Midori Paxton is a former journalist, humanitarian worker, and author who leads UNDP’s efforts to protect biodiversity and ecosystems in more than 130 countries. In an interview, she shared her motivations for working to place nature at the heart of economic and development planning and decision making, and to shift funding flows toward activities that help the environment rather than harm it. Her advice to young people who are passionate about these issues? Jump right in. “You can worry about a career path later.”
How did you get into this line of work?
I grew up in Yokohama City, Japan, where as a child I roamed forests and paddy fields looking for frogs and tadpoles, crayfish, loaches, rhino beetles, stag beetles, and butterflies. Nature has always given me so much joy and insight. I always knew I would want to contribute to environmental causes throughout my life, no matter what profession I would pursue.
I majored in international relations at university, and environment and development for a master’s degree. I started my career as a journalist for the Japan Times newspaper, focusing on environmental reporting. Then I worked as a United Nations Volunteer, as an information officer with the UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia, then as a UNHCR field officer on the Rwanda-Tanzania border coordinating work in a post-genocide refugee camp offering shelter to 80,000 people. After that, I became a freelance writer, traveling to 80 countries and meeting and writing about people at the frontlines of environmental work – from rhino conservation in Zimbabwe to gibbon conservation in Thailand. I wrote six books that were published in Japanese, including the first Japanese language global ecotour guide. I also established and ran a Japanese wildlife conservation NGO and worked with domestic and international NGOs in many capacities.
I then went to Namibia in 2000 to be the Japanese government-financed Junior Professional Officer at UNDP, focused on environmental projects. That was when many of the first GEF-funded projects in biodiversity, climate change, and international waters focal areas were being developed. From 2004 to 2010, I worked for the Ministry of Environment and Tourism as the project coordinator for the Strengthening the Protected Area Network (SPAN) project, which resulted in major changes to how the country’s wild spaces and species were protected and valued. This was exhilarating work that involved visiting Namibia’s magnificent national parks, meeting people from every spectrum of society, and ultimately creating a win-win scenario for everybody and everything involved. From 2010-2016, I worked in Bangkok as a UNDP regional technical adviser helping countries in Asia to plan and implement GEF-financed projects. And since 2016, I have been based in New York, at UNDP’s headquarters, as the global lead on ecosystem and biodiversity work.
What do you most enjoy most about your work?
Working in biodiversity and ecosystem protection involves so much learning every day. I love interacting with experts and field specialists – government officials, scientists, park managers, and community conservationists. I take a special joy from my work when I feel my ability to connect the dots across disciplines is helping to advance global conservation efforts. In recent years, it has been especially rewarding to help place nature at the heart of economic and development thinking and planning. This shift is so important to safeguard biodiversity and ecosystem services we all benefit from – air, water, food, medicine, jobs, and more.
Is there a GEF-supported initiative that is close to your heart?
Over my career, I have been involved in the development of more than 200 GEF-supported projects across the continents, and many of them are close to my heart. But I must talk about my experience as project coordinator of the SPAN project in Namibia, reporting directly to the Director of Parks and Wildlife Management. I vividly remember the first general meeting we organized, with park heads and wildlife management officers gathering in Windhoek. They shared the issues they faced and their aspirations on issues including human-wildlife conflict; insufficient budget, equipment, training, and incentives; and a lack of enabling policies to support their conservation priorities. I was then able to use this information to work side-by-side with ministry staff, park rangers, regional wildlife officers, and other experts to strengthen Namibia’s protected area law and policies, refresh institutional set-ups and workflows, and strengthen the funding base and incentive mechanisms in place. By the end of the project, Namibia’s national protected area system expanded from 17 percent of its land surface to over 20 percent, with the establishment of four new protected areas. The GEF supported a quadrupling of government financing for parks from multiple sources, including a new tourism and wildlife concession system, as well as increased government budget based on an economic valuation study to show that increased investment in national parks could yield an economic rate of return of up to 42 percent. It was such a privilege to live in Namibia for 10 years and to be part of these efforts to ensure that the country’s national assets were protected, providing myriads of benefits to the Namibian people and people around the world.
