Editor’s note: Peter Seligmann is a giant of international conservation. As co-founder, chairman and outgoing CEO of Conservation International (CI), Seligmann has grown CI from an idea into one of the largest and most active environmental nonprofits worldwide. Over 30 years, CI has supported the conservation of over 600 million hectares (nearly 1.5 billion acres) of some of the Earth’s most critical lands and waters across 77 countries. These protections amount to the size of Indonesia, Mexico and the Democratic Republic of the Congo combined — a legacy visible from space. This week, Seligmann announced the new leadership team that will carry forward this work. In this post, he looks back on his career and points the way toward new horizons for protecting nature for the well-being of people everywhere.
My own conservation journey and the seeds of my determination to make a difference outside of government began in 1963. In July of that year, I worked in Wyoming on a ranch. My job was to irrigate pasture, which meant getting wet and dirty and waiting for water to flow from one ditch to the next. It was in those moments of waiting that I began to watch birds and insects, listen to the wind, and taste the sweetness of the tall grass. I knew then that I was hooked on nature.
In November of the same year, I — along with so many others — lost my innocence when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. This was the first of a series of assassinations that included Robert F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I saw my father cry for the first time and realized that the textbook description of my country, the perfect democracy, was imperfect and that there were undercurrents of hatred and self-interest that shaped our lives.
The mini-explosion that launched CI on January 28th, 1987, was not a planned birth. We did not want to create something new, but we had a fundamentally different view of how to achieve lasting conservation in the world. We focused on large intact ecosystems where people and nature survived together. We believed that the fates of nations and communities lay in the hands of their citizens, not outsiders. We believed that the environmental community needed exceptional science. We believed that developing nations should not — and would not — place biodiversity conservation over their own economic well-being.
We built our team based on those principles. We pioneered applied conservation science, created the biodiversity hotspot strategy, invented debt-for-nature swaps, launched the first non-timber forest product enterprises and pioneered shade-grown coffee. We developed a culture of innovation and a reputation for taking on the difficult tasks. Our mantra became “head in the sky, feet in the mud.” During this evolution, we were always poor. We scraped by, often taking salary cuts. We were making a life commitment and were prepared to sacrifice for the good of the organization.
By 2007, CI with its partners had protected close to 100,000,000 hectares — equal to a swath of land 30 miles wide running all the way around the Earth’s equator. This was a signal achievement, but our strategy was incomplete. If you look at a globe, you quickly realize that a 30-mile strip is no wider than the perforated line separating north from south. In this context, it was easy to see that our hard-won successes were at risk of being swamped by the broader ecological collapse happening around the planet. The fabric of the natural world was unraveling, and all nations and cultures were endangered. It was crystal-clear that we needed to modify our mission, our strategy, our metrics and our skills to address this challenge.
With extraordinary commitment from our supporters and partners, we adapted to meet the challenge. We sought new partnerships with global agents of change. We demonstrated and protected the direct benefits that healthy ecosystems provide to people, businesses, farmers and nations. From the Phoenix Islands and northern Sumatra to central Brazil and the Peruvian Andes, we expanded our focus to conserving large, working landscapes and seascapes that secure the most important ecological systems on Earth while addressing the needs of growing human populations.
In the past few years, we successfully advocated for the conservation of nature as part of major global policy statements like the Paris Climate Agreement and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. We learned new ways to amplify our message of conservation to new global audiences through filmmaking and marketing. In Washington, D.C., we have built bipartisan support for conservation investments and policy by highlighting the link between the conservation of nature and U.S. economic and national security. And we have redoubled our longstanding commitment to partner with indigenous peoples and local communities to achieve lasting conservation at scale.
Twenty years ago, two extraordinary individuals joined the CI board: Megaron, the paramount Chief of the Kayapó people of Brazil, and Dr. Jared Diamond, the author of “Guns, Germs and Steel” and “Collapse.” At one board meeting, Jared asked Megaron how the Kayapó had survived when so many other cultures had disappeared. Megaron’s answer was strong and simple: “We are warriors for our forests.”
As we look to the future, we all must be warriors for nature. From our earliest days, our organization has relied upon exceptional supporters, partners, and friends like you. The community we have built is one of vision, perseverance, and strength. I ask you to be vigilant, to underscore your commitment, to raise your voice on behalf of nature. With the support and wisdom of conservationists like you, I am optimistic about our path ahead.
Thank you for all you have done — and all you continue to do — on this incredible journey.
Peter Seligmann is the co-founder, chairman and outgoing CEO of Conservation International.