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Helping People Help the Planet



— September 15, 2018

Helping People Help the Planet

  • Conservation International is saving the world, one campaign at a time.
  • By: Jodi Helmer

OFTEN, THE BEST WAY TO PRESERVE A NATURAL landscape is to give people a stake in protecting it. And few groups understand the power of this concept as well as Conservation International. CI ( is one of the largest non-profit conservation groups in the world. To achieve its mission—“to protect nature for the benefit of us all”—the group works with more than 2,000 partner organizations, including indigenous communities, governments and businesses, in 30 countries. It counts NASA, Starbucks, Walmart, SC Johnson and Virgin Airlines among its allies in the fight to safeguard natural resources as sources of food, water, livelihood and a stable climate. Since it was founded in 1987, CI has helped protect an estimated 1.5 billion acres of land in 77 countries through a focus on three elements: Protecting natural areas, fostering effective governance and promoting sustainable production. The Arlington, Virginia-based organization has scored major wins in each of these areas over the past three decades.

Sipping Sustainable Brews
During the 2015 climate meetings in Paris, CI and Starbucks came together to launch the Sustainable Coffee Challenge. Coffee needs fertile soil and clean water to thrive, and climate change poses a huge threat to coffee-growing regions in the form of rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns. These can trigger pest and disease outbreaks, and cause droughts that make it harder for coffee growers to produce a crop. CI believes it’s possible to continue to meet the demand for coffee— consumption of which is expected to top 600 billion cups per year—while protecting both the environment and the 25 million workers who depend on coffee production for their livelihoods. The Sustainable Coffee Challenge brought together more than 100 international partners, from corporations and non-profits to governments, who are committed to setting, and meeting, meaningful targets for sustainable coffee production. The coffee sector is making annual investments of $350 million to meet sustainability goals. The focus is on improving the livelihoods of coffee producers and their families, producing enough coffee to meet global consumption, strengthening market demand and conserving nature on 10 million hectares (more than 2.4 million acres) of coffee plantations worldwide. The Challenge aims to ensure that workers are paid fair wages, that coffee is produced in socially and environmentally responsible ways, and that production doesn’t deplete forests or other natural resources. The goal of transitioning to sustainable coffee production is starting to show results. Research shows that sustainable standards have been used to produce 48% of the global coffee crop, and major retailers like Walmart and Nespresso have signed on to produce their coffee brands according to strict environmental principles.

Among its ever-growing list of campaigns, the group has launched initiatives to end slavery in global fisheries, combat wildlife trafficking, protect mangroves and slow tree loss in the Amazon rain forest.

How Can Technology Save the Planet?
Nature might be analog, but saving it requires some high-tech tools. CI has incorporated some creative technologies in its fight to preserve our planet. Space satellites: In 2018, NASA teamed up with CI to provide satellite data to help map ecosystems. The three-year agreement includes modeling remote- sensing data on land resources in Africa and water resources in Southeast Asia; this will help CI and its partners better understand how human activities affect the environment. The data, which can also be used to monitor land degradation, can help partners develop decision-making tools that promote sustainable economic growth and environmental conservation. A previous NASA/CI collaboration provided African governments with information about the value of nature to their economies. Wildlife monitoring: CI’s newest initiative is called Wild Insights. The program, developed in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Smithsonian Institute, uses cameras to capture images of wildlife on 100 vegetation plots in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Photos are uploaded to a cloudbased program, providing real-time, open-source information about the animals roaming in the areas. The software identifies and tags species much faster than scientists could, helping organizations better understand how tropical forests are responding to climate change. CI calls it “the most comprehensive wildlife monitoring platform on the planet.”

Finding Creative Solutions

In addition to its $158 million annual operating budget, CI works to find project funding to protect critical landscapes across the globe. Some of the group’s initiatives involve working with governments and the private sector to develop (and invest in) sustainable development models that promote job creation while preserving the environment. The Forests Bond is one example. The bond—developed in partnership with the international finance corporation BHP Billiton, including technical support from CI—offers interest payments (via carbon credits) that reward landholders for protecting forests, which help reduce carbon emissions. Introduced in 2016, the first-of-its-kind offering raised $152 million from institutional investors— double the expected investment. The success led to the 2017 creation of the Finance for Forests initiative, which brought partners together to devote even more private investment to forest conservation. In CI’s 2017 annual report, board chairman Peter Seligman commented, “In my 30 years of leading Conservation International, the need for our work has never been more critical than right now. Despite all of this, I remain incredibly optimistic about the future, and I can see wonderful signs that we may be winning.”

Conservation International by the Numbers
30 CI offices worldwide, including locations in Costa Rica, Panama, Liberia, Botswana, Fiji, Philippines, Cambodia, and Indonesia
31% Revenue that comes from individual donations
83%+ Annual budget directed toward program goals, earning CI a coveted four-star rating from the watchdog group Charity Navigator
6 Number of new marine species discovered during a 2017 dive expedition to Fiji; CI helped get an atoll declared a marine protected environment within 24 hours of its arrival on the site

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