Editor’s note: This article first appeared on November 4, 2018.
The philanthropy of Swiss-born, Wyoming-based medical supplies billionaire Hansjörg Wyss has been interesting to watch over the years, as he’s gone from a Ted Turner-esque Western land guy to his current role as a major international land and ocean conservation donor. As he gets up there in years (he’s now 83 and worth almost $6 billion), Wyss has also been building up more of a public presence for his foundation.
Both of these trajectories made a huge advance last week, as the usually media-shy Wyss himself penned a New York Times op-ed in which he announced he would give $1 billion over the next decade, tripling the foundation’s annual giving to conservation outside the United States.
“Every one of us — citizens, philanthropists, business and government leaders — should be troubled by the enormous gap between how little of our natural world is currently protected and how much should be protected,” he writes.
The big takeaway is that this giving is all about protecting areas of land and water, with emphases in the op-ed on the importance of public national parks and locally driven efforts. The newly launched Wyss Campaign for Nature is also encouraging the international community to increase global targets for land and water protection to 30 percent.
We’ve been anticipating a move like this for a while now, considering Wyss is part of the Giving Pledge and still has a lot to give away. And it’s good to see some urgency in moving money for this cause, which tends to be surprisingly rare, even for billionaires publicly committed to giving away their fortunes.
But you know what they say about the details, so let’s take a quick look at this giving, which is initially granting $48 million toward nine projects.
Public land stewardship is a major theme
Wyss seems to have a genuine adoration for the concept of publicly owned and protected land. This is kind of an old-school value in conservation, but I think a good one, that says if we’re going to cordon off chunks of the world for biodiversity’s sake, they should be owned by the public instead of private interests. He also says he wants to back locally driven efforts.
So a running theme in a lot of his projects is acquiring land for the purpose of handing it over to national parks. Wyss has said that he believes public land protection is a “profoundly democratic idea.” Still, whether such projects are truly democratic in execution should always remain a question—any time large sums of money flow into another country to buy up land, there are questions of control and influence, as we saw in the philanthropic career of Doug Tompkins, for example.
Research and education
Aside from directly funding land and marine protection projects, the campaign is also doing some work to build a research case and to win over the public to the cause. The University of Bern, Switzerland, will receive funding for research on land conservation strategies. The National Geographic Society is receiving a grant to raise public awareness of conservation successes and challenges.
No climate program, not directly at least
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, every conservation funder needs to be deadly serious about funding climate mitigation efforts. Wyss points out in his op-ed the concern of climate change impacting biodiversity, but his environmental giving has mostly been fixed on protecting areas of land and water. On the other hand, halting deforestation is an important element of curbing climate change, a concept that philanthropy has embraced.
The Nature Conservancy is a major player
Wyss puts a big emphasis on the importance of locally led initiatives, including by indigenous people, and there are local conservation groups being funded for the initial nine projects. But it’s not all community heroes—a big partner in the campaign is the Nature Conservancy, a massive beneficiary of environmental philanthropy—the global NGO’s total revenue from all sources was almost $1.3 billion in the last fiscal year.
Wyss is funding TNC for its work in Australia and for its finance-based Blue Bonds for Conservation program that makes “debt-for nature” swaps with island nations to establish marine protections. Other big partners so far include the National Geographic Society and Fundación Flora y Fauna in Argentina.
It’s good to see a billionaire advocate of such an urgent cause step up the rate of giving, and do it in such a public way. If for no other reason, it’s a rallying cry. This $48 million is just a first step, and it will be interesting to see where the effort goes from here. It will also be important for this expanding, international work to continue advancing its level of transparency. With big conservation deals, it can be hard to tell who, exactly, is calling the shots and how decisions are being made. Making that clear will be important as this funder’s footprint continues to grow.