As a girl growing up in the hamlet of Tulit'a, on the wind-strafed shore of Great Bear Lake—"Sahtu," in the Dene language—in the Northwest Territories of Canada, Ethel Blondin-Andrew led a life inextricably tied to the land, waters, and wildlife of her home.
"My dad traveled by dog team and fished on the lake in the dead of winter," she says. "He hunted, fished, and foraged year-round, no matter where we were. I grew up in clothes made from skins and hides, and we lived on a seasonal diet—lots of birds in the spring and the cache of dry meat and dry fish in the winter. I've always had a lot of respect and admiration for people who could hunt and trap."
Blondin-Andrew, 71, is Shúhtagot'ine (Mountain Dene), born of people who have lived in this sparsely populated sliver of the boreal forest since time immemorial. She went on to be the first Indigenous woman elected to the Parliament of Canada in 1988 and today is a senior adviser with the Indigenous Leadership Initiative (ILI), a group working to advance Indigenous nationhood throughout Canada and help Indigenous people steward their lands and futures and strengthen their communities and culture.
"We've been working for years to regain authority over our lands, and our lives," says Blondin-Andrew. "For way too long we have been a forgotten people to many, but we have persisted here and we know better than others how to care for this place. And we will build a better future for our people."
Central to this effort is protection of the richly biodiverse boreal forest and the lakes, rivers, and communities within it. And although the ILI—with support from the International Boreal Conservation Campaign founded by The Pew Charitable Trusts—has had success in helping to protect vast swaths of ancestral lands, these efforts have run into challenges familiar to similar efforts across the globe, including how to secure sustained funding.
This is one reason Pew has partnered with The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and ZOMALAB—the family office of philanthropists Ben and Lucy Ana Walton—on an initiative to secure large-scale, durable conservation projects including long-term funding and capacity building around the world. The partnership, called Enduring Earth, is founded on the principle that successful projects of any nature require robust conservation and social development targets, thoughtful planning, and sufficient financing, capacity, and accountability to achieve those targets. Globally, the United Nations Environment Programme has identified a $4.1 trillion gap between what's needed to secure climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation targets and what's currently invested.
Enduring Earth is built on the success of a model called project finance for permanence. A PFP secures long-term investment in conservation initiatives by tying full and sustained funding to measurable goals, including social and environmental gains, and continuing the financing only if those benchmarks are met.
All the pieces of a proposed conservation initiative—from specific social, environmental, and policy milestones to the long-term financing of the conservation system and a representative and independent governance system to oversee the project—must be in place before donors sign over their investment in the initiative.
This model was first applied to conservation beginning nearly two decades ago with the Great Bear Rainforest project in Canada, which secures 19 million acres of Pacific rainforest and supports First Nation-led economic enterprises tied to the conservation of their lands. That was followed by PFPs in Costa Rica and the Amazon Region Protected Areas project, which safeguards a nearly 150 million-acre network of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon.
Since then, PFPs have brought durable conservation for protected areas of Peru and Bhutan. And a PFP is in development that builds upon conservation planning efforts by Indigenous nations in the Northwest Territories of Canada—efforts that have already secured the protection of nearly 16% of the land area of the territory.
Enduring Earth is launching this year with ambitious goals: to ensure the long-term protection of up to eight critical ecosystems around the globe over the next five years, with an aspirational goal of securing 20 critical ecosystems—comprising approximately 1.5 billion acres—by 2030. Accomplishing this would contribute greatly to the growing global ambition to protect 30% of Earth's land and ocean by 2030—an effort known as "30 by 30." To meet its goals, Enduring Earth aims to raise $2 billion within the first five years, with $600 million of that from philanthropic contributions and the rest from governments.
To decide where these projects would occur, the Enduring Earth team has agreed on a set of criteria, similar in many ways to how Pew chooses to do all of its conservation work. These include selecting areas with high biodiversity, stable governance, and a strong commitment to conservation and high-level political champions; ensuring that each PFP has clear, science-based conservation objectives and associated community development goals; and working with reliable in-country partners, local stakeholders, and governments, who always play a big role in designing and implementing these efforts. Another key criterion is that, for each PFP, Enduring Earth can identify a clear path for the project to transition from philanthropic funding to 100% in-country financing.
