A conservation die-hard since his youngest years, Olivier Behra has taken his near-mystical hat to all corners of the blue marble. Seatbelt on, and hats off for an insightful interview.
This month, Plan A is partnering up with Net Positive Impact, an organisation dedicated to finding solutions that work for humans, wildlife and nature. To achieve their goals, NPI strives to find alternative income streams for communities neighbouring sensible and biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Since 2005, this program has designed and financed more than 17 programs in Madagascar, then continental Africa and Asia.
The belief that drives NPI and its founder, Olivier Behra, is that by providing sustainable means and economic opportunities to populations closest and most concerned with biodiversity hotspots, the incentive to use natural resources diminishes. Pay attention, you don’t want to lose a word.
Plan A: Hi Olivier, thank you for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. We are very excited to work with Net Positive Impact, the organisation you are now leading.
Tell us more about yourself, and what inspired you to become passionate about the environment?
Olivier Behra: I grew up in Africa and when I came back to France at the age of 13, I knew I had to go back to work for the environment.
Can you tell us an anecdote that influenced your environmental journey?
On my first trip back to Cameroon, I was on a river at night with a hunter. He captured a baby crocodile that I had to hold in the canoe. I was so fascinated that when I returned to France, I studied all that I could on these animals. A few years later, I travelled the tropics and became a crocodile specialist of worldwide recognition.
Tell us about those Eureka moments that you had over the course of your conservationist career?
Working for crocodile conservation is complex because these reptiles are dangerous for local communities. While other biologists’ conservation message was quite simple, I had to find approaches that would lead local communities to find an interest in these animals. In 1989, I started a program funded by the United Nations to advise crocodile farmers. I had the latitude to refuse them the right to capture crocodiles in the wild and instead trained local communities to collect eggs – avoiding natural mortality – to supply the crocodile farmers. This was a success and local communities in the bush were happy to sell eggs and did not try to kill the crocodiles any more.
Forests in Madagascar, although rich in medicinal and aromatic plants, were burning because local communities only saw them as ash for cultivation. I decided to install a still in the bush and to train local communities to produce essential oil. It worked and started to bring sustainable incomes to the local communities, motivating proper environmental management.
How did Net Positive Impact start and what compelled you to start this project?
I spent 20 years working for conservation on the island of Madagascar. In 2010, we decided with a few friends to try to duplicate the system of improving local communities’ livelihood by involving them in environment conservation.
It worked quite well and in 5 years we were able to launch around 20 projects in 15 countries, all funded by private firms or individuals.
I saw however that, if this project approach was successful in the short-term, local communities in remote areas would need long-term support for environmental conservation. I decided to launch the Net Positive Impact program in order to find the best approach and tools to achieve sustainable support from local communities for conservation.
How does NPI contribute to the fight against climate change more precisely? What is your most successful conservation program, and why?
In developing countries, linking income-generating activities for the poorest to environmental conservation is the best way to target sustainable environmental conservation and fight climate change.
The Vohimana forest is a relevant example, as it would have totally disappeared 10 years ago if we did not start to work on protecting it. One hectare of this forest maintains 544 tons of CO2. Managing to stop its deforestation currently prevents more than 60 000 tons of CO2 a year from going into the atmosphere (this is the equivalent of what 15 000 cars emit a year on average).
I supported quite a few successful programs. When they were, it was always because we found committed local leaders.
The Vohimana project still needs support but it has shown us over 15 years how local communities can take over from an NGO and how little is needed to support them on the long-term afterwards.
Why is wildlife a priority? Isn’t it more a “side effect” of successful conservation rather than the subject in itself?
Many programs target wildlife and flagship species as they are more of public – and therefore of donors’ – interest.
It can be justified if projects have holistic approaches. But if not, wildlife preservation should not be the number one priority. Indeed, it should be the result of a global biodiversity, environmental and human development program.
Vohimana is incredible for hosting 12 species of primates, 70 species of frogs endemic to the island and 160 medicinal plants, three of them already being exported for the international pharmaceutical industry, on a surface of two times that of Central Park. Protecting it is a major issue, but it can only be achieved with human development.
What do you think of the future of the climate change movement?
After the announcement of Mr Trump to retire the United States of America from the Paris Climate Agreement, we saw a huge movement of the American people, cities and companies taking action. At state level, Chinese commitment to renewable energies should make a huge difference.
I am convinced that we are entering an era where people are willing to act and get involved. And this is great.
We tend to forget that there are many agricultural lands in Africa, jeopardizing wildlife while being an answer to the poverty in of some communities. African people are proud and dynamic. It is urgent to show them good examples of innovative sustainable practices that they could be proud to have a leadership in, or we will miss a great opportunity to fight climate change.
What isn’t working in conservationism?
There is a need of more investment but especially efficient work. The local initiatives are the most effective. The conservation funding system is more oriented in accounting than effectiveness. It is therefore still difficult to deliver small funding at the most effective level. Local NGOs need to carry out their work on a full-time base and donors require short-term KPIs.
How to make Net Positive Impact and the work of other organisations more impactful?
Linking economy and environment conservation is unavoidable, especially in developing countries where most of biodiversity is found. It is not easy to link them and we need to bring together different actors from diverse fields to create synergies for more efficient projects on the long term.
How will Plan A help your action, and why did you choose to collaborate with us?
Plan A can help to highlight needed holistic approaches we want to promote sustainable conservation. It can do so by concretely helping us to support a few capital projects for the local communities involved in the conservation of the Vohimana experimental reserve in Madagascar.
Why did we choose to collaborate with Plan A? Plan A is young and dynamic organisation dedicated to finding solutions using modern social tools. Talking to them showed us that they were also committed to find the best field approaches to promote. This is what conservation currently needs.
What would you say to young conservationists, who are fighting for something they have not known so well as an older generation?
Older generations did not have the tools the new ones have, especially getting information through the Internet. Of course, 30 years of field experience teach you a lot about approaches. The world is however changing fast and young generations can do so much. I would say, open your eyes and ears, be humble but be sure, above all, to act.
Last, but not least, Could you explain the story of that hat? How long has it accompanied you and what does it mean to you? Is it magic?
When you are working in the African forest, a hat is as necessary as the shoes. It protects you from the sun but also from insects, branches… The hat that I have is the best hat in the world. You can ride a horse full speed and it will not fall. I got used to wearing it all the time as it also protects against the European cold. I keep a little crocodile tooth on it to remember these fascinating animals, which kicked off my conservation adventure.
Thank you Olivier, for your dedication, fascinating personality and storyteller talents. Plan A is proud to work alongside such important people for Madagascar, lemurs and conservation in general. Guys like you are the reason we believe in climate action.
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