About this project

Academic journals, environmental organizations and even the popular press re-affirm that we live on a planet becoming more the same at every turn. For example, since the beginning of the twentieth century, about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost and in the past forty years, the abundance of moths and butterflies on the planet has declined by as much as 45 percent (1). James MacKinnon describes the situation of biodiversity loss and ecological degradation the ‘ten per cent world’; the planet now has only 10 percent of the biological variety and abundance it had before the mass culls and extractions that have marked the period from early imperial capitalism to the present (2). All around the world people, governments, and organizations are struggling with how to turn the tide of degradation.

Those associated with for-profit conservation finance focus on the need for increased private sector investment in conservation. A recent report by Credit Suisse, World Wildlife Fund and McKinsey claims that conservation could generate all the funding needed to conserve worldwide biodiversity if main investor segments, including high net worth individuals, retail, and institutional investors, allocated only “1% of their new and reinvested capital to conservation”.  This kind of finance is part of a growing interest in impact investing, wherein investors tailor financial products to profit and protect the environment at the same time.

Our research team is studying the emergence of profit-oriented environmental finance, and crucially, how it evolves and adapts over time and space. We are conducting a multi-sited, longitudinal study of return-oriented conservation projects along with a rich understanding of the broader political context within which such projects, and their investors, are embedded. This five-year project will explore investments across Latin America, East Africa, South-east Asia and North America that use diverse, return-oriented funding mechanisms in an attempt to solve a range of environment challenges.

Particular attention will be paid to whether and how a return on investment is made, and how benefits and risks are distributed along the value chain. We will also study how the addition of a return orientation changes the conception, regulation, and activities of conservation on the ground. Governments, not-for-profits, and many of the people who live at or near investment sites have rationalities, practices and ways of life associated with conservation that may be not fit neatly with those of investors. Our objectives include carefully illuminating how for-profit interests interact with and attempt to modify the values and conduct of individuals, communities, and organizations, as well as situating interactions between investors, project managers, governments, NGOs, and impacted communities in their local and global contexts.

Between 2018-2023, our project will develop case studies, study if and how these financial mechanisms generate positive return and conservation impacts, and examine how investment flows interact with non-profit efforts at conservation. In addition to developing in-depth academic research on the topic, the research team will participate in policy and investor conferences, develop briefs for policy makers and investors, and generate information for domestic and international conservation NGOs considering new financial flows.


  1. FAO 2010.  Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. FAO: Rome, Italy; Dirzo, R., H.S. Young, M. Galetti, G. Ceballos, N.J. Isaac, B. Collen. 2014. Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Science 345: 401–406.
  2. James McKinnon. 2013. Once and future world. Random House.

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