Supporting communities in long-term, sustainable conservation

Enduring Earth is a collaboration of organizations that works alongside governments and local leaders to fund and support their conservation efforts. In this interview from the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference, McKinsey’s Duko Hopman speaks with Zdenka Piskulich, Managing Director of Enduring Earth, to learn about the work that the group is doing, the importance of the collaboration’s methodology, and how Enduring Earth directly supports countries and Indigenous groups to facilitate long-term and sustainable conservation efforts that benefit local communities. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Duko Hopman: Zdenka, it’s so good to be here with you in person at the Aspen Ideas: Climate conference. First of all, congratulations on the launch of Enduring Earth. I have a feeling that we’re going to hear a lot more about this in the coming weeks and months. I think it’s fair to say that this is one of the largest conservation initiatives in history. So, I want to get into a little bit about what organizations are involved, what you’re trying to do, and what methodology you’re using that makes this unique. Which areas of the world are you working on, and what makes these ecosystems special?

Zdenka Piskulich: Thank you, Duko, for this opportunity, and thank you for hosting me. It’s such a good opportunity to share what we’re doing with Enduring Earth with a broader audience. In terms of where we’re working: this is a global initiative. We are working at a global scale, searching for a portfolio of around 20 geographies where we want to continue to have impact. We’re currently exploring PFPs [Project Finance for Permanence initiatives] in a number of geographics in Africa, Latin America, Asia and North America that cover a wide range of terrestrial and marine environments.

So, this initiative really does have a global focus on critical ecosystems. We are working not only with countries but also with Indigenous nations within these geographies. In fact, our projects are led by communities and Indigenous peoples with stewardship of these incredible land- and seascapes.

Duko Hopman: We should go back to how you work with communities and Indigenous peoples around the world—and at such an incredible scale. We’re talking about tens of millions of hectares for individual projects that you’re working on.

Zdenka Piskulich: In total, our objective is to protect at least half a billion hectares of lands and water. It is a very big task that we’re heading. We have already done these PFPs in the past, protecting more than 90 million hectares through five existing PFPs. [Editorial note: Enduring Earth partners, The Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund led the initial five PFPs. Since this interview was recorded in May 2022, an additional PFP has closed with support from Enduring Earth, bringing the total to six.] But now we want to get to more than half a billion hectares of land protected.

Duko Hopman: Who are you doing this with? When you say “we,” what are the organizations that are involved in Enduring Earth?

Zdenka Piskulich: This is a collaboration between four organizations. World Wildlife Fund, The Pew Charitable Trusts, ZOMALAB—founded by private philanthropists and investors Ben and Lucy Ana Walton—and The Nature Conservancy are all coming together and leading this effort with the support of many other organizations, such as analytical support provided by McKinsey and funding provided by donor organizations and philanthropists. We are all coming together to move this global process forward.

Duko Hopman: It’s been an absolute joy for McKinsey to work with Enduring Earth on supporting analytics for some of these of these projects around the world. You mentioned the term “PFP.” I think one thing that makes this initiative stand out is the sheer scale and the fact that these organizations are coming together to work on this. The other thing is the methodology—Project Finance for Permanence—which borrows from the financing methodology of private-sector infrastructure projects. What makes PFP such a good tool for this particular scale of conservation?

Zdenka Piskulich: First of all, I think what makes it a good tool is that it’s a proven tool. It’s already been used and tested in different geographies around the world: Bhutan, Costa Rica, Brazil, Canada, and now Columbia. And I think what makes it different from any other tool is that it looks at all the five pillars of sustainability that are necessary for a conservation project to be successful: the ecological perspective, the financial perspective, the socioeconomic perspective, the institutional perspective, and policy. So, we understand that for a project to be successful over the long term and to be sustainable over time, it needs to look at all five.

