Patricia Zurita, CEO, BirdLife International

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A partnership for nature and people

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BirdLife International is the world’s largest conservation partnership. Established in 1922, the organisation has 115 partners in 113 countries. Yet it is not a household name. One of the reasons for that is the way BirdLife operates. Working through its partners, the organisation is frequently a silent or behind-the-scenes force in conservation. Additionally, much of its conservation efforts tend to be focused on science and gathering data – activities that you don’t tend to hear too much about, even though they are vitally important.


This science is possible precisely because of BirdLife’s unique structure. With conservation workers and scientists on the ground in more than 100 countries, BirdLife can understand how what is happening regionally affects conservation on a national and global level. Additionally, by working with organisations that know the local area and local authorities, BirdLife has the legitimacy to enact solutions that are embedded into local systems.


This is the same approach BirdLife takes when working with business. In South America, BirdLife works through its partners with ranchers in five countries, ensuring they produce beef that is also environmentally friendly. It is working with the rubber industry in Southeast Asia to make its products more sustainable, and the cement industry across the world to ensure mining is more environmentally friendly.


“With all of these conservation measures, the business world plays a huge and pivotal role in creating solutions to environmental issues,” says Patricia Zurita, BirdLife’s CEO. “If we can create more public/private civil society partnerships we will be able to create innovative solutions for a sustainable future.”


Changing behaviours for business and biodiversity


We are losing wildlife at an alarming rate. Forty per cent of the planet is being exploited for agriculture, since 1950 we have lost 50 per cent of the total wildlife in the world, and insects, including pollinators, are dying off in droves.

Birds are the key taxa used to determine the state of nature. Because they are found in every country, and because they are the most scientifically studied taxa, birds serve in many ways as the ambassadors for the state of nature, the proverbial canary in a coalmine. With one in eight birds in danger of extinction, we can clearly see that unless we can reverse these trends, and soon, the ecosystems of the world are headed for total collapse.

With the effects of environmental degradation becoming more and more obvious, there is a growing awareness of the fact that humanity needs to change its behaviour in order to secure our very future. What role does business play in finding a solution? Quite a large one, says Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International. “The more that we integrate environmental governance elements into business, the more that we can ensure we have sustainable systems around us.”

In order to do this, businesses need to think about how their work is affecting the environment, in their own country as well as throughout the entire planet. To do this they should look at their supply chains, and make sure they are sourcing materials sustainably. They should also make sure that their waste is taken care of properly.

“It’s about making a change in behaviour,” Zurita says. “It’s about the public and businesses making a change and saying to themselves, how can we be more sustainable?”


Avoiding a climate change catastrophe


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report carried dire news for the environment. If we want to avoid a climate change catastrophe, we only have a dozen years to do it. Other reports from environmental studies paint similarly devastating pictures. Last year BirdLife International’s State Of The World’s Birds report found that one in eight species of birds is threatened with extinction, while the Food and Agriculture Organization stated that our agriculture systems need to drastically change to integrate with nature, or else we will not be able to feed the planet.

One of the ways to avoid these catastrophes is to work to ensure that the environment is more resilient. A rich, biodiverse world, one that contains mangrove forests along the coasts and wetlands to soak up carbon then the impact of environmental catastrophes like climate change is not as substantial. However, with the biodiversity crisis, the climate change crisis and mass extinction, the impacts are far greater.

Business has a key role to play in ensuring that environmental disasters don’t come to pass.  At Davos this year there were extraordinary conversations about sustainability occurring. While last year climate change was profiled at the World Economic Forum, this year the conversation spread to encompass ideas of how business leaders can help to resolve the environmental crisis currently facing the world.

With business leaders and industry around the world becoming more focused on playing their part to mitigate environmental issues, Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International, says there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

“In Davos, the business community was asking ‘How can we resolve this?  Our future and our profits depend on this’, says Zurita. “This was extremely refreshing and promising.”


Can business help repair the planet?

When it comes to the environmental crisis, businesses often get a bad name. Intensive agriculture is the primary driver of biodiversity loss, and emissions from industrial activities are contributing to a rapidly warming climate. But can industry play a role in helping to reverse environmental damage, while still meeting the needs of consumers? Is, in effect, true sustainability possible?

The answer is yes, but it’s going to require some teamwork. According to Zurita, “Civil societies and nonprofits have a very important role to play in working with industry in a public-private partnership that is beneficial to all, including the environment.”

One example of this is the Alianza de Pastizal, a project run with BirdLife partners throughout South America. The Alianza works in the savannahs or pampas of the region, which are crucial areas for biodiversity. Unfortunately, ranchers also rely on the area to raise their cattle and make a living. That’s why BirdLife and its partners are working with ranchers throughout the area. If the ranchers raise their cattle in a way that is sustainable for the pampas, the resulting beef is then sold at a premium, ensuring greater profits for the ranchers, and enduring environmental stability for the pampas.

Another example is the Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR), of which BirdLife is a founding member. Although rubber has been traditionally been thought of as green, because it comes from trees, the cutting down of tropical forests to make room for rubber trees to feed a growing global demand for the substance is incredibly problematic. The GPSNR, which has already secured membership from 65 per cent of the world’s tyre producers, aims to improve the environmental performance of the natural rubber value chain.

These are just some of the examples of ways that, working together, nonprofits and businesses can create the change that is essential to a thriving planet for people and nature.


Regulation’s role in building a healthier planet


More and more, information about a biodiversity crisis or mass extinction is creeping into the news.

The facts are grim. We’ve lost 50 per cent of wildlife in the last 50 years. Animals are going extinct at more rapid rates than ever before. If something isn’t done, and soon, we could be facing the collapse of entire ecosystems, and subsequently life as we know it.

One of the most crucial ways the biodiversity crisis can be combatted is through regulation. Regulation protects areas vital to biodiversity and helps to increase climate resilience throughout the world. “Regulation is extremely important,” insists Zurita. “It is part of the triangle of balance for nature, business and citizens. If we start deregulating we will create an imbalance in our resources.”

However, some countries appear to be pulling back from regulation. After the European Court of Justice ruled that logging in the last primeval forest in Europe – Poland’s Białowieża Forest – was illegal, logging has still continued near the site, around the Vistula lagoon. Additionally, illegal logging in Poland and other European countries threaten biodiversity.

Ironically, the logging may be spurred by efforts to meet the European Union’s renewable energy goals. Demand for bioenergy as a way to meet these goals are seeing the destruction of old-growth forests, which are important climate sinks, as well as habitats key to biodiversity.

“Biomass for energy is not a renewable energy solution,” says Zurita. “Forests are carbon sinks – the minute you chop them down and burn them to get energy, you are releasing all of that carbon.”

The answer, according to Zurita, lies in other renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. With regulation, and business innovation, these could help to reverse the biodiversity crisis.

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