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“Conservationists need to experiment with new technology and guide it towards credibility”

Linwood Pendleton is an environmental economist and a transdisciplinary scientist. He is the Executive Director at the Ocean Knowledge Action Network and International Chair of Excellence at the European Institute of Marine Studies. He is also the Director of Moonjelly Academy. In an interview with the Luc Hoffmann Institute, as part of Digital disruption and the future of conservation project, he discusses the need for, and role of, Web 3.0 technologies for biodiversity conservation.

Q.  You started your career as a conservationist in the fields of ecology and marine sciences. What sparked your interest in blockchain technology?

It has been a long road! My interest in blockchain stems from my interest in ocean data. I was trying to understand why people were not sharing their ocean data. I wanted to find different ways to collect and share the data that are useful for conservation decisions. As part of my work with the RevOceans and later its sister, the Centre for the 4th Industrial Revolution – Ocean, I ended up spending a lot of time talking to blockchain specialists about distributed ledger technology – a technology that not only gives credit to the data collector but also helps the collector know how their data are being used, helps track their impact, while also enabling a two-way communication/feedback loop between the data generator and the user. The basic idea was that if we could create an impact factor for data, then we would create incentives like we have for publications. To do that we need a digital ledger, and that’s really what got me started with blockchain.

I’m not a data scientist, I’m an economist. I study incentives, and try to understand what drives people to share data as a resource.

 Q. How are Decentralised Autonomous Organisations (DAOs) relevant to the conservation sector? Do you have any example use-cases?

I’ll answer that with a story. About a year ago, everyone was talking about DAOs. At that time, I was the executive director of the Ocean Knowledge Action Network, an entity established to create new ways of networking people across language differences, cultural differences, and sectoral differences. I was exploring different ways of working together and DAOs appealed to me as a way to give voice to people who often feel powerless, or as a safe space for people who feel they would be discriminated against because they weren’t the right gender or right colour, for example. As I got more into DAOs, I started thinking about the ocean data sharing issues and realised that one reason why people don’t share data is because they rarely have a say in how the data are used. They lose control. I thought DAOs might be an interesting way for people to share data and still keep some control over their use by participating in communal governance of their data.

However, as I got deeper into DAOs, I realised that they are not very good for complex problem solving. They’re good once fairly clear and specific rules have been set, including rewards for good behaviour and punishments for bad behaviour. But many of the emerging DAOs, at that time, were just completely inappropriate ones. The questions were too complex, they hadn’t yet even decided what the DAO was governing with its resources and its rules. They included incentives, but no punishment. So when I look at this curve of adoption and where we were at this time last year, everyone wanted “to DAO”. They wanted the DAO label to signal that they were technologically oriented and doing things differently. Many began to establish DAOs but soon decided that they weren’t ready to be a DAO. DAOs too often became toxic and they killed the project they were intended to govern.

Q: A critique of these new technologies is that they could contribute to perpetuating existing power dynamics. How can the use of DAOs in the conservation sector become a tool to counteract these tendencies?

Like all tools, DAOs are open to bias, and part of dealing with that bias is making sure that everyone is equally capable of participating. We need to train people to enable better participation in this space i.e. creating the codes, developing systems of tokenomics and rewards, or even just using discord (the communication tool for many DAOs). That is one of the reasons we created MoonJelly Academy – to understand where these pain points were, and find ways to address them. The dilemma with DAOs is also anonymity versus transparency. DAOs enable anonymous use and are therefore “trustless”. But participants don’t have to operate anonymously. I’ve found that when people actually show their faces in DAOs, it fosters trust. It doesn’t diminish trust. But you lose the anonymity that sometimes helps deal with power imbalances.

Q: But you can still write a code which elevates those voices which are usually unheard, right?

That’s right. Particularly voting. DAOs can have built-in codes to ensure there isn’t a concentration of power, and that everyone has equal voice. Codes can be built to reward (with more governance tokens) based on how active the participant is or how impactful they are. However, all this must be agreed upon by the DAO community. But that can be biased too because, if wealthy people have more capacity, then they may have more impact and thus get voted to have bigger voting power. It may be that wealthy people have more time to spend on DAOs than less well-off people who are busy trying to raise money for food and basic necessities.

Q. Can you tell us a bit more about MoonJelly DAO and MoonJelly Academy?

MoonJelly DAO was established to create a decentralised way of moving money from people who were interested in contributing to conservation science and action to people who had ideas about doing that. The founders created a DAO and involved me to ensure whatever was designed was scientifically sound and well thought out. But that DAO wasn’t a DAO, it was a community and, after about six months, that community realised that they weren’t ready for DAO because they didn’t have DAO-like decisions to be made.  One of the things the founders realised early on was the need to co-design. Therefore, we created Moonjelly Academy with the idea of bringing people together from conservation science and Web 3.0 to debate and discuss, in an open transparent way, the risks, challenges and opportunities of using blockchain for conservation. The goal is not to reach a consensus but to indicate where consensus exists and share that with the world. MoonJelly Academy became its own thing apart from the MoonJelly DAO.

Q. What do you believe collaborations at this intersection (the future of nature conservation and Web 3.0) could bring?

I think conservationists need to stop asking, “Could I use blockchain for conservation?”. Instead, they should ask, “Should I use blockchain for conservation?”. What I see is a lot of people saying, “We could do this with blockchain!” very excitedly and probably we could, but maybe there’s an easier way to do this and we haven’t thought carefully enough about what we want to achieve from a conservation perspective. Is it decentralisation? Is it giving more power to people who don’t have power? Is it giving more credit to people who do good? From a conservation perspective, what is it that we really want to achieve? And why can’t we do it now?

Q. Can Blockchain concepts and DAOs be used to create new markets and new incentives for conservation that were not there before?

Even with markets, is it that we need more money? Or do we need more people getting money? Or do we need to divide the pie better? In the past few years, big donors have given a lot of money to the conservation sector but, as they have found managing small donations too expensive, they have opted for fewer large donations. That hasn’t solved our problem of getting small amounts of money to lots of people. How do you do that? Maybe it’s through blockchain, maybe it’s through a DAO or smart contracts, maybe it’s through cryptocurrency, but maybe there are other ways of doing it too.

Q. Now that we start understanding the complexity of the challenges we are facing , are you still excited about the opportunities of  Web 3.0 for conservation? What is your vision?

Yes, I’m still excited because the core of blockchain technology is very sound and now that we have proof of stake as a consensus mechanism, it is getting increasingly energy efficient. Further, the fact that we have more people paying attention to cybersecurity issues means it’s a tool that really is going to be fit for purpose. However, I’m also equally frightened. The thing that frightens me the most is that there’s such a desire to do things differently, that people are thinking about blockchain and Web 3.0 technology for conservation in a very idealised, complicated, aspirational way and they are making promises they can’t deliver. They are hiding behind the blackbox nature of Web 3.0. Often, conservation is not their primary goal. Making money is, and this will impact the legitimacy and credibility of their efforts. This emphasises why more conservationists need to dive into the space and guide it towards credibility and positive impact.

My vision for this intersection is having more conservationists involved and experimenting with the technology. Getting more ideas on the table, getting more money for ideas that work and creating a system of transparency so that people who make promises about contributing to the health of the planet can show that they actually do.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute nor the Digital disruption and the future of conservation project.

For a basic introduction to Web 3.0 concepts and their potential use for nature conservation, please refer to the ‘Digital Disruption for Conservation’ toolkit. With a focus on the fundamentals of Web 3.0 and blockchain technology, this toolkit will help you understand how this technology works and how it can be used to protect nature. 

