Pioneering Landscape Conservation: An Interview with Paul Chatterton

“From the Earth” is an effort to amplify stories of people working on breakthrough solutions for a living planet. In this article, we interview Paul Chatterton, founder of the Landscape Finance Lab, and learns of inspiring examples of transformation taking shape within the WWF network.

BR: Paul, thanks for taking the time to share your story. To begin, how did you first begin working with the WWF?

PC: Ah! Where to begin? I’ve been with WWF for 25 years. I was actually headhunted into WWF while I was working with a small aid agency in Sydney looking at the protection of forests in parts of the Pacific. WWF Pacific invited me to take up a job with them, which I was very happy to do. I love WWF and the Panda, the reach of what we do, and the potential for impact. Since this first encounter, I’ve been on and off with WWF ever since.

BR: What change have you noticed within the WWF network in recent years, in terms of the changing nature of work, and how has it impacted your work?

PC: In the organization there is a continual expansion of ambition, which is wonderful to see actually. When I started off, it was all about managing protected areas, securing the species, and reasonably small scale efforts. Then over time, we expanded our focus and took on the buffer zones. We moved on to managing ecoregions, and now we’re dealing with the political and economic systems that are impacting species and ecosystems. The next stage is to influence the flows of money and investment in the economy that will help us change the big picture. We’re now a much more strategic organization with experience working at a systems scale. And this next focus is where the Landscape Finance Lab is positioned.

BR: What would you call this? What does this shift to the next stage look like, in simple words?

PC: Integration. It’s all about integrating. The big challenge is now to create large scale solutions for the very large problems that our planet faces, from biodiversity loss to climate change to inequalities in economic development. The answer to these will be found in integrated solutions. These are solutions that bring a whole range of very different people together to combine their efforts and work towards a common goal and purpose. We need solutions like this that span across different sectors and levels and stakeholders. While this sounds like a very complicated thing, we’re already seeing examples of amazing solutions like this in practice, from the Amazon Region Protected Areas Programme to the creation of new financing approaches for forest protection through REDD+ or the Forest Stewardship Council’s efforts to transform production and trade chains of timber. These initiatives combine collaborative approaches with tools that bring people together to work across space and time, and across countries and levels. This is really where we’re heading, and integration at scale is now the challenge.

BR: This is quite humbling, no? We are talking about the need to integrate our efforts so that we can develop systems solutions at systems scale, and yet the people who are implementing these solutions on the ground — the integrators at the local level — are often left out of the solution building process. People working on the frontlines often have the knowledge that we don’t have at the systems scale. So the question becomes, how might we pursue integration in ways that take this global-local dynamic into consideration, and balance systems thinking with empathy for those responsible for driving change on the ground? And how might we gradually implement new approaches over time in ways that foster continuous learning and build the capacity of local people?

PC: Exactly. Local communities and local institutions have to be at the forefront of the design of system solutions. So much of the aid world has been driven by consultants and international experts from New York and Geneva and Beijing. However with a focus on continuous learning and empathy, it is possible to turn this around and put the power in the hands of local groups so they can be equal players in the design of initiatives at scale. That’s what the Landscape Finance Lab is about. It is an effort to take some of these insights and lessons and pick a few places where we can truly design integrated solutions that work for the long term, and for the people and species in those landscapes.

BR: That sounds like an awesome project! Like you said, we must create solutions in view of both people and species. We live in a planet full of dynamic constraints that are affected by a host of different actors, systems and species. Constraints breed creativity. How do we make sure that when we’re building solutions, we’re integrating our understanding of local context and the ecological constraints that we’re dealing with?

PC: The world has committed itself to massive investments to address climate change and to meet Sustainable Development Goals. But there is a real lack of projects for investing this money in the places that matter. WWF has the opportunity to help governments, communities and companies to design their own solutions. These might work across very large rainforest landscapes or river basins or indigenous territories. They might address carbon emissions, or water quality or renewable lighting or all of them together. We’ve learned very clearly that by addressing the problems of the human populations in a strategic way, we can make sure the tigers or orangutans or gorillas benefit as well.

Large programs like these are complex to design but they are not rocket science and they can be done in ways that local people can understand and take a leading role in. The key is to take a learning approach that brings everyone along together. And our teams in the Congo or Mekong or Balkans are superb professionals at this.

