Income Generating Approaches to Conservation

Moving beyond donor funding and public financing.

At the World Wildlife Fund in Hungary, I am actively involved in policy, private sector consultancy and strategic corporate partnerships, including fundraising from the public, the private sector, and foundations. In my opinion, nature conservation finance has to move from pure donor funding towards income generating or investment-based approaches.

Philanthropic and public funds dedicated to conservation are not sufficient to meet current needs. The estimated current flow of funds to conservation (as of 2015) is approximately $52 billion per year, but a large portion of these funds are philanthropic or public. As a comparison, the global investment in the energy sector is approximately $1.8 trillion dollars per year. It is roughly 35 times greater than funding for conservation! What law says that the money can't go to projects and business ideas to generate revenues while also contributing to conservation? Our job is to explore the shared interests and formulate bankable and cross-sector projects that are good for people, nature and business. 

When I applied to the Fellows program in 2009, I was one of a group of managers of a European project called One Europe More Nature, which aimed to develop and test practical market-based conservation initiatives. Under this project, I pioneered a partnership with a leading energy company to convert from coal to biomass in order to finance the restoration of floodplain wetlands, increasing water balance during periods of drought and improving flood defense systems. A particularly invasive exotic shrub had completely filled up the floodplain, reducing the flood retention capacity and degrading the quality of freshwater ecosystems. However, it turned out to be a very promising source of energy and, at the time, nobody had tried to utilize invasive shrubs as a bioenergy source. This was my market-based idea: I connected a local company together with a local municipality to initiate new land and water management practices. The project successfully generated new income for local communities and optimized the biomass supply for the energy company, sourcing 400,000 tons of biomass annually. Once shrubs are removed, the area's floodplain forests, wetlands and grasslands will be restored through native willow trees which will provide the power station with a long-term supply of biomass. It was a completely new method of conservation, not only in Hungary, but also in the region. It’s still running today and serves as a good model for other communities dealing with similar issues. 

The Kinship Conservation Fellowship provided me with a unique opportunity to not only develop my project further, but also to improve my management and leadership skills. What makes the Fellows program successful is that it focuses on building the skills that are necessary for conservationists. Other programs improve technical knowledge in project management, analytical research methods or fundraising, but understanding the growing demand for new financing mechanisms in conservation is a great challenge for us. Kinship Fellows is addressing this challenge, which makes the program very practical and innovative.

Being a part of the Fellows Community

In 2011, Kinship introduced the idea of a European Chapter to reconnect Fellows, engage them in new experiences, continue to build leadership skills, and provide new opportunities to learn from and inspire one another. I thought it was an excellent idea and I immediately applied. With the support of Kinship's program, the group spent a week together in Sweden that same year. It was a very productive stock-taking opportunity for us and for me personally because, until then, I knew only a limited number of Fellows in Europe. I always like to learn from others and networking with other European-based Fellows like Charlie Avis from the U.K., Alessio di Giulio from Italy, Carlos Sunyer from Spain, Sergiy Shcherbak from Ukraine, Anna Jamieson from Sweden, or Glúmur Björnsson from Iceland, gives me an unique opportunity to expand my knowledge.  

In 2015, the Chapter spent a week in Spain at a meeting organized and hosted by Carlos, another very passionate Fellow. The basic idea was to share ideas and experiences on how sustainable rural businesses and market-based conservation can be developed so that nature conservation and economic growth can coexist. We assessed land management practices and ecotourism developments through field trips and on-site discussions in Extremadura, one of the biodiversity hotspots in Spain. We learned how local administrative bodies support nature-friendly rural development. This is not easy because government incentives usually have very high transaction costs and, in many cases, are not very effective when put into practice. It’s always a question of trade-offs and mutual deals among the different stakeholders. It was interesting for us to learn how these mutual agreements were achieved in a remote region where agriculture was once the main source of income, but now ecotourism is providing new income opportunities and preserving the environment.

I presented a concept on "water stewardship"—the term comes from WWF and defines a smart way of conserving water at a river basin scale. The crucial success factor for improving resource management is engaging the key stakeholders at the basin level. Conservationists don’t often engage these businesses, although these are the companies with the necessary assets to become game changers. From my perspective, conservationists need to engage and convince these businesses to improve performance in their supply chains and to take an active role in mitigating risks and delivering sustainable water management. This approach means getting a commitment to the sustainable management of shared water resources by connecting the businesses, government, NGOs and communities. 

I also presented a “green streams” project that aims to provide a non-conventional approach to building partnerships based on the principle that business and nature should coexist. The project aims to test these win-win mechanisms in pilot locations throughout central Europe. The key land-use drivers have already been identified, such as gravel extraction and orchard farming in the Marecchia river basin in Italy; dairy farming and forest over-exploitation along the Sava river in Slovenia; and intensive agriculture and conventional flood protection practices in the Tisza river basin in Hungary. I plan to address these drivers with the engagement of the private sector, public authorities, farmers and local entrepreneurs.

In our last meeting in Spain, the Fellows agreed that it is important to continue to help each other in a practical way, such as assisting on projects or business ideas as “on-site consultants,” focusing on one specific location or problem. I believe that swapping ideas and taking advantage of each other’s skills will be beneficial for all of us. Like other Fellows, I am looking for the places and opportunities where I can achieve the biggest impact and make a real difference.

“...the global investment in the energy sector is approximately $1.8 trillion dollars per year. It is roughly 35 times greater than funding for conservation! What law says that the money can't go to projects and business ideas to generate revenues while also contributing to conservation?”

Published May 2017