How are private philanthropists investing in nature?

How are private philanthropists investing in nature?

  • A Mongabay analysis of the largest-ever private philanthropic campaign for biodiversity conservation has found about a quarter of the pledged $5 billion has already been allocated.
  • The Protecting Our Planet (POP) campaign was launched in late 2021 ahead of the COP15 conference in Montreal. The POP group includes foundations representing some of the richest people on Earth.
  • Critics of the scheme have called for greater transparency in the use of private funds for protected areas conservation, such as the creation of a charter of principles and commitments, or compliance framework, to mitigate negative impacts.

The largest-ever private philanthropic campaign for biodiversity conservation is on track to reach its target by 2030, but a lack of detail over exactly how some of the funds are being spent has raised concerns over transparency and accountability.

A Mongabay analysis has found that about a quarter of the $5 billion pledged through the Protecting Our Planet (POP) campaign has already been allocated to land, river and ocean conservation projects around the world.

By searching grant databases, reviewing financial records and cross-checking with data supplied by POP group members, Mongabay was able to verify a total of $1.25 billion in spending. This is in line with the expected timeline of the campaign.

The POP group includes foundations representing some of the richest people on Earth. Publicly championed by Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, the group includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and Walmart heir Rob Walton. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who died on March 24, was also a supporter of the scheme.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is one of several billionaires behind the POP Challenge. Photo: Daniel Oberhaus/Flickr.

At the launch, Wyss said the POP campaign would help to “solve the crisis facing nature.”

“But it’s going to take the wealthiest nations and the wealthiest individuals committing to reinvest our enormous bounties here on Earth, safeguarding nature and protecting our lands, waters and wildlife,” he added.

About 60% of the funding has been issued in grants to established conservation organizations, or to new alliances of private foundations, in North America and Europe. These groups — including Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society and Oceans 5, a collaboration of private funders — will either act as intermediaries on behalf of smaller organizations or spend the money on their own conservation schemes.

While some of the campaign’s members have published detailed breakdowns of their grantmaking, several provided only example projects and headline figures, making verification of spending claims difficult. It’s also likely that our findings include some double-counting due to regranting — a process where large grants are made to one organization before being redistributed to others — between POP group members.

In some cases, POP members appeared to be counting funding that was made before the campaign launched toward the goal, raising questions about the criteria used to measure its progress. In general, institutional funders, such as the Bezos Earth Fund and Arcadia Fund, had a higher level of access to information than more public-facing conservation groups that also rely on crowdfunding to raise money.

Joe Eisen, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation UK, suggested that a “compliance framework” to measure new conservation areas against, with financial incentives for those that meet criteria such as protecting Indigenous rights and offering free, prior and informed consent to affected communities, could help mitigate some of the potential negative impacts of the 30×30 target.

“One helpful thing would be for the funders to sign up to some kind of charter of principles and commitments in areas such as respecting land rights, ensuring transparency in the use of funds and providing recourse in the event that Indigenous and other land-dependent communities are negatively impacted by privately funded conservation programs,” he added.

In a joint statement to Mongabay, the POP group said: “We will continue to advocate for the creation of a transparent global framework for monitoring progress toward the global target and uphold our individual commitments with an eye toward protecting our planet for future generations.”

“The POP Challenge is not a single entity, merger of philanthropies, campaign, or pooled fund; but rather 11 independent philanthropies with a common goal, making separate funding and grant disclosure decisions.”


What is the Protecting Our Planet pledge?

The POP campaign was launched in late 2021 ahead of the COP15 conference in Montreal, where parties adopted the Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), promoted as a counterpart to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The GBF included a target of ensuring 30% of the world is “effectively conserved and managed,” known as 30×30. Currently, about 17% of the world’s land and 7% of its marine area is officially protected to some degree.

Delegates to the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference applaud the adoption of the new Global Biodiversity Framework.
Delegates at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference applaud the adoption of the new Global Biodiversity Framework. Photo: UN Biodiversity/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Hoping to address the biodiversity “finance gap,” initiatives such as the POP challenge have driven an increase in philanthropy related to climate change mitigation, with funding for forests increasing by 69% in 2021, according to a ClimateWorks Foundation review. The Bezos Earth Fund pledged $1 billion, while the Wyss Foundation and Rainforest Trust each pledged $500 million. Commitments were also made by Arcadia, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Nia Tero, Re:wild, the International Conservation Fund of Canada, Bobolink Foundation and the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation.

Basile van Havre, who co-chaired the working group that drafted the new biodiversity framework, said the “old paradigm” of relying on government funding through taxation was “not viable anymore.”

“We are used to government funding, which is governed by very strict rules. As we are embarking on a new route, we will need to adapt, tolerate some mistakes and improve,” he added. “The primary objective should be to have clear indicators on outcomes: for protected and conserved areas, geographical boundaries, status of ecosystems, role of Indigenous people, their wellbeing and capacity for socio-economic development.”