BR: Truth. The best way to foster resilience is in practice. Tell me about a time when you’ve learned resilience while working on a project, perhaps through failing forward?

PC: In Indonesia, we started a REDD+ project in a Kalimantan district with an aim to create Indonesia’s first green development district. It was going very slowly. We were hoping to access climate and forest funding to get this revolutionary plan implemented quickly. Through the process, I got very impatient with the pace and we nearly cancelled the project. I’m so glad that I didn’t! The biggest lesson that I learned was that to make things happen, you have to line things up across many different sectors. What I didn’t realize was just how long the all-important role of consensus building could take behind the scenes. Indonesia is an incredibly complex country. It takes an enormous amount of time, effort and finesse to align the villagers, their chiefs, the local NGOs, the Bupatis, companies, national governments and politicians. This is hard to do in the US or Europe. It is almost impossible in Indonesia. But our teams did it. The programme eventually succeeded and produced Indonesia’s first green development district. It led to the discovery of the first Sumatran rhino in Indonesian Borneo. While still in the design phase, the project has since expanded into a flagship program for conservation efforts in Indonesia and is in line for one of the largest climate investments to date in Asia.

Through it all, I learned the value of patience, and a real respect for the quality of our teams and processes at work on the ground. We have to trust each other, and trust that when someone says they will do something, they actually will — in their way. We must respect the people we’re working with at every level and every step of the process. And reciprocally we have to repay that trust with accountable action.

I feel for our teams on the ground. Often with conservation, we get funds for a year, three years, even five years if we’re lucky. Projects take a long time to get started and then we have to start fundraising again or shut them down. This is not a recipe for success. Real lasting change takes at least a decade minimum. So we need to find funding models that fit this duration. Thankfully, the new world of climate and sustainable development financing allows us to get out of this trap and test out new models of larger, longer-term and more integrated conservation financing and program design. We can now design large scale programs that last a decade or three, which cover large areas of land or seas and which address the roots of the problems. REDD+ has been the first sign of this but now we have the Green Climate Fund and others. USD 42 billion dollars of green bonds were issued last year alone and the world is looking for places to invest his money. The Landscape Finance Lab is set up to help teams to engage with these new opportunities.

BR: How can others help your work?

First, you can join the Landscape Finance Lab platform! If you have ideas to develop, or are interested in large scale solutions to systems challenges that impact landscapes, we would love to welcome you to our community. We’re all learning from each other, so bring your wisdom.

In the short term, we’re also looking for funding to support the field projects. Short-term project financing is often hard to find, and we are in the process of finding ways to generate these “first-mile” funds that can be used to help get a new project off the ground.

We have a tendency to put the funds we raise towards projects that are very discrete and specific and which we do ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, these types of efforts are important. But simultaneously we need to start thinking about ways that we can leverage small sums of money to access larger pools of capital. What if I told you it is possible to leverage $100,000 in ways that create access to $100 Million. It is! That’s the new opportunity.

BR: What is holding us back from leveraging our resources like this?

PC: We are holding ourselves back, so as long as we continue to think and work in silos. In many ways, siloed approaches to working are what have destroyed the world. In this approach, everyone does their own thing, and they do it well, but often to the detriment of everyone else and with a fraction of the power we need. The challenge is to integrate our view and resources so that we can begin to work towards long-term solutions and approaches. We need to think in landscapes, ecosystems and systems approaches, and start merging our efforts together.

BR: How do you suggest that we initiate this shift in thinking?

PC: It starts by changing ourselves. We can’t change the world until we change ourselves. For me, this is what is so exciting about Together Possible. This is a space where we are committed to examining our assumptions, helping each other, integrating our efforts, rapidly prototyping new models and finding new ways to learn, work and create solutions in the process. It’s my hope that more people will join this effort, and I encourage everyone to get on board.

To support Paul and learn more about the Lab, contact Paul at

The Landscape Finance Lab is an initiative of the WWF (the Worldwide Fund for Nature) and made possible through support from Climate-KIC and the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT).

This article originally appeared on the Lab’s Medium site From the Earth and was written by Lab contributor Ben Riddle.

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