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Different landscapes, common challenges

July 28, 2020

Asha Bobb-Semple in Inner Mongolia, China
Photo courtesy of Asha Bobb-Semple

Asha Bobb-Semple is an Analyst with the Global Environment Facility’s land degradation focal area, and works with cross-cutting global programs related to food systems, commodities, land use, and drylands. In an interview, she reflected on her career path that has led her from Jamaica’s watersheds to the landscapes of Central Asia in support of a better tomorrow. 

When did you first become interested in environmental issues?

Growing up in the ‘land of wood and water’ as we call our small island Jamaica, I have always had an appreciation for the outdoors and nature. My interest beyond what I may have seen in my backyard or on trips out of the capital city Kingston, peaked in geography class in high school. Here we not only learned the human and natural dimensions of our environment in the classroom, but we also took field trips to see these dimensions in action. One of my most memorable field trips involved mapping one of the major watersheds in the island from ridge to reef. It took us the entire day of trekking through the ‘bush’ and travelling to different points along the watershed to compare the contours of the landscape with our maps, tracking the flow of the river, the floodplains, and the changes in land cover until we finally got to the coast. This, combined with my commitment to the Environmental Club, working to ensure the school separated plastic waste and took part in coastal cleanups, started my journey of pursuing a career in the environment field.

What was your path to the GEF?

After completing my Master’s degree in Environment and Development at the London School of Economics, I returned to Jamaica and began working on projects with farmers cooperatives in the very same watershed I studied in high school. I worked for seven years at the Environmental Foundation of Jamaica (EFJ), which was established out of a debt-for-nature swap agreement under the US government’s Enterprise of the Americas Initiative. It was there that I had my first introduction to the GEF, as the EFJ’s financing portfolio also included parallel financing for GEF Small Grants Programme projects in Jamaica. At EFJ, I helped national and community-based organizations to manage, protect, and sustainably use their natural resources, and supported their use of nature-based solutions for climate change adaptation.

I also had the opportunity of serving as a volunteer mentor for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based groups under a GEF-supported Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund project for the Caribbean, which was managed by the Caribbean Natural Resources Institute (CANARI). The mentors came together on South-South exchanges in Grenada and St. Vincent and the Grenadines to share common challenges and learn about managing critical biodiversity and land resources.

Prior to a short stint at the World Bank in the Water Global Practice, I worked at UNDP, where my focus was heavily on GEF-supported and other bilateral aid funded projects related to landscape and protected area management and building resilience to climate change. This evolution of my career from the ground level, to national to multilateral, at different points interacting with the GEF in some way, eventually lead me here to support more countries using the experiences I have gained.

What is your role at the GEF?

Asha Bobb-Semple
Photo courtesy of Asha Bobb-Semple

I work as an Analyst with the land degradation focal area as well as with our global programs, specifically the Integrated Approach Pilots (Resilient Food Systems and Good Growth Partnership) and more recently two of the Impact Programs, on Drylands and on Food Systems, Land Use, and Restoration. I also work on two regional teams – covering Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, as well as Small Island Developing States. These are very different regions in terms of landscape and needs, but with common challenges related to environmental degradation and climate change. Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in particular have unique vulnerabilities and my part of work involves helping these countries ensure that they make the best use of their very limited land resources while also maintaining livelihoods. Inherent in this is ensuring the ecosystems that they rely on are also resilient. This was the case in Jamaica, and it is interesting to see how the same lessons apply elsewhere, such as in projects I have worked on in small-island island states in the Pacific as well as in Africa, such as Sao Tome and Principe. At the same time, with larger countries such as those under the Resilient Food Systems program or the Central Asia countries in the Drylands program, I can also draw parallels with the benefits of integrated approaches, the importance of including stakeholders from the ground up, the need to enable policy at the national level for action at the local level, and to facilitate mechanisms for sustainability and scale.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I spend a great deal of time assessing the feasibility of projects, providing guidance to country representatives on project ideas, and engaging with GEF Agencies to ensure their projects have the best potential to deliver global environmental benefits, while at the same time helping maintain livelihoods. Recently, I have also worked with my colleagues on looking closely at COVID-19 related risks, potential mitigation options and opportunities for green recovery and resilience building in upcoming project submissions. Pre-COVID, when travel was allowed, I would participate in UN Convention to Combat Desertification meetings, GEF Expanded Constituency Workshops, and National Dialogues to engage with country representatives directly, in addition to partner meetings on global initiatives such as the Drylands Impact Program. Now we have shifted these interactions and meetings to the virtual space, which has allowed us to continue working in a very effective way.

Are there any lessons you have learned through your work to date?

Working in the field while based in Jamaica, and on a range of projects as part of my work at the GEF, I have an appreciation of the importance of partnerships and engagement among international partners, national counterparts, and local groups and communities who want to play a role in sustainably using their resources. My experiences have included working with national governments on creating the enabling environment for environmental sustainability, assisting farmer cooperatives with sustainable agriculture practices, and forest management committees on reforestation activities, and helping environmental NGOs to develop nature-based solutions to adapt to climate change. This has opened my eyes to the larger influence that small actions can have collectively, when aggregated as local, national, regional, and global priorities.

The commitment, determination and perseverance of local communities and groups such as farmers cooperatives, who may have access to little resources, but at the same time commit their time, energy, and knowledge to improve their natural environment is something I truly admire.

What about the GEF makes it special?

In my view the GEF is unique in the sense that it has the ability to bring together a diverse number of stakeholders to work towards a common goal. From the local grassroots communities and NGOs, to multilateral development agencies and financing institutions, private sector companies, countries, and UN Conventions. At the end of the day it is what we are able to do with this partnership that makes the GEF stand out in the world of environmental finance.