When and why was CEPF created?
Olivier Langrand: CEPF was created 18 years ago, on the initiative of the president of World Bank, James Wolfensohn, and the CEO of Conservation International, Peter Seligmann. Their idea was to develop a structure that could provide financial and administrative support to the stakeholders in civil society committed to preserving biodiversity hotspots.
The first scientific definition of a hotspot came from Norman Myers, a British researcher specialized in biodiversity who, in 1988, identified these parts of the globe containing very high biodiversity and facing a high level of threat and degradation (approximately 70% of the original area degraded).
There are currently 36 identified hotspots on the planet. One of these is Madagascar, where only 16% of the original vegetation remains. These areas of the globe are experiencing a uniquely critical situation in terms of biodiversity, with an already extremely advanced degree of degradation.
In concrete terms, what day-to-day support do you provide these civil society stakeholders?
We provide financial, administrative, and technical support. When a stakeholder from civil society brings us their idea for a project, we assess its feasibility and provide support during the formulation phase, then throughout implementation. This support meets a real need since very often these stakeholders have the technical details all worked out but lack the financial capacity to grow. In order to access private or institutional backers, they must already have a solid, smoothly operating structure in place. Our role is to assist them during this phase of growth and consolidation. This type of support is relatively unique, but it is critically important.
We also give them the capacity for development and to and form more complex, larger-scale partnerships. Aware of the importance of our work, AFD decided to invest €19.5 million in our fund between 2008 and 2012. A new agreement worth €6 million was signed in September 2018 to cover two hotspots, namely Madagascar and the Indian Ocean islands, and the Guinean Forests of West Africa.
As the organization approaches its 20th anniversary, how do you assess its impact?
Over nearly 2 decades, we have invested €232 million in the projects of 2,300 partners. To give you an idea of the scale, that represents approximately 14.8 million hectares of newly created protected areas and 8.1 million hectares of production in which biodiversity is conserved.
From a more technical perspective, I would say that the greatest benefit of our approach is that it has confirmed a simple intuition: that the field of biodiversity is closely tied to rural development. As a result, our actions have not only had a positive impact on biodiversity, but also made a real contribution to improving the standard of living and wellbeing of the communities in these hotspots.
To cite one example: in Cambodia, we provided funding and support for a project to conserve the sarus crane, Davison’s ibis, and the giant ibis in a region where they were severely threatened due to industrial rice growing. To help locals understand that it was in their best interest to preserve these species’ habitats, a brand of rice (IBIS Rice) was organically developed and grown, which is perfectly in line with the conservation of these species.
It is estimated that developing this brand enabled farmers to increase their income by 2.5 or even 3 times by supplying it to the major tourist sites of Cambodia, where this quality of rice is in demand. The success of this initiative in Cambodia shows that in any region, preserving biodiversity must be approached not as an isolated problem, but always taking into account the economic context and specific human needs of the area.
To what extent can your approach be adopted on a broad scale?
It all depends on the project. Some are very target-specific solutions which are unable to be replicated in other areas. On the other hand, a widespread application works perfectly well for other solutions. In Ecuador, for example, we helped fund a project to conserve and replant forest areas based on a system of payment for the ecosystem services provided by communities living in these areas. For example, the operator producing electricity agreed to pay the local communities that kept the forest intact, thereby preserving the water source. The project worked so well that it was taken over by the government under the name Programa Socio Bosque.
Are you optimistic about the future?
Honestly, yes. The progress is undeniable, although it is unfortunate that it always seems to take a critical situation to provoke a reaction. We should be focusing on prevention, not restoration. If I had to choose just one message to get across, it would be that we should invest more before a crisis happens. The worst thing that could happen to the Congo Basin, Papua New Guinea, or the Amazon Basin is for them to become hotspots because we did not make the investments needed to avoid a future crisis.
That’s why we need not only to continue our conservation efforts in hotspots, but also to look after these large natural areas that are still intact, before they are too badly affected by the degradation and fragmentation of natural habitats.
One very encouraging point is that there is now a broad understanding of the importance of preserving biodiversity, which was not the case 10 years ago; biodiversity is now taken into account and addressed by a much larger range of stakeholders.