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Interview with Nicholas Wall, DGB's Lead Ecologist

‘’It’s not just about carbon; It’s about biodiversity, about the community, and about massively changing a lot of rural Africa’s economic outlook’’

An Interview with Nicholas Wall, DGB’s Lead Ecologist
What makes a company great isn’t just its products and services but rather, its people. At DGB, we’re honoured to work alongside some very talented and impact-driven professionals. Today, we’ll share a little Q&A with Nicholas Wall, our Lead Ecologist and a driving force behind most of our projects. 

Good morning Nick, could you please tell us who you are?
‘’My name is Nicholas Wall, and I work with DGB on the project side of things. This means I work as an Ecologist and, together with my colleagues, manage our partnerships and portfolio of projects around the world.’’

And we’re glad that you do! So, you’re an Ecologist... How did that come to pass?
‘’Growing up, I was always interested in nature and wildlife. I studied Conservation Biology at University, and since then, I've worked around the world on projects related to not only ecology, but wider sustainable land management. Now I work on the project side of DGB’s activities, planting trees, which, obviously, has an important ecological aspect. That’s where I come in.’’ 

What made you move into this specific ecological niche?
I like the DGB approach to conservation because it's a case of working with the systems that we have to actually make a difference, and harnessing the power of the free market to do something genuinely ‘green’.

What is it that you like about that?
‘’I believe it’s a great thing. There's no point in going the Extinction Rebellion route, wailing and screaming and glueing yourself to the road. In my opinion, It's better to get stuck in, and take some action! Look at our projects in Cameroon, Kenya, and Uganda. There's some really important conservation work going on, which is funded through carbon credit sales and investments in our company!
So, in short, I like this utilitarian approach to conservation. If it pays, it stays. Having a financial mechanism by which we can enact real positive change and impact for things like biodiversity and community development… Well, what’s not to love?’’ 

We agree, just had to double check… ;-) To expand on this topic: what's your take on the voluntary carbon markets as a whole?
‘’My personal view is that there are a lot of actions that need to be taken. The world's population is growing rapidly, and everybody wants a piece of the action as far as development is concerned. We had our industrial revolution in the late 1700s, and that's spread across the world, and we can’t halt socio-economic development in the third world. Decarbonising the economy, as it were, is important in the long term, but right now, we're not going to be able to say: "No, you can't do this, you can't do that, you can't drive or have central heating’’ Trying to stop people from having any impact on nature is pointless. And carbon credits, when sourced from on-the-ground projects that deliver entire ecosystem restoration, can provide a simple way to monetise, and put a real, tangible value on nature whilst mitigating our impact on the environment.’’

Are there any other alternatives you can think of?
‘’Carbon Capture is an interesting alternative, but the technology is very expensive and not particularly effective at this moment in time.. I’ve often said that if someone were to come up with a very cheap machine that sequestered carbon dioxide directly from the air and put it in the ground, how much would that be worth? The idea alone would be worth billions! Actually, we have that machine already, and it’s called a tree. So, in short, I believe nature-based solutions should be at the forefront in the global fight against climate change, desertification and biodiversity loss.’’

If I understand correctly, you want voluntary investments into nature-based solutions to increase?
‘’Certainly! When you look at the amount of money that is pouring into conservation projects, into tree planting, into nature-based solutions through the voluntary carbon market, that’s an incredible amount of money, and it’s being put to good use, if it’s invested in something green or something positive through a purpose company like DGB or its competitors in this, then that’s simply a great thing.’’

From looking at your vocation and what you're doing right now, can you name one project about which you are enthusiastic?
‘’Yes! Let’s talk about Cameroon. I think that’s a very interesting project in a part of the world that, thus far, has had limited access to carbon funding but offers huge potential for carbon sequestration, biodiversity improvement and high-impact sustainable community development. Our project is not far outside of Yaoundé, but Cameroon is a very large country with limited infrastructure and getting to our project site is a bit of a mission, especially when the rains are coming down! The roads are often more like muddy rivers than roads. Anyway, this is a project that I'm really excited about because of the scale as well as the impact.’ This is somewhere where revenue through carbon offsets can make a very visible impact on both the community and the environment.’’

