Although Indigenous peoples make up a small percentage of the global population, they help protect most critical habitats and ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest. Vance Martin, president emeritus of Wilderness Foundation Global and former president of the WILD Foundation, has made it his life’s work to not only work with Indigenous peoples to advance their goals and voices within nature conservation but also help preserve the Earth’s life-support systems.
For four decades, Vance created and built out the WILD Foundation, which aims to expand and empower global coalitions that defend Earth’s life-saving wilderness. In doing so, he helped pioneer several of the organization’s signature programs, including the World Wilderness Congress (WWC) and Nature Needs Half (NNH). He also worked with numerous Indigenous communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—but especially the Yawanawá people, who live in the Indigenous land of Rio Gregório in western Brazil and steward nearly 500,000 acres of rainforest.
Preserving biodiversity is key to addressing the climate crisis, and the United Nations 2030 agenda includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets, many of which directly reference or help articulate the development concerns of Indigenous peoples. Thus, protecting Indigenous peoples is an important part of broader sustainability efforts, such as the prevention of illegal logging and mining.
Vance Martin sat down with LEFF Sustainability Group to share his insights on the United Nations’ progress to meet these goals, as well as the work that remains to be done. He also discussed his work with the Yawanawá people, the challenges they face today, and what is required to save the Earth’s wilderness in the years to come. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
With nearly 50 years of global experience in mobilizing international coalitions for the protection of wilderness, and working in more than 40 countries, WILD has substantial reach. WILD works at all levels of politics and organizing and combines on-the-ground projects with subtle activism and policy interventions to achieve lasting protections for Earth’s wildlife, wild places, and the stewards of these places. WILD’s new, talented leadership team took the reins in January 2023 after working with Vance Martin for eight years.
David Peak: Can you tell us a bit about your background and your work with the WILD Foundation?
Vance Martin: The precursor to the WILD Foundation was cofounded by Magqubu Ntombela, a Zulu elder, and a famous white South African conservationist named Ian Player, who led the team that saved the white rhino from extinction back in the 1960s. Initially, Ntombela was Ian’s game scout in the wildlife department in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Their work together led to a number of things. One was the 1st WWC in South Africa in 1977. I met Ian Player in 1980, and he eventually convinced me to return to the United States—I was living overseas—and resuscitate or rebuild the organization. This restructuring led to the launch of the WILD Foundation in 1984.
The WWC and what became WILD came out of the interaction between an Indigenous person and a contemporary conservationist, which is an origin story that is unlike any other contemporary conservation NGO [nongovernmental organization]. From that starting point, we built WILD around the concept of preserving the wilderness while meeting the needs of local communities. There wasn’t yet an internationally accepted definition of the term “wilderness,” which meant those areas had no protected status as wilderness outside of specific countries such as the United States, South Africa, Australia, and a few others.
We began work on that within the International Union for the Conservation of Nature [IUCN], which continues to this day, and have created an internationally approved definition, management guidelines, a Wilderness Specialist Group [WSG], a standard textbook, and more. The WSG secretariat is still based at WILD.
David Peak: There are six direct references to Indigenous peoples in the UN’s 2030 agenda, and the framework calls on Indigenous peoples to engage actively in implementing the SDGs. In your view, what progress has been made against this agenda since 2015, and how far do we have to go?
Vance Martin: The UN has become very good at monitoring their progress. In 2023, there was a big report to mark the halfway point in the implementation of the SDGs. I’m sorry to say the evaluation was not very positive. In fact, we are on track to achieve only 12 percent of SDG targets. However, there has been some progress for Indigenous peoples, especially in terms of Indigenous farming. I should mention, of course, that the greatest step for Indigenous peoples within the UN was in 2007 when the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted. That was the foundation stone upon which all other progress in this regard has been built.