Definitions:

  1. Blockchain: at its core, blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that stores data of any kind.
  2. DAO: a Decentralised Autonomous Organisation is an entity managed entirely by all members of the community. It is governed using smart contracts and any proposed changes to the rules of these contracts require a majority vote by members.
  3. Web 3.0: is the term given to a new iteration of the internet which incorporates concepts such as decentralisation, blockchain technologies, and token-based economics (aka tokenomics).
  4. Tokenomics (or, Token Economics): is a catch-all term for the elements that make a particular cryptocurrency (digital currency) valuable, robust and appealing to its users.

    References:

    1. What is Blockchain? (Forbes, 2022).
    2. Hassan, S. & De Filippi, P. (2021). Decentralized Autonomous Organization. Internet Policy Review, 10(2). https://doi.org/10.14763/2021.2.1556
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    3. Cryptocurrencies and Tokenization

    Down to basics

    Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies designed to work as a medium of exchange through a computer network that is not reliant on a centralised intermediary (such as a bank, government or credit company). They utilise blockchain to verify transactions and holdings (‘who owns what?’) and to store the currency’s protocol code, which defines attributes such as the creation of additional coins and overall supply and utility in a transparent and unchangeable manner. The fact that any participant can access and review the immutable supply mechanisms and holdings, potentially increases their trust in it.

    Cryptocurrencies have several use cases. The most common types are payment tokens, which allow payment for goods and services (whether in real life or in a closed environment, such as a project or a game); and utility tokens, which provide holders a specific right or access within a network (such as voting rights in an organisation).

    Cryptocurrencies are innovative and unique in that they are highly customisable and can be designed with various supply and utility mechanisms, eventually driving the currency’s demand and value. This enables the ‘permissionless’7 experimentation and creation of new markets that otherwise may not have been possible. As such, they are often used to create game-theory-based incentive mechanisms by projects or organisations – the cryptocurrency’s value can incentivise certain behaviours. This implies having a market that works to align people’s incentives with maintaining and growing an underlying resource.

    Other value propositions that derive from cryptocurrencies’ decentralisation include:

    • The fact that they allow the transfer of value from one person to another in a ‘frictionless’, fast, secure, transparent and economical manner regardless of geographical location makes them much more efficient and cost-effective than current, centralised alternatives.
    • The fact that participation does not require the authorisation of a centralised entity makes them accessible to anyone with an internet connection regardless of their banking status.

    These may enable the participation of people who may otherwise be excluded from global or local markets within the traditional system due to high costs of transactions, their distance from banking services, lack of required identification documents, and more. It is estimated that there are over 1.5-billion unbanked adults in the world today, to which cryptocurrencies may promote financial inclusion (a value proposition that is referred to as ‘banking the unbanked’).

    The number of different cryptocurrencies available for exchange today is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000. Some succeed and others fail, emphasising the extent of experimentation occurring with this concept and the exponential adoption the space has experienced through its decade of existence.

    The tokenization of everything

    Cryptocurrencies can be viewed as one use case of a broader concept: tokenization. A ‘token’ refers to a quantified unit of any form of value, which can be represented on a blockchain. This includes, for instance, a property, kilowatt per hour of energy, or number of planted trees. Registering such tokens on a blockchain enables their exchange in a transparent manner and opens the door to the creation of new markets. This is covered further in the next chapter, NFTs – Non Fungible Tokens.

    More on how we can tokenize anything, and the value this practice creates for society (including conservation)  can be seen in this video.

    7 ‘Permissionless’ is a blockchain-specific term that means that users or developers do not require permission to create or use a blockchain protocol or a related system.

    Down the rabbit hole

    The following are just a few ideas of what cryptocurrencies and tokenization could potentially enable for nature conservation:

    1. Faster, more cost-effective and inclusive conservation transactions

    At a time when the conservation sector is seeking to bridge the biodiversity finance gap while engaging diverse global audiences, cryptocurrencies may enable more efficient models of conservation finance and inclusivity. For instance, big international NGOs and grantmakers mobilising money for projects face high transaction costs and slow processes, which may be significantly reduced by the use of cryptocurrencies. As cryptocurrencies can be accessible to some unbanked populations (estimated at over 1 billion people globally), their use for conservation purposes could enable the inclusion of actors who might otherwise  have been excluded. In a future with better cryptocurrency regulation, and countries issuing their own digital currencies (also known as ‘CBDCs – Central Bank Digital Currencies’), cryptocurrencies could enable much more efficient models, resulting in more funding reaching on-the-ground conservation efforts.

    2. Nature-backed economies

    The customisable nature of cryptocurrencies may enable the rethinking of money, and experimentation with new financial systems that might otherwise be impossible. For instance, new cryptocurrency coins can be programmed to be issued only once, backed by a verified natural asset. De-facto, this enables a form of experimentation with a financial system that is backed by natural assets as an alternative to current systems to which nature is an externality. Such currencies can be designed to tokenize any form of natural asset, creating potential new markets,funding streams for conservation, and acting as a driving force to protect nature.

    3. Introduction of new incentive mechanisms 

    Across all scales, from global to localised projects, cryptocurrencies can be used to create new mechanisms that incentivise the adoption of nature-positive behaviours. This does not necessarily mean using monetary incentives. For instance, citizen science or data collection could be encouraged with rewarding coins that grant voting, participation or other rights within a conservation organisation, potentially leading to wider engagement and agency. Similarly, some projects gamify learning experiences and offer their audiences incentives to learn more about a particular topic by issuing coins to participants (a model known as ‘Learn to earn’). With many other models to be explored, cryptocurrencies can be seen as vehicles to drive certain behaviours among currency-holders and participants.

    What’s out there?

    1. Single.Earth has created a token called MERIT, which is issued to partnered landowners or organisations that commit to preserving nature and follow through on this commitment. Land is monitored using satellite data and other technology, and assessed based on forest coverage, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Tokens are issued to the partners as long as the land stays intact. MERIT can also be purchased by anyone who wishes to make a direct contribution to the conservation goals of the project.

    2. BirdBot aims to give the general public incentives to participate in citizen science activities, with a focus on birds as a key indicator species. Users install the BirdBot software, which is equipped with machine learning for bird species identification, then set up a camera near a feeding station. The resulting data recorded by the camera and software is stored on the blockchain and users are rewarded in BIRDS tokens every 24 hours.

    3. Fishcoin is attempting to improve transparency and traceability within the seafood industry by creating a token called Fishcoin. The tokens move down the supply chain from buyers to sellers. Those who make the extra effort to capture and communicate data are rewarded and the economic burden is shifted to the sellers, such as restaurants, who benefit most from traceability. The data is collected to empower seafood buyers with information to make better decisions, enable governments to better manage fisheries, and reward producers and intermediaries for data sharing and responsible behaviour.

    4. SEEDS was inspired by the Mayans’ use of seeds for currency. It uses algorithms that place importance on collaboration, distribution of wealth, and the health of the whole system. It has created a ‘global passport’ app to enable the boundary-free transfer of SEEDS currency while also acting as a space for community content and voting on projects, campaigns and other proposals. SEEDS users are rewarded for using and spending them and a portion of the token’s growth is dispersed as grants for regenerative projects.

    Things to keep in mind

    Interested in creating a cryptocurrency? Here are some points to consider:

    1. All previous considerations under the ‘Keep in mind’ section in the Blockchain and Web 3.0, and Smart Contracts chapters.

    2. Do you want to create a new coin (called a ‘native coin’), which requires building your own blockchain, or create a digital currency (classed as a ‘token’) on a pre-existing blockchain?

