huge undertaking, but obviously a vast amount of that is covered by also by state funding through governments and other mechanisms. So the protecting our planet pledge is sort of a subset of this, which is purely primarily private philanthropy from some of these large investors.

05:56 AW – And so these large investors have pooled together about $5 billion, is that correct?

06:02 DP – That was kind of the headline figure that was that was put out back in 2021 and you know it’s our feeling from looking into the data and kind of collecting and gathering data about this pledge and about the various, you know, the various grants and projects that are being supported through it is that it’s very kind of amorphous. There’s not really a firm set of criteria to judge what is included and what’s not. And this leads to a bit of a gray area where you say, well, what exactly? Are we including, you know, grants that were made just prior to the announcement of the pledge and so there are these sort of difficulties with figuring out exactly what it includes and what it doesn’t. And that was, a major difficulty in trying to piece together what’s been done so far.

07:04 AW – And as you’re researching this, who’s overseeing the POP group? What’s the hierarchy look like?

07:12 DP – That is still for me an open question and it’s a loose kind of association of private philanthropies that are all acting fairly independently, so you know when it comes to going to this POP group with questions or with findings that we have from the work we’ve been doing, we’ll send each individual organization some questions or some findings and generally we hear back from one appointed representative from one of the organizations. But there’s no kind of centralized structure kind of corporate structure or something in sitting in the middle, really, at least at this stage, coordinating this group. And they are sort of acting independently. And I think you know this way that they have organized it, it feels more like a sort of marketing campaign for their giving as opposed to a coordinated effort, at least up until this point, you know.

08:21 AW – So in the next seven years, they’re supposed to at least double the amount of protected lands and quadruple the world’s marine conservation and protection. Is that correct?

08:35 DP – So, I mean, there’s, you know, as well as funding going towards exists. Getting protected areas and existing marine protected areas. There’s also a huge need and part of that is including the protected our planet, part of the of the of the investment to expand and create new protected areas. So that’s definitely a factor of what’s going on as well.

09:00 AW – Well, let’s pretend you’re the head of the POP group now, and let’s put aside the finances. What would be the biggest challenges for a POP group to attain these goals?

09:13 DP – I mean, I think you know, obviously there are lots of vested interests in all sorts of different parts of the world, lots of different governments to interact with and private, you know, business interests in, in countries extractive industries. And you know, all sorts of pressures on land which would be the prime kind of areas that they would be looking at. So you know whilst it’s at a huge number, 30% of the land say there’s only really kind of certain parts of that land that are of high value for conservation and those areas are also often simultaneously areas of high value to extractive industries to logging companies and so on. So I assume you know this tussle going on between different interests, which would in many cases I think make the negotiations quite difficult, especially when you’re trying to establish new uh protected areas in in various tropical countries and in the boreal regions of the world.

10:16 AW – And when I asked about the infrastructure of the POP group. I think calling it the group, it almost implies that there must be some kind of an organization that’s a little less amorphous as you described it. But I saw in one of the statements that they put out that they call it the POP challenge, so that language kind of makes it seem a little less of an organization and more of an idea. You know, that press release says, “the POP challenge is not a single entity merger of philanthropist campaign or pooled fund, but rather it it’s independent philanthropies with a common goal making separate funding and grant disclosure decisions.” So that gives them a lot more wiggle room, doesn’t it?

11:00 DP – It does. I mean I’ve heard you know the terms have changed and have been interchangeable in the time that we’ve been looking into this. So you know, it has been the POP, the POP group at times, POP Challenge POP pledge. So there’s been a lot of I think maybe not a kind of fixed or solid idea about exactly how that’s going to work. And maybe through the process of this reporting that has clarified and catalyzed a bit more thinking about how we’re, you know, how this group of philanthropies is going to interact with the public and the media. Because that you know that that statement that you just referenced is clarifying something that up until that point wasn’t clear to us looking into it.

11:59 (Music Break)

12:46 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Daniel Pye. Dan is an investigations editor at Mongabay. So Dan, let’s look into the finances a little bit more carefully. We know that the big philanthropies have pledged enormous amounts, but let’s look at the how it’s trickling down into conservation. Is it getting to the right places or is it kind of stopping at big conservation? You look at some of these larger organizations like Conservation International, they’re almost like a grant distributor within this framework. Is that correct?