But progress hasn’t gone far enough. I was recently in Ethiopia—in the Omo Valley, right on the Sudan border—and they had a national mandate for quality education for all the outlying tribes. But they have the same issue that so many places have. You need a qualified teacher who actually wants to live in a remote place and who also speaks the local language, the national language, and often English. That’s a real challenge in many countries.
About Into the Weeds
We at LEFF are, at heart, storytellers. We are dedicated to amplifying voices and causes from all over the world, regardless of gender orientation, race, or economic background. And the stories we tell as part of the Into the Weeds interview series are particularly important to us. We will be interviewing inspiring individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level; we’ll bring you insights from the leaders of global organizations, renowned experts and academics, and innovative local businesses.
Our goal for this series is the same one that underpins all of LEFF Sustainability Group’s client work: to use our storytelling skills to build awareness of the issues that threaten our planet and to draw attention to all the people, initiatives, and innovations that are fighting back.
David Peak: When it comes to that 12 percent figure for the SDGs, what do you think is holding us back?
Vance Martin: There’s a whole school of people who blame it on the pandemic, and that is at least partly true. But I think the root cause of slow progress is lack of political will across the board—and my colleagues who are quite involved in the negotiations at the Convention on Biological Diversity tend to say the same thing. People don’t realize that the environmental and cultural pot is boiling, and yet there are a lot of politicians not delivering on their promises and obligations.
“People don’t realize that the environmental and cultural pot is boiling, and yet there are a lot of politicians not delivering on their promises and obligations.”
When you attend large climate gatherings or UN conventions, the really inspiring stuff is often what happens on the sidelines. There’s a lot of really, really good work going on through NGOs and think tanks, whether it’s on SDGs or in other areas. Though progress is always slow in formal negotiations, among the major world leaders, it is now accepted that change needs to happen, and needs to accelerate.
David Peak: Overall, do you see things getting better or worse?
Vance Martin: Twenty years ago, people were designating national parks, but there were no targets for how much nature we should protect. Then people woke up and said, “Well, how much land and water do we need to protect if we expect nature to continue to support all life?” Conventional wisdom around biological diversity originally put in place some modest targets, which have since increased for both terrestrial and marine areas.
“‘Well, how much land and water do we need to protect if we expect nature to continue to support all life?’”
But the targets are still only 17 or 20 percent. Scientists have now started to dig deeper into how much nature we need to protect to ensure that life can continue. The findings depend on what type of area is under discussion and where it’s located—in the Amazon, for example, the answer is something close to 75 or 80 percent—but the typical answer, with many variables considered, is that nature needs half.
Therefore, in 2009, at the 9th WWC, Harvey Locke and I launched an initiative that soon became Nature Needs Half. My goodness, it really threw the cat among the pigeons because it was radically ambitious. What’s more, this wasn’t just some fringe advocate radicals saying that we needed to save the wilderness. The findings upon which NNH is based—which were emanating from the increased availability of remote sensing and satellite data—were science-based.
David Peak: The Yawanawá tribe plays a critical role in protecting the biosphere. What can you tell us about their story and how you first started working with them?
Vance Martin: Chief Tashka Yawanawá, his wife Laura, and their daughter Luna are very close and dear friends of mine.
When Tashka’s father was chief, the Yawanawá people were suffering terribly, as did most Indigenous people, especially in Brazil, primarily from the rubber industry but also Christian missionaries. There was a lot of forced conversion, a lot of loss of culture. The acculturation—deculturation, really—was systematic. At that point, there were only about 600 members of the tribe left. Despite issues with the missionaries, Tashka’s father took him out of their remote village, away from disease and loss of culture, and gave him to the missionaries because he knew they would educate him. And they did. He is a very bright guy.
One night, years later, Tashka simply walked out of the mission where he was being raised. He went back to his tribe, became hereditary chief, and worked with the Brazilian government to increase their land. They used to have about 25,000 acres of rainforest, and now they have almost half a million. And it’s 98 percent fully intact wilderness. They also have about eight or ten thriving villages, with about 1,800 people.