In the joint statement, the POP group said: “We learn from each other and share the mutually reinforcing aim of supporting projects and organizations that work to safeguard nature, vulnerable human populations, and the climate system—cognizant of the important role of Indigenous Peoples and local communities.”

Eisen of the Rainforest Foundation UK said private philanthropy in conservation efforts had the potential to be a positive force if it was focused on supporting the rights of Indigenous and other local communities. “Not only is the scale of funding potentially transformative, it can unlock strategic investments in ways that risk-averse institutional funding models cannot and also lower fiduciary barriers to Indigenous peoples and other frontline defenders accessing funding.”


Where is the money going?

Researchers have suggested that certain ecosystems — in particular, the tropical forests of the Amazon, Congo Basin and Indonesia; the vast northern Boreal forests; and the peatlands of Russia, China and the United States — must be protected in order to meet global climate targets.

The largest share of the funds — $412 million — is earmarked for transnational projects or initiatives with a global scope. Projects in Africa make up the second-largest share ($411 million), dominated by two grants to African Parks, an NGO that runs 18 national parks and protected areas across the continent. This is followed by Latin America ($295 million), where spending has focused on the Andes and Amazon. Asia ($26 million), the Pacific ($25 million) and the Arctic ($678,000) have so far received the least attention. Terrestrial protected areas account for about $735 million, while ocean and marine conservation makes up about $332 million.

Elephants stop for a drink in Liwonde National Park, Malawi.
Elephants stop for a drink in Liwonde National Park, Malawi. Photo: African Parks.

The Bezos Earth Fund has allotted almost $120 million to protected areas in the tropical Andes, partly to be distributed by Re:wild, the conservation group backed by Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s also spending some $60 million on protected areas in the Congo Basin, including support to Indigenous and local communities to secure 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of land titles in the region by 2030. The Arcadia Fund is spending more than $50 million on riverine habitat and biodiversity restoration across Europe via the European Open Rivers Program as well as smaller sums that focus on providing core funding to initiatives such as Oceans 5 and the Legacy Landscapes Fund.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation has focused on the Americas, with grants to support collectively held areas of the eastern Brazilian Amazon, Ecuador’s Yasuní Biosphere Reserve, wetlands in Bolivia and Brazil and the Great Bear Sea and Qikiqtani and Omushkego lands in Canada. As well as a $100 million grant to African Parks, the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation is spending more than $20 million to “catalyze” the conservation of 1.25 billion ha (3.1 billion acres) of threatened ocean ecosystems.

The Wyss Foundation, which is giving $173 million to African Parks, has focused its other funding to date on property purchases in Argentina’s Ansenuza National Park and National Reserve; a campaign for the permanent protection of Qat’muk, British Columbia; the expansion of Costa Rica’s Cocos Marine Conservation Area; and protection of the Maya Forest Corridor, which would connect protected areas in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico.


What about the oceans?

Until this year, there was no international mechanism governing protected areas in international waters. That all changed on March 4, when U.N. members passed the historic high seas biodiversity treaty. The treaty includes a plan for establishing and maintaining a network of marine protected areas on the high seas.

An Ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is seen in 2019.
An Ocean sunfish (Mola mola) is seen in 2019. Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Key PoP group funders for marine conservation include Arcadia, which is providing core support to Oceans 5, the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative and Blue Ventures; the Bezos Earth Fund, which has focused on the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, where the presidents of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama signed an accord to create a transboundary biosphere connecting the Cocos, Coiba, Galápagos, Gorgona and Malpelo Islands; and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, with a grant to the Great Bear Sea project.

Bloomberg Philanthropies is spending $204 million on its Bloomberg Oceans Initiative, which will see partnerships with groups such as Rare, Oceana and Global Fishing Watch, who will advocate for greater transparency and marine protections at sea. A pilot version of the scheme, known as the Vibrant Oceans Initiative, launched in 2014 and emphasized for-profit acquisitions of fisheries infrastructure and the incorporation of fishing communities into new, modern companies for sale to commercial buyers.

In the joint statement, the POP group pointed to its work in the eastern Pacific as an example of significant impact.

“Since then, efforts by all four countries to expand the protection towards 30% of the most important marine areas have included Panama’s recent commitment to protect 54.26% of its exclusive economic zone, the work of Ecuador and partners on Floreana Island in the Galapagos to remove invasive species and reintroduce 12 species, all as a result of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Connect to Protect group.”

A Galapagos tortoise on the island of Santa Cruz.
A Galapagos tortoise on the island of Santa Cruz. The Galapagos are part of a large swath of the eastern Pacific that funding for the 30×30 target has focused on. Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay.


A new era of “fortress conservation”?

Critics of the PoP challenge have said the plan risks entrenching “fortress conservation” and may divert attention from the underlying causes of biodiversity loss, such as the expansion of plantation agriculture, overfishing, mining, logging and overconsumption.

