It’s a bright gem of a Sunday, and Yolanda Kakabadse is outing-ready. Cardigan, scarf, plus a wool coat on one arm. Satchel with camera, water bottle, Listerine strip PocketPak. From her bag swings a key ring with a familiar panda logo.
“That’s what I want to do,” she says, walking downhill on Sydney’s Macquarie Street. She points across a fence to where, in the Royal Botanic Gardens, three kids are climbing a Port Jackson fig. “Exactly what they’re doing.”
Kakabadse, 64, from Ecuador, is the eighth president of the World Wide Fund for Nature. The irony of her role, which is voluntary, is that saving Earth’s wild places means visiting mainly cities. “It’s the majority of my meetings,” says Kakabadse, laughing. “Like when you go to Washington to discuss the forest strategy for the world, and you’re locked up in a room with no windows.”
To get to Sydney, she spent 37 hours in transit from her home city of Quito. Her walking tour must be squeezed in between media commitments, for Sunday offers the advantage of being a slow news day (the day’s biggest story is the rescinding of Alan Jones’s S-class Mercedes), which matters if your message is, say, protecting forests in Borneo.
The rest of her week will be spent mostly in Canberra. Diary items include several speeches and meetings with the prime minister and foreign minister, to impress on them the need for Australia to take a leadership role in conserving the forests and fisheries of the Asia–Pacific region.
Though she’s not seen Sydney before, Kakabadse has been to Perth, for the 1990 congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a body she later headed. “I left without seeing much, except some kangaroos.” Issued with a travel pass, she was surprised by the city’s empty buses. “We were the only people on them. It was a culture of one car, one person.”
She wanders on to the Opera House, for a happy snap with the sails behind. “You’ve got plenty of time,” says Kakabadse’s diary minder, an ex-diplomat named Lyn. “Your TV interview’s been pushed back.”
This means she has maybe an hour. “Super,” says Kakabadse, strolling past the quay’s buskers. She looks on in fascination as a guy ingests a metre-long red balloon. “I love street art,” she says. “It gives you so much flavour of a town.”
Kakabadse wants to know about immigration here. Her father, she says, was a migrant from Soviet Georgia, her mother “a typical Ecuadorean, which means a mix of everything”. At a didgeridoo performance, she asks about Aboriginal Australia. As Ecuador’s environment minister in the late 1990s, Kakabadse put her stamp on indigenous affairs by creating ‘untouchable zones’ around tribes who avoided contact. Ever since she’s wondered whether that was the right thing to do.
Having initially studied psychology, she got into conservation in her 20s, once she sensed something was rotten in Ecuador. “Rivers were polluted. Forests we had been visiting were no longer there.” The cause was oil extraction in the Amazon basin. In 1979 she formed Fundación Natura, which now operates across Latin America. But even then she was as much concerned with improving rural people’s lives as she was with protecting nature. Kakabadse is clear on this. “I am not a radical. My point is we should have designated places for oil extraction, and we must have designated places where only conservation takes place.”
She rose to international prominence during the original Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where she organised the engagement with civil society groups, from Nepalese women’s collectives to Bulgarian carpenters and even an association of astronauts, who had seen the planet from a different angle.
Does Kakabadse get flak for not being green enough? “We are always criticised for that.” Still, many in the sector have come around to her mindset, including the WWF: whereas in its early years it focused on protecting high-profile species, these days it, too, is “talking the same language” of sustainable development.
On George Street, she spots a jacaranda. “You know where it comes from? The southern part of Brazil and the north of Argentina.” She steps under a sandstone arch to a lane traversing the old Sydney Hospital site. “How nice. The Nurses Walk.” She pauses at a souvenir shop, keen to buy some sheepskin boots for her grandson. Her diary minder, though, is pacing on ahead. Kakabadse commits the shop to memory and hurries on.
At the hotel a Prius awaits, from a green car-hire outfit. “Is the cost of a hybrid here more than a normal car?” she asks the driver, who nods. “Much higher? Is there any subsidy?” The driver replies, “Well, if the car is worth $60–80,000 and has a certain fuel consumption, you’ll get a little bit off the luxury tax.” “Hmm,” says Kakabadse.
Nearing the ABC studios on Harris Street, the city appears as eerily empty as a bus in Perth. At the end of her TV interview, Kakabadse is asked how she feels about the outcome of June’s Rio+20 summit, the sequel to her efforts in 1992. “Terrible,” she says. “It was all: ‘we recognise’, ‘we acknowledge’. Not enough of ‘we commit’.”