Canada, and the Northwest Territories in particular, are promising places to invest under those criteria. The territory houses the world's largest unpolluted lake, the Great Bear Lake, and North America's deepest freshwater body, the Great Slave Lake (Tucho), along with the fourth-longest undammed river in the world, the Mackenzie River (Dehcho), and the majestic, glacially hewn canyons of Nahanni National Park Reserve.
"When flying over this region, you can't even tell people live here," says Dahti Tsetso, who is Dene and deputy director of the ILI. "That's how well we have taken care of our lands, and we have a responsibility to keep doing so."
The areas protected so far include expansive forests of poplar, spruce, fir, and jack pine, spaces that are home to some of the billions of birds that nest in the Canadian boreal, along with crystal clear lakes and mighty rivers. In 2018, for instance, the Dehcho First Nations led the creation of the Edéhzhíe Protected Area/National Wildlife Area, which covers nearly 5,500 square miles of lands within their traditional territory, including the Horn Plateau, Hay River Lowlands, and Great Slave Lake Plain.
Edéhzhíe also harbors habitat for many at-risk species, including woodland caribou, wolverine, short-eared owl, and wood bison.
Perhaps most importantly, Edéhzhíe is the first Indigenous protected area that Canada counted toward its international land protection commitments and shows that Indigenous-led conservation can convey benefits far beyond helping nature to thrive.
The Dehcho First Nations, inspired by successful models in other First Nations in Canada as well as similar efforts in Australia, created an Indigenous Guardians program. Community members work in Edéhzhíe on efforts as varied as disaster response, active land management, and cultural programming.
"The number of jobs is significant," says ILI director Valérie Courtois. For example, northeast of the Dehcho First Nations, the Łutsel K'e Dene First Nation launched the Ni Hat'ni Dene Rangers (which translates to "Watchers of the Land" in the local Dënesųłıné language). The program employs a dozen people in a community of around 400 on the northeastern arm of Great Slave Lake—which proportionately is the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Toronto.
In fact, a 2016 analysis by Social Ventures Australia Consulting of the current and future value of Indigenous Guardians work in the Northwest Territories showed a return on investment of $2.50 to $4 for every $1 spent. "The programs in Łutsel K'e and Dehcho launched just eight years ago, but they already deliver significant social, economic, and environmental benefits," the analysis found. "With more time and sustained funding, the Łutsel K'e and Dehcho guardians could deliver even more benefits, similar in scale to those achieved by more mature guardian programs in Australia."
That's motivation enough for Indigenous nations to work with Pew, the federal and territorial governments, philanthropists, and other nonprofit partners on developing a PFP that would build on—and help sustain—these gains. But a PFP could also have major implications for fighting climate change and improving the health of the planet: In its peatlands, bogs, and plant life and beneath its vast layer of permafrost, the Northwest Territories stores an estimated 44 billion tons of carbon—more than is emitted annually from all sources globally.
The prospect of sustaining this protection and replicating it around the world is what excites the Enduring Earth partners, says Pew senior vice president Tom Dillon, who leads the organization's conservation work and led the development of several PFPs before coming to Pew.
"A main motivation underlying Enduring Earth is to build on each success with a model that communities and governments all over the world can use to achieve their conservation ambitions, instead of starting from scratch every time," Dillon says. "Indigenous and other local communities have centuries of knowledge and experience in managing their lands and waters. It's important to us that they benefit directly from these initiatives and that we galvanize government support to make their conservation aspirations durable."
And history has shown that without local and national buy-in, conservation projects are bound to fail. So a key piece of Enduring Earth and the PFP model in general is to work with partners at both levels to ensure that projects incorporate the leadership of communities most connected to protected areas and enable their ongoing participation and secure long-term government commitments. For its part, the Canadian government has pledged to conserve 25% of its landmass by 2025 and reach the 30% milestone by 2030. Collaboration with Indigenous governments—including those in the Northwest Territories—will be essential for Canada to meet these targets.