The previous global action plan on biodiversity, which the Montreal-Kunming accord replaces, contained 20 targets, yet only one was achieved: to increase protected areas to 17% of the Earth’s surface. Meanwhile biodiversity decline has continued at a rapid pace. Extensive research into the effectiveness of protected areas has also found that this traditional approach has generally not reduced human pressure on wildlife and can in fact increase wildlife destruction.

Jessica Dempsey, associate professor at the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia, who has written extensively on biodiversity, said protected areas “have their place in arresting the biodiversity crisis so long as the serious issues with dispossession and rights are addressed.”

“But the question is what we do on the rest of the landscape and waterscape, and those regulations are often totally inadequate, with billions poured into subsidizing further extractivism.”

The final agreement in Montreal contained hard-fought guarantees for Indigenous peoples and other local communities. But critics of the proposal saw it as a missed opportunity to shift the focus to rights-based conservation, pointing to the fact that Indigenous peoples saw just 7% of the funding allocated for Indigenous forest tenure since a $1.7 billion package was agreed at COP26 in 2021.

A wildlife ranger holds an AK-47 in Cambodia.
A wildlife ranger holds an AK-47 in Cambodia. Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

Fiore Longo, research and advocacy officer at Survival international, which has campaigned against the 30×30 target, said protected areas often cause abuses and dispossession of Indigenous and local communities, a problem that could be amplified by the 30×30 campaign.

“Very few people know that most protected areas have been created on Indigenous and local people’s lands without their consent. The people are then evicted and lose their means of subsistence, bringing hunger, disease and social breakdown,” she said. “These areas are then militarized. Across Africa and Asia, Indigenous peoples and local communities are abused, tortured and killed by guards in protected areas. The 30×30 plan will double the amount of land covered by protected areas — and is therefore likely to double the number of these crimes.”


A role for private business?

Another issue is whether sustainable use of resources should be allowed within these protected areas and what it really means for something to be protected. A 2020 report by the University of Cambridge’s Conservation Research Institute found that achieving the 30×30 target would net an average of $250 billion in increased economic output and an average of $350 billion in improved “ecosystem services” annually compared with the norm. The annual boost to global economic output, it said, could be as high as $1 trillion.

Many of the projects backed by the PoP group involve a Wall Street-inspired approach to conservation that has grown in popularity since it was developed over the past 15 years and has been adopted by major conservation groups such as WWF and The Nature Conservancy.

Some new approaches to conservation finance involved Wall Street-inspired funding mechanisms. Photo: Carlos Delgado, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Project Finance for Permanence (PFP) involves structuring conservation projects in a similar manner to corporate deals: A public-private partnership is brokered by an intermediary who negotiates the terms before a final “closing” when funds are released if the specified conditions are met.

PFP deals, pioneered in the Brazilian Amazon, Canada’s Great Bear Forest and Costa Rica, may leave the door open for additional funding sources to be developed, such as payments for ecosystem services, REDD+ or offsets and debt-for-nature swaps.

Marc Brightman, a professor at the University of Bologna focusing on environmental sustainability, said that to address the drivers of biodiversity loss “not only must they exclude offsetting from the ‘business model,’ but they should really also be looking for ways to pursue action against upstream polluters.”

“Using business-oriented approaches … risks benefiting larger, more business-oriented actors who will capture most of the benefits and leaving out small scale actors who feel alienated by the new kinds of practices being imposed,” he added.

A lemur leaf frog in Costa Rica.
A lemur leaf frog in Costa Rica. Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay.

The PoP group is backing PFP deals in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor, which extends from the Gulf of California to the north of Peru, covering 21 million square kilometers (8.1 million square miles); Qikiqtani and Omushkego in Canada; the Great Bear Sea; and Gabon, among others. “It is clear that the future will see a combination of various kinds of funding and that mix will include economic actors and philanthropy,” says van Havre.

Eisen of the Rainforest Foundation UK said the group had been tracking an increase in speculative land investments linked to 30×30 and were concerned about the rise in privately-run conservation projects.

“Without the right checks and balances, this creeping privatization of nature and nature protection, combined with a lack of clear oversight and accountability, threatens to rollback recent progress on the international recognition of IPLC rights as a prerequisite to effective and just environmental protection. It also risks… creating a new form of conservation colonialism,” he said.

Additional data gathering and analysis by Shreyansh Budhia.


Editor’s note: Mongabay has previously received funding from Re:wild and the Rainforest Trust and currently receives funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: The Intag Valley in the tropical Andes region of Ecuador is among the world’s most biodiverse places, where a dedicated local community and corps of conservationists are having success in blocking a proposed copper mine, listen here:


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Geldmann, J., Manica, A., Burgess, N. D., Coad, L., & Balmford, A. (2019). A global-level assessment of the effectiveness of protected areas at resisting anthropogenic pressures. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(46), 23209-23215. doi:10.1073/pnas.1908221116

Correction for Geldmann et al., a global-level assessment of the effectiveness of protected areas at resisting anthropogenic pressures. (2020). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(41), 25945-25945. doi:10.1073/pnas.2018968117

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