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'We need to put nature at the center of economic activity'

July 17, 2020

Claude Gascon headshot
Photo courtesy of Claude Gascon

As Manager of the Global Environment Facility’s Programs Unit, Claude Gascon oversees a team of experts working to help developing countries tackle biodiversity loss, climate change, chemicals and waste management, land degradation, ocean pollution, and the drivers of these overlapping threats. In an interview, he shared how a fascination and love for nature led him to this international role and reflected on what makes the GEF special as a place to work.

What is your role at the GEF?

I am the Manager of the Programs Unit at the GEF. This means that I manage most of the technical staff from multiple focal areas and programs. My formal education is in biology, but my work over the years has been interdisciplinary and has allowed me to learn a lot about other environmental areas such as chemicals and waste and climate change, and even international relations. I aim to make sure that we provide the best support to developing countries so that impactful and high priority projects and programs can be developed and implemented in their countries. I coordinate and motivate staff to provide this support and coordinate our strategic engagement with all countries on their programming needs.

How did you get into this field?

My interest in the environment goes way back to when I was a child growing up in the large city of Montreal and spending some time at my grandparents’ cottage where I could run in the woods and enjoy nature. I became fascinated one spring by thousands of small frogs that were running all around a pond after having metamorphosed from being tadpoles. This started a lifelong love and fascination for amphibians, both to learn and study them, but also to conserve all of 8,000 species that live on Earth.

This fascination and love for nature guided all of my studies through high school, university, and graduate school, and led to an opportunity that changed my life in the mid-1980s; to go and do field work for my Ph.D. in the Brazilian Amazon. The rest is history, as I ended up spending almost 12 years in Brazil working and living there and continuing to work on amphibians.

It became clear through these experiences that working to understand and preserve nature was my mission in life. As I have always told my kids, choose a line of work that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning. The rest will follow. In my case, frogs and amphibians were that pull to get out of bed in the morning and have opened the doors to some amazing jobs in my life including working at Conservation International and now at the GEF. Frogs have been my greatest ally in my professional (and personal) life. They have led me to get a Ph.D. as I was fascinated to learn about their ecology and conservation. They allowed me to find a job in the Amazon as lead on a big conservation and research project. And more recently they continued to drive my passion for the work I do here at the GEF.

Claude Gascon with giant salamander
Claude Gascon with Japanese giant salamander. Photo: O. Langrand

What makes the GEF a special place to work?

The GEF is the largest multilateral funder of environmental work in the world. It is the only international funder of its kind that focuses solely on global environmental goods – no one else does this at the scale that we do. In this sense we have a unique and special mandate since if we don’t succeed, the global environment will be in bad shape. The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the real “global” nature of the environment, where what we do to the environment in one part of the world affects us all globally. The reverse is also true – if we take care of nature in the key regions of the world, then all of humanity will be better off. At the GEF we have a small but extremely devoted cadre of environmental professionals who are truly and fully dedicated to this mission and I am totally privileged and honored to work with so many colleagues from so many countries around the world. We all share a common goal, and this is something very special.

What is a ‘typical’ work day for you?

Working at the GEF can be hectic, but is always exciting, since it is a relatively small institution and we all end up doing a little bit of everything. Any given day will include talking to staff about key projects and initiatives that are going on, working on briefing materials for the CEO, participating in meetings with technical teams that are preparing field missions, and discussing with my director what the upcoming priorities are for the next GEF Council meeting. My days go by fast since the stakes are high and the priorities are always present. Even before the pandemic, the global environmental work was important. What we are learning with COVID-19 is that taking care of and restoring nature around the world is the only way of ensuring that this sort of environmental and human crisis does not repeat itself in the future. There is no time to lose.

How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected your professional approach?

If anything, the COVID-19 crisis and this pandemic has reinforced my conviction that our work in the environmental business is more important now than ever. We are in this mess because of humans’ profound disrespect for nature, and the only way forward is to change that perception and practice and ensure that nature is at the center of all human development and economic activity. The pandemic has provided me with the extra motivation and urge to advance our work and convince the world of the importance of what the GEF does.

Do you have a mentor or role model? 

I have been tremendously fortunate in having several mentors and role models during my professional life that have both taught me great lessons and skills in life, but also have opened doors and given me most of the opportunities that I have had over the past 30 years. My mentors have come from my work in Brazil, at the Smithsonian, at Conservation International, and now at the GEF, and these people have believed in me but also have challenged me with bigger and bigger problems to solve and responsibilities to undertake. I owe a great debt of gratitude to all these wonderful leaders.

Is there someone you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?

I have been deeply moved by the many leaders of local communities in the tropics who live and breathe nature on a daily basis and who understand the value of the natural world for human well-being. I can point to many of these people that I have met over the 30 years of traveling the world, but one family in particular in the interior of the Amazon rainforest comes to mind. This family lived in the middle of nowhere on a riverbank, days of travel from any large town, and had to rely on themselves and nature to survive and live. The parents taught their kids (seven of them) that if you care for and respect nature, it will provide for you. This family was healthy and was in want of nothing since it had bountiful access to fish and food and also had a naturally organic garden. It was obvious that human well-being and nature were totally intertwined and working for this beautiful family. The father also taught basic lessons of sustainability to his kids on how much fish to catch and when, and how much hunting to practice to ensure that nature would not be devastated and continue providing for the future.  Simple but powerful lessons that we would benefit greatly from practicing more.

What do you hope to observe in the world by the time you retire?

The battle to save the environment is a big one and it will require many generations and people to win. We must not only protect the forests, species, rivers, lakes, and oceans that surround us, we must also change behaviors of people so that we move from being in confrontation with nature to a much more harmonious and sustainable lifestyle that will benefit all. This may be a lofty dream, but I hope to see signs of this and perhaps even my contributions to that goal by the time I retire.