13:24 DP – It seems that way. I mean the majority of funding that we were able to identify and confirm that was part of the pledge, which again is a gray area because, you know there are questions still about what is actually part of it and what is should not be included. The majority of that funding is going to large established, you know, conservation organizations based either in North America or in Europe. So your WWF, Conservation International, etcetera, one of the largest recipients is a organization called African Parks, which manages, you know, over a dozen protected areas and national parks across the continent of Africa. Which again is a very long standing recipient of funds from Western sources.

14:16 AW – So, Dan, what else can you share with us about the makeup of the bigger philanthropies within the POP group/initiative and how the funds might be allocated?

14:30 DP – There’s a mix of that we found between some of the organizations, which are part of this grouping under POP, which seem to be offering a lot of direct grant-making to smaller organizations. You know, often perhaps indigenous-led or led by local communities. That is definitely a part of the pledge that we could identify and it’s also not clear when the money is going to these larger, you know, Western conservation organizations, how that money goes through their accounts. So you know, does it go directly? Into project funding, which obviously would cover some salaries in various running costs of those projects as well, but not at the kind of executive level of those organizations or is that money going into a big pot in the middle of the big organization and you know I’m not 100% clear about quite how that works yet, but it’s definitely an open question that needs an answer.

15:30 AW – And you refer to fortress conservation this new era of fortress conservation – what does that mean exactly?

15:38 DP – So I mean, fortress conservation is a one of the older criticisms of of the sort of western LED approach to conservation which involves and you know, it’s also one of the main criticisms that people we spoke to who, you know, either advocate for the rights of local communities or indigenous people in regions where these projects are because you know the huge majority of protected areas are based in regions which have had to go through some kind of period of displacement or relocation of communities in order to establish protected areas. So there’s this fortress conservation involves the idea that you know outside interests come in and impose their view and their model of how conservation should work and don’t involve these local communities who you know for perhaps thousands, certainly many, many years, hundreds of years, 10s of years have might have cultivated a deep knowledge of these areas, the plants, the animals and are, you know, are very well positioned to lead conservation efforts in those regions. So this you know this fortress conservation critique of the POP and more widely the 30 by 30 campaign which is the idea to preserve 30% of the land and oceans centered around this risk that it will be a new era of this approach because all of this money is essentially going towards either existing protected areas, which are often militarized. So conservation groups will partner with local governments to establish areas or to protect areas and run conservation programs in them, and then within those areas they’ll often hire armed security forces to patrol and to police. This kind of brings up all sorts of issues about potential abuses, violence and so on, which in recent years, you know, we’ve had some examples of this being exposed. You know, particularly I’m thinking of with WWF in a couple of different countries around the world who it was shown had been the forces that they had been supporting financially had been involved in abuses, including rape and murders.

18:12 AW – You mentioned WWF. We’ve also discussed governments and the alliances with governments and implementing some of these wide-ranging projects. But an organization like WWF and The Nature Conservancy have been quite open about aligning with some of the more powerful forces in in the corporate world and deriving a lot from the Wall Street type mentality, will the POP group largely reflect this kind of corporatized mentality?

18:48 DP – Yeah, I mean the role of private business in the POP campaign is something we kind of briefly touched on in, in the article. But you know, it’s not something we have investigated in a huge amount of depth. What I think from first impressions based on, you know, this initial sort of investigation into how the money is being used, kind of suggests again it’s a mixture which also you know, it sort of reflects the amorphous nature of the grouping. So there are organizations involved in the campaign which seem to be very focused on private. A role for private interests and private business in these projects. You have for example, with Bloomberg main flagship project, which is a $204 million investment in something called the Bloomberg Oceans initiative. This is unclear exactly how that’s going to work going forward, but it’s essentially seems like a rebranding of something that existed previously called the Vibrant Oceans Initiative, which from the documentation that that project produced was very focused on creating for profit businesses and almost kind of like a mergers and acquisitions style approach to improving fisheries around the world with conservation seemingly like quite a, you know, an almost an afterthought to that. But more generally, there are projects that are part of the campaign which are sort of organized around this idea of project finance that, you know came from Larry Linden at Goldman Sachs and this is, you know, essentially a way of structuring conservation projects like you would structure a corporate deal. So you set it all up and then the payment comes through after all of these targets have been met and you know some of these projects include a number of sort of profits making enterprises as part of the project which you know it can be potentially positive, depending on how exactly that works and who it involves and whether you know local people who know what they’re doing, you know who, who have the knowledge about how things work local. Really can run those initiatives, but it definitely brings with it a lot of risks in terms of you know, the potential for exploitation and you know generally the profit-seeking and conservation and protection of the environment. Historically you don’t have a a very positive relationships. Yeah, there’s definitely risks there.

