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Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Fiachra Kearney Of Forever Wild Group Is Helping…

Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Fiachra Kearney Of Forever Wild Group Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Martita Mestey

Find someone who is really, really good at communicating your ideas! You might have it all laid out neatly in your head, but that does not mean others can see it. Communicating big ideas is hard, and often takes someone with a specialized skill set to do it well.

As a part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Fiachra Kearney.

Fiachra’s career has spanned Africa, Australia, and Southeast Asia, tackling some of the planet’s most pressing environmental and societal challenges. He is a former scientist with the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and has many years in private enterprise. From 2011 he led a global initiative tracking and infiltrating organized wildlife and human trafficking criminal networks, and provided specialized support for human rights and environmental activists. In 2018, he conceived and founded the Forever Wild Initiative.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Sure. I was raised in Zambia and Somalia, but I have Irish heritage. We traveled a lot as a family, and as a child I was witness to an equal number of inspiring and heart-wrenching places and events. I recall the spectacular landscapes of southern Africa, the music of the people, and the joy of life. But I also witnessed the destruction of land, and poverty that truly shocked me. One vivid memory I have is of children rummaging in piles of rubbish and rotting food, seeking something to eat, just to stay alive. My upbringing had a profound effect on my worldview, and early on I realized that we must tackle the inequality that both besets nature and our fellow human beings.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Actually, it is more of an initiative than a single organization. I structured it to tackle the very complex problem of how to protect the world’s remaining wilderness landscapes through the creation of a model that ensures equity for nature and people in all economic decisions. The premise is that the current practice of exploitative economic activity is destructive and unsustainable, but also that alternative approaches are disaggregated, too idealistic, and too focused on instant gratification. Also, many social approaches are focused heavily on sustainable economics, which is fine, except they often ignore all the other aspects that make us human. Those aspects include such things as our connections to landscapes, night skies, language, food, and medicine.

We need to create a new relationship with land and nature that also captures what it means to be human, and where that relationship allows for the economic overlay and quality of life that we should seek to offer all people. Now, that’s all very well and we often hear similar ideas and talk. The real challenge has been the ‘how’.

I had thought about this complex problem for many years and was still unsure where to start. What was very interesting to me was the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (and in 2022 the Kunming Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework). Through the UN SDGs, I could see a great deal of effort was going into the type of systems thinking that is urgently needed, moving away from single-issue approaches. I read and read and read, and one day I sketched out what I came to understand to be the major components, and hurdles, to creating a model that is globally relevant and could potentially drive broad-scale change. I started the Forever Wild Initiative with a core entity, a charity, to develop the mandate and hold a lot of the intellectual property. From there I envisaged the problem, and subsequent legal structures, as spokes on a wheel each tackling major components of the problem — finance and investment models; viable sustainable & social enterprise; understanding, valuing & trading in natural and social capital; and on-ground implementation of positive change for nature and communities.

The initiative is really a way to map out the chain of interactions that lead to ongoing inequality for nature and people, primarily Indigenous People and Local Communities. Often, it is not the deliberate creation of inequality and degradation (though sometimes it is), but rather that all the key nodes are very distant from each other. Think how far a bank in Hamburg, Germany, financing large agricultural initiatives in Paraguay is from the on-ground reality. Think how far removed it is from the Indigenous people and the biodiversity. Then, looking back up the chain, how far the landscape, and all it contains, is from the finance. In the middle, you have the economic enterprise, trying to engage with shareholders, create profit in a dynamic market, and equally being entirely unable to value biodiversity, or cultural heritage, or anything really except its own produce. We rely upon and use biological diversity, planetary processes, and even traditional knowledge. Yet, we don’t offer these things a seat at the table in decision-making. We just use, then discard. These multiple disconnects are hugely problematic, as is the fact there is no way to financially value much of what we need to sustain our own life support system — the Earth! It’s ludicrous.

So our solution in the Forever Wild initiative is to map all these parts of the chain, understand the disconnects, and then create and finance dedicated, credible, and purpose-built alternative structures to demonstrate change at each of those points. We are most definitely not single-issue thinkers, and now the Forever Wild Initiative comprises a core charity, a profit-for-purpose wilderness experience company, a wholly-Indigenous & female owned company, a trading platform and company for natural & social capital, and a fledgling nature-based investment fund! We created an innovative finance deal to protect several thousand square kilometers of wilderness, and I now sit on the Board of a sustainable agricultural organization that represents 6.9% of Australia’s land mass! We’ve only been going for 5 years.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Well, apart from my childhood having an effect, I simply love being in nature. The wilder and more remote, the better. I am fascinated by ancient knowledge and cultures, and like many children I daydreamed of exploring the world before industrialization. I am deeply saddened by the extraordinary loss of both biodiversity and traditional knowledge, of all types.

