David Barron is Chairman of the ICCF Group, a foundation that works to advance US leadership in international conservation through public-private partnerships, awareness-raising among policy-makers, and support for tougher policies on conservation and natural resource management. In an interview, he reflected on the power of bipartisan and multi-partisan coalitions to tackle difficult challenges such as how to avoid the next pandemic.
What was your inspiration to establish the ICCF Group?
After many years of working as a consultant in Africa and Latin America promoting democratization, good governance, and free economies, I fell in love with wild animals and wild places, and for the last fifteen years have been working full time to promote good governance in natural resource management in the US and on other continents.
How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted your work?
We have more than two dozen staffers, about half in the US and half abroad, who were already used to working well through Zoom and other electronic mechanisms, so it was natural for us to hit the ground running right after the crisis and resulting isolation began. We hosted the first-ever Zoom “Congressional hearing” and have done a series of similar briefings in multiple countries regularly since. Unfortunately, we have had to cancel some important, high-profile, intimate events with heads of state, members of Congress, and members of parliament, but we’ll catch up next year when it’s safe to do so.
Do you have a typical workday?
I’m fortunate enough to live on a beautiful little island off the coast of South Carolina. I get up at the crack of dawn and feed my chickens, guinea fowl, and orphaned squirrels and clean up after them before I have my first cup of coffee. Then I sit down with coffee and read multiple news sources to catch up on politics and policy around the world before getting on the phone and computer to work more closely with staff and partners. Like so many of the millennials that work for us, I use a lot of texts and emails, but I prefer person-to-person communication and am on the phone for several hours each day with members of Congress, senior staff, and conservation partners from the corporate and NGO world. I like to video chat as often as possible so it feels like a real meeting - less cold and more effective. I grew up hearing “you don’t bank with banks, you bank with bankers,” and I like to know who I’m working with and engage them as intimately as possible. Too bad it’s not over lunch or a cold beer these days!
Have you always been interested in environmental issues?
I grew up in the woods as a boy and developed an even greater appreciation for camping and more in-depth experiences in wild places through the Boy Scouts. I’m too old to sleep on the ground now, but I still love going on safari.
Is there a GEF-supported project or program that is close to your heart?
I have spent the past 40 years putting together bipartisan and multi-partisan coalitions to accomplish important objectives. In the 1980s I went to Africa as part of a White House ad hoc working group, where I was first introduced to the magnificent natural heritage in the continent. Our partnership with the GEF has allowed us to undertake work in nearly a dozen countries in Africa to build multi-partisan working coalitions within parliaments to address their natural resource management challenges. This has been and still is my great passion.
You are a member of the GEF’s COVID-19 Task Force. What is important about this work?
Gustavo Fonseca, Kent Redford, and others who have led this task force have done an excellent job of pulling together a wide range of key players who are planning and working on programs to anticipate and preempt future potential pandemics like this one by addressing the spillover of pathogens from animals to humans. They have brought together the best people to get the job done.
This tragic crisis has allowed us to focus on origins of zoonotic disease, but also to address far wider programmatic needs. We must close illegal, unregulated, dangerous markets but not take away the ability of local people who are stewards of their lands and animals to survive and provide for future generations using sustainable resources available to them. Nothing will be more important than for us to use this opportunity to help communities and countries develop alternative agricultural capabilities so these people can feed themselves and become more self-reliant. This includes initiatives like the GEF-launched Great Green Wall Initiative and the 1t.org Trillion Tree Program embraced by the United Nations and now enthusiastically supported by the US administration and key members of Congress, which work to restore water towers that provide for humans, animals, agriculture, and carbon sequestration, as well as programs to address illegal and unsustainable fishing, especially where other countries are depleting the waters that local communities depend upon for survival. While funding is important for these programs, nothing is more important than good governance, laws, regulations, and oversight to assure long-term success.
What life lessons has your work life taught you?
I could write a book on that! But in the context of conservation, there are crazies in both extremes, those who are all about development and those who think animals are more important than people. The key is to design and support systems that serve both. To reach those ends, it’s imperative to partner with solid, sensible, smart, committed, hardworking allies that you can work with over many years.
Is there someone you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?
I’ve been very fortunate to have found great friends: my mentor, conservation philosopher, Ian Player; my guide in the rainforest, the great explorer Mike Fay; my old friend Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, who made Costa Rica the conservation envy of the world and who we are fortunate enough to now have leading the GEF; and of course the fantastic working partners in congresses and parliaments around the world, including the three surviving founding Co-Chairs of the US Congressional International Conservation Caucus, Chairman Ed Royce, who is now on our Board of Directors; Chairman John Tanner, who is now Chairman of our Board of Directors, and Senator Tom Udall, who is about to retire and who we look forward to working with for a long time to come.
The state of the global environment can be overwhelming. What gives you hope?
The millennials. They demand that we protect our planet, and every politician better get right on this issue for their own good and that of the world.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in environmental conservation?
It would help to be well rounded. Get some experience in the political world, the business world, and out in the field if at all possible. But to really make a difference, go out and make a lot of money so you can support yourself and contribute to the cause and not spend 70 percent of your time begging to keep your doors open.