Audubon’s Aurelio Ramos Sees the World Through Birds

Ramos, the senior vice president of Audubon Americas, talks about the future of hemisphere conservation.

Two years ago, Aurelio Ramos joined Audubon as Senior Vice President of Audubon Americas. Audubon Americas, or what used to be known as the International Alliances Program, focuses on conservation issues throughout the hemisphere, from Canada and Mexico to South American countries like Chile and Colombia. And in December, the Bezos Earth Fund committed $12 million to the Conserva Aves program, a partnership between Audubon Americas, BirdLife International, American Bird Conservancy, and RedLAC members. I talked to Ramos about what he has planned for Audubon Americas, and how his own experiences growing up in Colombia will help achieve those goals.

Tell me about the new Audubon Americas strategy. What are the program’s overall goals and what tactics will the team and partners use to achieve them?

The first thing that we needed to figure out was our scope: Did we want to do hemispheric conservation of just migratory species? Or did we want to also include resident, endemic, and globally threatened species? Then we needed to identify the places where all of those different kinds of birds overlap, and at what scale and level would we need to work to really make a difference.

We spent the last year doing all of these analyses and planning and we identified those places. We came up with a goal from Mexico all the way down to Argentina and Chile of around 126 million hectares that needed to be conserved. We put a target on the next five years to do 10 million hectares. And then, in the next 10 years we would conserve another 40 million hectares. It’s a big goal. To achieve it, we developed four conservation strategies that will take us to that level and scale. 

The first one focuses on protected areas. We have an initiative called Conserva Aves, which is a coalition between Audubon, BirdLife International, American Bird Conservancy, and RedLAC, which is a network of environmental funds in Latin America that has more than 25 environmental funds. We’re partnering through this coalition to look at protected areas in our focus countries. We're in the process right now of structuring these funds that will allow conservation in seven countries by 2025. So, a big chunk of those 10 million hectares is coming from Conserva Aves. We hope to do our first calls for proposals from local communities in May or June 2022.

The second strategy focuses on agriculture and cattle ranching, as these two sectors have been the main cause of biodiversity loss in Latin America. For any strategy to be successful, it must provide financial and social benefits to those farmers, in addition to creating environmental benefits. Our strategy here is to look at current best practices in sustainable agriculture and bring the bird component into it. For example, some projects are pursuing silvopasture systems, in which you put more trees in the land. We can help direct what type of trees should be used. With cropland, which kinds of plants are going to be more useful for birds? 

The third one is coastal resilience. More than 60 percent of Latin Americans live 60 kilometers away from the ocean, and there is a lot of development happening along the coasts. Unfortunately, many things are changing in coastal areas with sea-level rise and flooding. We can help implement proven nature-based solutions: mangroves and coral reefs and sea grasses—all of which support huge numbers of birds with food and shelter—are much better at sustaining coastlines when compared to building more walls. So again, we want to help these proven solutions to scale up, and we are bringing the bird component to the solution.

And the fourth strategy is what we call “broadening our constituency for birds.” There are a great many bird lovers in Latin American, and we are going to channel this amazing energy into policy changes in much the same way that Audubon does in the United States with its chapter network. We are working in our priority countries to develop national strategies for bird conservation and cement bird conservation into national policies.

What are some of the most important things that one must keep in mind when working across the Americas? Are there country specific issues that you need to tackle? 

We are looking at strategies that could be applied anywhere, but of course there are specific things to each country and locality. As an example, right now we're working with Indigenous communities of First Nations in Canada. But we’re also looking at which components of that work can be taken and adopted in places like Colombia or Mexico, while also taking into account the similarities and differences in making change happen at the national financial and policy level.

Why did the program name change from International Alliances program to Audubon Americas? What does this new name “Audubon Americas” signify to you?

‘International program’ divides what is the U.S and what is happening everywhere else. With “Audubon Americas,” we're saying that we're looking from Canada all the way down to Chile and Argentina—deliberately bringing that sort of connectivity of the Americas. We're all Americans. People from Chile are Americans. People from the U.S. are Americans. We're saying something that birds remind us of: We are all part of the same hemisphere, and the conservation work we do in a specific country has repercussions on the life cycle of species in other regions of the Americas. We want to elevate a simple but powerful concept for biodiversity: Protecting wildlife and the places they live means working across the hemisphere, across disciplines, across regions, languages, ethnicity, cultures. That’s what makes the Americas unique.