21:46 (Music Break)

22:58 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Daniel Pye. He’s an environmental reporter for Mongabay. So Dan, a lot of people would look at this when it first came out this POP, the pledge for 30 by 30 in terms of conserving our planets, land and oceans and look at it and say well, yes, there’s going to be some warts. It’s not going to be an easy rollout, obviously, and some of the big conservation organizations may benefit more than the the smaller ones from this, but it’s definitely better than nothing. We’ve looked at some of the warts. What are some of the reasons to be optimistic?

23:39 DP – Well, you know it’s interesting. I think even the, the kind of harshest critics that I’ve spoken to related to, tended to tee off their responses to me and their comments talking about the fact that philanthropy can and probably has to at this at this point in, you know, the world that we find ourselves in play a critical role, especially in filling gaps that society needs where state governments are either unable or unwilling to do so. So you know there, there is definitely a way that this could be a general positive. Some private foundations and conservation groups are definitely much more in tune with what is needed and some are much, much less out of sync with that. So there’s a huge gap I think between and within the conservation world and also this new influx of billionaire philanthropic money coming in which is just yet to be determined. You know there are definitely ways which these people could make this a general positive make this work. There are plenty of well-meaning people within these organizations who are generally aligned with real conservation efforts that could make a big difference. But then there’s also a lot of constraints internally, everyone’s responsible to somebody, right? And within these organizations, there’s trustees, there’s boards, there’s there’s a generation gap. I think, between understanding what’s needed now versus when some of these people, these decision makers were forming their worldviews when they were younger, so there’s definitely going to be a bit of a tussle going on there with people trying to persuade and nudge these organizations in the right direction. And I guess it just remains to be seen who wins that struggle.

25:42 AW – And do you see the POP challenge, whatever you want to call it, as maybe a touchstone for kind of how philanthropy evolves over this next seven years? It looks to me like there’s a tremendous amount of potential, but then we’re also putting our eggs in the baskets of the largest gatekeepers. You know, we’re in the hands of hopefully well-meaning people at these larger organizations being able to kind of disperse these funds effect.

26:13 DP – Yeah, I think you know that is sort of a product of the way that our society and corporate society and is structured it’s a result of that and there isn’t really you know it and it’s interesting even this it sounds like a large amount $5 billion but generally speaking, certainly in the in the United States. Environmental philanthropy is still a very low priority.

26:42 AW – I mean, when you’re talking about saving the world’s oceans and land $5 billion, like there’s a $6 billion stadium in Los Angeles, you know. So the amount of capital is negligible when we’re talking about the huge mission at stake here.

27:00 DP – And I mean the fact that this is, you know, this has been this campaign has been marketed as the largest ever philanthropic campaign for biodiversity in history, but as you say, it sounds like a lot of money to your average person, but it’s really not when it comes to some of these foundations and some of these, you know, the billionaire wealth that’s been accumulated over the last, you know, fifty, 60-70 years. It’s a drop in the ocean. However, it could be the beginning of a new wave of this kind of philanthropy. And as the crisis of climate and biodiversity begins to, really start to hit home a lot more. You know, as things become a lot more evident, it’s possible that that might shift, you know, and that environmental philanthropy could shoot up in importance fairly rapidly.

27:54 AW – Daniel Pye is an investigations editor at Mongabay. Dan, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 DP – Thanks for having me, Alex.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Meters, M and Aretha Franklin. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.