Interview with Jorgen Thomsen, Executive Director of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) and Senior Vice President of Conservation International

Interview by Melissa Krenke, Rainforest Alliance

“One recommendation is to talk to CEPF the way you would talk to your staff. Explain the problem and the contribution that the organization can make to the agenda in the most straightforward way. Don’t fall back on jargon.”

With the ambitious and engaging objective of investing at least $150 million to advance biodiversity conservation in some of the most imperiled regions on Earth, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) was launched in 2000 by three contributing partners: Conservation International, The Global Environment Facility, and the World Bank. Since then, the MacArthur Foundation and the Japanese government joined this partnership.

To date, CEPF has invested in projects located in 10 biodiversity “hotspots” — the most biologically rich and most imperiled areas on the planet. In the Neotropics, these hotspots are: the Atlantic Forest, Chocó-Darién-Western Ecuador (Colombia and Ecuador), Mesoamerica (Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama), and the Tropical Andes (Bolivia and Peru).

Jorgen Thomsen, CEPF executive director and senior vice president of Conservation International, shares the philosophy and thinking that led to creation of the fund and reflects on experiences — both positive and surprising — to date.

Jorgen Thomsen

Question: CEPF has a goal of dramatically advancing conservation in biologically rich areas that are also under threat. What was the thinking behind responding to this goal by investing at least $150 million in locally managed initiatives?

Thomsen: While CEPF always focused on hotspots, the idea originally grew from the frustration of seeing that only a very small portion of the huge amount of public funding available for conservation from bilaterals and multilaterals actually ever reached NGOs and other civil society groups, including Conservation International. Like a lot of other organizations, CI put a lot of effort into trying to attract these resources for conservation purposes. But a significant portion of this funding is allocated for governments to spend. We always felt that to reach sustainability of our conservation efforts, we need a healthy balance between how governments spend conservation funds and the role of civil society that work alongside governments, both as supporters but also to help ensure accountability.

We began discussing the concept of CEPF with the World Bank five years ago. Initially our aim was to get all the funding for this initiative from the World Bank, but that was not practical. Then we began to focus more on the partnership agenda, trying to bring together a group of donors or agencies that provide funding and that normally do not work together — or at least don’t usually share strategies. We brought together the World Bank, Global Environment Facility, Conservation International, the MacArthur Foundation, and now the Japanese government — organizations that certainly are aware of each other, but don’t normally pool their resources.

We felt that this was a very exciting opportunity, to use that collaborative interest to focus on the hotspots, these areas that are particularly important from a biodiversity perspective because they have a disproportionably large number of species crammed into a relatively small area. CI believes that these areas need special attention. The countries where these species are found have a particular responsibility, and we believe we should share in that responsibility and help generate resources to protect these species.

So while the original premise was to release funding, from there the concept evolved as we fully grasped the scale in which we needed to work, both financially and geographically. This is how we arrived at where CEPF is today: a partnership opportunity where the funding is flexible and relatively easy to access by civil society interested in sharing objectives, focusing on the hotspots, and working to develop an agenda that can function well alongside what governments are doing.

Governments are typically focused on protected areas and are most interested in is what lives in their own backyards, not necessarily in the biodiversity of the neighboring countries. What we can do is focus on the regions in between protected areas. Also, many of the key areas that we are interested in span several countries. Civil society is a particularly useful and nimble agent for collaboration that crosses political boundaries.

If you look at how much of the significant funding is made available today, typically it is on country-by-country basis; bilateral and multilateral funding is allocated according to country-driven agendas. That is a healthy and good principle, because it ensures strong buy-in from nations and their citizens. At the same time, biodiversity isn’t necessarily distributed on a geo-political basis. Often you find a lot of reinventing the wheel, and perhaps even waste, because many of the same conservation experiments are underway even in neighboring countries, on either side of the border.

What we hope to do with CEPF, and what civil society is very good at doing, is to highlight where conservation can be made more cost-effective and where collaboration can be established. And then we want to make sure that information is shared, essentially creating a learning environment that may well exist inside a country but may not exist across boundaries.

Q: From what CEPF has been able to accomplish so far, do you think you are on the right track, and if so, what has happened to make you feel that way?