In addition, Tashka was the first Indigenous leader to make an anti-biopiracy agreement with a cosmetics company. It just so happens that this company used a berry in one of its products that prospectors had “discovered” on Yawanawá territory. Such things were done differently back then, and Tashka helped to change that. The company and the tribe have always been on very good terms. It’s an excellent company.
Today, Tashka and Laura are globally recognized leaders in the Indigenous movement. But it’s all about the welfare of the people and the rainforest. It’s clear that their culture survives because of the rainforest—period. And that’s truly the definition of Indigenous. Indigenous cultures are inextricably bound to the land or sea and the nature from which they have evolved.
“Indigenous cultures are inextricably bound to the land or sea and the nature from which they have evolved.”
David Peak: What sort of challenges are the Yawanawá dealing with at the moment?
Vance Martin: The Yawanawá are in the state of Acre in the far west of the Amazon. A lot of the problems that other Indigenous groups further east have encountered—illegal logging, illegal mining, and, to a certain degree, poaching of wildlife—are just beginning to register, accelerated by the introduction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Under the new leadership of Amy Lewis, the WILD Foundation is working very closely to monitor these emerging threats and help create proactive solutions
That said, there are no roads into Yawanawá land. There’s one main river and some tributaries. So a lot of the work that the WILD Foundation started with the Yawanawá was getting ahead of the game and increasing their security, building boats to patrol the rivers and install solar power for communications.
One of the fundraising platforms that we’ve used successfully is based on “purchasing” the right to help local people protect nature. The company is called EarthToday, and I serve on the board of its associated nonprofit, Union of Nature. We’ve raised considerable funds through “selling” the protection of square meters of nature through a geo-coded or geospatial identification platform.
David Peak: What does saving Earth’s wilderness look like in the years to come? Where do we need to pick up the slack?
Vance Martin: The Earth’s population continues to grow. If we don’t secure land and sea areas now to protect their ecological services—what I like to think of as our life support—the human population will overtake these areas and, with this expansion, cause decimation of remaining wildlife. Nature Needs Half is both necessary and possible, but we need to act now.
“The Earth’s population continues to grow. If we don’t secure land and sea areas now to protect their ecological services—what I like to think of as our life support—the human population will overtake these areas and, with this expansion, cause decimation of remaining wildlife.”
The narrative that we do not have enough money to protect nature, biodiversity, the climate, and local cultures just isn’t true. When the political will recognizes a threat, the money appears. You can always work out the financial details. Always. What we really need is a financial system that values nature before the tree is cut down or the ore is extracted. A new economic model is desperately needed—one that properly accounts for nature’s life-supporting services and holds responsible those actors who defy this existential reality.
Our leaders cannot do it on their own. Their political will can be greatly increased by people taking to the streets—like the young kids are doing now and we used to do back in the ’60s. We need to make a fuss, create a social movement, and hold our leaders responsible.
Finally, I’d just like to say that the way that human beings treat one another has a great deal of congruity with how they treat nature. We simply need more love in this world. As we see a lot these days, the world can be a nasty place. I’m not naïve. But we have to reconnect with our hearts and be clear-minded about the amount of work to be done. And the time to do it is not next year, not in ten years. The time is now.
1. WILD Foundation, “Our team,” accessed January 4, 2024.
2. United Nations, “Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda,” accessed January 4, 2024.
3. United Nations, “Halfway There: Sustainable development in 2023,” accessed January 4, 2024.
Behind the scenes
This interview is part of LEFF’s Into the Weeds interview series—a series that amplifies individuals whose work contributes to the achievement of the SDGs at every level. We’ll be bringing you insights from renowned experts and the leaders of global organizations and innovative local businesses. David Peak (he/him) is a senior editor for LEFF, and Clair Myatt (she/her) is the manager of LEFF Sustainability Group, for which Katie Parry (she/her) is the director.
Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of LEFF or have its endorsement.