What do you mean by scale?
‘’So, essentially, what we're doing there is we're looking to plant 30 million trees. We have the land secured, we have great enthusiasm from the local community on this, and we're going to plant a wide range of species. 80 per cent will be agroforestry, so planting things like avocado, orange, macadamia and mango. The remaining 20 per cent will be nearer to an existing protected reserve, but on heavily degraded land.. In that area, we’ll be planting various indigenous species and really focussing on biodiversity.’’

What are the benefits of that approach?
’’‘The main benefit of this combined approach is that we are offering a benefit to both the local community and the environment. Our impact on biodiversity levels will be huge because the land is heavily degraded but offers great potential.  That's one aspect, but there's also a really exciting community element. By providing vast quantities of top-quality fruit trees and helping with market access and best practices, our project will increase farmers’ incomes significantly. I spoke to our project director in Cameroon recently, and he calculated that the project would increase the income of the community, and individuals working with us by about six times! And this is sustainable income, not charitable donations, so projects which empower the community to improve their livelihoods whilst providing a profit for DGB through the sale of credits, is a great model for development.’’

Six times? That's huge!
‘’Yes! Let's not get ahead of ourselves: we're not creating any millionaires, but they're certainly making more money out of these trees than we are. That might sound shocking, but the amount of fruit that these trees will produce is huge, and that really does make an impact. So, seeing that impact over the next five to ten years will be really exciting.’’ 

How exciting?
‘’The local people are certainly very excited. And I'm very excited also! So, seeing it holistically: the carbon funding aspect is essential; it is what funds these projects, which will sequester a large amount of carbon dioxide, But, as far as the impact which is felt on the ground, this will be seen and felt far more by the production of huge amounts of fruits. In a part of the world where malnutrition continues to be  an issue, this is a serious step forward in terms of development.”


‘’It’s not just about carbon. People often overlook the other aspects of it, but it’s also about biodiversity, about the community, and about massively changing a lot of rural Africa’s economic outlook!’’

 

Guess that makes sense! What else?
‘’Well, let’s take education: as far as education is concerned, if you're multiplying your salary quite significantly, then you will be able to afford to send your kids to school, and the impact of that in the long term on a community is extremely positive.

So basically, you’re saying there’s this huge trickle-down effect that we can’t even begin to size in yet?
’Yes, certainly! The impact of that is huge for the community.. DGB will become a major employer in a region with extremely high unemployment, and these side benefits have a real impact… It’s not just about carbon. People often overlook the other aspects of it, but it’s also about biodiversity, the community, and massively changing a lot of rural Africa’s economic outlook! ’’ 

Moving forward on this train of thought: what are your hopes for the future? If we look ten years down the road…. What do you hope for?
‘’Okay. That's a good question… Martin Luther, the German theologist who started the Reformation, said: ‘’even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.’’  I think that's a good attitude. No matter what the future looks like, planting your tree will always be a good idea. Obviously, I'm speaking very generally. We have to go through checks and stuff like that to see if these things are feasible, but it's an important thing to do, no matter what long-term predictions look like.. Furthermore, it looks like the voluntary offset market will continue to grow rapidly as countries, companies, and individuals move towards their goals of a net zero future. This means that it is an exciting time to be in this industry, especially in a position like mine where I am lucky enough to work with our partners and my colleagues to really make a positive impact.”

We agree, but what do you expect?
‘’Yes. As far as ten years is concerned, I've seen trees in Uganda that were planted five years ago, and they are already very decently sized. Stuff grows pretty quick along the equator. The same goes for Cameroon: it has a perfect climate for tree planting! So, in ten years, I think we're going to have a really nice big project; we’re going to have trees producing at their absolute peak. Ten years is about the peak time for avocado, macadamia, mango and so forth.’’