What makes a PFP interesting is that this is an agreement in which countries, governments, funders, donors, and communities all come together under a unified vision to draft a conservation plan that will be sustained over time. And it all comes together in a single closing agreement, much like the way infrastructure project financing works. Also similar, each closing agreement has very specific benchmarks which need to be met—not only for this closing to happen but also for the funds that are brought together to be disbursed over time. So, it really is an opportunity to make shifts in the way in which a country or a nation is moving forward in an accountable way with ambitious conservation objectives.

Duko Hopman: So just like with infrastructure financing, you are bringing together all the different sources of funding in a deal that ensures the success of the project based on milestones and disbursements along those milestones going forward. This notion of permanence that is guaranteed by lining up all these preconditions beforehand in a deal is critically important in conservation because temporary dips in the quality of conservation can degrade an ecosystem to the point that it is hard to build back up again. That continuity of funding and conservation actions is essential.

You personally have a long track record of conservation in Costa Rica, as well, where you were a conservation leader in a country that itself is a global leader in conservation. If you contrast the Project Finance for Permanence approach with the more traditional approaches to conservation, what were some of the challenges that you encountered in other projects that didn’t use the PFP approach that you think may remedy these challenges?

Zdenka Piskulich: I’ve worked in conservation for many years, and I worked in Costa Rica for many years before heading the Forever Costa Rica PFP. And what I noticed over time is that we were constantly in a struggle to find the funding to move on to the next big project. Much of the work that we did was conditioned on opportunities that were presenting themselves at that particular moment. What is the latest trend in funding? What is the latest trend in conservation? With the PFP, we were able to focus on our long-term thinking of what was actually needed for the country. One of the biggest challenges when you put together a PFP is shifting the way of thinking and the paradigm in which everyone does conservation in a country, whether it’s the park guard, the community leader, or the NGO [nongovernmental organization] that’s receiving the funds. Everyone is used to working on what priorities they have today and thinking about how they’re going to survive tomorrow. When you bring in a PFP and you bring in a sustainable source of funding, you can think about what you’re going to do one month, two months, or even five years down the road. That is something that is a complete shift in mentality.

I always think of the first time I met with the park guards, and we were defining the conservation plan for the PFP. These park guards were so focused on their need for the next day: “We need cars. We need equipment. We need patrolling equipment.” We were motivating them to think about what they were going to need in the future and to think about planning. I was always telling them, “Look, you have to eat your salad before your rice and beans.” And they would say, “No, we want our rice and beans, and we need that now. We need the meat.”

We saw that shift in paradigm while working with the park rangers and park guards under a PFP construct—all of those different authorities saying, “I now know that I will continue to receive recurring funding for the needs that I have. I can think of what I’m going to need five years from now. So, instead of asking you for money for tomorrow for that microwave oven that my park guards need to heat their food tomorrow night, I’m going to ask you for funding for capacity building because I know that I need those park guards to be able to do a better job at reaching out to communities, and I understand community extension is actually a long-term need for my park.” Seeing that shift has really made a difference in the way in which we do conservation because we’re not focused on the next big crisis—we’re focused on the next big opportunity.

Duko Hopman: I imagine that for stakeholders that were traditionally not as engaged in conservation, such as large parts of the private sector, this notion of permanence and these legal guarantees that come with PFP structures can also be an incentive to make more, longer-term investments in these areas as well.

Zdenka Piskulich: Exactly. It is an incentive for them to invest because they know that their funds will be managed well and that if these benchmarks aren’t met, these disbursements won’t be made. So it’s an incentive for them to trust that the system is well thought out for these benchmarks to be met.

Duko Hopman: You mentioned Indigenous peoples before. At this point, it’s clear that areas around the world that are under guardianship of Indigenous peoples have ecosystems that are better off than those that aren’t under this type of leadership. Enduring Earth works to reestablish or support that guardianship rather than work against it. Can you say a little bit more about how you do that?

