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‘To succeed, we need to be open-minded, humble, and courageous’

August 20, 2020

Mohamed Bakarr with an antelope
Photo courtesy of Mohamed Bakarr

As Lead Environmental Specialist at the Global Environment Facility, Mohamed Bakarr oversees programs that support integrated solutions to challenges related to agriculture, forestry, and livelihoods in developing countries. In an interview, he shared how his doctoral research in tropical biology informed his views about the linkages between human and natural systems and why protecting the environment requires work at the intersection of the two.

When did you first become interested in environmental issues?

I grew up in a rural part of Sierra Leone and spent most of my time outdoors surrounded by nature. Growing up, I was exposed to practices such as fishing, farming, and harvesting – all of which are major sources of environmental degradation. As I became more aware of the consequences of unregulated natural resource use, I grew very interested in the science and practice of conservation.

How did you get into this field?

In school I enjoyed my biology classes and was fortunate enough to have teachers who nurtured my interest in environmental sciences. In college, my motivation grew through a series of chance encounters with world class scientists who were conducting research on forests and wildlife in Sierra Leone. By the time I completed undergraduate studies in Biological Sciences at Njala University, I knew that I wanted my career path to be in the environmental field.

In graduate school at the University of Miami, I specialized in mycorrhizas, which are symbiotic associations between plant roots and certain types of fungi. These associations play a vital role in the survival of many plant species, both in nature and agriculture. My research in mycorrhizas helped shape my understanding of linkages within nature and the ways natural and human systems are interconnected. I have been guided since by commitment to work towards effective management of both natural and human systems as a way to achieve long-term sustainability.

Is there someone you have met through your work who had a lasting impact on you?

One person I met who has had a lasting impact on me was an elderly man from a village adjacent to the Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary in Sierra Leone, where I was studying primate behavior way back in 1987. He met me on a trail in the forest and asked what I was doing. I told him that I was observing the monkeys and writing down what they were doing. He then asked if my parents were aware of what I was doing. I responded “no.” He calmly said to me: “I was just wondering how what you are doing will put food on the table.” It was a simple but profound statement. I took it as a challenge to balance my passion for nature with an obligation to serve humanity. This became a defining principle throughout my career and remains a major source of inspiration.

How has the coronavirus affected your work?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been very difficult. I have struggled to come to terms with its enormous toll on people around the world. It has also reminded me of the significance of our work to improve the health of the planet – as it is clear from this zoonotic disease outbreak that we need to carefully manage the relationship between natural and human systems for a healthy and resilient planet. I strongly believe that an integrated approach to the challenges we are facing – addressing them in a holistic way – will be key to building back better and implementing a green recovery, so that we can prevent or more efficiently manage future pandemics.

Do you have a mentor? 

Throughout my professional life I’ve been very fortunate to meet many amazing people that have helped to shape and influence my career, including at the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) in Kenya and at Conservation International. In my current role, I have the pleasure of working with representatives from governments, GEF Agencies, project stakeholders, and other partners who are working hard and in innovative ways to achieve environmental goals and also make progress on cross-cutting priorities such as resilience, gender equality, and knowledge sharing. I see all of these people as my mentors as they influence my thinking and approach to the challenges we are collectively facing on this planet.

Mohamed Bakarr meeting men of Gansu province, China
Photo courtesy of Mohamed Bakarr

What life lessons has your work life taught you?

Over the last three decades of working at the intersection of the environment and agriculture, I have learned that for change to take hold it needs to occur at many different levels. Global priorities alone cannot assure the viability or sustainability of given investments. Meaningful shifts also cannot be achieved by a single entity or with a business-as-usual mindset. I have learned to value and prioritize large-scale thinking, collaborative spirit, and creative problem-solving in pursuit of environmental goals. To be successful, we need to be open-minded, humble, optimistic, and courageous.

What makes the GEF unique as a place to work?

The GEF is the only international financing mechanism that focuses on all dimensions of the natural environment that underpins life on this planet. Because of the phased nature of our financing, the GEF is well-placed to help countries make their development sustainable through engagement over a long period. We are also increasingly fostering engagement with businesses and private investors who are committed to protecting and valuing nature, in recognition of its significance for economic sustainability. The GEF’s programming is helping countries tackle the drivers of environmental degradation and not just its symptoms. Investing in the planet is an enormous mandate that requires systems thinking and a focus on collective action to be impactful.

What does success in your work area look like?

For far too long the divide between environment and development practitioners has masked the fundamental fact that people need nature. It has been a privilege for me to participate in several major initiatives that seek to bridge that divide. This has included setting conservation priorities for the globally threatened Upper Guinea rainforest in West Africa while at Conservation International, designing strategies for scaling-up agricultural systems that incorporate the cultivation and conservation of trees while at the World Agroforestry Center, and developing the GEF’s integrated approach programs which I now lead. I hope that by the time I retire, all major economic development projects and investments will be planned and implemented with the environment at their core.