The day the Nari Nari people regained control of the more than 216,000 acres of land known as Gayini Nimmie-Ciara, one of Rene Woods’ elders welcomed him home.
“With a big smile on her face, she said Gayini is life, water is life,” Woods said, reading from a written account of that moment. The people renamed Nimmie-Ciara to Gayini, which translates to water in Nari Nari language. 150 years ago, the native people had lost the land to colonial farms, who cut into channels that followed the Earth’s veins to create a checkerboard of irrigation. The wetlands were destroyed, habitat lost.
That is changing now. Soon, the Nari Nari people plan to start a tourism element to share the cultural and environmental landmarks with others. “We want to share and bring people along the journey of everything in this landscape, and continue to form partnerships and grow the story of protection and conservation done through the First Nations way,” said Woods, a Nari Nari who is working with The Nature Conservancy, an international environmental group based in Arlington, Virginia.
The restoration of the land was made possible by a quiet Swiss billionaire whose vision is now influencing both the preservation movement and the effort to fight climate change. Hansjörg Wyss, who now lives in Wyoming, rarely emerges into the spotlight. But from Caucasus Mountains of Georgia to the Chaco Seco ecosystem of Argentina, more than two dozen efforts to conserve miles of land and ocean were funded by Wyss, an 86-year-old Swiss businessman and philanthropist who founded medical device manufacturer Synthes USA. In 2018, he committed $1 billion of his net worth of $5.9 billion to help communities, Indeginous people and nations to protect their land.
30 by 30
The United Nations recently prioritized Wyss’s goal of conserving 30% of land by 2030 — known as 30 by 30– a goal set to be finalized next year at the UN Biodiversity Conference. The Biden Administration has also espoused the goal, which is turning into a controversy in some conservative states where the government already owns large portions of land. In Montana, for instance, 30 by 30 is called the “30 by 30 Land Grab,” and U.S. President Joe Biden gets the blame.
But the strategy and the catchy marketing was authored by the Wyss Foundation. The goal could be deeply impactful. About 5.6 billion acres of land and inland water and 6.9 billion acres of coastal waters and the ocean are protected or an OECM — an area not protected but managed in ways that promote biodiversity — as of May, according to UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre data.
Though much of the attention around stopping climate change has focused on cutting emissions and finding technological solutions to capture carbon from the air and store it, land conservation is another route. For instance, protected lands are rich with native trees and plants, which sequester carbon and absorb greenhouse gases. Protecting land also helps communities learn to be resilient to climate change, such as by safeguarding clean water.
“The area is significant internationally and to have First Nations people in the control of that significant area that connects right around the world with migratory birds and animals, I think having that is crucial,” Woods said.
Others have jumped on, too — major philanthropists, including Jeff Bezos Earth Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies, announced in September that they’re committing $5 billion to 30 by 30. The Wyss Foundation added an additional commitment of $500 million to its campaign for the challenge, too.
Preserving land is costly and complicated, however. So far, the Wyss Campaign has invested $676 million into more than 25 conservation initiatives. The communities they’ve funded have protected more than 27 million acres of land and 1.7 million square kilometers of ocean, according to the campaign’s website. The campaign has also partnered with The National Geographic Society to pursue the goal.
Its funding is sometimes used to directly purchase land from an owner. In other cases, it pays for lobbying to get a government to declare the land protected. The funding also helps Indigeneous people run the land.
The Nari Nari’s land is a case study in how much needs to be rolled back as land is restored or protected in some way. It had been more than 150 years since the Nari Nari people occupied the land in southern Australia, which is home to many native Australian bird species, wetlands and thousands of years of Nari Nari history. The irrigation canals destroyed the natural pattern of water flow that kept the region’s ecosystems alive.
The Nari Nari people had begun working on a proposal to regain control of the land in 2013 when it was purchased by the New South Whales and Australian governments. The Wyss Foundation provided more than $4 million of funding.
“Without that funding and their gift, we may not even be close to the purchase of the property,” Woods said. “To be able to fast forward that within the first nine months, taking on long term management of it and then purchasing it, really fast forwarded our on-ground activities.”
The Nari Nari completed the purchase in 2019. Now, the tribal council co-runs the land with the Nature Conservancy Australia, where Woods works.
The land also has a historical meaning for the Nari Nari people, who formed its tribal council in 2000. No longer will the Nari Nari people have to be off the land by 5 p.m or teach about the history from afar. The children will grow up on the indigenous-owned land, Woods said.