    3. How many coins do you wish to issue and do you want to release them all in one go or gradually increase the supply over time? (See ‘Tokenomics’ below).

    4. Your reasons why. Building a digital currency can be a great learning opportunity, but creating a successful one requires time, ongoing maintenance and technical skills.

    5. The protocol code underlying a cryptocurrency is difficult to change once deployed. Ensure thorough security audits are done prior to release to avoid cyber security risks.

    6. On which crypto exchange platforms do you want your coin/token to be listed?

    7. A community of supporters and early adopters to back your project can be key to success.

    8. The legal framework regulating cryptocurrencies varies by country. These legalities impact whether you can use, create, promote, or raise money using cryptocurrency.

    Tokenomics

    Tokenomics (or, Token Economics), is a catch-all term for the elements that make a particular cryptocurrency valuable, robust and appealing to its users. Tokenomics should be carefully designed when initiating a new project. This includes considering:

    1. What is the token’s supply? An infinite supply might cause inflation, while a limited supply may create deflation.

    2. How are new coins issued? Some cryptocurrencies add more coins via a ‘mining’ process, granting new coins to the individuals operating a validating node. Others may couple the creation of more coins with real-world data, such as the amount of sequestered carbon or restored landscape, opening the door to create new markets for conservation. 

    3. What utility does it have? Should the token be used for payments, voting rights, membership or something else?

    4. Token allocations. How many coins does the project’s team get? Does  the community supporting the project get allocations of free or low-priced coins?

    5. Governance plays a big role in tokenomics. While the above considerations are made by the project’s developers whilst they establish the inherent rules of the token, some tokens function as ‘governance tokens’. Holders of governance tokens are granted voting rights to influence the future rules and decisions of the project in which the token is being used.

    Tokenomics are game theory in action.8 While the list above lays the groundwork, this is just the start. Cryptocurrencies are essentially a gateway to introduce any type of game theory mechanics the creators would like.

    8 Frank DM and Sarkar S (2010) Group Decisions in Biodiversity Conservation: Implications from Game Theory

    Further resources

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    2. Smart contracts

    Down to basics

    In 2014, several years after the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto introduced blockchain, a group of innovators came up with the concept of blockchain-based ‘smart contracts’. They developed a programming language that enables people to code computer programs capable of carrying out the terms of agreement between parties, without the need for human coordination or intervention (Buterin, 2015). At its core, smart contracts are ‘if/when…then…’ statements that automatically execute actions (such as value transfer) when the predetermined conditions are met. Storing such contracts on a blockchain makes them transparent, traceable and immutable. Thus, reinforcing participants’ trust in the validity of the contract, and reducing the need for intermediaries, arbitration costs, fraud losses and time.

    This innovation has opened up a whole new array of possibilities and applications for blockchain technology. Now, anyone wishing to create a trustworthy, quick and self-executing program can develop their own decentralised application (or DApp). Smart contracts are also fundamental building blocks for other blockchain concepts, such as NFTs, which will be introduced in the following chapters.

    Down the rabbit hole

    The following are just a few examples of what smart contracts can potentially enable for nature conservation:

    1. Quick and automated compensations for human-wildlife conflicts

    Some of the biggest challenges to human-wildlife conflict compensation schemes are their lack of accessibility, non-efficient claims assessment mechanisms, and lengthy processing times from loss to compensation, all of which may lead to retaliation towards wildlife. Smart-contracts-based assessment systems could enable local communities to instantly gain compensation for proved losses. Similarly, smart contracts may be utilised to improve other micropayment schemes for biodiversity conservation.

    1. Accessible climate insurance for smallholder farmers

    Smallholder farmers are especially vulnerable to climate change due to their reliance on weather for yield, making the basis of their livelihoods, and main sources of food, precarious. Although such risks may be mitigated by conventional climate insurance, in certain parts of the world such insurance is either too expensive or non-existent. Providing local farmers with decentralised, accessible, smart-contracts-based climate insurance could potentially automate claim assessments and provide an economically viable model for both farmers and the insurer.

    1. Automated carbon credit issuance

    Common challenges in scaling carbon credit markets include lack of trust in credit certifiers and verification methods, double-spending of carbon credits (selling the same carbon credit to more than one buyer), cross-border regulation, high verification costs, and the overall accessibility and complexity of credit issuance. Smart contracts could introduce both trust and automation to these processes. For example, they can be programmed to process remote-sensing data to verify carbon sequestration without human intervention, thus disintermediating certifiers and ensuring credits’ trustworthiness, while reducing conservation costs and time. Programming a smart contract to enable only one sale per credit enables overcoming double spending issues. Furthermore, smart contracts can be custom programmed to create either a common global standard for credits or multiple context-tailored standards for different regions. Overall this may enable a more efficient and trustworthy mechanism for credits in conservation projects.

    1. Incentivising conservation through accessible micro loans

    Microfinance lending can contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, while supporting income generation and vulnerability reduction in local communities. However, such schemes are often limited by factors like geographic location, participants’ access to traditional banking services, and trust between parties. Decentralised Finance (DeFi), enabled by smart contracts, may allow the establishment of automated, accessible, cost-effective and trusted micro-loan schemes to encourage conservation-friendly practices regardless of geographic location or traditional banking status.

    1. Smart-contract-bound devices

    Further down the rabbit hole, new applications are emerging that enable control of physical devices  though  smart-contracts. This may enable a future in which, for instance, fishing equipment cannot be physically operated unless smart contracts verify a vessel’s location, thus introducing new enforcement measures and helping reduce fishing in prohibited areas.

    What’s out there?

    1. Cambridge Centre for Carbon Credits (4C) is aiming to utilise smart contracts to feed satellite and other remote-sensing data into the blockchain to automatically issue trustworthy and exchangeable carbon credits to landowners.

    2. The Lemonade Crypto Climate Coalition aims to utilise smart contracts to help protect vulnerable communities from climate change, through an accessible and automated weather micro-insurance system.

    3. GainForest is developing a smart-contracts-based platform to incentivise local communities to perform conservation-friendly practices. Compensation for communities is automatically unlocked once pre-agreed conditions (such as forest cover percentage) are met.

    Things to keep in mind

    Interested in smart contracts? Here are some points to consider.

    1. All considerations under the ‘Keep in mind’ section in the Blockchain and Web 3.0 chapter.

    2. What types of smart contracts does your chosen blockchain support, and which programming language knowledge is required to develop those contracts?

    3. Can conditions that should be met according to the contract be fed into the blockchain automatically or without a human intervention (for example, via satellite imagery, weather sensors, or similar) so that trust is not compromised?

    4. If human intervention is still needed, try to design a contract in which trust is least compromised by a person feeding data into the blockchain.

    5. Investigate blockchain oracles – entities that connect blockchains to external systems, thereby enabling smart contracts to execute based on inputs and outputs from the real world.

    6. Whilst mitigating unintended consequences of your application, consider best practices for co-designing the smart contracts with any stakeholders who may use or be affected by it in the future.

    7. Once deployed on a blockchain, smart contracts are intentionally difficult to change. Make sure to consider and simulate every possible scenario, breach or flaw in the code prior to its deployment, and consider the need for post-execution dispute resolution mechanisms.

    8. If you want the smart contracts to be legally binding, seek legal advice. While smart contracts often contain agreements between parties that emulate a traditional legal contract, in certain jurisdictions they are not yet considered legally binding (though they will still self-execute).

    9. Test before implementing. Rigorously test your decentralised application before it has any real-world influence on nature and people.

