What one person can do to make a big idea happen

An estimated 200 million hectares of land have become degraded across Latin America in recent decades, with half of this consisting of degraded pastures. In the face of such a formidable challenge, is there much that any single individual can do?

Apparently so, especially if this one person is thoroughly dedicated to a large-scale collective endeavor.

Throughout 2014, Walter Vergara, who is a climate specialist and senior fellow at the World Resources Institute (WRI), has worked tirelessly and with extraordinary persistence to build support for a new collaborative initiative that aims to restore 20 million hectares to productivity and ecosystem health by 2020. Called Initiative 20×20, the effort was officially launched on December 7 at the Global Landscapes Forum, held in Lima, Peru, alongside the United Nations climate change conference.

The launch event was attended by a half dozen environmental and agricultural ministers from across the region and an equal number of CEOs from investment funds, all of whom addressed an enthusiastic standing-room-only audience.

Water Vergara of the World Resources Institute.
Neil Palmer/IWMI

Walter first conceived the idea of 20×20 while serving as Division Chief for Climate Change and Sustainability at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Then, in mid-2014, he joined WRI, whose slogan “making big ideas happen” – reveals what he had in mind.

As WRI’s chief architect and master builder of Initiative 20×20, Walter embarked on an intensive round of engagement with government ministries, investors, and researchers, with support from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

He made a strong case that, in addition to offering environmental and social benefits, 20×20 makes good economic sense. “Countries are doing this,” he said during a GLF discussion forum held after the 20×20 launch event, “for their own benefit.”

As one of five panelists in the discussion (titled “Large-scale land restoration: Creating the conditions of success”), Walter had to field some tough questions. Why invest in land restoration, given that it’s more expensive than preventing further land degradation?” asked Lou Verchot from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). “Why not do both?” Walter shot back.

He brings plenty of experience to this cause. Before joining IDB, Walter worked at the World Bank, where he was leader of the Global Expert Team on Climate Change. During a 25-year career, he has authored and co-authored 14 books and numerous articles in peer-reviewed publications. Walter has also managed an extensive portfolio of projects, including some related to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

After the GLF discussion forum, when asked if the launch had met his expectations, Walter said, “it went beyond my expectations; it generated more interest and set the stage for action in the countries that are ready to go forward.”