Podcast: Patricia Zurita | BirdLife International

In this opening episode of the Conservation Careers Podcast, Nick Askew speaks with Patricia Zurita, CEO of BirdLife International. BirdLife is the biggest conservation partnership on the planet, with charities in 120 countries working from local-to-global to conserve birds and biodiversity. In this episode Patricia shares her career story so far, and how she got from her childhood in Ecuador to be the only female leader of a big international conservation charity. She also tells us what it’s like to a CEO, what advice she’d give budding conservationists in their job hunt, what skills and people the conservation movement are looking for, and discusses some of the biggest challenges facing the industry. 

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Audio Transcript

NICK: Thanks so much for finding the time to chat today, I really appreciate it. I know your schedule is super busy so I really appreciate you carving out a bit of time to chat.

What it is we want to talk to you about today is your career story, really, how you got to be CEO of Birdlife International, the kind of key steps you’ve gone through to get to the point in your career where you are right now, and what it’s like to do your job, day in day out, it would be really interesting to kind of hear what it’s like to be a CEO of a major conservation organisation.

And then really hear any advice you’ve got for other people looking to follow in your footsteps. Maybe we should start at the beginning, if that’s ok. Would you mind painting a little picture about where you’ve come from, where you grow up, where did your passion for the environment start.

PATRICIA: First of all, thank you for the opportunity, it’s great to be able to share with others what has happened, and hopefully this will be useful to other people.

I’m from Ecuador, I was born in Quito and I grew up there and spent most of my life and went through college in Ecuador. When I was graduating from high school and I was trying to get into university I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with my life, it was very confusing. And that was very new to me because I had been very clear on what I wanted to do until that point.

At that point, well my dad had been a civil engineer all his life and a very successful and especially excited and passionate about what he did. So I thought, well, you know my dad is a civil engineer, maybe I can be an architect and work with him. I like drawing and painting, I thought that it was going to be something that I could do. So I went to a university in Quito that had the American system which meant that I had to take classes on many other subjects during the first year, not only the ones on my school or that my degree.

During the first year I was really concerned because I was very bored. It’s not that I didn’t like what I was doing, I just didn’t see that being my life as a profession. I felt that I had to, and perhaps because of the example of my dad, that I had to be doing something that I really loved, and I was not loving it.

NICK: It wasn’t connecting with you?

PATRICIA: No I mean I liked it, I didn’t feel particularly very successful at it but it was not the challenge that I wanted to take. So at that point a friend of mine came and said to me, why don’t you take this seminar on birds of the Andes, you have to take your environment credits no matter what, try this and with Ecuador being a birding Mecca, that I didn’t know about, I mean I grew up in a family who loves the outdoors and it’s not that we particularly camped or anything but Ecuador is such a beautiful country and you can’t not love the mountains.

I grew up in the middle of the mountains and you just love seeing the snow-capped mountains in front of you in the morning when everything is clear. I grew up in a house where we had a beautiful yard and garden, orchard and feeders for birds and stuff like that but I was never particularly connected to anything that was nature related. So I took this class, this seminar of birds of the Andes and as part of the class we were taken to the Cloud Forest in the north western part of Quito in Mindo and I was lucky enough to be able to see the of the Cock of the Rock, which was extraordinary.

NICK: Beautiful bird, bright red, big crest.

PATRICIA: Oh my Lord, it was amazing, there was flames coming down, you know, it was just amazing. And the professor of that class was one of the best ornithologists that Ecuador has ever had, he saw me through the class and he said, you’re not going anywhere, I’m taking you and I’m tutoring you, switch your degree to environmental science, I’ll help you out. And I have loved the experience so much that I thought, why not. I’m so lost right now this seems to be an exciting thing, let’s do it.

So I did it, and I loved it, absolutely loved it. Finished university and right after university, or right at the time I was finishing university, I was offered a position at the Ministry of Environment working for the first GEF project. And it was luck, I would say, there were some of the professors that I was working with who were involved in the project and one of them was actually named director of the Park Service at the time when I was finishing school so it was great coincidences, and they knew me and they offered me the job.

It was a great experience because I had the opportunity of working with the government, from inside the government, and at that point monitoring the national parks in the eastern side of the country that had oil and gas production and/or infrastructure, so roads that were being planned and stuff like that. Seeing from the inside, from a very weak institutional government agency, how you can actually fight this amazing biodiversity that is protected in those parks, how can you actually tackle very real problems.

I mean Ecuador at that point had 70% of their income coming from oil. So how can you say ‘no’ to oil when you have a very poor country, for multiple reasons, I mean it could be a country that could be doing fantastic stuff but at that point, oil was the main income and it was coming from the national parks space. So I started thinking about, how do we do this, and started sitting down and negotiating with the oil companies that are paying royalties to the main government and to the government to the Finance Ministry but you are not recognising that you are on a very special space for nature that is important for the world, and you should actually be paying some kind of rent to the parks and help us protecting this.