    Further resources

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    4. NFTs – Non-fungible tokens

    Down to basics

    The tokens, or cryptocurrencies, described in the previous chapter are fungible, meaning that one token can be exchanged with another of the same type. For instance, a one-hundred-dollar bill can be exchanged with another, or, say, for two fifty-dollar bills, which makes it fungible. Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), on the other hand, represent unique assets that are not interchangeable, such as a piece of real estate or intellectual property, or an artwork. These assets are represented on a blockchain by a unique digital identifier that cannot be copied, substituted or subdivided. Tokenising such assets on a blockchain makes buying, selling and trading them more efficient by dismissing the need for intermediaries while increasing the transparency around ownership records and reducing the probability of fraud. Because of these qualities, NFTs are often used to certify authenticity and ownership.

    Binding an NFT to a smart contract makes it programmable, unlocking new possibilities and use cases for this concept. For instance, an NFT can be programmed to pay royalties to its issuers any time ownership is transferred. This could mean, for example, that an organisation using NFTs for fundraising could secure automatic royalties down the purchase line, creating an ongoing income stream as opposed to a one-off donation. 

    With this concept in mind, it’s no surprise that some of the first industries to widely adopt the use of NFTs were digital art and collectables. However, as this space evolves, additional meaningful use cases emerge, emphasising that NFTs are much more than mere JPEGs. Their purposes can range from projects that develop an individual’s digital identity to offering intellectual and physical property rights and more.

    All in all, NFTs are vehicles to tokenize any non-fungible asset (either real-world or digital), simplify their trading, program utility models in this process, and create new markets –all in a transparent, traceable and secure way.

    Down the rabbit hole

    The following are just a few examples of what NFTs could potentially enable for nature conservation:

    1. Tokenization for conservation fundraising

    The fact that any real-world asset can be tokenized as an NFT (a process known as ‘digital twinning’), opens the door for the creation of new markets. For instance, rooftops could be tokenized and traded as real estate spaces to fund and incentivise the transition to solar energy. Wildlife tracking data might be tokenized and traded among researchers who need to use it for a study, or a member of the public wishing to support a scientific conservation effort. An NFT’s underlying smart contract could be programmed to stream royalties to a conservation organisation on any recurring sale of the asset. Such endless tokenization opportunities can enable new and innovative funding streams for conservation.

    1. Dynamic NFTs and the gamification of conservation engagement

    New developments have enabled the concept of dynamic NFTs. In contrast to static ones, dynamic NFTs living on the blockchain can be modified in reaction to a real-world event acting as a trigger or any other condition coded in their smart contract. This then unlocks  new opportunities for NFTs. For instance, a dynamic NFT representing a tracked elephant population could trigger an automatic change of ownership if the elephants enter a particular area or corridor. Then, communities living in that area could automatically be compensated in various ways to maintain the area as a habitat. The same concept could likewise be used at the governmental level to allow the safe movement of wildlife populations across different national jurisdictions.

    Dynamic NFTs could also be used to introduce gamification into conservation engagement. For instance, unlocking a reward for an NFT holder once a real conservation outcome has been achieved. Imagine, for example, a conservation supporter automatically rewarded with a new ‘gorilla’ NFT once an offspring is born in the wild. They can then sell the new NFT, with some of the proceeds feeding back into the conservation project.

    1. Fractionalisation

    As tokenization implies representing assets in a digital form, any real-world asset can be fractionalised into distinct NFTs representing parts of it. This attribute opens the door for decentralised ownership and the democratisation of asset acquisition. For instance, a community wishing to acquire land to restore a natural habitat could fractionalise the plot  into many distinct NFT representations, thus lowering individuals’ cost of participation and simplifying trade in pieces of land. Such fractionalisation and decentralised ownership may also reinforce the long-term sustainability of a project, since it may be harder to persuade thousands of individual landowners to sell or repurpose land than it is with a single owner. In the same manner, an NFT holder can own a few solar panels in a thousand-panel solar farm, receiving the income associated with their amount of ownership. Thus, fractionalising assets using NFTs has the potential to democratise and decentralise ownership, while increasing participation in conservation initiatives.

    What’s out there?

    1. Zeedz is a ‘play-for-purpose’ game where players reduce global carbon emissions by collecting plant-inspired NFTs called Zeedles. The project raises money for nonprofits, including USD$1.64 million USD in the pre-sale, and aims to raise awareness about global warming and sustainable living within their community. The game is played on a real-world map using live weather data.

    2. Moss purchases portions of lands in the Amazon that are at risk of deforestation and digitally fractionalises them into 1-hectare portions, each roughly the size of a football field, and stores the rights to these portions as NFTs. The Moss Amazon NFTs are actual land sales; proceeds from the sales fund further purchases, and 20% of all revenue from the NFTs goes towards the costs of patrolling, satellite imagery and other needs for the areas’ conservation activities.

    3. Souls of Nature is an NFT project consisting of 9,271 unique ‘nature souls’ NFTs. A portion of the collection’s initial funding will go towards conservation efforts, and the holders of the NFTs will be able to use them within a virtual world in which they ‘nurture’ their NFT in a gamified mission to protect nature.

    4. Anibles is a soon-to-be released project aiming “to bring funding for conservation into the digital era”. The NFT collection features 60 species of digital animals combined with utility for the buyers such as royalties, and the potential of going on real-world trips. The project aims to improve education and awareness of conservation issues by featuring the Anible characters in a gaming environment where users acti as rangers, and by producing story books for children.

    5. National Parks NFT used their 4,835 strong NFT collection to act as membership cards to 63 US National Parks. They aim to create “the world’s most passionate outdoor community” and reward active users and park visitors with points that can be spent on real-world items, such as hiking or photography gear.

    Things to keep in mind

    1. All previous considerations under the ‘Keep in mind’ section in the Blockchain and Web 3.0., Smart Contracts, and Cryptocurrencies and Tokenization chapters.

    2. What kind of NFT do you want to produce? JPEG images are currently the most common, but you can also create NFTs out of photography, music, video and other media.

    3. Do you want to have real-world utility attached to the NFT? This could include membership or an event ticket, rewards or discounts in the real-world, links to a carbon-offsetting programme, or proof-of-participation for volunteering efforts.

    4. Do you want the NFT to be dynamic (change with user interaction, time or linked to real world data)? These changes can be programmed into NFTs using smart contracts so that the NFT changes its characteristics when the predetermined conditions are met.

    5. If your NFT is linked to real-world data, ensure that you identify and mitigate against unintended consequences that may come from linking this data to a new market for natural assets. An example could be increasing the poaching risk for an individual or species if it caused the financial value of the linked NFT to increase.

    6. While NFTs represent real-world assets, they do not necessarily imply ownership over the asset itself. For instance, an NFT representing a gorilla in the wild and or attached to real world data from a gorilla population, does not imply ‘owning the animals’. Rather, they can be defined as having the right to support conservation efforts for a particular animal (such as the widespread use of ‘adoption’ schemes today), or the right for revenues from any asset the NFT represents (such as with acquiring solar panel rights of a solar farm). Make sure to consider and communicate exactly what rights are given to NFT holders.

    7. What communication channels are best to reach your target audience? Platforms such as Discord (a VoIP and instant messaging social platform) are popular for creating modern digital communities.

    8. What revenue models do you want to introduce for 1) primary sales, and 2) sales on the secondary market? A simple mechanism is for a percentage of the sale to go towards the chosen social or environmental cause, but other models could be explored. For example, an NFT could serve as a digital badge of positive impact when its owner makes a predetermined monthly donation. This would continue until the holder either stops donating or sells the NFT on the secondary market at a higher price, resulting in a larger monthly donation.

