Stefan Austermühle – the problem with conservation today…

Stefan has worked within the arena of animal rights and conservation for over 25 years. During this time he has been involved in projects which have produced wonderful outcomes for conservation. However, throughout the years Stefan has also become aware of particular issues which leave him critical of some aspects of the conservation world. I asked him to tell me more about these issues and he recounted two which he feels are especially damaging.

The first concerns the attitude of conservationists and conservation organisations. Twenty five years ago, when Stefan was just starting out as a volunteer with Greenpeace, the conservation world was full of highly dedicated people. They had not necessarily studied biology at college, but had taught themselves as a result of their passion for the cause. They were “Special people, with an honest drive to save the world. They trained themselves to a specialist level and they would do whatever was necessary to achieve this because they believed in what they were doing.”

Stefan believes that this drive has been, to a large extent, lost. In today’s conservation arena, jobs are only open to people with university degrees and PhD’s. Being a conservationist is now seen as a career, rather than a passion. People enter conservation from the world of business and may then switch back again at any time, as part of their climb up the career ladder. Their primary concern is with “Climbing the ladder rather than with conservation. NGO’s are managed by lawyers not conservationists. Conservation has become business”.

With this change in the make up of personnel, comes a change of expectation and organisational structuring. When an employee of a large NGO oversees a project in a country such as Peru, he is housed in a five star hotel. The entire monthly salary of a local grass roots conservationist may be spent purely on his hotel bill. Stefan wonders, “If that is the kind of luxury and lifestyle they are used to when they travel, what on earth is their salary?”

The business world has merged with the conservation world to such an extent that it has “Perverted conservation completely”. Money is wasted on unnecessary luxuries, and the university graduates and ex-business career movers employed within large NGO’s do not have the necessary skills to implement conservation initiatives in the real world. “They do not have a clue how to work with local communities and deal with real issues such as poverty.”

This feeds into the second big problem which Stefan perceives. When conservation organisations are run as businesses with an inherent need to attract huge amounts of money to pay for their continuing expenses, the drive to make money overtakes the drive to conserve. This in turn impacts on how these large scale NGO’s interact with small grass roots organisations such as Mundo Azul.

In countries like Peru there is no state funding or grant system for conservation organisations. Additionally, there is very little money available within the country itself from other sources, such as the corporate sector or private donors. Small grass roots conservation groups often rely on funds from the large scale foreign organisations in America and Europe with a remit to fund projects in less wealthy countries.

Stefan described the process of collaborating with these large American and European NGO’s.

American organisations rely on attracting major donations from individual sources to support their work. They may pull in a huge sum from one donor which will be used to finance a project in, for example, Peru. From the total amount of money which a donor gives for a specific project in a specific country, 40-60% stays with the American organisation. This money may be spent on their overheads, salaries, hotel bills etc. The small amount of remaining money goes to the actual project and the grass roots organisations implementing the work within that country. These groups receive very little money to pay for the project, their administration costs and their wages. “We are expected to survive on air and passion, rather then receiving salaries that would provide even minimum living standards for our families.”

The huge demand placed on an American organisation to maintain its infrastructure, coupled with hefty competition from other organisations all competing for the same pockets of money, requires the NGO to “Sell sexy projects to their donors”. When the NGO wants to create a sexy project, they hold a workshop within the country where the project will take place. Local grass roots organisations with their specialist knowledge of the area’s problems and needs are invited to attend the workshop. During the two to three day workshop, the American NGO gains all of the local organisations’ knowledge. Participants of this consultation process are invited to take part with no fee offered, only “Cookies and Coca Cola”. The American NGO cherry picks which aspects of an issue are sellable to a donor and “Invents a project”. The decision making process is carried out “Without consulting the partner grass roots organisations and the final project may even go against their recommendations”. The so called partner organisations are offered the opportunity to carry out the project as hired hands, not as equal partners, on the terms set by the American NGO. The process is a “Top down, decision making process with no actual democratic partnership taking place”.

European organisations operate quite differently. They rely on much smaller donations from many members. Their strategy is to “Demonstrate to donors in regular newsletters, media and other communications that they do a lot, so that people keep giving them $50 a month”. The NGO will fund many projects around the world with very small amounts, maybe $500-2,000. A stipulation of their funding is that none of it can be used on wages or administration. A local grass roots conservationist offered the opportunity to carry out the project is then faced with the dilemma of “How do I live while I carry out this work?” In the meantime, “The European NGO can tell its donors, we are supporting 20 projects around the world! After all, 20 projects looks better on paper than one.”

In Stefan’s opinion, whether receiving funds from an American or a European NGO, a small grass roots conservation organisation is “******”. Well, I am afraid I cannot repeat his exact wording for the sake of decency. I asked Stefan what he believes to be the solution to this problem. He gave me two answers. His first was,“The only solution for us is to be self-sustainable. We have to earn our money by creating a business, such as Nature Expeditions, and in our free time pursue our conservation objectives.”

His second answer was, “The global solution would be for large scale European and American organisations to fund work in less well off countries, with a bottom up / equal decision making process, while restricting what proportion of the funds they keep for themselves. In reality, rather than them supervising us and the work which we carry out on the ground, we should have the right to supervise them and the work which they carry out as fundraisers.”

Stefan has chosen to no longer approach foreign NGO’s for funding, which is why he is happy to publicly communicate his criticisms of the conservation world. His choice is to find methods to fund Mundo Azul which allow him autonomy over his work, pay and conditions. And this strategy introduces us to what will be the final post on Mundo Azul; the organisation’s current projects and Stefan’s hopes for the future.

Mundo Azul has recently achieved a landmark victory working on a social project in Peru, campaigning against the development of Ancon Port. And it is social conflict projects such as Ancon, plus the operations of Nature Expeditions, which Stefan hopes will create a good future for himself, Nina, their family and Mundo Azul. So do not miss my final post on Mundo Azul which will document this modern day tale of David against Goliath.

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3 thoughts on “Stefan Austermühle – the problem with conservation today…

  1. This is an excellent article and belongs in a national paper/journal.
    It highlights the tragedy of inequalities of power being enacted in the very area that we might least expect it.
    Am liking Stefan more n more.

  2. I agree with Rex.
    Stefan’s air is like a walk back to the seventies before the corporate ills, arrogant carreer seekers and self adornment became the trends and turnoffs that taint modern conservation. As the venture goes into the world of consumer politics,prestige and powerhalls to fight fire with fire, so to do those entities share blood.
    Enjoyed the walk with the real people and your art with the pen. Always best when the arm connects to the heart. Best wishes.

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