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Politics Swiss philanthropist donates $1-billion to conservation efforts, including an Indigenous Protected Area in the Northwest Territories

Willow Lake in the Northwest Territories will become part of the new Edéhzhíe Protected Area.

Bill Carpenter

A Swiss businessman and philanthropist will donate a billion dollars over the next decade to protect more of the Earth’s lands and waters from development, and one of the first projects he will help fund is an Indigenous Protected Area in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Hansjorg Wyss, 83, announced during a teleconference from Washington on Wednesday the launch of the Wyss Campaign for Nature. Its objective is to convince world leaders, who will meet in 2020 to set biodiversity preservation targets, to agree to conserve 30 per cent of the world in its natural state by 2030. That would double the amount of planetary surface that is currently protected.

To start that effort, Mr. Wyss and his foundation have named the first nine projects that will receive money from the fund. They are spread across 13 countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe to Romania to Colombia, and cover 10 million acres of land and another 17,000 square kilometres of ocean.

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One of them is the Edehzhie, a 14,250-square-kilometre plateau west of Great Slave Lake that was declared an Indigenous Protected Area by the federal government in October. A grant of $750,000 over three years from the Wyss Foundation will help the Dehcho First Nations to establish a program of Indigenous guardians who will monitor the ecological health of the region.

The first instalment of $275,000 has already been paid and will be administered by Ducks Unlimited, a conservation group which is collaborating with the First Nations.

“Why do I make this commitment?” asked Mr. Wyss during the teleconference. “I developed a lifelong love for conservation as a young man when I saw too much destruction in the Swiss mountain valleys by ski lifts and by dams and then discovered that there actually is the possibility of keeping land preserved. As a young student, and exchange student, in the Rocky Mountains in 1958 [I] discovered public lands, how wonderful they are, how free they are, and how greatly they enrich your spirit.”

Mr. Wyss, who was born into a humble family in Bern, is a civil and structural engineer who earned his fortune as the founder of Synthes USA, a division of a Swiss-based medical-device manufacturer. He has an estimated net worth of more than $5-billion and has given extensively to environmental, scientific, and social-justice causes.

Over the past two decades, Mr. Wyss’s foundation invested more than $450-million to help protect nearly 40 million acres of land around the globe.

“I hope with this effort we can inspire citizens, policy-makers, and other philanthropists to help accelerate the protections of Earth’s lands, waters and wildlife before it’s too late,” said Mr. Wyss.

The new campaign will be conducted with the help of The Nature Conservancy, an international environmental organization dedicated to protecting land and water, and the National Geographic Society, which will document why ambitious conservation targets are required to alleviate the impacts of climate change and the declining health of the natural world.

This week, a new report from the World Wildlife Fund said global wildlife populations have fallen by 60 per cent over the past four decade.

Mark Tercek, the president of The Nature Conservancy, who was also on the call, said his organization admires Canada’s recent conservation efforts. This country has protected just over 10 per cent of its land and inland waters and has committed to protecting 17 per cent by 2020. In the most recent federal budget, the government set aside $1.3-billion over five years for conservation efforts, and some of that money will be used to protect the Edehzhie.

Mr. Tercek said he hoped the philanthropy of the Wyss Foundation will encourage more public financing, green bonds, ecotourism, conservation fees, renewable energy development that will pay for more ecological protection in Canada.

Gladys Norwegian, the grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations, said her people have always understood that it is important to have a relationship with the land and, with the new money, “we are very hopeful that there is light at the end of the tunnel, involving the youth, and the guardian program, to see us through and carry our elders’ words into the future.”

Editor’s note: (Nov. 1, 2018) The World Wildlife Fund said in a report this week that global wildlife populations have fallen by 60 per cent over four decades. Incorrect information appeared in a story about a Swiss philanthropist.
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