And what do you think DGB will be like by that time?
‘’So, hopefully, by that time, we will see the real fruits of our labour. Quite literally in the Cameroon case. As far as projects on a whole are concerned, we will be expanding over the next few years. We'll see a wide expansion across the places where we can have the most impact. This will be a key thing. There's no point in saying: ‘I want a project in every country in the world, but having a large footprint across the major biodiversity hotspots that may be less- or underfunded at this moment would be great.’’

And a wider scale?
’I'd like to see a serious reverse on deforestation over the next ten years. There’s a really important role to play by the private sector, but it will have to be through a mixture of government, public-private sector and NGOs to make this come about. I see DGB’s role, expanding and aiding in reversing this trend, as being a big part of that.’’ 

At the beginning of the talk, you mentioned managing partnerships. Can you tell us a bit more about those partnerships?
‘’Yes, certainly. The key thing with any of these projects is that you need great local partners. There's no point in us turning up and lecturing local people on how to manage their land and their resources. It's patronising. You need to have local people working with you in partnerships to see a long-term difference. If you don’t have the community engaged, or the local people don't see the benefit, then they will cut down those trees, and you can’t blame them. ‘’So, having local partners who understand the realities on the ground is incredibly important and working with them is essential.’’

What about our partners specifically?
‘’We have different partners, but our partners all have extremely high levels of experience working in their respective countries. They know the local people and cultures, they know the local governments, and they're an essential part of every project. Someone from DGB’s Investment relations team is on one end of it, speaking with investors in London, for example, and on the other end is a person digging and putting a tree in or raising a seed in a nursery. Everybody is just as important as the other and working together is essential! You're only as strong as your weakest link.’’

We agree! What’s your take on technology? What’s the added value of GreenTech Solutions and everything that the people from Statix are currently developing? From your experience on the ground, what can we expect from that?
‘’It is absolutely essential! From an environmental perspective, ecological perspective, this has historically been an underused resource. For ecological surveys, for example, your real bare bone essential aspects of ecology are still done with the same techniques as would have been done in the 60s. You walk around with a square quadrant, throw it, and then do a bit of counting. All this stuff is still used in much of the industry. This is starting to change, and companies like DGB are opening the door to technology which offers greater accuracy and greater scalability - it’s essential when you’re working with projects which involve the planting and monitoring of millions of trees across vast areas of land! With the rapid improvement in drone technology, LIDAR etc., these are all going to be hugely important tools.’’


‘’The use of technology will help DGB rapidly scale up the reforestation rate, and it's a very, very important thing. It's essential and going forward, it will play a rapidly increasing role.’’


‘’We can't underestimate how important that is, especially when you're doing projects at scale. We're talking about millions of trees, it's not a small thing. The use of technology will help DGB rapidly scale up the reforestation rate. That is a very, very important thing. It's essential and going forward, it will play a rapidly increasing role in land management, conservation work, and the reforestation efforts of DGB, our partners, and others in this space.’’

Thank you, we couldn’t have said it better, Nick! Just to tie this off, what’s your take on the REDD+ Projects like the one we’ve developed in Paraguay?
‘’Planting trees is essential, but treating existing forests as assets is also key. As far as protecting biodiversity, and preserving habitats which take centuries (or even longer) to reach what we describe in ecology as a ‘Climax Community’, REDD+ is a great tool. Deforestation is occurring rapidly, and providing an economical alternative to this destruction is an important strategy.’’

We couldn’t have said it better… Let’s wrap it up: thank you, Nick, it was a pleasure!
‘No, thank you, the pleasure was all mine!’ 

Would you like to learn more about DGB and the nature-based projects we develop? Reach out to us through the button below to connect with Nicholas and our other colleagues and learn more about our reforestation efforts and the projects we develop.

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