Conservation NGOs need a new mindset and strategy: interview with Marcelo Furtado

Marcelo Furtado, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, has over 30 years of experience working in the sustainability field, and is committed to advancing environmental and social justice through advocacy and philanthropy. In an interview with the Luc Hoffmann Institute, as part of The future of conservation NGOs initiative, he discusses how conservation action is becoming wider and more inclusive, and therefore more complex.

You’ve had a long career spanning chemical engineering, technology, renewable energy, and human rights activism. How did your career path develop? What inspired your interest in conservation?

Marcelo: I think I’m driven by two main issues: one is looking into the future and another is inequality. I was born near a botanical garden, because my father was doing his PhD there, so conservation became part of my entire life. I’d go with my father and play with the Petri dishes and look at things in the microscope. Over time I developed a passion for nature, hiking and travelling. Now that I think about it, it feels like conservation has been more a natural consequence of my different life experiences than an original driver.

What are the changes you’ve seen over the course of your experience in the conservation sector? 

Marcelo:  At the beginning, the primary focus was on civil society trying to make governments more accountable and responsive. Then we had a second phase, with civil society trying to make corporations more accountable. It became clear that unless you change how markets actually work,  public policies alone, although very important, won’t necessarily provide you with the solutions you are looking for. You need both. Now, with the third phase, the focus is on the investment community behind the corporations with the intent to make them more responsible and liable for their actions and impacts on the environment and society. These different phases are not isolated, they are interconnected, and they represent the key themes of a public conversation that over time has evolved to become wider and more inclusive.  

Another major change, in the past two decades, came from scientific and technological progress: with the amount of information currently at our disposal. This information has enabled us to have a level of monitoring and understanding that is just incredible. We now better understand what’s working and what’s not, we can identify the best indicators and metrics and are becoming more strategic and effective. Lately we are seeing new developments in the public conversation, like the inclusion of new themes such as employment, access to income and opportunities for all. The idea of conservation we had in the past, as just fencing off an area and protecting it, no longer works. 

Lately, the conservation sector has started discussing issues such as inequity, colonial legacy, power dynamics between global north and global south, etc. Have you seen any impact of this new global awareness in the areas where you work?

Marcelo: Yes, let me give you an example. In the past  we did not have an easy and proper relationship with indigenous communities, so a few NGOs became specialised in working as a bridge between the indigenous communities and the socio-environmental movement. But now that’s not necessary anymore. The indigenous communities are sophisticated. Some have their own representation, such as the Brazilian Indigenous People’s Articulation (APIB), and some have their own lawyers that can defend their interests all the way up to the highest levels of jurisdiction. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s okay to have the big international NGOs, but we must pay attention to the fact that, in this changing world, there are players in the field that will be much more capable and effective because they have a capillary action, they can reach deeply into the local communities. I think that a couple of critical questions for the conservation community are: how much of your strategy is really co-developed with local players? Or, how much of that strategy is you just ‘hiring’ local NGOs and local players to deliver what you defined as important?

Do you think conservation NGOs will have a role to play in the future? 

Marcelo: Absolutely. But conservation NGOs are also very conservative organisations and that is a challenge. We need to be more bold and more open. Maybe instead of a few large global conservation NGOs, we should have a constellation of organisations working in different sectors and a strategy that brings them all together. I’m not totally sure of the validity of the current consolidation approach, where the conservation movement is run by very few organisations with a single mindset and strategy. I think that this model will be challenged. Are we future ready? Using technology to the best positive impact? Shifting the system? Monitoring impact. I have the feeling that the finance/business world has already understood that message and the conservation NGOs are a step behind. Nevertheless, society at large still trusts conservation NGOs and therefore they have both a fantastic mandate and a huge responsibility to fulfil it.  

Learn more about this initiative: The future of conservation NGOs