To date, five PFP projects have been completed around the world, protecting about 225 million acres. Bhutan for Life, for example, provides the country with bridge financing to care for its 10 protected areas and the biological corridors connecting them, which together constitute more than 50% of the country's landmass. Bhutan, where a government credo states that "gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product," is home to dazzling biodiversity—high alpine peaks, lush forests, rushing rivers, and a storybook assortment of wildlife, from tigers and Asiatic elephants to snow leopards and white-bellied herons.
If successful, that 14-year project will help sequester an additional 35.1 million tons of carbon, including through clean-energy projects at the household level, and make one-fifth of Bhutan's population—mostly poor, rural residents—more resilient to climate change.
The rationale for banding together to launch Enduring Earth is to leverage each partner's distinct expertise and networks to create a portfolio of PFPs.
"The Enduring Earth partners have come together in recognition that they can accomplish more together than they can alone," says Zdenka Piskulich, managing director of Enduring Earth and former executive director of Forever Costa Rica, a PFP that enabled the country to become the first developing nation to meet its 30% protected area goals. "While there will be many approaches to reversing the loss of nature and addressing the climate crisis, the Enduring Earth partnership applies a proven solution that can help governments, local leaders, and communities protect nature at scale and in perpetuity."
World Wildlife Fund has worked on three PFPs, including the ones in Brazil and Bhutan as well as one in Peru, and has an extensive staff on the ground around the world. The Nature Conservancy has long been a leader in innovative conservation financing and has a history of supporting Indigenous-led conservation efforts, including a PFP in the Great Bear rainforest in Canada as well as Forever Costa Rica. ZOMALAB brings expertise in financial analysis and negotiating and a deep commitment to community economic development. And Pew is known for its nonpartisan approach to initiatives and its objective, science-based advocacy in pursuit of large-scale conservation outcomes.
Also, by combining forces in planning, financing, negotiating, and resource mobilization, the four organizations can achieve results faster and on a greater scale than by going it alone.
"Leading scientists have raised alarm about threats to biodiversity around the world," Dillon says. "We need to act fast and act big, and all of the partners agreed that Enduring Earth is an excellent way to do that."
Embarking on any large-scale partnership with numerous participants carries risks, and this one is no different. Each group has its own history, institutional culture, and ways of getting things done. That's why the four organizations have spent so much time crafting a shared-governance structure and specifying responsibilities for how decisions will be made. And, as with any large endeavor today, individual PFPs may face resource constraints from governments that are struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic or other economic downturns.
But the payoff of working through such challenges promises to prove invaluable. Protected areas provide a cornucopia of health, cultural, and other benefits to urban and rural communities alike, including food, drinking water, construction materials, fuel for heating and cooking, and medicines for people living near or inside conserved systems. These areas also spur economic benefits: Nature-based tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world.
A 2015 study supported by the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University found that the world's protected areas contributed roughly $600 billion annually to their countries' economies. In some developing countries, visits to protected areas are among the largest sources of foreign-exchange earnings.
Still, in many places, such progress is tenuous. The Northwest Territories government, for one, has grown accustomed to an economy based on natural resource extraction, so the PFP there, to be successful, must show that an alternate future is viable—for nature and people.
Indigenous leaders, too, face significant issues in their communities that go beyond stewardship of nature, with Courtois noting that "they have to worry about these economic models and how it's going to work, and have to worry about who has a broken window, who's in jail, who's sick."
The Indigenous residents there know that the future can be built on their knowledge and traditions. Last winter Blondin-Andrew, on one of her frequent forays into the Mackenzie Mountains with her husband, hosted an Indigenous Guardian camp.
"It was minus 50 [Celsius] (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit), and we slept in a tent," she recalls. "I woke up with frost on my arm, but these young people were out there working the land, working for the future. We have traveled a long way, and I have hope for the conservation economy, that it can enable people who have been ignored for too long."
In the end, that's at the core of Enduring Earth: protecting natural spaces for the ultimate benefit of all life, including humanity.
John Briley is a staff writer for Trust.