R. Michael Wright

Conservation in the Developing World

Recorded: April 10, 2014

Michael Wright, former director of the Nature Conservancy's International Program, shares a snapshot of his 35-years of experience in land conservation. In developing countries, how does conservation affect the poor and subsistence populations in areas targeted for parks? How can we better negotiate international conservation projects so that the projects balance competing interests? Michael has spent his career working on this issue and shares a few ideas.

R. Michael Wright has been a leading figure in global conservation for more than 35 years.   Wright earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford University and a law degree from Stanford Law School. Michael Wright entered the environmental field in 1970, first teaching at Stanford’s International Studies Center.  Later he joined the Nature Conservancy where he served from 1972 to 1979, first in a legal capacity and ultimately as the first director of its International Program.  He moved to the World Wildlife Fund in 1974, and for the next 15 years held a number of positions, including developing and directing the Wildlands and Human Needs Program which focused on conservation and poverty alleviation.  He was one of the principal architects of the Biodiversity Support Program, run jointly with The Nature Conservancy and World Resources Institute.

From 1970 to 1994, he held several key conservation positions at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), including senior vice president responsible for all programs in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.   In 1980, Mr. Wright took a one-year leave of absence from WWF to serve as assistant director of President Jimmy Carter’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment within the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. He served on the Commission on Environmental Law and the National Parks Commission of the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union.  Other organizations he has served in a volunteer capacity include the German Marshall Fund, UNESCO, and the American Committee for International Conservation.

From 1994 to 2002, Mr. Wright served as president and chief executive officer of the African Wildlife Foundation, the oldest organization in the United States dedicated to natural resource conservation in Africa. Although headquartered in Washington, the vast majority AWF staff is based in Africa and under his leadership, 80 percent of program staff are now African professionals.  Mr. Wright served for five years (2002 to 2007) as the Director for Conservation and Sustainable Development at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  The CSD program provided grants totaling $18 million annually and while at the Foundation he initiated grant making on adaptation to climate change and a new research focus on advancing conservation in a social context.

In 2007, Mr. Wright was named the first managing director of the Natural Capital Project, a partnership of The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University a program that is designed to make conservation economically attractive and thus mainstream.

Michael Wright is now retired after an extended career in conservation with a particular focus on the linkage between conservation and poverty alleviation.  He is presently on the Board of the Population Reference Bureau and is the co-editor of Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based Conservation.


Michael Wright:    When we looked at conservation in this country, you know, the sort of rampant, uncontrolled economic system, and then people were really seen as the threat, and you looked overseas, poor people seemed a threat.  They were the ones that were poaching.  They were – well, they weren’t even poaching, they were basically taking the wildlife, they were taking the wood.  [These resources belonged to them].  And so when you set up a park, it was at their expense.  And you know, we started thinking, is there some way that we can address the needs of people that are being displaced by parks?  So I put together a proposal to USAID to set up the program called Wild Lands and Human Needs.  And the idea was to try to go look at different ways to do conservation in the developing world that might actually try and improve a lot of people in the rural areas.  I mean these are some of the poorest people, they don’t have access to resources, they don’t have access to power, so is there some way of making this work?  And I would say that that program got funded in about 1985, and it probably defined – what defines the rest of my career is just struggling with this question.  And I do think one of the things that was unfortunate is– these programs began to get over promoted before we actually figured out how to make them work, and some places did work.  I mean the one that I just have been writing up is the Annapurna Project in Nepal, which is a fabulous project.  But we sort of came in and did it from scratch, and instead of setting it up as a park, which like they’d set up the park at Everest and it had a huge conflicts with the Sherpa community.  This one we came in and there were two Nepali’s [Mingma Norbu Sherpa and Chandra Gurung] and an American [Brot Coburn] that did a whole trek around Annapurna.  The whole trekking, [they] [Mingma, Chandra and Brot], met with all the communities, talked about what their issues were, talked about how to deal with how they got more money from tourism, how we took the pressure off the forest resources where poor people couldn’t build fires because the cost of wood had gone up because of the trekking.  So we spent 6 months sort of negotiating out how to create a zoned area that had off limited areas, and then use areas.  So it was a really thought out process.  And at least in that situation, I think we ended up with the best of both worlds, a conserved area that really had a lot of community support.


Michael Wright:    By the end of my career, what I would have called this is negotiated conservation, as opposed – you know people talk about fortress conservation or community conservation.  It really isn’t, it’s negotiated conservation, and it can’t always happen.  I mean there are an awful lot of places where the resource is so fragile and so stressed and people are so desperate that you can’t negotiate something that really works on all sides, and then you have to sit down and say “All right, well how are we going to sort this out?”  But at least as a first approach of saying, “Can we do socially conscious, socially sensitive conservation?”  And of course it doesn’t always work, and probably 70% of the parks in Latin America have people living in them.  So you know it really, we need to figure out how to make this work.

Michael Wright:    Africa is different.  Africa has managed to empty out a lot of their parks during the Colonial Era, so you don’t have the same phenomena.  But in a lot of places, this is something that social dynamics has to be a piece of the whole puzzle.

Michael Wright:    The problem we’re having now with places[/institutions] like USAID and things is they create a–trying to create a risk free guaranteed success. You end up with these huge, over planned projects that are so massive they can’t change.  And they try to predict the future so you avoid risk, and they’ll fail because you never can figure it out.  You’ve got to design a program that says, “How do we allow a program to change?”  Because it has to be able to change once you discover that you didn’t get it quite right.  So we keep designing programs, trying to avoid what is inevitable and end up guaranteeing they’re not going to work.  And so I think the fact that risk and change and adaptation, I mean everybody talks about adaptive management is really the way to go.  I mean you sit here and then as you learn, you slowly calibrate toward the center and what actually works, and then something else happens and the government changes and you have to do it again.  But nobody does it because the funders won’t fund it, they won’t tolerate it.

Michael Wright:    Restoration ecology I think is the wave of the future.  We’re going to have to start putting the world back together.  But then you gave me Sand County Almanac and people forget, that’s about restoration and ecology.  I mean it’s so ironic in a way that I think that’s going to be the book that people will start reading again.

Huey Johnson:    One hopes.

Michael Wright:    And you know about that land ethic.  So it’s going to be different, but I think this is – there’s a value here that people are going to strive for in future generations.  So, we had a wonderful chance to not just be putting it back together, but to save some really critical pieces, and now I guess the question is, can people begin to connect those pieces with restoration ecology?