The Origin of the Vision
Wyss, who was born in Switzerland, worked for the Colorado Highway Department when he was a student in 1958. During that time, he often climbed and hiked the Rocky Mountains, and it was this job that started his love for national parks and public land. He was inspired by public land, which led him to fund more of it, he wrote in a 2018 opinion piece published in the New York Times. Wyss currently lives in Wyoming.
“Private philanthropy has a significant role to play in conserving lands and waters and reaching the 30×30 goal,” wrote the Wyss Campaign’s president Molly McUsic in an emailed statement. “Private investment, in partnership with civil society, is more nimble and can be deployed more opportunistically than public funding.”
A guided tour of Nari Nari land.
“However, it is not a stand-in for government action,” she warns. “National governments – especially the most wealthy ones, like the United States, France, Great Britain, and Germany to name a few – must commit to mobilizing meaningful resources to safeguard nature across the planet.”
Canada is making an impact, McUsic notes. Its government has committed billions of dollars to create protected areas, many that are managed by Indigenous people.
Take, for instance, Qat’Muk, an area in British Columbia known as Jumbo Valley that’s now protected and run by Ktunaxa Nation Council. For years, a developer wanted to build a year-round ski resort on the land, which is sacred to the Ktunaxa nation. The nation and other locals fought against the development for decades and won — the land was deemed protected wilderness last year.
The Government of Canada contributed more than $16 million through the Canada Nature Fund, and private sources, including the Wyss Foundation, Wilburforce Foundation and Patagonia, invested an additional $5 million to the cause, according to the Wyss Campaign’s website.
The Canadian government also protected Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve, close to 6.5 million acres in the country’s Northwest Territories that’s the homeland of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation. The area is a natural habitat for grizzly bears, wolves and caribou, and its bottom two-thirds is part of the Boreal Forest. The Wyss Foundation gave $7.5 million to The Nature Conservancy and its Canadian affiliate Nature United to ensure that the Łutsël K’é Dene can co-manage the land with Parks Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories, according to the campaign’s website.
The Wyss Foundation’s funding has ended up in every continent except Antarctica. It also helped to fund the Blackfeet Nation’s efforts to protect Badger Two-Medicine in Montana — though again, its role stayed in the background.
The Wyss Foundation also contributed to the Andes Amazon Fund and more than 20 local organizations who are working to protect land across the Amazon region — which have resulted in permanent protection of more than 25 million acres so far, McUsic said.
Bears Ears Stumble?
The Foundation has also made what some consider stumbles. For instance, the Foundation played a role in Bears Ears, 1.35 million acres in southern Utah being declared a national monument by the Obama Administration. The foundation also provided funding into the $1.5 million Bears Ears Community Engagement Fund to support tribal engagement in the long-term management and protection of the land.
But the protection was short-lived — not a year later, Trump’s Administration lessened the acreage by 85%. Now, there are questions about how the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to protect land, is interpreted.
“The former president’s action was a significant departure from the actions of every other U.S. president in our history and was extremely unpopular – nearly 3 million people sent in comments asking to leave these monuments as they were,” wrote Greg Zimmerman, the foundation’s communications director, who responded to follow up questions while McUsic was traveling. Biden’s Administration has restored the protection of the full acreage.
The UN’s support of 30 by 30 could be the ticket to reaching the goal of 30% by 2030, McUsic writes. More than 70 countries have endorsed it, but every nation needs to follow through to meet the target.
“Conserving 30% of the planet’s surface is going to take hundreds or even thousands of locally-driven initiatives providing meaningful protection,” McUsic writes. “The Wyss Campaign for Nature and the Wyss Foundation will be here to support these projects. Ultimately, accelerating the pace of conservation on a global scale will take elected officials and policy leaders acting quickly to permanently protect far more of the lands and waters under their jurisdiction.”
Back to Australia
The Nari Nari people are using a combination of modern and traditional practices to conserve the land and revive its ecosystems. They’re in the process of adding more water to the drying wetlands across the land and having to control the new pests that are attracted to the water.
“Management over the next few years will really set up the next generation of Nari Nari people and build better, stronger, healthier communities,” Woods said. “We want to make sure that the [surrounding] towns have strong communities as well, making sure that we can continue the transfer of traditional ecological knowledge along the way, over the next few years, long after I’m gone.”