    9. Some impact NFT projects have received backlash due to concerns over the environmental impact of the blockchain chosen. These impacts vary depending on the consensus mechanism the blockchain uses. Additional concerns have been raised over the reliance on scarcity for successful projects, drawing criticism for being a new form of capitalism in the digital age. Creating an NFT project requires an understanding of the potential unintended consequences and other perceived risks, making efforts to mitigate them, and providing clear, transparent communication to reassure concerned parties.

    10. Consider the risk of scams and the importance of transparency. The mainstreaming of NFTs, combined with the rapidly developing nature of the technology and correspondingly lagging regulations has created the perfect environment for ‘bad actors’ to take advantage of the hype. These actors will launch NFT projects with claims of investment potential for buyers, only to disappear with the investments after initial sales – this is often referred to as a ‘rug pull’. The resulting wariness makes it particularly important for NFT creators to have transparency and clear communication throughout the project’s life span.

    Further resources

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    DIGITAL DISRUPTION FOR CONSERVATION
    Toolkit

    Welcome to the ‘Digital Disruption for Conservation’ toolkit! This toolkit is made available by the Digital Disruption and the Future of Conservation project team at the Luc Hoffmann Institute. It  is designed to provide conservation practitioners with a basic introduction to blockchain concepts and their potential use for nature conservation. If you’ve ever wondered what innovations like blockchain, smart contracts, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) are all about, and how we can use them to leverage conservation efforts, then you’re in the right place!

    We understand that blockchain concepts can seem a bit overwhelming at times. For this reason, our toolkit is thoughtfully designed to clarify the terms, opportunities and challenges associated with blockchain technologies  so that you can understand their potential for nature and society.

    The following chapters will cover different blockchain concepts, showcase inspiring blockchain applications in the conservation sector, and lay the groundwork to discuss contentious topics that we as conservationists should be familiar with while engaging with emerging digital innovations. Every chapter builds on the one before, so we recommend going through the toolkit in order.

    ‘Digital Disruption for Conservation’ – Toolkit chapters:

    1) Blockchain and Web 3.0
    2) Smart contracts
    3) Cryptocurrencies and Tokenization
    4) NFTs – Non-Fungible Tokens

    Moving through the toolkit, you will find that each concept is divided into five sections:

    • Down to basics – providing an initial understanding of the concept
    • Down the rabbit hole – illustrating some of its potential future uses for conservation
    • What’s out there – showcasing already existing blockchain use cases in conservation projects
    • Things to keep in mind – highlighting some key considerations that conservation organisations should make before approaching the concept
    • Further resources – referring to additional content we consider useful for deepening our understanding of these innovations.

    The toolkit is an expression of the project team’s on-going efforts to share digital innovation insights with the conservation community, and will be updated regularly as this space evolves. We hope you will find it thought-provoking and are  encouraged to explore what role blockchain technology could play in the impact created by your organisation. We would love for you to join the conversation and help us explore how best to use blockchain concepts for biodiversity conservation. If you are interested in knowing more about the project, get in touch here and … Enjoy the learning ride!

    As part of its Digital disruption and the future of conservation project, the Luc Hoffmann Institute is exploring how blockchain technology could help conserve biodiversity. The institute is not involved in the creation or trading of any crypto assets. It is aware of the environmental externalities and opportunities of these activities and firmly believes that both the climate change and biodiversity crises should be tackled together.

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    1. Blockchain and Web 3.0

    Down to basics: What is blockchain and why is it relevant

    At its core, blockchain is a distributed digital ledger that stores data of any kind.1 As a growing list of records, blockchain can record information about transactions of sorts of value, ownership, the execution of smart contracts (a concept to be discussed in the next toolkit chapter) and more.

    While any conventional database can store such information, blockchain is unique in that it’s completely decentralised. Rather than being maintained in one location and governed by a  centralised entity (think of an Excel spreadsheet or a bank database), many identical copies of a blockchain database are held on multiple computers, spread out across a network. These individual computers are called nodes. As fresh data is added to the ledger, a new ‘block’ is created and attached to the ‘chain’. This involves all nodes updating their version of the blockchain ledger in unison,  ensuring that their ledgers remain identical.

    How these new blocks are approved is key to why blockchain is considered highly secure. A majority of nodes must verify and confirm the legitimacy of the new data through what is called a ‘consensus mechanism’2 before a new block can be permanently added to the ledger. For instance, if an entity attempts to retroactively alter the ledger through one node, it is dismissed via comparison to the others. This is different from a standalone database or spreadsheet, where one person can make changes without oversight. In many blockchains, any participant can use their own computer to act as a node, increasing the number of network validators (sometimes to the millions) – a fact which reinforces the decentralisation and increases trust and agency amongst participants. Meanwhile, while no single entity can corrupt the records, any participant can access and review them on the blockchain, transparently (open access).

    Overall, this innovative mechanism makes blockchain the most advanced type of transparent, traceable, immutable and decentralised way to manage records for varied purposes. For these reasons it is often used  for managing the ownership of assets (whether digital, or representations of physical ones), for tracking different transactions of value (such as access to data, knowledge, intellectual property, and currencies), and for disintermediation in cases which previously required a trusted intermediary. As such, blockchain is often referred to as the ‘technology of trust’ – having the potential to enable the decentralisation of power and democratisation of processes, while facilitating trust.

    Combining encryption and distributed databases – two technologies that existed for decades – blockchain in its current form was only introduced in 2008 by the person/s known by the pseudonym ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’. In their whitepaper, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”,3 they described a system that allows peer-to-peer value transactions without the need for an intermediary, laying the groundwork for today’s developments in blockchain. Although sometimes tied together, it is important to acknowledge that blockchain and cryptocurrencies are very different. Cryptocurrencies are just one application of blockchain technology, and the two should not be conflated.

    Blockchain today represents a set of technologies which is constantly evolving through trial-and-error processes of innovation. Thus, those reading this toolkit should view the following concepts as processes and works in progress, rather than mature applications. Web 3.0 is an industry that routinely reinvents and churns out new paradigms, at an unprecedented pace.

    It is also important to note that there is no ‘one blockchain’, and that various organisations have developed blockchains which differ in aspects such as  their consensus mechanism, which thereby impacts their level of energy consumption, security, decentralisation, and overall efficiency.

    Continue reading through this toolkit to find out more about the most recent blockchain concepts and how they are relevant to nature conservation.

    The emergence of the Web 3.0 narrative

    To understand blockchain’s magnitude and potential to become mainstream, it is essential to be familiar with the social contexts in which it emerged. This is where it gets even more interesting and relevant. Enter ‘The Web 3.0 narrative’.

    Web 3.0 is an idea for a new iteration of the internet which incorporates concepts such as decentralisation, blockchain technologies, and token-based economics. While in the 1990s, Web 1.0 enabled users to read through online content (‘read-only’); and in the early 2000s, Web 2.0 enabled users to become content creators themselves, such as through blogs and  social media (‘read-write’); Web 3.0 aspires to enable users to own and exchange the content they create through blockchains (‘read-write-own’). This represents a whole new set of value propositions to users everywhere.

    This new narrative has not emerged in a vacuum and correlates with overall public motivations over the past decade. This includes widespread criticism of big-tech companies and other centralised organisations that control and monetise users’ content and private data; or benefit largely from acting as intermediaries. It also resonates with social justice movements calling for the redistribution of power and resources, and more agency for original or native asset holders, such as indigenous communities and knowledge.

    Similar to the internet in its early days, these social trends and narratives have turned blockchain from a mere technology into an intriguing concept backed by a growing social movement that characterises and energises its adoption. As of 2022, it is estimated that over 300-million people worldwide own Web 3.0 assets, 72% of which are aged under 34, with emerging market countries dominating the adoption curve.4 5 It is important for conservation organisations to internalise this realisation because blockchain opens opportunities not only to facilitate trust and decentralise processes through its technological attributes, but also to engage the wider public and younger generations, and align with audiences that see it as a key element of their worldview.

