Report assesses promises and pitfalls of private investment in conservation

Leading scientists, lawyers, investors and economists explore how privately financed conservation projects can generate both financial returns and positive conservation outcomes

November 30, 2020
For Immediate Release

Contact: Heidi Swanson, (202) 833-8773 ext. 211, gro.asenull@idieh

The Ecological Society of America (ESA) today released a report entitled “Innovative Finance for Conservation: Roles for Ecologists and Practitioners” that offers guidelines for developing standardized, ethical and effective conservation finance projects.

A shade-grown coffee farm near the town of Jardín in the Antioquia department of Colombia. Coffee beans grown under trees are higher quality, supporting the livelihoods of farmers and their families. Trees on shade-coffee farms are beneficial for soil health and provide habitat to migratory birds. Photo courtesy of Amanda Rodewald.

Public and philanthropic sources currently supply most of the funds for protecting and conserving species and ecosystems. However, the private sector is now driving demand for market-based mechanisms that support conservation projects with positive environmental, social and financial returns. Examples of projects that can support this triple bottom line include green infrastructure for stormwater management, clean transport projects and sustainable production of food and fiber products.

“The reality is that public and philanthropic funds are insufficient to meet the challenge to conserve the world’s biodiversity,” said Garvin Professor and Senior Director of Conservation Science at Cornell University Amanda Rodewald, the report’s lead author. “Private investments represent a new path forward both because of their enormous growth potential and their ability to be flexibly adapted to a wide variety of social and ecological contexts.”

Today’s report examines the legal, social and ethical issues associated with innovative conservation finance and offers resources and guidelines for increasing private capital commitments to conservation. It also identifies priority actions that individuals and organizations working in conservation finance will need to adopt in order to “mainstream” the field.

One priority action is to standardize the metrics that allow practitioners to compare and evaluate projects. While the financial services and investment sectors regularly employ standardized indicators of financial risk and return, it is more difficult to apply such indicators to conservation projects. Under certain conservation financing models, for example, returns on investment are partially determined by whether the conservation project is successful – but “success” can be difficult to quantify when it is defined by complex social or environmental changes, such as whether a bird species is more or less at risk of going extinct as a result of a conservation project.

Ancient Haida mortuary totems at SGang Gwaay llnagaay, Haida Gwaii, which are protected under the Constitution of the Haida Nation and commemorated by the Government of Canada as a National Historic Site. In 2009, a reconciliation protocol established co-management of the islands by the Haida Nation and the Province of British Columbia. The Haida Nation subsequently purchased a large forest tenure and established a Nation-owned and operated logging company that follows strict environmental and social standards for responsible forest management. The investment was supported by funding from Coast Funds (, an Indigenous-focused conservation finance organization that invests in First Nations-led sustainable business development initiatives. Photo courtesy of Brodie Guy.

Cover of Issues in Ecology No. 22. Innovative Finance For Conservation: Roles For Ecologists and Practitioners.

Another priority action is to establish safeguards and ethical standards for involving local stakeholders, including Indigenous communities. In the absence of robust accountability and transparency measures, mobilizing private capital in conservation can result in unjust land grabs or in unscrupulous investments where profits flow disproportionately to wealthy or powerful figures. The report offers guidelines for ensuring that conservation financing improves the prosperity of local communities.

According to co-author Peter Arcese, a professor at the University of British Columbia and adjunct professor at Cornell University, opportunities in conservation finance are growing for patient investors who are interested in generating modest returns while simultaneously supporting sustainable development.

“Almost all landowners I’ve worked with in Africa and North and South America share a deep desire to maintain or enhance the environmental, cultural and aesthetic values of the ecosystems their land supports,” Arcese said. “By creating markets and stimulating investment in climate mitigation, and forest, water and biodiversity conservation projects, we can offer landowners alternative income sources and measurably slow habitat loss and degradation.”

Rodewald sees a similar landscape of interest and opportunity. “No matter the system – be it a coffee plantation in the Andes, a timber harvest in the Pacific Northwest, or a farm in the Great Plains – I am reminded again and again that conservation is most successful when we safeguard the health and well-being of local communities. Private investments can be powerful tools to do just that,” said Rodewald.

The report is No. 22 in a series of reports published by the Ecological Society of America that use commonly understood language to present the consensus of a panel of scientific experts on issues related to the environment. Previous reports in the series are available at



Amanda Rodewald, et al. 2020. “Innovative Finance for Conservation: Roles for Ecologists and Practitioners.” 

Author contacts:

Amanda Rodewald (ude.llenrocnull@dlawedora)
Peter Arcese (ac.cbunull@esecra.retep)


  • Amanda D. Rodewald, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY; Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
  • Peter Arcese, Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC; Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
  • Janis Sarra, Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
  • John Tobin-de la Puente, Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; Cornell Institute for Public Affairs, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
  • Jeffrey Sayer, Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
  • Frank Hawkins, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Washington, DC
  • Tara Martin, Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
  • Brodie Guy, Coast Funds, Vancouver, BC
  • Kelly Wachowicz, Catch Together, Chatham, MA



Production of Issues in Ecology 22 was funded by a Purchase Order Agreement (PO#1063592) between ESA and the Charles Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. Other funding and services were provided by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the UBC Faculty of Forestry, and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, Canada.



The Ecological Society of America, founded in 1915, is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and a trusted source of ecological knowledge, committed to advancing the understanding of life on Earth. The 9,000 member Society publishes five journals and a membership bulletin and broadly shares ecological information through policy, media outreach, and education initiatives. The Society’s Annual Meeting attracts 4,000 attendees and features the most recent advances in ecological science. Visit the ESA website at

Issues in Ecology is an official publication of ESA, using commonly-understood language to report the consensus of a panel of scientific experts on issues related to the environment. Issues in Ecology aims to build public understanding of the importance of the products and services provided by the environment to society. The text for every Issues in Ecology is reviewed for technical content by external expert reviewers.