Zdenka Piskulich: We mentioned the five pillars of sustainability, with people being one of those most important pillars of all. What we want to do with Enduring Earth is not to build from scratch: we want to build on knowledge and guardianship structures that already exist. And where there is ancestral and community knowledge, we want to help them build on that and, if possible, help them ensure that their knowledge, actions, and vision will be sustainable over time. They are the builders. They are the stewards. They are the ones who lead these efforts. For example, the Great Bear project [in Canada], which was the first PFP ever, was built, directed, led, and implemented by the First Nations themselves, protecting more than 19 million hectares of Pacific forest. So, at the end of the day, this is all about how we can help them make their conservation efforts more sustainable and lasting.

Duko Hopman: That brings us to the topic of climate. At McKinsey, we hope to be a catalyst in the transition of the global economy to net zero and to a nature-positive economy. We don’t need to be convinced that the topic of nature is immensely important and that it starts with the conservation of existing ecosystems not only for their intrinsic beauty and their role in supporting local economies but also for the fact that they are the single largest lever in the mitigation of climate change. How do you think about climate, and how do you prioritize that in the context of your conservation efforts?

Zdenka Piskulich: Part of what we want to do with Enduring Earth is help countries meet some of their goals at a national scale, whether these are their NDCs [nationally determined contributions] or their 30 by 30 commitments. Much of the work that we do is seeking to protect more than 500 million hectares of land and water. That, in itself, is going to be a huge contribution in terms of nature-based solutions. But we also are helping these countries understand the intrinsic value of their own natural resources. In the case of Bhutan, they’ve met their NDC through Bhutan for Life, which was one of the first PFPs on that side of the world. In one of our current PFP deals, for example, we will give support through a PFP there to help the country to not just meet their NDC but double their commitments. Working with countries to help them meet their NDCs and go even beyond that through natural climate solutions is a huge opportunity.

Duko Hopman: You mentioned the 30 by 30 commitment, which is the UN-proposed target to achieve 30 percent of land and ocean protection by 2030. 500 million hectares is a globally significant contribution to this. Are all the PFPs necessarily put in the context of the 30 by 30 target? How do you nest that in this global target?

Zdenka Piskulich: The idea is not only meeting this goal but also sustaining it over time. Some countries might be closer. Some countries are just reaching it now. But if this can be a motivation for countries to commit to both meeting and sustaining it over time, then the PFP becomes a vehicle for that. One example is Herencia Colombia, which is the most recent PFP that we are about to close. [Editorial note: this PFP deal has now closed.] Herencia Colombia will provide sustainable funding for all the newly created and expanded marine reserves that will help Colombia meet its 30 by 30 goal, thus helping all of the countries in the eastern tropical Pacific meet their 30 by 30 goal. It becomes an incentive for countries who see the possibility in Enduring Earth of not just meeting but also sustaining some of these goals.

Duko Hopman: It’s unbelievable that you’re able to be a catalyst at that scale. For some of these spectacular places that you’re working in, do you still have an opportunity to go see them? Or are you too busy with bringing together all these various groups in Zoom meetings?

Zdenka Piskulich: Luckily, I live in one of them. Living in Costa Rica, it has been an honor to witness the impact of a PFP firsthand and to be able to relate to the people who have benefited directly from it. Just a few weeks ago, we were out in one of the marine protected areas that was created through Forever Costa Rica to help Costa Rica meet its 30 by 30 goal. We were running into the community members—many of them women—who were able to create their own family network of lodges and bring additional income to their homes that they weren’t receiving previously but now are because people are coming to visit. I have them telling me about how they’ve learned English to be able to provide services to the tourists and how they have learned about so many places in the world because they’re receiving tourists from all over the world. They have a map where they’re pointing out the different places that they are learning from through these interactions with tourists. I see them bring in enough income to send their children to school, and I hear them talk about how they’re breaking the cycle of poverty that has been ongoing in their communities.

This is all thanks to this marine protected area that is bringing additional income to these communities—when ten years before, they were against this conservation. And so, being able to witness it firsthand has been one of the greatest honors of my life. Being able to now visit some of these other places not just for myself but maybe even to promote exchanges between these community members to seek synergies among all these different geographies is a huge incentive for taking on this enormous task.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.

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