    In this toolkit, the term Web 3.0 is used as a comprehensive term to describe the entire emerging blockchain space.

    1 What Is Blockchain? (Forbes, 2022).
    2 A consensus mechanism is the process used by a group of peers, or nodes, on a blockchain network to agree on the validity of transactions submitted to the network. Dominant consensus mechanisms include Proof of Work (PoW) and Proof of Stake (PoS).
    3 Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System
    4 Cryptocurrency across the world (2022)
    5 The Chainalysis 2022 Geography of Cryptocurrency Report

    Down the rabbit hole

    At its most basic, blockchain can be used for its transparency, traceability, and immutability – attributes to facilitate trust in cases where it is most needed in conservation. The following are just a few examples of what blockchain can potentially enable for nature:

    1. New and efficient conservation models, through disintermediation

    At a time when conservation funders and philanthropists are pushed towards the enablement of non-restricted funding, and big conservation Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) are under scrutiny for the way such funds are distributed – blockchain could potentially enable new models to emerge. This might be through using the technology’s transparency and traceability attributes to enable a more efficient monitoring of funds, thus enabling funders to monitor their donations, while easing the reporting pressure on practitioners. Or, by completely disintermediating current models in the sector, thereby enabling a more direct, and in some terms more efficient, connection between conservation funders, communities, and practitioners on the ground. Minimising the need for big international NGOs to act as trusted intermediaries may also lead to a reduction of costs and more funding going to where it’s needed the most in conservation.

    2. Building trust into supply-chains

    Sustainable supply-chains face challenges such as a lack of alignment in responsibility and sustainability frameworks across a chain, difficulty in monitoring complex supply-chains, and the lack of public access to a supply-chain’s information. Blockchain’s ability to record information in a verified, tamper-proof and transparent manner opens the door to overcoming these challenges. Individual products can be represented on the blockchain by a unique digital identity (ID); their origin is verified, their route throughout the chain is recorded and traced, and the information is shared with the end consumer via the open-source nature of blockchain. In this case, blockchain acts as a catalyst for sustainable supply-chains because it can help  nurture consumer trust and sustainable consumer behaviour.

    3. Scientific data and indigenous knowledge sharing

    Some of the reasons scientific data and other knowledge types are not widely and openly shared among conservation actors may be attributed to trust-related concerns over data governance, intellectual property and benefit sharing, and the fact that once shared it is hard to know how information is being used. Sharing information through a blockchain can enable the traceability of knowledge transactions (who accessed what data and when); an instant, automated compensation for those sharing knowledge (either in a monetary form, through impact scores, or any other incentive mechanism); and a direct line-of-communication between researchers or other knowledge holders and those using their knowledge. This may enable, for instance, grantmakers to have better insights into how the knowledge produced by their supported projects is being used, and what impact it truly has. Or it may enable the wider implementation of international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing.

    What’s out there?

    1. Distinct blockchains, also known as ‘layer-1’s’, differ in things like their underlying consensus mechanisms, which influence their energy consumption, level of security, decentralisation, and overall efficiency. Ethereum, the second largest layer-1 blockchain available today, recently transformed their consensus mechanism from Proof-of-Work (PoW) to Proof-of-Stake (PoS)6 – making their blockchain 99% more energy efficient. Tezos, one of the first blockchains to adopt PoS, is an energy-efficient layer-1 with an average yearly CO2 footprint of 17 global citizens. Celo is a blockchain built with the intention of becoming the first carbon neutral blockchain, while also promoting the development of applications for regenerative practices on their network.

    2. OpenSC have launched an online platform in partnership with WWF-Australia which uses blockchain to track products and help people to avoid illegal, environmentally-damaging or unethical products. By assigning a unique digital ID to an individual product at its point of origin (such as the moment a fish is caught at sea) and recording it on a tamper-proof blockchain, the platform verifies, traces and shares information throughout a product’s journey along its supply chain.

    3. Earth Bank of Codes, in partnership with the World Economic Forum, are building an open digital platform that enables the trusted sharing of genetic resources data. The platform harnesses blockchain technology to track who is using which data, and to automatically distribute any commercial value that results from its use, to the country of origin. It does so by codifying rights and obligations related to data usage to stimulate innovation while protecting provider countries and communities, thereby enforcing the Nagoya Protocol.

    6 Consensus mechanisms – Proof of Work vs. Proof of Stake

    Things to keep in mind

    Interested in running an application on a blockchain? Here are things you should consider:

    1. Be clear on what kind of problem you are aiming to solve, and what is the added value of using blockchain in solving it. Can blockchain give a better answer than other existing alternatives? If your solution or project can be developed through traditional Web 2.0 tools, you may wish to consider focusing on more established technologies.

    2. Question your solution to refine it or come up with new innovative ideas. Consider questions such as: “What requires uncompromised trust within conservation efforts now, or in the future?”; “What conservation challenges can be overcome by either transparency, traceability, or immutability?”; “What conservation governance models should be revised, or may benefit from democratisation and decentralisation?”; “What intermediaries operate within the conservation sector? And can or should they be disrupted?”

    3. Consider your target audience – do they have the capacity for using blockchain applications? If not, is there a way to make the blockchain application more accessible to them?

    4. Choose the right blockchain for your project to be developed on. Focus on characteristics such as the blockchain’s underlying consensus mechanism (influencing aspects of security, decentralisation level, scalability, transaction costs and energy efficiency); and the blockchain’s current network scale (influencing the network’s long-term robustness, network effects and more).

    5. Conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the environmental, social, human and economic impacts in any blockchain initiative for conservation. For instance, is the carbon ‘benefit’ of your project surpassing the amount of carbon that will be emitted by it?

    6. Lastly, consider any political or reputational outcomes which may arise from entering the blockchain space. As mentioned in ‘The emergence of the Web 3.0 narrative’ section, conservation organisations should be aware of the social contexts in which blockchain technology emerged. Balance such considerations with the opportunities within the space, and the risks of not being involved in it. This is true for almost any disruptive innovation, and implies adopting a healthy and balanced experimental approach.

    Further resources

    As the blockchain space evolves at a staggering pace, it is crucial to check when the learning resource you consult was published, and whether it is up-to-date. For this reason we will include the dates when suggested resources were published, and will update them when necessary.

    Learn more about Blockchain in the following short videos:

    Learn more about Web 3.0 in the following resources:

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    10 Years of Unearthing Innovation: our 2021-2022 annual report

    The Luc Hoffmann Institute is glad to present its 2021-2022 annual report, which celebrates 10 years of working with innovators, investors, the wider conservation community and other sectors to address some of the greatest challenges facing nature and people.

    “A diverse, equitable and flourishing world is never going to be a static target – it will always require careful nurturing. We must take our inspiration from nature, which always evolves and never remains stagnant, and push ourselves even further.”

    Melanie Ryan, Director, Luc Hoffmann Institute

    Since its founding in 2012, the Luc Hoffmann Institute has helped to mobilise world-class thinking in science, policy and practice by elevating diverse perspectives and rethinking the systems underpinning biodiversity conservation. In this edition of our annual report, we reflect on the institute’s journey and achievements over the last decade and gratefully acknowledge the thought and action leaders who have supported us financially, intellectually, in kind and with access to their networks.

    The last year has certainly been an eventful one. The institute held seven participatory events that hosted 354 attendees from 54 countries across 132 organisations, and interviewed 96 people from around the world.

