De-Wilding versus Re-Wilding

A personal perspective from Andrew W. Mitchell, Founder, Global Canopy

On a research survey in Nepal, I once stared into the eyes of a wild tiger, whilst dangling from the trunk of an elephant. As a tiger leapt from under a bush and charged, the great beast had gone into sharp reverse, catapulting me from my observation post on its neck. My wife Laura saved my life, moving at the speed of a rattlesnake to seize my trouser belt, as I dangled head down. It was all a little too close for comfort.

This type of human meets nature in the raw experience is becoming ever rarer; nature as seen on TV, accompanied by Sir David’s reassuring tones, is much less frightening, and while awe inspiring cannot replace the immersive experience of coming face to face with the real thing.

For me, the gloom around de-wilding — where the natural world become sanitised, ordered and often denuded — reached its zenith with last year’s scientific publication of the ‘Second Warning to Humanity’,[1] to which I was a signatory. Of nine critical measures of global environmental health monitored since the first warning 25 years ago, only one has improved — the hole in the ozone layer. We are watching ourselves destroy nature. So how can we reverse this?

Alladale Wilderness Reserve, Scotland. Photo: Andrew W. Mitchell 2018

First, lets look at some de-wilding facts. There are 391,000 species of plants on earth, one in five of which are threatened with extinction. Of 7000 edible plants, we mainly eat just 30, and industrial agriculture has channelled 60% of our global dependency down into just four crops (rice, wheat, maize and potato)[2]. In India alone there are 1000 varieties of mango but you won’t see many of them in any supermarket because efficiencies require supply chain simplification, in favour of mono-culture production propped up by fertilizer and agrochemicals.

On the banks of the Napo river in Ecuador’s rainforests, I used to enjoy, fried giant caterpillars; $1 for five on a stick, as crunchy as prawns. In the 1980s, through my research, I found 40% of all life on earth lived in the rainforest canopy; much of it insects. New species were the norm. However, in Germany over the last 27 years flying insect biomass has declined by 82%. Globally the decline is nearly 58%.[3]

As a budding young zoologist in Tsavo East National Park in 1975 I used to be charged by black rhino, regularly. There were estimated to be 16,000 in the park. Last time I could bear to look, there were just 67 and only five lived wild. Of 5,416 mammal species one in four are now at risk of extinction.

It is not just animals and plants that are collapsing. In October 2017, the UK’s Environment Minister, Michael Gove, declared that Britain was 30–40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”; the very earth beneath our feet is dying. So, is global ‘re-wilding’ an answer?

Re-wilding is essentially about encouraging nature to take care of itself. It broadly advocates bringing nature back, as a power plant, to do the job on its own. It sounds simple, but with 7.6 billion mouths to feed, rising to 9 billion, is it so easy?

Paul Lister is a philanthropist with a vision to re-wild Scotland. He bought 22,000 acres of upland, now re-named Alladale Wilderness Reserve, and planted over 700,000 of the Scots Pines which once covered Scotland. He offered a bold experiment — to fence Alladale and bring back wolves and bears. From the reaction you would think he was promoting Jurassic Park!

Walking with Paul through the utterly beautiful valleys of Alladale this Spring, we explored the view that a collective fear of nature as it was has descended on our increasingly urbanite world. Scotland’s landscape, once filled with rich forests and fauna, from Lynx to Elk, is now replaced with a baronial barrenness, that we have come to regard as ‘normal’. Yet nature, restored and raw, could make more money than stalking or grouse and re-connect us all to the spirit of wilderness, rather than just leaving these vast open spaces to be the playgrounds of the privileged few.

Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu (left) launching his Natural Farming State 2ndJune 2018. Photo: Satya Tripathi

For this vision of rewilding to succeed, food security must be maintained. For me the seeds of the next agricultural revolution, that could reverse industrialised de-wilding, are emerging in India. Last January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Chief Minister Naidu of Andhra Pradesh, told me of his plan to pioneer a modernised low carbon, high performance agriculture with a new kind of yield: healthy soil, thriving biodiversity, diverse nutritious food and millions of happy farmers. Last month he welcomed 10,000 of them to celebrate the launch of his “Zero Budget Natural Farming” initiative, backed by UN Environment and BNP Paribas. 100,000 farmers are already engaged in the pilot and he needs US$2.5 billion to scale up to 6 million more. So where could this money come from?

I have never laid eyes on a wolf in the wild. The only ones I have met have been in Wall Street or other financial centres of the world and they walk on two legs. They are very good at their jobs, scanning horizons for data sets, hunting down prey with algorithms, sharing 20% with their pack, both on the upside and downside. We need these kinds of wolves to turn their attention to nature.

Because it is they who need to find ways to fund initiatives like this, through innovative landscape green bonds such as those Global Canopy is helping to pioneer in Indonesia and Peru, and which are now being replicated into India. Hungry asset managers seeing increasing value in cause related companies can use portfolio screening tools, such as our SCRIPT project, to differentiate re-wilding investments, from de-wilding investments and gain tomorrow’s edge.

Todays banks and investors are driving de-wilding, mostly without realising it, through agriculture and infrastructure. Wolves are not vegetarians, so don’t expect asset managers to stop salivating over profits anytime soon. But without nature on their balance sheet, they are living a dangerous game and whether they are in a Tesla or a Porsche won’t really matter, because right now, they are driving us all into nature’s car crash.