Interview with Willem Ferwerda, new Special Advisor Business & Ecosystems

24 May 2012 | Article
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Willem Ferwerda, tropical ecologist, was director of the IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands from 2000 until March 2012. In his new role Ferwerda will support the IUCN Commission on Ecosystem Management (CEM) in making businesses and investors work for ecosystem restoration and management. As Chair of the Board of Patrons he will be actively involved in rolling out Leaders for Nature internationally.

You recently became Special Advisor Business & Ecosystems of the IUCN CEM. What will be your role in this position?

As companies are beginning to understand the importance of ecosystems, I see a huge potential for IUCN CEM to give guidance on this matter. Ecosystems will soon dominate the business and government agenda, even more than climate change. The task for the Commission is to anticipate on that development. It not only means that CEM members need to have better understanding of the business agendas and learn to talk business language, but also that they need to integrate their work with that of other IUCN units and initiatives, such as Business and Biodiversity and Leaders for Nature.  We should also learn from other IUCN Commissions and increase cooperation with them. An important step forward is of course the development of a Red List of Threatened Ecosystems, comparable to the Red List of Threatened Species. The Commission could obtain more funding from these corporate resources.

What is the main reason you have taken this position?

During my directorship at IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands, time was lacking to really engage with CEM. After my departure in March this year, I decided to focus on two issues where I could make a difference as an ecologist, as well as someone from the environmental movement with many years of experience in working with the business sector and who speaks  business language. These two issues are: implementing ‘TEEB for Business’ at company level (that is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study for businesses), and combine it with upscaling of ecosystem restoration projects worldwide. It is my wish to create an international Business Consortium on Ecosystem Restoration. As Special Advisor Business & Ecosystems I will be able to focus my energy and time on these issues, and meanwhile help the CEM to better understand the business community. We have to understand that the issues which will be dominating the coming decades are: food-agriculture, water, energy, carbon and security. If we want to implement the IUCN mission, we need to hook it to these challenges.

What is the reason behind the huge success of Leaders for Nature in The Netherlands?

The success basically comes from an uncommon combination of a four pillars approach, which I have developed with the staff at IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands over the last seven years. These pillars are: 

  1. When you start, make use of those companies who have a stake in business networks;
  2. Start talking on a personal level with CEOs, middle management and young professionals;
  3. Learn to speak their language and understand their need for business cases. Instead of blaming them, seek for solutions;
  4. Make companies part of the ´ecosystem problem´ and help them understand that you have similar goals and shared values. 

We started Leaders for Nature in 2005 by identifying companies who could help us with opening up the network, in collaboration with Egon Zehnder, an international headhunter firm and the consultancy firm McKinsey& Company. They helped us develop this network and opened doors for us. We did it all on an entrepreneurial basis, without being sponsored by a specific donor who would force us to do it in a different and less effective way. This gave us the freedom to learn by doing. We approached CEOs and directors directly on a personal basis and explained them the possibilities for business cases and that business as usual was not an option. Finally we were able to develop a business model (companies pay a membership fee) for the network with a measurable and regular output of events, masterclasses, an annual forum and projects. As chair of the Board of Patrons of Leaders for Nature I am happy that the concept is rolling out internationally now. We just started in India with IUCN India, the Confederation of Indian Industries and Hivos.   

Is there ground for replicating the project in other European countries? What would be possible obstacles for this to become reality?

Yes, definitely. The concept is based on sharing human values and being receptive to transformational processes, although we know how difficult that is. Europe is undergoing a financial crisis, which is firmly rooted in the ecosystem crisis. For example: Mediterranean countries like Spain and Greece have depleted their ecosystems and topsoil; they did not invest (Greece), or they invested in the wrong sectors, like houses and resorts (Spain). Instead, it would be good that these countries invest in restoration, conservation and sustainable agriculture and energy. Companies are no longer stand-alone actors in the current global multi-stakeholder economy. They can survive only if they understand where their goods and services come from – which is of course from the ecological foundations or resource base. From that perspective, the TEEB study is an essential tool to make them aware of this. 

Obstacles to roll out Leaders for Nature in European countries are similar to those we have met in countries where we did start ups: Switzerland, Canada and Sri Lanka. You need the right people at IUCN offices or National Committees to push this forward and you need some investment capital. IUCN should prioritize the development of Leaders for Nature, as it creates a solid dialogue with business, can help strengthen the membership, and creates a network which is robust enough to confront the challenges which we are facing today.  


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