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'Environmental challenges are human challenges, and we can solve them'

April 28, 2020

Portrait of interviewee Doreen Robinson
Photo: Nicholas Greenfield/UNEP

Doreen Robinson is Chief for Wildlife at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and coordinator of the new GEF Congo Basin Sustainable Landscapes Impact Program, a six-country initiative working to address environmental degradation in Central Africa’s forests. In an interview, she shared life lessons from her work, including the value of ‘deep humility’ and the need to seek out others’ perspectives to find lasting solutions to complex challenges.

When did you start to become interested in global environmental issues, and how did you get into this line of work?

I think I was born this way - I cannot remember a time when I did not feel passionate about saving nature and wildlife in particular. But my pathway evolved over the years - I started my studies wanting to be a wildlife veterinarian but after exposure to field work in Central America while attending Cornell University, I realized that I wanted to engage much more on the interlinkages between people and the environment. My graduate studies focused on the integration of conservation ecology and sustainable development, and I spent much of my career working on environmental issues within development-oriented agencies, making the connections between people and nature. Global environmental challenges are human challenges, and we can solve them.

Could you describe the program you work on, and what it aims to do?

One of the projects I am privileged to lead is a new program focused on protecting the biological diversity of the Congo Basin. It is focused on six very large and complex countries in the basin: Gabon, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea. The forests of the basin include over 15 percent of the world’s remaining tropical forests and is home to more than 250 different ethnic groups. There are national projects in each country, and also a regional element to ensure coordination and address trans-boundary issues. Ultimately we aim to keep the forests, peatlands, and many ecosystems that make up the basin intact. Through the regional program, we aim to step-up cooperation to secure the forests and the millions of species living in them - including endangered gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos and forest elephants. We will improve transboundary land and resource use planning to ensure forest integrity and secure ecosystem services and benefits. We will also expand conservation initiatives for endangered species and empower forest-dependent communities with new skills to improve their own well-being through sustainable forestry and other activities. Lastly, we will ramp up ways to share lessons and experience, including growing the knowledge base for how to protect the basin.

Gorillas in Virunga National Park, DRC
Photo: Joseph King/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Is there a person or community you have met through this work that had a lasting impact on you?

The Congo Basin is a place that touches you forever. From the vibrant, loud, and chaotic capitals like Kinshasa (I am from vibrant, loud and chaotic New York City originally, so Kinshasa definitely speaks to me!) to the humming, moist, and overwhelming green cathedrals of its forests, it seeps deeply into you. The folks who have dedicated their lives to the Congo Basin all have something special - from my primatologist friends who live and breathe great apes, to the conservation NGO staff working on community forestry initiatives, to Pasquale the first park ranger who introduced me to my majestic mountain gorilla cousins, they all have such a deep commitment to protecting the Congo Basin. It’s a large community of people who understand how important the basin is to its 130 million human inhabitants, but also to the health of the rest of the planet with its carbon absorption slowing climate change. They have all left a lasting impression on me.

Do you have a mentor or role model?

I have had the privilege to work with some of the most dedicated, brilliant people in conservation over my career. There are so many role models and mentors, I could not name one. However, even before I called South Africa home for almost nine years, I found inspiration in Nelson Mandela. Particularly his generosity of spirit and ability to reach out to others, even his very enemies, to find an inclusive way forward for all people in his country. Empathy for the perspective of others, particularly those who absolutely, fundamentally disagree with our own ideas, is very hard to come by. Yet to find that empathy and really work to compromise and come together to find solutions, that is something I try hard to practice and hope to incite in others.

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

This is complex, planet saving work, and with it I have learned that deep humility is needed. We need to seek out others and other perspectives to get the job done: scientists, business partners, governments, individual citizens, every single one has something to contribute, has their own expertise to lend to the solution. I think the folks that I have learned the most from are people living in the communities with wildlife, day in and out, whether it be in the forests of the Congo Basin, or the wetlands of the Okavango Delta or the coastal areas of the Philippines. Their knowledge of how the natural world works hasn’t come from books or studies, it is simply part of who they are. Their ability to understand environmental change and the stories of their interconnectedness with nature, in good and bad ways, is profound. We need to ensure that their voices are heard and that they have the tools and power to make the positive change that is required to continue to live with and benefit from the environment. Oh and, always carry a sharp Swiss Army knife.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected you and your work? What is your team doing to stay connected and committed in this moment of global shutdown?

I have an amazing team that has adapted and continues to work with the aid of technology. We are focused on delivering on all our commitments, but also prioritizing the most important things. I personally sit in my home office or garden (unlike so many people I am working with and for I am privileged to have both) and find it is a time for great reflection. Even though many are practicing social distancing and self-isolation, the reality is that this pandemic has shown us we are truly all in this together. We need to take care of each other in these times and we need to heed the wake-up call that we are putting pressure on our social and economic systems as well as our planet like never before. Diseases like this have been around forever, but we found ourselves so devastated and unprepared at such a scale with devastating loss of human lives. It is an opportunity to think about our connectedness, our development and prosperity pathways, and our living choices so that when we bounce back, because we will, we can bounce back better. So I am taking this time to reflect with others on how we can find ways to live within planetary limits while protecting our most vulnerable people and parts of the planet.