The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Conservation Congress, held every 4 years, took place in Hawaii in early September. As IUCN Patrons of Nature, this is the second congress Jessica and Adam Sweidan have attended – the first was in Jeju, South Korea in 2012. A lot can change in four years…
In this Q & A, Jessica tells us about this year’s Congress, the changes since Jeju and what she and Synchronicity Earth would take from this global meeting of conservation ‘movers and shakers’.
JP: The overarching theme for the Congress chosen by IUCN was ‘Planet at the Crossroads’. Why?
Jessica Sweidan: I think the idea of the planet being at the crossroads highlights the fact that we are at this very important point in time where we can either choose to go one way or another and that we need to make that decision. For me, it acknowledges that we actually can change the future, the health of our ecosystems and our planet, but we have to do it right now. So, it is pointing towards the urgency of the decisions that need to be made, the leadership that needs to be taken, the coalitions that need to be built and the way organisations have to work together.
JP: Having attended the previous conference in Jeju, South Korea, four years ago, you have said that this year’s conference in Hawaii felt a lot more positive, that there was a lot more of a buzz. Can you expand on that a bit?
JS: Yes, but I think I have to caveat that by saying that I, personally, have grown enormously in four years, so my knowledge base is greater and every year since has felt like an exponential learning curve for me – I know so much more than I did four years ago. That said, I think that people are really starting to realise that we have to move on from this kind of fear, the defeatist attitude that environmental problems are just too big to deal with. Instead, we are coming round to the notion that we simply have to get on with this – we do not have a choice anymore – and I think that came through at the Congress in Hawaii in a variety of different ways.
Then there was the fact that it was in the US. It was a really powerful statement, and I think the fact that Obama was on the outskirts of the Congress creating marine protected areas gave a feeling of momentum, especially in the ocean space. The fact that it was in Hawaii, on an island, which has the feel of a small island nation, felt like it gave hope to all the other small island nations, the people on the planet initially most directly and immediately affected by climate change. In a way, many of the people attending from these island nations were there forewarning us of what is to come if we do not act soon: they are the true canaries in the coalmine. The voice of the small island nations also brought an enormous amount of wisdom and knowledge that I think we are starting to learn to listen to. We are beginning to understand the value of having these conversations and learning from them.
Then, there is this incredible ‘Aloha’ spirit of Hawaii – a warmth – and a notion that all are welcome, which is how you feel in Hawaii. It was quite remarkable and really grounded the whole conference, and embraced it. The whole event just felt imbued with positivity. Also, organisationally, it felt like the big NGOs were working more closely together, and that the middle-tier NGOs were starting to create a lot more coalitions, and having more transformational conversations.
JP: What were some of the notable themes and ‘buzzwords’ going around at Congress this time around?
For me, with Synchronicity Earth being a biodiversity organisation, it was interesting to see that the word biodiversity was highlighted in practically every single panel or discussion that I was in. It was shown as a really important piece within the global toolkit of how we are going to tackle and alleviate climate change. Thinking about food systems and solutions like agroecology, the way that we’re dealing with our food systems was another crucial topic throughout, whether from an indigenous perspective talking about local agroecology movements and how we are looking at different ways of creating our food systems in biodiverse landscapes or, on the other side, how we are looking at managing the giant agro-industrial food systems that we have.
Another concept which stood out for me was the use of the canoe as a vehicle, both physically and metaphorically, to represent the notion of acting together to steer our world in the right direction. This metaphor was introduced by the indigenous master navigators from Hawaii, and is culturally symbolic for many small island nations. So, in order for a canoe to get through a high sea, everybody has to be working together, everybody has to pull in unison and be as strong as the other. Everyone has their unique role to play. We do not have to all try to do everything, we can actually find our own true and most effective role and master that and then work together to create real change. That notion carried through from thinking about on the ground application, right up to the IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature – what does it mean to be a union, how can we work better together?
JP: To play devil’s advocate, around 10,000 people attended the conference in Hawaii and a cynic might say that is an awfully large carbon footprint for an environmental conference.
JS: Yes, a cynic could say that, and so could a non-cynic! I think we are all fully aware of the fact that everybody travelled a long distance to get to the Congress, but the flipside is not meeting. The take that I have now, having met so many diverse and inspiring people is that being a part of that larger community where you feel the impulse and the energy – where you have the ability to meet people from all over the world who you might not otherwise see and certainly might not otherwise have all together in one space, all working towards shared goals – is vital. Of course it is possible to email and Skype with people from all over the world now, but I really believe that there is no substitute for meeting face to face, to be able to have conversations and look people in the eye, to be able to meet and make connections. Morwe than once, I would meet someone – say a Synchronicity Earth partner – and then think, ‘oh my goodness you have to meet this other person I just chatted to’ and then I would make that connection real. However small or large, those connections can be transformational.
Having said that, we all have to change our ways, we have to get to a low carbon economy globally and we have to try to solve these problems, but unfortunately at the moment we have to solve these problems together and meeting is really important.
JP: So people will perhaps think, OK, it is great that you have this chance to meet and you can talk to lots of different people and it reinforces what you are doing and thinking, but in practical terms, how does this actually feed into the work SE and its partners does on the ground?
JS: Enormously! First of all, we got to meet so many of our project partners from Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Congo – all over the world – who we might not otherwise meet. A huge part of what Synchronicity Earth does involves creating connections, and then amplifying the messages of our project partners on the ground, to our audience. Meeting a partner face to face gives me much more of a sense of who that person is, I have looked them in the eyes, I understand the work much more when I hear it directly and I can now share his or her story; it adds another dimension to my basket of understanding which I can now take out to people that I am meeting on a regular basis. I think a lot of the work we do is based on trying to understand from the perspective of our partners. We want to know what their needs are on the ground, and although we can do that through email and phone calls, there is nothing quite like sitting with somebody to have those conversations and I think it just makes the relationship truer and far more profound.