Thomsen: We have been implementing the CEPF for two years, as of January 2003. Now we have the experience from 10 of the hotspots and have developed a complex portfolio of projects. The individual projects are valuable, but we are trying to build a set of projects where the value goes beyond the individual pieces. We are trying to provide funding that is based on a very strong strategy. That’s ambitious, and we are still learning.

While we’ve seen some promising results in various parts of the 10 areas, it still surprises me all the time how difficult it is for often homogenous conservation groups to collaborate and establish teams, how difficult teamwork is, how difficult it is to share ideas, and how proprietary conservation still is. Of course we are trying to break down these walls, and in many cases succeeding, but it’s tough. CEPF’s goal is to raise $150 million — I hope we will exceed that. That may sound like a lot, but when you are struggling with collaboration and you understand how huge the need is, you realize that it’s nowhere near enough.

Therefore, we have a major objective to leverage resources, and we are only just beginning to see the fruit of this. We’ve had strong interest from bilateral aid programs, picking up on the broad consensus agenda that CEPF has managed to develop in certain areas – much of this is articulated in the CEPF hotspot profiles. [Editor’s note: Hotspots profiles are available on PDF on the CEPF Web site. Those in Latin America are in English and Spanish.] Some of these agencies may not want to develop a major grant-making program themselves. It’s been helpful to many agencies that we have been able to develop a common set of objectives for what civil society can or should contribute in the hotspots, from a strategic perspective. These agencies are developing their own projects, but with the same objectives. In that sense it doesn’t matter to whom the money is going, it’s not through CEPF necessarily or even to our grantees, but the funds are still contributing to the CEPF agenda.

We have also struck a number of deals for co-financing in Brazil and Costa Rica and a few other places, where CEPF funding activities have attracted others, making the CEPF dollar go further. For example, in Brazil we have a particular objective in the Atlantic Forest to help provide funding for the establishment of private reserves and also the management of these private reserves. FUNBIO is interested in that work and will match the funding. In Costa Rica, Fundación Costa Rica-USA is also is also providing matching funding in a particular region where we are also funding projects.

Q: Has the NGO community responded to CEPF’s potential in the way you hoped? Do you think they are missing opportunities or could be more creative in what the proposals they submit?

Thomsen: There’s a lot of creativity out there; people see opportunities all the time. But what seems to be generally an issue, across the 10 regions where CEPF is active right now, is that a major task — and hopefully CEPF can help in this regard — lies in helping organizations with project design.

A lot of organizations are quite good at establishing strategy, quite good at establishing strong visions for themselves and the community they are part of in reasonable timeframes, but have problems taking that to a more operational level, articulating how that vision is set forth in a set of projects that are carefully designed to get somebody from point A to point B. We need to help a lot of our grantees with that task. We have the flexibility to not have to ask for a lot, as long as the basic idea is there, is sound, and clearly contributing to conservation. We have the flexibility and are prepared to run the risk, to help groups develop some of the pieces as the project is being implementing and taking form. A lot of other donors would want every piece outlined in detail before the project takes form or is even approved for funding. But if we worked that way, we would not have the portfolio we have now.

Q: Do you have any advice to organizations that are considering presenting a proposal to CEPF, any particular tips on how to best succeed in getting a proposal approved?

Thomsen: Our entire conservation community is very good at using jargon, and therefore many of the concepts and letters of inquiry that we receive are very similar. We are all quite well trained at putting things across with certain terminologies that actually do not describe the issue very well. So, one recommendation is to talk to CEPF the way you would talk to your staff. Explain the problem and the contribution that the organization can make to the agenda in the most straightforward way. Don’t fall back on jargon. For example, the term “capacity-building” — what is that? It can take 100 different forms. I’m more interested in the forms than the term.

It’s as if we’ve lost a little bit of the flavor of how we talk about the things that need to be done, and we would like to do. I would certainly like to use CEPF to recover some of that flavor. It’s like reclaiming some of the local language.

Another recommendation is to highlight the partnership opportunities. What we are trying to do in all the projects is to ensure that the organizations share in the project and also, as far as possible, share the resources. Wherever these alliances and partnerships exist, we would certainly like to see them articulated in proposals and letters of inquiry. In each hotspot area we are trying to establish a coordination mechanism to help us get a much more local view on the project and how a given project can contribute. So the last piece of advice is to get in touch with these coordination units.


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