What are you currently focused on?
Money – where it goes, and what it does. How it can be spent and invested wisely. Money does not only talk but can also destroy when it is invested for private gain with a short-term vision. Why subsidize nature-negative behavior when the same subsidies could be spent far more effectively on long-term nature-positive activity which also yields more benefits to people?
Every year, the world spends $700 billion less than what is needed to reverse biodiversity loss. My focus right now is on that biodiversity finance gap. UNDP’s Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN) works with 41 countries to support the development of national biodiversity finance plans that identify a range of solutions including budget earmarking, ecological fiscal transfers, bond and debt instruments, and the redirection of negative public expenditure such as the vast majority of agricultural subsidies.
We are also a founding partner of the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures (TNFD), which launched in June 2021 following an anchor investment from the GEF. TNFD consists of 34 members, spanning private financial institutions and corporates, working to develop a reporting framework to gauge and act on nature-related risks. In 2020, we also co-founded the Global Fund for Coral Reefs which is designed as a 10-year, $625 million blended finance vehicle.
We are also working on a number of bond, debt, and insurance instruments aiming to connect capital markets with biodiversity funding needs, as the new Rhino Bond issued by the World Bank with GEF funding has done. We were involved in supporting the Rhino Bond framework through preparatory work from 2016-2020, and I was thrilled to see its issuance!
Through these and other efforts, we are working with others to close the biodiversity finance gap by 2030, redirecting how public and private money moves in at least 100 developing countries. The ultimate goal is to redirect private finance towards a nature-positive future, and to do so at scale.
Environmental issues are very often complicated and concerning. What gives you hope?
When I see marked shifts in societies in favor of nature, it gives me tremendous hope. For example, I visited Costa Rica, a country with amazing biodiversity, three times in the last year. This is the country that won the inaugural Earthshot Prize in 2021. We all know it reversed the deforestation trend after reaching a terrible low of 21 percent of forest cover and now boasts nearly 60 percent, through Payments for Ecosystem Services and strengthening of the national protected area system. When I first visited the country in 1992, I remember feeling dismayed to see so many trucks dwarfed by their loads of gigantic logs. Driving now in Costa Rica, one never fears sharing a road with such horrors!
Instead? You will see what we saw – so many diverse and high-quality nature-based tourism ventures, directly benefiting a large percentage of the country’s population who are proud of the natural heritage of their country. The GEF CEO and Chairperson Carlos Manuel Rodriguez told me that Santa Rosa National Park, which I also visited, did not have any jaguars when it was established in 1972 but now it is estimated to be home to as many as 200! This gives me hope as it proves that systemic shifts in a country are possible while drastically reducing poverty and increasing the well-being of people with access to education, health care, energy, clean water and more.
What changes do you hope to see in the world by the time you retire?
My retirement may coincide with 2030, the year we are aiming toward in international efforts to reverse biodiversity, increase land and sea protection, and cap climate change. In this coming decade, I would like to – or rather I must – see a major shift in our economies and societies. Because without that we will continue to lose nature and reach the tipping point for ecological collapse. This is a fundamental human security issue. By then, we need to have a world where nature has moved to the heart of global understanding of sustainable development, where nature is protected and restored as a planetary safety net for humanity, safeguarding our food, our water, our livelihoods and jobs, our climate, our health, and our security, enabling people to rise out of poverty and inequality to live better and enjoy more just and sustainable futures. To achieve this, we will need to have multiple seismic shifts. Shifts in global narratives, in economies, in production and consumption systems, and in people’s mindsets and behaviors. I must also add, I don’t think I will ever fully retire from conservation work.
What advice would you give a young person contemplating a career related to the environment?
Get ample in-country and field experience while young. Follow your heart and focus on what you are passionate about. You can worry about a career path later.