During the past three decades, Peter Seligmann ’74 M.F.S. has transformed Conservation International into one of the world’s most important environmental organizations by building partnerships that cross sectors — and by convincing companies that doing the right thing can be good for business.
By KEVIN DENNEHY
In the late 1980s, the fast food giant McDonald’s was targeted by some critics who charged that the company was stripping Central America of its rainforests in order raise beef for its burgers.
At the time, the company was working with a relatively new group called Conservation International (CI) — co-founded by Peter Seligmann ’74 M.F.S. — which aimed to promote sustainable development through partnership. As part of its response plan, CI recommended a strategy that looked beyond the impacts on McDonald’s bottom line; In fact, it looked well beyond McDonald’s.
“We went to McDonald’s and said, ‘Hey you’re getting hammered for this,’” Seligmann recalls. “We said, ‘Instead of saying that you’re not bad, why don’t you show that you’re doing something good?’”
They urged the company to buy produce from smallholder farmers located along a mountain ridge linking Costa Rica and Panama; In turn, those farmers would agree to re-forest the highlands that had been cleared during the preceding decades for agriculture.
It was the type of project that Seligmann, now chairman and CEO of CI, envisioned when he and longtime friend and classmate Spencer Beebe co-founded the organization in 1987. It had environmental goals yet was rooted in economic realities; It sought to improve the livelihoods of local communities; and it convinced an international company to make commitments that previously might have seemed unlikely.
And it was a great success. Within a few years there emerged a corridor of wilderness running from South America to Mexico, where jaguars and other large predators could travel uninterrupted. It generated new income for family farmers and new jobs for local communities. For McDonald’s it was an opportunity to show they were willing to do the right thing — and still secure the produce it needed.
It also helped earn credibility for Seligmann’s fledgling conservation group. During the past 27 years, Conservation International has grown into one of the world’s largest conservation organizations by building partnerships that cross sectors — and by convincing companies that doing the right thing can be good for business.
Peter Seligmann grew up in Plainfield, N.J., a suburb of New York City. The son of an accountant and a dance teacher, he understood early that his family expected him to embark on a traditional career, such as law or finance.
A trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming in his early teens, however, offered a glimpse of a completely different future. During a summer vacation arranged by his grandmother — who wanted her grandchildren scattered around the country to remain close — Seligmann found that life in the mountains brought him a kind of peace he’d never experienced.
But while his cousins spent their summer days hiking in the mountains or making trips into town, Seligmann got a job, as an irrigator, with a local rancher. “It really changed my life,” he says. “I just loved it. I loved waiting for the water to flow from one irrigation ditch to the next, looking at the clouds, and listening to the birds.
“It’s when I first really became aware that nature was my drummer.”
He returned to Wyoming each summer throughout his teens, cultivating his growing interest in wildlife ecology. The kid from New Jersey even ended up doing research on grizzly bears.
Just what he might do with this passion for nature crystallized when, as an undergraduate at Rutgers, he came across an article in the New Yorker about Maurice Strong, the Secretary General of the UN’s first Conference on the Human Environment. In the article, Strong suggested that anyone interested in wildlife should also become acquainted with changes in land use, the transformation of landscapes, and the impacts of agriculture. “I thought, oh yes, that’s what I want to do,” Seligmann remembers.
He ended up changing his major from sociology to wildlife ecology and then, after graduation, came to F&ES. “I knew that Yale was a great place,” he says. “I loved the school, was interested in the freedom that a graduate student could have, and ended up there.”
After Yale, he ended up back in the West, where he accepted a job with the Nature Conservancy, overseeing the management of its roughly 100 far-flung preserves in the 13 western states, including Hawaii and Alaska.
In that role he came to better understand the uniqueness of the different places, their distinct challenges, and their disparate demographics. He developed a knack for convincing people to donate money for the long-term protection of land. And he came up with strategies for raising money, including the creation of endowments for critical fisheries.
He also learned the value of listening to people, giving them access to important natural lands, and forging compromises.
Eventually he would join his former F&ES classmate, Beebe, in setting up TNC’s international office. But by the late 1980s, they wanted to try something new, something that engaged more people than the contemporary conservation models offered.
Despite the profound environmental challenges facing the planet, polls regularly show that only a small percentage of people identify themselves as “environmentalists.” Almost as many say they are “anti-environmentalist.”
The vast majority of the people, Seligmann says, are somewhere in between. “To really change the way society operates, you’ve got to get to the middle,” he says. “Your movement has to be inclusive. And there were a lot of people who weren’t being engaged.”
The central mission of Conservation International was to reach out to those people, whether in government, business, science, academics, or at the local level. And it sought to reach them through credible science and a commitment to improving the economic realities for people and their communities.
“It wasn’t that certain organizations — like The Nature Conservancy, but others — were not going to companies asking them for money,” he says. “But asking a company for a contribution, for philanthropy, is different from actually helping a company redesign itself so that it that doesn’t cause environmental damage.
“We really wanted to get involved in working with corporations so that they would understand that prosperity requires nature to be healthy. And part of their responsibility of being effective corporate citizens would require a shift in how they extracted, how they produced, how they farmed, how they used resources.”
And, as they have since the beginning, Conservation International has sought to work with large-scale partners in order to show that these shifts can have large meaningful impacts.
For instance, over the past decade CI has worked closely with Walmart to address sustainability, increase energy efficiency, and securing their complex supply chain. After showing the Gates Foundation the ecological vulnerability of smallholder farmers in Africa, it worked with them to develop a program that measures and monitors the health of ecosystem services across sub-Saharan Africa.
And one of its major projects right now is a joint venture with 15 island nations in the South Pacific that are planning a series of marine protected areas that will protect millions of square kilometers of ocean — a massive patchwork of waters containing 60 percent of the planet’s tuna population.
“We’re getting to the place where we can measure the boundaries of sustainability,” Seligmann says. “And that’s really important progress. Now we need the tools that will allow leaders — whether in companies, communities or government — to make the right decisions and place the right value on ecosystem health.
“I think we’re at a place where we can communicate that,” he says. “There’s a lot of work ahead of us, but the pace is picking up.”