Interview with:


CEO of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the Netherlands

The pandemic has vividly shown how economic progress is fragile if we forget it is based on things nature provides for us.


While many of us have had to adjust to a life of virtual meetings, Dr. Kirsten Schuijt, life-long conservationist and since 2016 CEO of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the Netherlands, has been working this way for years. WWF-NL is part of an international organization with offices in around 100 countries in the world forming a global network. During our video call she remains smiling and relaxed, delivering responses that are passionate yet analytical as she discusses the new direction WWF has taken in recent years and the underlying theme of partnership at the heart of the organisation’s strategy, as it addresses issues ranging from biodiversity and climate change to economic growth and the Sustainable Development Goals.

You’ve been working for WWF for many years now. In that time, it has increased its focus on partnering with the private sector and sustainable finance. What’s the thinking behind that?

As a career-long conservationist, I’ve been involved in each stage of WWF’s transformation from classical species protection work to partnerships with the corporate and banking sector.

In the last five years, we’ve begun moving away from the model of only appealing to our supporters for donations towards actively engaging them in our mission. For example by reducing their plastic waste, by signing petitions that advocate for policy change or by teaching kids at school about WWF’s mission.

Over the last half-century we’ve learnt that WWF can’t protect nature or make the world greener on its own. You can only do it through partnerships with every section of society: citizens, government, businesses and the financial sector. Such partnerships have been behind some of WWF’s biggest success stories. For example, helping shape the world’s first global sustainable development strategy, and pioneering the debt-for-nature concept and community-based resource management in many countries. We’ve done this by leveraging our huge network across more than 100 countries on 5 continents and with 5 million supporters.

What’s the role of WWF-NL within the global WWF network and in setting strategic priorities?

WWF’s operating model prioritizes having local expertise on the ground in six thematic areas: forest, oceans, wildlife, food, climate & energy and freshwater. These experts need to be able to understand local issues and know how to effectively engage local stakeholders, using three main operational approaches — markets, finance and governance — to develop jointly-tailored solutions.

WWF-NL has been playing a catalyzing role by supporting new WWF offices with expert capacity in countries, in particular around innovative solutions. For example, we were instrumental in setting up a partnership between WWF Chile and its leading lender, the Dutch-based Rabobank.

The Chilean salmon industry was on the brink of collapse due to a disease that had killed millions of salmon in one season. The disease was the result of poor environmental standards. Together with the salmon industry, scientists and local communities, WWF developed solutions, such as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) standard for sustainable salmon farming, and guidance for the consultation and engagement of local communities impacted by the salmon farms. As a result, the salmon farming industry in Chile has bounced back, while adhering to new environmental standards and in close, structured consultation with local communities. WWF-NL and WWF Chile have been playing an important role as mediator and convener, bringing all parties together to develop and follow the new rules of engagement.

Kirsten Schuijt

“Our experts have to understand local issues and how to engage local stakeholders to develop jointly-tailored solutions.”

With the world’s economies stretched to breaking point by a global pandemic, and a climate crisis hanging over us, why does WWF feel it’s so important to talk about biodiversity now?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us vividly how economic progress is fragile if we ignore the fact that it’s based on things that nature provides for us. The air we breathe, and water and soils we need for our food form the basis of our physical existence and social well-being. When we destroy and undermine natural ecosystems, we pay the price by exposure to new viruses, diseases and unknown long-term effects on our health.

Since the 1970s, WWF has hosted and financed a program dedicated to ensuring enforcement of the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), and been playing a key role in building networks of protected areas across the globe. Our ultimate goal is a world that can sustain the planet’s people and nature. We work on solutions that enable people and nature to flourish, where potential detrimental and destructive interactions are avoided and replaced by sustainable management solutions.

Unsurprisingly, the 2020 Living Planet Report, a report published biannually since 1998 in collaboration with leading scientists worldwide, confirms the link between the current global health crisis and the increasing rate of destruction of the natural world. Species diversity is declining globally. Between 1970 and 2016, across the globe we’ve seen an average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish. In the tropical subregions of the Americas, the biodiversity decline is 94%!

Vicious circles have developed. For example, loss of forest cover accelerates the problems of climate change, resulting in forest fires and thus the further destruction of forests and the species inhabiting them.

In particular, we need to rethink how we produce our food. Unsustainable food production has been a major driver of loss of biodiversity and consequent climate change. The human population has grown exponentially in recent decades, exacerbating biodiversity and climate change problems. WWF believes that shifting our food production towards more sustainable methods is a key opportunity to bend the curve of biodiversity loss and climate change.

“We think it’s time for nature-based solutions for climate and that includes the transition to sustainable food production systems.”

FMO feels that to hit the SDGs by 2030, serious acceleration is now needed. Thinking specifically of biodiversity, which of the key players do you feel need to step up and lead the way to make this acceleration happen?

Rebalancing our relationship with nature is the ultimate way to secure our survival of the human species and rebuild our economies. It’s possible to achieve this balance if all sections of society work on solutions together.

At WWF, we continue to introduce innovative approaches to tackling these problems. Since the 1990s we’ve been putting forward management solutions for production in the form of sustainable certifications for food and commodities including palm oil, fish, sugar, cotton and many more. But we now see a need for comprehensive solutions beyond supply chains, focused on real impact in the most biodiverse landscapes.

We think it’s time for nature-based solutions for climate and were delighted when in October 2020, for the first time in its 75 years’ existence, the UN General Assembly gave nature the platform it deserves with a day-long summit on biodiversity. Leaders of 75 countries signed a pledge containing 10 commitments, including transition to sustainable food production systems, and investing more money in biodiversity and nature-based solutions.

To implement this approach, WWF-NL has been working with the Dutch Fund for Climate and Development (DFCD), managed by FMO, to kick-start nature-based-solution projects in the world’s climate-change and biodiversity-loss hotspots.

Kirsten Schuijt

“Rebalancing our relationship with nature is the ultimate way to secure survival of the human species and rebuild our economies.”

Finally, what steps would you recommend to FMO and our customers to accelerate the shift towards sustainable economies and a healthy planet?

We live in times and face challenges that call for partnerships. I believe passionately that any societal problem, from the COVID-19 pandemic to biodiversity loss and climate change, can only be resolved by joint efforts from all stakeholders.

FMO has achieved solid results by using its investments to accelerate adoption of sustainable business practices worldwide. It could strengthen its reputation and mobilizing powers by now opening up to the public on the lessons it has learnt over decades of investing.

FMO is also well-positioned to mobilize international development institutions to adopt similar innovative financial instruments and solutions. And naturally WWF is open to support and partnerships as part of that journey!

Kirsten Schuijt

“We live in times and face challenges that call for partnerships. I believe passionately that any societal problem, from the COVID-19 pandemic to biodiversity loss and climate change, can only be resolved by joint efforts from all stakeholders. ”

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