It was kind of a very unusual approach perhaps because, at that point, no, oil, let’s stop this, end of story. Without realising that at that point Ecuador had been going through oil production for more than 30 years and in these places, the reserves, were still there, and there were new reserves, thinking about, ok there are key areas that have to be no-go zones, the flooded forest for example in Cuyabeno right on the border with Peru where I actually did my university project, my college project, that are extremely sensitive and as it was actually done very directionally, drilled from completely outside the space, it was not going to work, so blocking that area as a no-touch area.

But on the other areas where they were already present, working with the companies and strengthening the management of the protected areas. So for example, when I started, had about 3 guards, a truck that didn’t have gasoline and a boat that didn’t have a motor and no budget.

And then when I left we had 24 guards, 3 trucks, gasoline but it was a huge problem because the activist organisations, the NGOs, were feeling that I was selling the parks and that I was settling with the companies instead of holding them accountable. So it was a really interesting experience and challenge, I mean I feel that it was my military service almost, because working for an Ecuadorian government was, oh my Lord, it was difficult! It is difficult to be in a government agency and much more in an under-resourced government agency in a developing country. But I learnt a lot. It was fascinating, I loved it.

NICK: I never realised that you started off with a passion for birds, actually, I thought that was something you’d come to later in life, so it’s really interesting to hear how you’ve come full circle to where you are now as the head of Birdlife International. Birdlife is often called the best kept secret in nature conservation, I’ve heard that a number of times. How would you describe Birdlife to the uninitiated?

PATRICIA: So Birdlife is the largest partnership for nature. We are a family of 120 organisations around the world working together to use birds as a conduit and an ambassador for protecting nature. I think Birdlife is the bird authority for the red lists and it is a testament to the great conservation science that we do, and bird science that we do.

I feel that we are the most sustainable way of doing conservation because what Birdlife does is look into local organisations that actually can be built up and increase their capacity in their own spaces and become the conservation leaders of their own countries rather than coming and parachuting programmes. It is harder, it is more expensive. But I think it’s the most sustainable way and the right way to make it happen.

NICK: And as the CEO of Birdlife International, it would be really interesting for people to hear what it’s like a chief executive officer. What does your job involve or your duties, what it’s like day to day really?

PATRICIA: There’s the day to day and there’s what you want to be the day to day! I think when you keep growing into your career and you start taking on more managerial roles, unavoidably you end up with a lot of management charge. I am doing budgets and looking into numbers and making sure that we have the right policies in place and that the human resources management of the office is proper and that we are trying to be as strategic as possible.

That’s the day to day menial thing. The fun thing about being a CEO is that you have the opportunity of really positioning and visioning and dreaming about what that organisation can be in the next 10-15 years and that’s the piece that I love about being in Birdlife because I see the potential and Birdlife is a goldmine in terms of what it can be.

NICK: Where do you see BirdLife in 10 years, if everything goes according to plan?

PATRICIA: A leader of the conservation community. Not only in terms of science but in terms of implementation, I see it as a top advisor of the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) on the post-2020 agenda which is not 10 years down the line, it’s actually in 2 years. I see us as a top developer of capacity around the world for conservation.

I see us as the go-to place in terms of innovating and getting knowledge about conservation practices really exchanged between different countries and between different realities to really mobilise a world behind conservation. I think right now we have the capacity to mobilise over 11 million people.

We could be mobilising a billion if we could be a lot more switched on in terms of communications and stuff, and I’m not saying that we are actually going to do it alone, I don’t want that. I want Birdlife to be part of a big group of conservation organisations that are pushing things forward and that’s one of the reasons that we pushed the Key Biodiversity Areas partnership to happen.

For the first time in the history of the conservation community, 11 top conservation organisations came together and decided that it is a common way of prioritising biodiversity places.

Coming and saying, ok we all agree with the criteria and we all are going to use the same thing. While it’s not completely rolled out, because it just happened 2 years ago, it changes completely the dynamic of the conservation community in the sense that we are, for the first time, not confusing the rest of the world. Because each of us, we have our own terms, IUCN had its hotspots, WWF had eco-regions, The Nature Conservancy had special places, everybody had their own way of prioritising biodiversity. Now we all come together and say, no – we all agree that key biodiversity areas are the most important places on earth that need to be saved.

NICK: So like a unifying language in which you can talk to governments, donors, whoever it might be, and you have a big vision for 10-15-20 years from now as to where you think Birdlife and the other NGOs should be as well.

PATRICIA: Yeah.

NICK: In terms of the staff needed to deliver that vision, and people need to come into conservation – you know, there’s lots of people out there in university or mid-career who want to switch in – what sort of people are required in the conservation movement to make these things happen? We hear all the time that we’re winning some battles but we’re losing a big war here so we still need to change things. What sort of people and skills do we need more of?