What was the re-envisioning process like, and what kinds of issues did you consider as you and your team created the new business plan? 

Some of the things that we were looking at is how can we identify the strategies and projects that we will get the highest return on investment. 

The resources that we bring internationally, including Audubon's, are very small compared to the resources available domestically in each country. But our investments are designed to be catalytic to help kickstart policy and behavioral changes at the local and national level. As such, when we were revamping Audubon’s hemispheric work, we asked ourselves how can we be very strategic, to make the changes and catalyze the changes that are important?

While building our business plan, we had to understand which places are really important. After identifying those 126 million hectares that are really important, we had to identify the 10 million hectares that are super critical, and then define those strategies that are going to allow us to partner with the key stakeholders to make that work happen. 

Does the strategy have a base focus in grassroots or in local NGO partnerships?

We have been developing the strategies involving grassroots, local, national, and international organizations. It is the only way that we're going to accomplish the goals for climate change and biodiversity. 

What we have identified is what is the valued aggregate or the valued proposition from Audubon while bringing the power of birds into those processes.  During the business planning process, we consulted with BirdLife partners on the ground, including Calidris in Colombia, Panama Audubon Society, CODEFF in Chile, and the ProNatura network in Mexico. Each of these organizations provided inputs into our current business plan and what our approach will be in each of their countries.

The Migratory Bird initiative has a huge role to play, too. We have been partnering with them on identifying the places most important to birds across the hemisphere, but it’s the power of storytelling around bird migration that will be critical for us. If we can elevate the joy of migration using the Migratory Bird Explorer—if we can present that information, and that vision, to local organizations and grassroots—we have an incredible tool to support changes on the ground. So, as we are advancing as one Audubon between Audubon Americas and the Migratory Bird initiative, we are going to be partnering and connecting communities not only in Latin America and the Caribbean, but Canada and the US, all in one single hemispheric approach.

How do your personal experiences—growing up in Colombia, working for U.S.-based conservation organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Audubon—inform how you work, and how you think other U.S.-based organizations might approach working in Latin America? 

My first job was with Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Colombia. It was very informative because it helped me understand how finance and policy operate at a national level, and what it takes to make things happen there. Then I worked at the Latin American level with CAF, also known as the Latin American Development Bank, as an economist helping the bank influence how biodiversity could be mainstreamed under finance work and development. Then I joined the Nature Conservancy and later on Audubon. Altogether, I have worked for Latin America for almost 30 years now.

The importance has been, as a Colombian, as a Latin American, I can bring that local and national knowledge and understanding to an international organization like the Audubon. It brought in that cultural and behavioral understanding of how things happen and decisions are taken at different levels and in different contexts. But I think it's a two-way flow—the knowledge goes both ways. Understanding how things work in Latin American countries and how things work in the U.S. is the key to success when you’re based in the U.S. but working hemispherically.

One really important truth I have learned: It takes time for organizations to become truly global or international. It is a whole process of understanding, respecting, and working together with organizations, and being very inclusive of all the differences and the work that is needed. And that doesn’t happen in a week. Or even a year.

What is your favorite bird? OK, your three favorite birds?

The Dickcissel was the first bird I started to understand the concept of ‘the joy of migration.’. I was working with the Nature Conservancy in Venezuela to help address all the challenges this bird faced when it arrived at the grasslands of Venezuela. We worked with the farmers, finding ways to manage those challenges in a way that unduly burdened them.  

Another inspiring bird has been the Cerulean Warbler, and all the research scientists are doing in Colombia during its migration.  

I am also fascinated by raptors. I’ve been learning about the Broad-winged Hawks and how they use wind channels as they migrate.

The opportunity of seeing the world through birds has been amazing. I have been around bird lovers and learning little by little, and I never thought I would be mainstreamed into this. The power of birds is fascinating!