It might seem like the worst of times to be a nonprofit group working to protect the environment. In late March, President Trump issued an executive order that among other things discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, which was set up to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget includes a 31% cut in funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and layoffs for about 20% of the agency’s staff. To top things off, Trump’s pick for EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, has a record of suing the EPA to block enforcement of its rules.
None of this has diminished the efforts of Conservation International, a prominent environmental nonprofit now celebrating its 30th anniversary. Backed by a board that includes a number of billionaires and activists, Conservation International employs more than 1,000 people and works with partners in 30 countries on six continents, from Indonesia to Costa Rica.
At the group’s quarterly board dinner in February, several hundred supporters and friends — including actor Harrison Ford, who’s a board member — turned out at the swank Rosewood Sand Hill hotel in Silicon Valley to discuss the way forward for fighting climate change and protecting the environment under the Trump administration.
One focus of the evening was the Lui-Walton Innovators Fellowship program, a new effort supported by board members Yvonne L.K. Lui, a Hong Kong philanthropist, and Rob Walton, a billionaire and the former chairman of Walmart. Lui and Walton have committed tens of millions of dollars to the program, which is starting out by supporting 15 people from 11 countries with two year fellowships to work on and advocated for conservation projects around the world.
Walton was optimistic. “They are all extraordinary scientists and conservationists and I am excited to see where we go from here.” The program aims to fund 5 classes of fellows over 10 years, or 75 people in total.
For Lui, the environmental challenges hit close to home. “Today as we speak, my home, China, is suffering from the worst air pollution in history. And over half a billion people do not have access to clean water,” she told the crowd. “We need to see a healthy economy and strong environment go hand in hand.” Lui’s initial fortune came from Hong Kong real estate billionaire Joseph Lau, with whom Lui has two children. Her Yvonne L.K. Lui Foundation supports various environmental conservation efforts.
Three of the Lui-Walton program’s distinguished fellows – Olafur Grimsson, former president of Iceland; Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati; and Christiana Figueres, former secretary of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change – talked that evening about what’s next for climate change in an onstage conversation with Laurene Powell Jobs, who’s also a Conservation International board member. (Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, founded the Emerson Collective, which works on education and immigration reform.)
The panel took on the issue of the Trump administration’s lack of support for measures combating climate change. Figueres, who was a significant force behind the U.N.-sponsored climate talks in Paris in 2016, was adamant that Trump’s talk about pulling back from commitments to cut carbon emissions was akin to one car broken down on the side of a highway. “Do not think for a minute this is going to stop,”she proclaimed, referring to the global movement to combat climate change. “It is an irreversible trend.”
Former Iceland president Grimsson, who now leads a group called the Arctic Circle focused on the future of the Arctic, gave what amounted to a pep talk about environmental activism: “The fact that Donald Trump is in the White House is not an acceptable excuse for not being fully engaged,”
Peter Seligmann, cofounder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International, trumpeted his group’s mission, which recognizes that we as humans rely on nature for our livelihoods. The challenge, as the group lays it out, is not to take more from nature than it can sustainably give. With that in mind, Conservation International has worked to protect 600 million hectares (about 1.5 billion acres — an area equal in size to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Mexico, combined) around the world, including 1 million hectares of Cambodian forest, 3.5 million hectares of marine protected areas around Indonesia, and 120,000 hectares in Palawan, an island in the Philippines. In the Amazon region of South America, Conservation International has a goal of “zero net deforestation” by 2020.
To do this work, Seligmann and his staff have tapped an array of deep-pocketed donors. In 2016, 72% of the $212 million that Conservation International raised came from foundations and individual donors. In addition to Rob Walton and Laurene Powell Jobs, other billionaires on its board include banker Andre Esteves of Brazil (currently on a leave of absence), Robert “Bob” Fisher, chairman of the board of retailer Gap; Victor Fung, chairman of the Fung Group, which includes Hong Kong-listed supply chain firm Li & Fung; Stewart Resnick, who runs California-based nut, fruit and pomegranate juice firm The Wonderful Company with his wife Lynda; and Andres Santo Domingo, heir to a Colombian beer fortune and founder of record label Kemado. Also on the board: Valerie Mars, a daughter of the late billionaire Forrest E . Mars Jr., an heir to candy firm Mars Inc.
The nonprofit has made headway in partnering with corporations as well; companies contributed 16% of the $212 million the nonprofit raised last year. It’s gotten the fast food chain McDonald’s, Starbucks and the governments of Rwanda and Mexico to partner on its Sustainable Coffee Challenge, which has a goal of turning coffee into the world’s “first sustainable agricultural product.” Other partners include companies that might often be viewed as environmental bad boys — mining companies like BHP Billiton, Barrick Gold and Vale S.A. of Brazil, and oil giants Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Shell. With pesticide and chemicals firm Monsanto, the nonprofit is working to preserve biodiversity in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado region in the center of the country.
Seligmann’s modus operandi is to include as many players as possible in the quest to protect the environment in a sustainable way. At the board dinner, he issued a call for inclusivity, belting out: “How do we make this tent so wide and so big that it brings every person into it?” It’s a formula that has served his group quite well.