PATRICIA: I keep believing that the biggest failure that the conservation community has had is the lack of connection to the rest of the world. We love talking to each other. I feel that the key skills that we need are completely outside of the conservation community. Private sector – I love the fact that I actually now have 3 top people in my corporate team that come from private companies and have a completely different mentality and they struggle to work with an NGO, yes absolutely, but they do have that private sector mentality on how to push us forward.

NICK: What skills are they bringing with them that you couldn’t find elsewhere?

PATRICIA: Marketing to begin with. Clarity on the way that we are selling things, we’re not going to be selling to a corporation something because it’s a beautiful biological concept, it has to be practical, it has to be hitting the bottom line and how does that do it. Not perfectly but tweaking it and making sure that we’re speaking the language of the people who are not in the conservation world, that they can understand and they can actually relate to and they can embrace.

Communications – I think we have failed massively in communicating this to the rest of the… I think maybe we are as a community a billion, maybe less? We have failed massively in communicating this to the rest of the 7 billion. We have to start going to the masses, what David Attenborough was able to do with the plastics and Blue Planet, do it with the rest of the things. The plastic crisis is just a tiny little thing in terms of the loss of nature, how is it possible that the loss of biodiversity is the biggest problem that the planet is seeing and people don’t see it?

NICK: But the plastic crisis shows how you can mobilise people relatively rapidly behind a cause, and shows the opportunity for communicating better.

PATRICIA: Exactly. I think there were 2 things. 1, that you were communicating the problem and giving an option for action, that we haven’t done in the rest of the conservation movement. And 2, they were able by complete serendipity and coincidence, to jump on something like David Attenborough’s and push it through.

The stars got aligned but I think that is teaching us that unless we actually bring in the right communicators and the right messaging and the right way of potentially allowing people to take action, we’re never going to make it happen. How do we turn those things around, and how we can make ourselves more effective is by bringing in the communicators of Netflix and the BBC to work with us and think with us. I don’t need more, I love my ornithologists don’t get me wrong, we definitely need them and we definitely need them for the scientific base of this organisation and for guiding the conservation strategy. But in terms of communicating these for the rest of the world we need top communicators.

The problem is that I cannot pay for them. Right? Because the minute that I start competing with the private sector there’s no way that I can actually steal those people. However we are offering something that is completely different, that is that passion for doing the right thing. I have not made myself rich in this position or in any of the positions that I had before, should I have been working in the private sector the situation would have been completely different, but what I have gained in terms of feeling that I am making a difference, there’s no money that can pay that.

There’s the element of the passion that you are working for something that you absolutely love. I think that is one of the huge assets that Birdlife has as an organisation, because I would say 99% of the people who work here truly believe in what we actually do. The other thing is that that actually enables you to think outside the box and move creatively and start engaging with others and building that relationships that we didn’t have before.

NICK: It’s all about mobilising support and how you get your message and how you change behaviour sets. I’m going to switch gears slightly because I’d like to think, again, into the future. You’re a mother, you have two young girls at home, 7 year olds. If one of them or both of them want to become conservationists in the future, what should I do if I want to become a conservationist, if I want to get a conservation job, what advice would you give them to follow? What are the key things they need to think through or steps they should consider taking?

PATRICIA: I would love my girls to follow their passion. One of my twin girls is showing that she loves birds, so we are actually getting her birding and stuff like that. I would say, don’t stop trying to find the place where you actually feed and the thing that makes you tick. As I said at the beginning, I don’t – and partially because of the way my dad was – I don’t think I could have worked in something that I didn’t believe in.

Now in terms of how do you pursue it, it’s not easy. Working in conservation is not the easiest way and the easiest thing but it is so rewarding. I just think about sitting in the middle of the grasslands in Venezuela and seeing this mass of skirted ibises landing in front of me. There’s nothing like that, to me nature is such a fulfilling element and when you see that you can actually make a difference, it’s even more rewarding. It required sacrifice, there’s no question about it, it’s hard work.

NICK: Is it what you think most people will think it is from the outside?

PATRICIA: I don’t know.

NICK: My sense is that conservation is more desk-based than people realise, I think a lot of conservationists do tend to sit behind desks in offices having meetings. I wouldn’t say corporate but office-based, whereas when a lot of people come into conservation I think they think of the outside rather than…

PATRICIA: Being in the forest.

NICK: Yeah, which of course those jobs exist…

PATRICIA: Tree-huggers!

NICK: When you look at the movement as a whole, they’re more in the minority – would you agree?

PATRICIA: Yeah. I think the people who are doing more research have the benefit of doing a lot more field work. I think a lot of our original staff are doing a lot more field work than we do here in the office. You need these types of office roles, but I think the more that you can actually experiment living in the field and being in the field and bringing that to an office space when you actually have to make decisions and build up the strategies and design programmes, the better you are.