    Milestones include the launch of two new businesses initiated through the Beyond Tourism Innovation Challenge – The Shaba Market and Home of the Gorillas; the Exploring Responses to Corruption in Natural Resource Management and Conservation Practice virtual symposium; and the research report Using gamification for nature conservation, which examined how storytelling and gamification can derive value from, and for, wildlife.

    The last year has also been a time for reflection and for looking towards the future. Our current programme is guided by the overarching exploration of the Future of Conservation NGOs, our umbrella initiative, which collectively reimagines integrated, innovative and impactful future pathways for conservation NGOs in a rapidly changing world. Springing from this overarching project are two related, deep-dive projects: The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity, and Digital Disruption and the Future of Conservation.

    As we move forward in an uncertain world, we will continue to strive for a future where diverse, equitable societies value and regenerate all life on Earth. We will continue seeking ideas that push the nature conservation sector to be impactful, equitable and meaningful. We invite you to join us on this exciting journey. 

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    Driving radical transformation

    A conservationist and anthropologist who has spent close to a decade working to uplift nature, people, and their wellbeing, Saba Sean Thackurdeen’s experience includes working in the space of interdisciplinary research, community advocacy, and social enterprise. As part of the Future of conservation NGOs project, they explore how the conservation sector can confront its uncomfortable colonial past and address it in its modern-day legacy.

    The perceptions of radical change

    Too often, in passing conversations on social change, does the word “radical” conjure a future that seems a fundamental break from reality. Anything radical seems beyond moderation. It is often associated with extreme views, especially from a political standpoint. 

    But the etymology of the term refers to the word ‘root’. Radicals aim to dive deep into the ‘root’ of the challenges, unearth the complexities, and interconnectedness of the problems, fixing their gaze on the systemic and structural issues plaguing the space. Therefore, the general resistance to the word  “radical” can be read as  either a resistance to reinvestigate root-systems or moreover a resistance to uproot them. 

    Many people prefer to avoid conversations around radical futures that could imply a net loss for them in terms of money, power, and influence. Even many in favour of changing the status quo seem to be wary of the word “radical” and prefer the more reassuring “progressive”. 

    The use of “radical” seems to suggest a future disjointed by anything good in the present or the past, but it should be remembered that futures can be perceived as radical just because they are rooted in the past. 

    Analysing the past to plan the future of conservation NGOs

    In the conservation domain, where the persistence of the deep-rooted legacy issues like neo-colonial mindsets and practices invite us to approach history critically, to talk about futures rooted in the past can be challenging.  

    Exploiting natural resources for industrial development, with little consideration to the long-term impacts on the local communities, has been the blueprint since the dawn of the industrial era, and is rooted in a colonial approach to the world. The very foundation of the nature conservation sector rests on this colonial concept of land acquisition and alienation of indigenous peoples from their natural environments, structured to favour the political and social elites but framed as a “social good”.1

    Moreover, the majority of conservation practices and projects follow the ideas rooted in the global North and in Western science, which tends to posit that academic knowledge and understanding is superior to the experience, practices and beliefs of local communities.1

    The persistence of these deep-rooted legacy issues, mindsets, and practices invite us to approach history critically. 

    In the Future of Conservation NGO report published by the Luc Hoffmann Institute, four key themes of change are highlighted, which suggest possible conservation futures. Among the priorities are a call to decolonise international conservation organisations and empower local community actors, as pathways for transformative change. 

    In suggesting such approaches, a fundamental question is posed: what happens to large conservation NGOs as they are decolonised? Indeed, what role will large transnational NGOs play in this future? What actions can they take in the present to decolonise conservation?

    Re-rooting the future of conservation NGOs

    Going back to the roots and honestly and critically examining them is challenging but can also be rewarding work for big international NGOs. Our grieving and healing (from individual, to organisational to societal and eco-systemic) can be helped by acknowledging and reconnecting with these very roots, and putting them in right relations.

    It begins with understanding and acknowledging how privileges and the associated power dynamics impact conservation work. 

    A great starting point is a deep interrogation into the organisations’ underlying philosophies; combing through the original manifestos, reviewing vision and mission statements, analysing the staffing and recruitment policies, the makeup of the board and the approaches, and structures not only from a social and environmental justice viewpoint, but also with the intention to dismantle any internalised colonial legacies and racism.

    At the forefront of the nature conservation sector, and even in big international NGOs, people are beginning to reconsider what they mean by “wilderness” (challenging the idea that pristine nature must be free of human intervention)2 and what is considered as “legitimate knowledge” (learning from indigenous communities about coexistence). Throughout the sector, there is a call for deep introspection, profound sense-making, and a fundamental shift in focus and efforts engaging with plural voices, perspectives, cultures and knowledge to co-create effective conservation solutions. 

    Some institutions are beginning to swim against the flow, presenting intriguing alternatives to prevailing models. One such example, albeit not in the conservation sector, is The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. It is part of an increasing number of European museums that are challenging and questioning their colonial past and institutional legacies. In 2013 the museum put together an exhibit (integrated within the main gallery, in 2022) that thoughtfully interrogated the lives and experiences of peoples living in the Dutch East-Indies and enabled critical reflection about the Dutch colonial past and the Museums own institutional complicity in it.

    Or perhaps uproot and begin anew

    As we turn to our collective future it is fascinating to note that for some big international NGOs imagining a new future would perhaps require contemplating their own demise and embracing the idea of being replaced by smaller and community-led institutions or entities. 

    Perhaps the most pressing, radical question conservation NGOs now need to ask themselves is, is it possible to continue to reform and modify the current approaches and practices with the intention to improve them, or is it necessary to begin anew?

    The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, the Future of Conservation NGOs project, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.

    References/Additional reading:

    1. Domínguez, L. & Luoma, C. (2020) Decolonising Conservation Policy: How Colonial Land and Conservation Ideologies Persist and Perpetuate Indigenous Injustices at the Expense of the Environment. Land. 9 (3), 65. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/land9030065.
    2. Fletcher, M., Hamilton, R., Dressler, W., & Palmer, L. (2021). Indigenous knowledge and the shackles of wilderness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118.Available from: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2022218118.
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    Ndidi Nwuneli on pushing for a more local approach and ownership of philanthropy

    From agriculture to nutrition, youth development to social innovation, Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli’s breadth of expertise and experience escapes easy categorisation. As a result her list of achievements and accolades is equally long and disparate, having been named one of “20 Youngest Power Women in Africa” by Forbes, authored several instructive books on food entrepreneurship and scaling impact, and co-founded many start-ups along the way, including one that challenges long-held narratives of African people, innovation, and products. A passionate advocate for African-led and -born initiatives, Ndidi spoke to the Luc Hoffmann Institute about why philanthropic resources in Africa need to start empowering local models and partners and ultimately generate its own capital.

    What changes do you see in global philanthropy trends that will support net positive outcomes for nature and people?

    Well, the first thing is that I’ve seen philanthropy shift from being the purview of old white men and more traditional funder-grantee relationships to being more accessible, especially to those who are more forward thinking or more exposed. It’s more activist philanthropy and that’s exciting. So you look at the MacKenzie Scott model, where the funds given to organisations are not restrictive, and can be used for more catalytic interventions, which give room for risk taking and learning. That’s what you really need for nature-positive solutions. If you’re looking for proven models to support, then with climate change we’re still navigating, learning, growing, experimenting. And that’s why you need catalytic unrestricted funding. That’s the shift that I see that’s exciting.