I was probably drawn more to trying to fight for nature, but I knew that whatever we do must include people and society. After all, we only have one planet to figure out how nature and contemporary society can co-exist, and so it is only logical to me that we must create processes that are oriented in three equal parts, i.e. economics, nature, and communities.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

No, not really. I was one of the very lucky people who just knew what I would do from a very, very young age. I did not know the details, or exactly how, but my purpose in life was clear. I also have some personality traits that serve as both strengths and weaknesses…. I can envision, plan, and then execute large ideas that have been driven by my dreams and passions. I also don’t care much about what others think of me, and I am very risk-tolerant, so I am happy to try, and fail, and try again. I have learned that people will often seek to share with you all the reasons not to do something, so that aspect of my personality is helpful. A weakness of that however is that there is sometimes good advice amongst the naysayers, and it took me a while to figure that out.

Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

Yes, and I did not know much either. One of the best things I did was to leave the world of science and NGOs and move into private enterprise. It transpired I was quite good at it, and after holding a couple of senior positions it all sort of fell into place for me. At one point I considered an MBA or similar, but ultimately decided I didn’t have time. I also thought, perhaps incorrectly, that while an MBA would be great for my business skills it would not necessarily offer much to my systems thinking approach.

For me, it all started with the concept that I believed would work. Then we needed to fund it. It was very difficult to get start-up finance for the Forever Wild Initiative. Almost universally it was considered too complex, i.e. that taking a multi-issue approach was too risky, or that was just no way to achieve success. Ironically, almost everyone I spoke to knew it was needed, but ultimately the risk of me failing, and the funder losing money, overrode that. To me, that alone demonstrated the hold that money has over our collective decision-making for the greater good…. I was probably also not great at articulating the concept in the early days, as I tend to get far too technical.

In the end, to get the Forever Wild Initiative off the ground, I offloaded quite a successful consultancy business and self-financed it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Oh boy, that is a tough question. It has been a fascinating journey, with many eye-opening moments. But here is one story I suppose.

I came to really appreciate the depth of what it is to be human. We all have our own lens, and it is difficult to shake that off. But in the work we are trying to do, we engage with people from all walks of life in diverse conversations about our Earth and how their sector or expertise can play a role. We talk to everyone from deeply entrenched finance specialists to Indigenous elders in remote, isolated places. In these conversations, as we work to co-design new models along the ‘chain’ it has struck me how much of our connection to nature and other human beings remains. We hear, very often, about the conflict, the lack of understanding, or the lack of care. And while some of that does exist, there is undoubtedly a great deal more empathy and desire to solve the problems than one might think. So, surprisingly to me, the main challenges are the economic structures we have created, and the identity walls we build around ourselves.

I think an important aspect for media to focus on would be the stories of hope, and change, and where people from diverse sectors and backgrounds are coming together. We don’t hear nearly enough of that.

It has been said, that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Do you have a story about a humorous mistake that you made when you were first starting and the lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure it’s humorous, but it does generate a little bit of wry satisfaction. In my earlier enterprise, I founded the company and set about making it work. Soon after, while we were still very young, I brought in a talented individual that I had known for some years and worked with in other capacities. He was based in the US, so he gave us a US presence, and we both went around Washington DC co-presenting to potential clients.

I returned home (East Africa at the time) and about a month later started getting emails about this individual from some of those potential clients. It turns out that my new co-director had quietly set up his own identical enterprise, and after I left he reached back to all the potential clients to try to take my business. I was immensely stressed, but in the end, I did not need to worry. It transpires most people really don’t like that type of behavior and not one company we presented to was willing to engage with this individual. I also offloaded that person as the company was still young, so that was positive. Ultimately it gave me faith in the moral justice that many people harbor.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I met people along the way who believed in me wholeheartedly, even when my ideas and concepts were embryonic. The Principal Research Scientist in my CSIRO team, Neil MacLeod, was instrumental in helping me to believe in myself. In my early career, I was sure of my purpose, but very unsure of my ability.

In 2018 I also engaged an incredible team of people to assist me in articulating my Forever Wild ideas, and to create an actual working framework to guide how we design, implement, and measure our work across the entire Forever Wild Initiative. They remain huge supporters of the Initiative, so much so that one of them joined the board of the charity we have.

The effect of two women in my life can only be described as profound. My wife is my biggest fan! I talk through everything with her, and she is there through all the challenges and every difficult day. We both agreed to self-finance the Forever Wild Initiative to get it off the ground. And my mother, who sadly passed away many years ago, backed me from a very young age. I really struggled at school, and so together we figured out another pathway. And from then, every time I hit a dead end with my early dreams and ideas, she would sit with me and map out another road.

Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Only three? Well, three is a good start. Here are three simple ideas.

  1. Take an hour, step outside, and look around you. Even in a city, you will see life; other creatures we share our Earth with. Take a deep breath and think about the oxygen that keeps us alive. It’s all part of the one planet we call home, and it needs to be looked after. Go back to what you are doing and try to bring nature and Earth’s life support systems into your daily thinking.
  2. Demand that companies providing goods and services understand their supply chains and their impact on the planet and people. How can you do this? By deliberately seeking products that have a verified positive impact.
  3. Don’t give up. No matter how much greed and selfishness sometimes seem to prevail against nature, just don’t give up.

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

This is a great question, and not easy to answer. As a society, we have long talked about this but often provided no pathway for businesses. Consumers demand sustainability, yet those same consumers may be shareholders and demand profit. As I conceived the Forever Wild Initiative, I wanted to be able to talk, in a meaningful way, to businesses and their consumers. We set out on the basis that there must be a way to convert sustainability into greater profits, no matter what your industry is, keeping both consumers and shareholders happy. So, when we created the FW impact framework, we built it so it ties into various global sustainability frameworks, and is measurable.

OK, so what does that mean? The critical element was to be able to create, using the impact framework, a unit of measure that can be digitized and potentially stapled to a product to be sold at a premium. Not only that, but we now have a partnership with a tech company that builds in consumer rewards for selecting that product. It is early days, with lots to do, but it is exciting and early indications are very positive.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

These are actually things from my various businesses along my entire journey because, by the time I launched the FW Initiative, I probably had made most of my mistakes.

  1. Find someone who is really, really good at communicating your ideas! You might have it all laid out neatly in your head, but that does not mean others can see it. Communicating big ideas is hard, and often takes someone with a specialized skill set to do it well.
  2. Become very good at networking. If it’s not your thing, make it your thing! Also, keep your networks from previous jobs, events, and social life. It is amazing how often you have a problem and someone in your network has a solution, or a bright idea to solve it.
  3. Get a good Human Resource Manager before you hire staff, even if it is a consultant. It’s lovely to believe that you will form this incredible, loyal team and that you will all work together to make the company a success simply because it’s an amazing idea. But that’s often a fantasy because we all see the world through different lenses. Get solid HR advice, policies, and ground rules first, then go about building your team. It makes it so much easier when the bottom-line expectations are clear to all as the first point of call.
  4. Think about the company culture you want, and work on it as much as you can. Don’t take it for granted, because if you take your eyes off the ball a single individual can undo years of hard work. Have a clearly defined set of principles and a way for staff, contractors, and Board members to make those principles real.
  5. Hone your negotiating skills. There are several ways to do this, from courses and books to simply taking careful note of people’s behavior around the table. Do your research on who you are sitting down with prior to a meeting, and don’t be afraid to sit quietly to consider someone’s point of view or seek to truly understand their motivations.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I think most young people have a strong awareness of the urgency and need, so I would not reiterate that. I would say that the world is desperate for ideas, and that means there is also a huge amount of opportunity for innovation that makes a positive difference to society and nature. I would tell them there are not enough places now for genuine impact investors to put their money, so get out there, think outside the box about businesses and initiatives that can make a real difference, and put yourselves in front of investors.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The chance of failure is no reason not to try.

You will come across people who will suggest, intimate or point blank tell you your idea will fail. Yes, ideas can fail. There can be many reasons; sometimes it is because they could have been done differently, or because the operating conditions change and are beyond your control. But the risk of failure is not a reason not to try. Think about it — if you don’t try, then you have already failed!

My first company was ambitious and tackled a very complex problem of transnational organised crime. Just to be clear, we were a private company, not a government department. I could see a gap between government law enforcement and the problem at hand, and so I set out to tackle it. Most people told me it was not possible, but ultimately, we created a successful company. Even when I closed the company, we only closed the ‘skin’ of it — all the work persists today in the many entities we worked with around the world.

I had exactly the same challenge with the Forever Wild Initiative. But I had even fewer answers to the challenge! I learned from my previous experience, to only share what you need and then work the rest out quietly. Don’t ever think about failure; instead, just assume you don’t have the answer yet.

How can our readers follow you online?

We do have a YouTube Channel, and we put out some e-updates and post a biennial report for the charity. We also have a page on a US platform GlobalGiving, where we give quarterly updates. We could probably do more, and we will, but honestly, we are incredibly busy working out how to solve some of these problems.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Fiachra Kearney Of Forever Wild Group Is Helping… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.