If any recommendation that I would actually give to my children is, go through the different steps. Don’t shoot for being in the office from the onset.

Try to go to the field and understand what it means to be with community. Try walking 5 days into Madagascar to try to sign an agreement with a community, for example. Because that changes you perspective. I think it is very important to understand the reality and the conservation reality is hard. I think the other thing that I would tell my children is that when you start working in something like conservation, you can get very – I’m not sure if this is going to sound right on your podcast – but very fundamentalist about things. You can get entrenched in very specific positions, like no oil in this forest, period.

NICK: Like zero compromise.

PATRICIA: It can happen everywhere, there are some places like the Arctic refuge that cannot be touched, or this place in Ecuador that is a wetland that is delicate that it cannot be touched, or that the technology is not there yet to be touched, that you actually have to stick to your principles. But also, remember that the world is a big mix of many many different things and that you need to start building up, not necessarily negotiating, but definitely building up more consensus and more shared visions that can be more successful. But I think that is also an evolution of you going through different steps, and learning from being an activist from the beginning, and slowly going into the practicalities of making it work for the future.

NICK: It’s a reflection of the passion that you hold, you feel so strongly about this.

PATRICIA: But I think, follow your passion. I would love to have more conservation… I love my communications team, they now are all communicators, but they all love birds and they want to be here helping us and some of them are listers, some of them are very strong birders, some of them are not. They truly believe in the cause and I think that, to me, is the most important element of the conservation community, how much we really believe that we can change things.

NICK: Yeah, because that will drive you forwards and drive you into your career as well. I’m really interested as a female leader in the conservation movement – actually, thinking about Birdlife International you’re 120 NGOs, of those 120 how many female leaders do you think there would be across the group, do you have a gauge on that?

PATRICIA: I don’t have the exact number but there are a fair amount, not huge, not the majority by any stretch of the imagination but I would say a good 30% maybe? 40 even? I will look into the numbers but it is exciting to have women leaders that you can talk to and work with, and look up to.

NICK: Do you feel your gender has helped or hindered, or been totally irrelevant, when working in conservation?

PATRICIA: I think we help a lot. I think we have been overlooked. I think the fact that I am the only conservation… I mean if you look at the big international conservation organisations I’m the only woman there… it’s unreal! At the same time I feel extremely proud, don’t get me wrong, but I think we could have more women leading international conservation organisations. I think it is a process, it’s happening around the world and hopefully will happen much quicker. I am all in favour of empowering women and I have a fair amount of women in my management team. I think it is something that can… I’m not sure if it has actually hindered, I was thinking it is something that…

Earth is called Mother Earth for a reason!

There is an element of taking care of that women bring to the table, it’s actually very important. I think it is a balance, I think what we need to do is balance and it’s all about… it’s like conservation, it has to be balanced to continue to function. I think there is need to balance a little bit more the scale in terms of more women participation. It’s hard, because conservation, especially when you’re doing international conservation, you are travelling a lot. And when you are a woman and you are a mother, unless you actually have a very committed partner who’s helping you with your children, it’s really hard to do it.

NICK: And a super nanny, yeah!

PATRICIA: Or a super nanny, or a combination of both! And I think it also challenges your values about motherhood and what you want to do in terms of your very personal choices of how to take care of your children. For me, my children are a huge priority but I also recognise that I love working with Birdlife and I’m in a constant juggle and it is difficult.

But I love it. And there’s some times when one of my children says, ‘Mummy, why do you love the birds more than us?’ when I’m travelling, and I’m trying to explain to them that I don’t. As much as I am running to see their cricket games, I am running to try to resolve our new issue in Taiwan with a Birdlife fighter. It’s difficult.

NICK: You can love many things, can’t you?

PATRICIA: Yeah, there’s an article that was published in the Atlantic and I’m trying to remember the name of the author but it was a woman who used to work with Hillary Clinton in the State Department. It’s hard to have it all, it’s really hard. I’m not sure if it’s impossible but it is really hard and it requires a lot of energy and a lot of understanding, but I think women have amazing attributes that the conservation movement cannot afford to lose.

NICK: Yeah. And perhaps on that note, thank you so much for your time Patricia I really appreciate it. It’s been so interesting hearing your career journey, and it’s going to be fascinating to see where things go. You obviously still have plenty of time ahead of you so it’s exciting to see where Birdlife might grow and where your career might also take you. Thank you again.

PATRICIA: You’re very welcome, and thank you so much for using my example. Hopefully this will be useful for other people, I just think that the conservation movement needs believers that we can use to take this to the next level, because the planet deserves it.

NICK: Amen to that. Thank you.

PATRICIA: Thank you!

 

Career Stories, Conservation Leaders, Podcast