Q&A With WWF’s Tom Dillon


By Stacey Solie | January 26, 2015

When The Natural Capital Project was starting up, you worked with co-founder Taylor Ricketts to recommend pilot project locations, and picked Sumatra, Borneo, Colombia, and the Mekong, among others. How did you narrow the whole planet of options down to those few spots?

I was looking for opportunities where we could make policy change, through providing good information about the tradeoffs on ecosystem services. In Sumatra, for example, there was an ecological zoning process going on across the ten provinces of the island. Basically it was a land-use planning process, writ large, that the government was conducting. In the past 15 years, Sumatra has undergone the highest rates of deforestation. Trying to get land use zoning that could prevent further large-scale deforestation was really important. It was an opportune time, where a tool like InVEST could make a difference.


What difference did NatCap and using InVEST make in Sumatra?

It meant that there was a discussion based on better facts and better data and better forecasts, and so we were able to influence plans. One problem there—and in some other parts of the world—is governance and corruption. Even with the best plans, it doesn’t mean that’s what will be implemented, but better plans and more awareness of the benefits from ecosystems definitely was important. One reflection of that would be that the entity responsible for more deforestation than any other, Asia Pulp and Paper, committed to no longer converting natural forest into plantations. And Asia Pulp and Paper has promised to restore one million hectares. Those are huge commitments. NatCap wasn’t the only agent involved in getting us there, but it was certainly one that was helpful.

One of your major recent accomplishments was helping to create a network of protected areas covering 150 million forest acres in the Amazon—an area larger than all of the US’s national parks put together. What makes a big, complicated project like the Amazon Regional Protected Area (ARPA) work?

What makes it work is that it has a big vision, it’s based on high-level commitment from the highest levels of government, and then it’s putting forward a mechanism that’s feasible for solving a major problem. That serves as a magnet for bringing partners in who want to help achieve that vision.

The vision with ARPA is ensuring the permanent protection of 15 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, an area of 150 million acres, in perpetuity, by establishing and funding an innovative financial mechanism. I think there are a lot of lessons to learn from an initiative at that scale. Support for making something at that scale successful is based on a belief that the natural capital is very valuable. We did have to make arguments about that.

How did you make the case for natural capital?

When the Brazilian ambassador called me into his office as we were going into negotiations on ARPA, he hesitated to support it, since he thought we were trying to stop all dams in Brazil. I explained to him, ‘there are some dams we think are in the wrong places and shouldn’t be built, but this initiative is not trying to stop all dams in the Amazon. There is a relationship that you should understand.’

Derric Pennington studied the relationship between keeping these areas under forest cover, and water provision for energy. He showed that by keeping areas forested within protected areas, it provided 12 percent more water for energy production, which is what the country wanted. Based on Derric’s studies, I told the Ambassador, ‘Look, these protected areas are going to provide more water, forever, so you want to support this initiative if indeed you want to move forward with your energy plans as well.’ That was really important.

After hearing about the work Derric had done as part of NatCap, suddenly the ambassador smiled and said, ‘Okay, I understand. You guys are practical, you’re trying to solve real world problems, while also idealistic enough to come up with a big conservation vision that can work, and I’m going to support this.’

Similar large scale protected area system initiatives are under development in Peru, Colombia, and Bhutan. In each of those cases, we are closely examining the value of natural capital as well, particularly carbon and water.

What can NatCap and others involved in natural capital approaches do to communicate this work more effectively?

I think this is an area where the conservation and scientific community is particularly bad at talking about our work. Most of the valuing nature and natural capital presentations, documents, and other materials are too technical for most audiences we are trying to impact, without sufficient attention to weaving in stories, showing impact, discussing broader context to make it relevant to people. There’s a huge opportunity to speak about this in a way that is more understandable to people, more compelling, more interesting, more tied into the biggest issues going on in the world, like climate change. Tie it into livelihoods and water security, the overarching issues of the day, and do it in a way that’s grounded and citing impact, talking about, ‘Let me tell you a story from Sumatra, let me tell you a story from the Mekong’—from all these different places where we have had good cases.