    The other thing that I am excited about is the more active collaboration between different stakeholders. For example, the Rockefeller Foundation partnered with the IKEA Foundation and Bezos to launch the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP). Each contributing $500 million to seed this important work, knowing that no one group, one philanthropist, one foundation can address this problem, and that we need large amounts of money at scale. These types of collaborations are welcome developments in our landscape and are critical to getting us to the point where we can collectively address some of the challenges in our ecosystem. I always talk about leaving our egos and logos at the door, and collaborating to solve critical challenges of our time.

    Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli

    The third is one I’ve been pushing – the critical need to focus on local actors as the implementers. One of the challenges we have faced historically is that implementers come from outside communities, they have the trust of the large funders, they come in, they parachute in ideas. These are short-lived, unsustainable, expensive interventions. So we’ve been pushing for a more local approach to philanthropy, where you partner with local organisations. There’s local ownership; you partner with local philanthropists, and you deliver sustainable solutions at scale. The African Philanthropy Forum has recently created a portal called StartPoint Africa which helps philanthropists find local organisations because what we always hear from philanthropists, especially in the Global North, is that they can’t find trusted organisations in Africa to work with and so they don’t work with them. So we’re trying to bridge the information asymmetry gap and connect philanthropists to credible and dynamic local organisations that they can support.

    If you’ve been in the room with some of the representatives of those old hegemonic groups, do you think they are aware of this intentional shift? From being kind of the hero in the journey to more of a community-led or more equity-based model of philanthropic practice?

    Well, I haven’t spoken to them directly about their views, but I think most people recognize there is a shift and that equity is critical. From where I’m sitting I think it’s a gradual shift but it’s a shift nonetheless. When I am in more traditional rooms, I often raise my voice and challenge the status quo. We don’t want tokenism anymore, we want shared ownership of the problem and shared ownership of the solutions.

    Why have I written a book on social innovation and scaling in Africa, a book on food entrepreneurs and agri businesses? Because oftentimes I go to forums and people who spend two weeks in my country are experts on the country and define the future. And because they have philanthropic capital, they dictate what happens with the money. I strongly believe that it is important for us to tell positive and practical stories from the local levels and actively enable scaling of home-grown initiatives. So it’s important to me that we start generating our own capital, investing in local interventions and local ownership so that we can actively drive change on the ground and shape our own future.

    You’re sitting on so many different boards, and are also a serial entrepreneur yourself. Are you seeing any alternative to traditional philanthropic models emerging today?

    Yes, so I think what we’re starting to see – and it’s not new – is patient, catalytic, impact-driven, and collaborative investing. I actually say that anybody who invests in agriculture and food in Africa is a philanthropist in some way because you’re not going to make your returns back in seven to nine years if you’re really focused on nutritious food and nature-based solutions that impact people. So it’s really, really important that we recognise that impact investors are in some way also philanthropists, in the sense that they are using a business lens to make dramatic changes in society. I know that’s not new but oftentimes we don’t recognize these pools of capital that come in from that perspective.

    I wrote a book called Social Innovation in Africa: A Practical Guide for Scaling Impact. And I recognize that there are innovators in governments, there are innovators in non-profits and there are innovators in the private sector who are solving social problems at scale and oftentimes when they are working in those spaces, we don’t recognize them as social change agents and the capital that they utilise, especially in government.

    Imagine yourself in a perfect world 10 years from now. What does philanthropy look like?

    So philanthropy 10 years from now would really be driven by local funders and I’m specifically talking about Africa. Local funders rooted in local issues, where there’s almost a democratisation of needs and the flow of resources to those who need it most, where solutions at scale are led by local organisations, funded by local philanthropists and there’s been a total realignment of the flows of wealth and flows of philanthropic funding.

    So a situation where more professionals and emerging high networth individuals have structured their giving to address root causes of problems. And where international philanthropists realise they cannot enter countries without partnering with local philanthropists and pooling resources together to impact change, and where they share values and share ownership of these problems at local levels and global levels. I just joined the board of the Bridgespan Group. They did a really pioneering project in partnership with the African Philanthropy Forum on giving in Africa.

    It has lots of great insights. One of the things we surfaced was that, of maybe $9 billion given over a span of five years in Africa, only 6% went to local organisations. And of the $1 billion for malaria research only 1% went to local research institutions. I would like to see a complete reversal of those flows where 90% of the funding is going to local organisations in partnership with local philanthropists, where the beneficiaries and the actors on the ground are as respected as international NGOs and international beneficiaries of donor funding. What else would I like to see? Just efficiency, effectiveness, humility, and collaboration in the sector.

    Based on that future vision, does philanthropy need to change and, if so, why and how?

    We are already thinking about this and have articulated views about what needs to change. A big part of it is obviously connecting with the right partners on the ground, supporting capacity building of local organisations. Actually holding funders accountable. I would push for quotas around what percentage local organisations should have versus international organisations, representation on boards and senior management of organisations that you fund.

    How do you then see everybody playing a role in shifting wealth to better address the climate and biodiversity crisis?

    ​​There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go with others” but I have tweaked it a little to say, “If you want to go fast and far, which is what we need to do to address the climate crisis and the food security crisis, we need to work with integrity, excellence, and humility and leave our egos and logos at the door”. So I say that, because attribution is such an interesting thing and so many foundations want to say I did it. You can’t do that in the climate fight.

    Everybody has a role to play. Individuals, families, communities, companies, everybody has a role to play, so that’s why leaving our egos and logos at the door is critical. Humility is critical, because we don’t know everything. Every day we’re learning and unlearning, experimenting and adopting new innovations. We’re finding out we don’t really know everything. And so that humility to say what I don’t know, what I know, etc, is so important. And then we need excellence and integrity. I say integrity especially because I see a lot of large corporations nutrition washing and greenwashing.

    That’s when integrity comes in. We really have to put our money where our mouth is, we need to change behaviour from within. Corporations have a critical role to play, so do governments but for me it’s the values that underpin that shift that will enable and catalyse the action we need.

    The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Luc Hoffmann Institute, the The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity initiative, nor of any of their collaborating institutions.

    Learn more about this initiative: The Future of Philanthropy for Biodiversity

    Further reading:

    To create systems change, philanthropy first needs to change itself
    Sufina Ahmad MBE, Director at the John Ellerman Foundation, asks the hard questions funders will need to answer in order to effect systems change for people and planet.

    “Philanthropy needs to become more humble”
    A thought piece by Kathy Reich, director of BUILD at the Ford Foundation, on the mindset shift that gets us there.

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    Is the conservation sector ready for change?

    What are we learning from the 9 winning ideas of our innovation challenge? Join us on Tuesday 1st November 2022 to learn more.

    Since April 2021, The Luc Hoffmann Institute, together with the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (IUCN-CEESP) and Impact Hub, have been incubating the nine winning ideas of the Future of Conservation NGOs global innovation challenge. As we develop these ideas, we are also asking ourselves, “What are we learning about the future of the conservation sector and its possible transformations?”

    If you are also interested in these developments and would like to know more, please join us at the upcoming Learning Festival hosted by the Re-Imagining the INGO (RINGO) project. We will be joined by Eva Rehse, Director of Strategy and Global Collaboration at Global Greengrants Fund, and together, during this interactive session, we will ask, is the environmental and conservation sector ready to shift power and transform?

    This session is part of a four-day virtual festival, which will share learnings from the RINGO project and begin to collectively map the transformation needed in the global civil society ecosystem.

    Future NGO - RINGO Learning Festival

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    The RINGO Learning Festival schedule is rich with ideas, learnings and discussion on how international NGOs might begin to transform, so do take a look at the full agenda and sign up to other sessions that interest you too.

    For more information, please contact futurengo@wwfint.org.