JP: So from the individual project or partner point of view, their attendance at the conference must be a great opportunity to reinforce the importance of the work they are doing and really convey that to donors, supporters and organisations that are funding them?
JS: Yes, and I think what was really special about this congress as well, was the large and powerful presence of indigenous partners from all over the world who we might support together with other organisations such as the Christensen Fund or the Gaia Foundation.
JP: So Congress was not simply a collection of large, international NGOs sitting around talking about what people should do?
JS: No, I mean we met our partners from Amazon Watch, our Papua New Guinea partners – it was much more representative of a global community and I think this was one of the positive outcomes was creating a new category of membership for Indigenous Peoples’ organisations.
JP: Do you think this reflects a wider shift in conservation thinking over the last few years?
JS: I do actually. There was a really interesting panel run by Inger Andersen (Director-General of IUCN), which was a kind of ‘global North’ / ‘global South’ discussion. Effectively this was high-level, multilateral organisations talking to indigenous groups, activists and smaller, local NGOs from all over the world asking how they can work together better, what are the connections they have and how can they build on these. It was really interesting and what you hear from both sides is that we have to have these conversations, so the fact that they are now taking place represents real progress. There might still be difficulties in the way we relate to one another and the way we work with one another but those conversations in the past were not as open, it did not feel as though people were actually partaking in them, especially in a forum. It is really encouraging to see, for example, indigenous leaders from a remote part of the Amazon sitting alongside leaders of the World Bank and others…
JP: So were there any aspects of the Congress that you think could have been better?
JS: Overall, I think the themes and topics of the Congress were great, and there was a really diverse range of panels, workshops and high level discussions. But I guess it is always going to be really difficult to manoeuvre that many people around, and I think one issue that perhaps stands out is that the Congress is, in some ways, still very polarised. You find that the ocean experts and the ocean funders are all very much only going to the ocean-led discussions and panels and workshops. The forest people are doing the same. And then with areas like freshwater, where there is such a small group of people really focused on what should be a really urgent issue from the biodiversity point of view, keeping to themselves means they are not necessarily able to absorb the positive energy from other areas of the Congress. I am not sure how you solve this problem, but I think it would be quite interesting to maybe devote half of each day to just ocean, then just freshwater and then just forest and so on, with everybody coming along to sessions which are not their own area of expertise… I still think we are missing a little bit of that cross-pollination among the sectors, and I think as we are discovering at Synchronicity Earth, these are whole systems that we are talking about, and the fact that we are isolating them in terms of understanding them as a landscape or an ecosystem is useful to a degree, but ultimately they are all interconnected and we need to draw out these connections and develop solutions together.
JP: Imagine that you are talking to me after the next conference in 4 years’ time. What do you think and hope you will be talking about?
JS: I think I would like to see what I just talked about…I would like to see a much more systematic approach to solving these problems more of a trans-disciplinary conversation – where we are all learning from each other’s expertise and solving problems as a whole as opposed to as individuals or separate organisations. I really do feel like we are heading in that direction .. like the metaphor of the canoe we are starting to pull together and move in the right direction and now I think that momentum has to continue.
I also love the fact that there has been this amazing momentum around oceans and Marine Protected Areas. It has been extraordinary to see how people are starting to realise that we can actually do this, we can solve these problems, so I would love that momentum to continue, so that in 4 years’ time we are almost dealing with a whole different approach to conservation. I think we can get there, but we just have to get out of our silos.
JP: So, if the planet is at a crossroads, do you feel that we are beginning to take the right path, to go in the right direction?
JS: We still have a huge amount of work to do. I think what is apparent now is that we are beginning to get a clearer picture of how to get ourselves out of this mess. We just have to actually do it now. We also have to get much braver.
Of course there are still so many issues to be addressed, not least our relationship with business, for example, but I think that there are people within the whole IUCN ‘family’ who are trying to break down those barriers and are facilitating the conversations between those involved in conservation and the environment and business and finance leaders and looking for solutions to those problems. We need to accept that we have actually made some really bad decisions historically, but this is where we are now and we have to almost forgive each other and say, right, that is the past, this is where we are heading now.
JP: On a personal level, whilst you bathe in the afterglow of the Congress and the energy you took from it, how do you feel in terms of what you and Synchronicity Earth are trying to do?
JS: Well, I am an eternal optimist! For Synchronicity Earth I am and continue to be absolutely delighted and grateful to our advisors for steering us in the direction of biodiversity conservation, because I feel like everything about our organisation has been set up to address that particular issue. I am so grateful that we took that steer, and that we have stuck to it and I believe that as an organisation we can really help guide this process of trying to break down the barriers to action and really bring people together and align them. I think we do that for our project partners and also for donors and potential donors.
Overall, it really did feel like we are ready for positive change and I know I am not alone in thinking that because a lot of people I have spoken to have felt that way as well and it is quite remarkable to reach so many different kinds of people and actually walk away thinking ‘OK, we’re doing this and we’re doing this together!’
On a personal level, it is so exciting to come back to Synchronicity Earth as we are going through our own kind of growth spurt and to feel that we are really heading in the right direction. We are ready to accept this course and I believe we can actually help to guide it. We have incredible project partners, allies, scientific advisors and many more people we are connected to, and to that we can add all the new people that we met at the Congress – I think it resonates throughout and it is an incredibly exciting time for Synchronicity Earth to play its part to take things in this new direction.