Who do you envision as the audience for these stories?

One main audience is the actual decision makers of major institutions, whether they’re in public institutions like the World Bank and national governments, private sector companies, or civil society. The whole idea behind NatCap is to influence those decision makers.

There are things along those lines happening, like the Natural Capital Coalition, which has a huge number of partners (including lot of major companies). We need to be really clear reaching out to those we want to influence or else it’s just talking to the converted already, and that’s not really useful.

What are some ideal venues where that could happen?

I think some of it would be publications that are broader, outside of the sciences, outside of the conservation community. I think The Economist is a great one, probably the best one possible. It is the one publication that is read by decision makers around the world. It would be the #1.

In terms of conferences, there are strategic venues—like Davos going on right now—or TED. These are challenging to get invited into and would need deliberate planning on our side. The World Conservation Congress, coming up in Hawai’i in September, is another. There will be a lot of senior government decision makers there.

I’m not trying to diminish the importance of conferences that bring together people working on natural capital, but if we’re to get the word out and change mindsets, which is the over-arching mission, then we need to think very creatively and ambitiously about venues where there are decision makers and non-experts there, and then, how do we talk to those non-technical people?

You’ve done a lot of work in Nepal over the last two decades, and recently suggested publicly that it would be a good place for NatCap to work. Why Nepal?

There’s been a major catastrophe there, with the earthquake that occurred last April. Twenty thousand schools were demolished. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of homes. It raises the question, where are the construction materials going to come from? Where’s the wood going to come from? Where are the materials for cement going to come from? And on and on. There are a lot of trade-off decisions to be made.

It’s in their best interest to be thinking very deeply of their natural capital, because that is the spring of all their wealth, so they want to safeguard it and use it wisely. Now is the time they could lose a lot if they’re not careful.

We (WWF) are actively involved with the government of Nepal around the entire recovery from the earthquake. There have been trainings, in using the NatCap tools, of our staff and our partners in Nepal. We’ve not embarked on an official NatCap project there, but they’re using some of those principles and those tools already. I think it’s an example of using these tools and at scale.

After several years away from NatCap, you recently joined the Governing Committee. What’s your perspective on how NatCap has evolved?

The tools are a lot more sophisticated and there are a lot more of them.

In addition, the way NatCap started, it was not always easy to connect into cases like the one I mentioned in Sumatra. And there wasn’t always a natural inclination to do that from the beginning. NatCap started off as a group of biologists who were creating really important tools that needed to be tested. But now we’re at a point where much of our testing is done. We know that, yes our tools can impact decisions. Now we need to be looking beyond the question of ‘Is this a theory that is possible?’ Instead we need to be looking at, ‘Yes, we can make change in the world. What are the biggest changes we want to make?’ That’s where we are strategically at NatCap now.

For me, it was good to come in at a time when the next five-year strategy was being developed, and to become engaged in that conversation. Ok, what outcomes do we want? Let’s be specific, let’s have metrics associated with it, and let’s be ambitious at scale. That wasn’t possible when NatCap began.

Stacey Solie is the Communications Lead at The Natural Capital Project

Tom Dillon

Tom Dillon


Tom Dillon of Washington, D.C., directs the forest and freshwater teams for WWF-U.S. as senior vice president. He leads multi-functional teams focused on driving toward global goals on ending deforestation and protecting forest ecosystems and improving the sustainability of the world’s major river basins. Previously, Mr. Dillon led the field programs for WWF-U.S., working to conserve large ecosystems such as the Amazon, the Arctic, Coastal East Africa, Coral Triangle and the Himalayas. He also directed the species program, addressing threats to sea turtles, tigers, elephants, rhinos, and cetaceans. Since joining WWF in 1993, he established the Greater Mekong program while living in Vietnam and Laos, and he played a leading role in developing some of WWF’s most prominent programs, including the Amazon Regional Protected Areas Program (ARPA) in Brazil, the Terai Arc in Nepal and India, and the Northern Great Plains in the United States. He received a master’s degree from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.