Kirsten Schuijt: ‘I feel strongest when things get really difficult’

Ebbinge talks to the leaders of today and tomorrow and asks the questions that really matter. This time: Kirsten Schuijt, Director of WWF Netherlands.


What was your first job?
My father was director of a pharmaceutical company in Denmark, where I grew up. They let me work there packing pill boxes and answering the phone. And that was my first paid job. When I was twelve, I also became a ranger for the World Wildlife Fund. They sent me the magazine from Holland and I wore a t-shirt with a panda logo. That’s when my love for nature really started to develop.

How would you explain your job in language that a child can understand?
I would tell them that I want to make the world a little better by protecting nature. For my thirteen-year-old daughter, this is the only job she’s ever seen me do, because I’ve been working for WWF for twenty years. She probably likes the fact that I’m a director, but she probably doesn’t know exactly what that means. The reality is less romantic than just the idea of protecting animals and travelling to cool places. The tricky thing about my job is that problems get more and more complex. My work is never done.

What makes your work so complex?
WWF has a lot of irons in the fire, because the solutions to the problems we’re working on are never in the hands of just one group. We talk to governments, CEOs of large companies, indigenous peoples, farmers, fishermen and so on. We operate on the ground in more than a hundred countries and have built a community. To protect a single region, it often means you have to be active not only locally but also in Washington, Beijing and Brussels. The trick is to keep a clear view of what you’re doing and to tie up any loose ends.

‘The tricky thing about my job is that problems get more and more complex. My work is never done’

Has your organisation’s focus become bigger since it was founded?
Sixty years ago, we were founded to protect species like the rhino from extinction. That evolved into protecting habitats, such as forests, coral reefs and rivers, where key species live. Now we’re focusing on ‘landscapes’—the habitats of key species. We start a conversation with local stakeholders who live in those landscapes, such as farmers, fishermen and indigenous people. If we kill nature, as we are doing now, it’s not only bad for the species, but also for the future of humanity. Ultimately, it’s about our home.

What is your big dream?
I want everyone to understand that we humans are also a species in the natural system. Then we will start thinking about how our activities impact nature. An economic system that is no longer focused on short-term profit at the expense of nature— that is my dream.

‘If we kill nature, as we are doing now, it’s not only bad for the species, but also for the future of humanity. Ultimately, it’s about our home’

What keeps you up at night?
The challenge of getting as many people in the Netherlands to join us as possible. Because the changes in the world are so huge, people can become indifferent and think ‘I can’t make a difference anyway’— even if they notice the effects of climate change and see that biodiversity is declining. Then we’ve failed, as WWF and as a society. If you talk to primary school children, you’ll find that most of them are interested in nature. In adolescence this fades into the background, until young people start thinking about having their own children. How can we engage with those young people in the meantime—especially those in their twenties— and get them involved in our mission?

Can you actually make a difference?
Small deeds add up to something bigger. That’s the power of our movement. The main reason why nature is disappearing has to do with how we produce our food. We’re not saying that you have to become a vegetarian, but one or two days of eating something other than meat already makes a big difference. Brussels is now implementing a forest protection law that will ban products from the European market if they contribute to deforestation. The law was passed because one million Europeans signed our petition, which put enormous pressure on policy makers.

What is one mistake that you’ve learned a lot from?
Three years ago, we were accused of human rights violations in Central Africa. WWF was accused of being involved in violent crimes committed by government eco-guards in national parks. Even though an independent investigation found that none of our staff members were directly involved, we were heavily criticised — and rightly so — for things that we didn’t handle well enough in WWF projects.

When I think about what this has meant for me, I think: The tricky thing about being a director is that you get further and further away from the field. I’ve learned how important it is to get out in the field and keep asking tough questions. If you’re working in complicated regions, you’ll always be criticised. If you’ve made a mistake, you have to admit it. Burying your head in the sand is pointless.

What’s the best leadership advice you ever received?
When I started at WWF I was sometimes afraid of failing, because I am not an ecologist or a biologist. My first boss said: Protecting nature is all about thinking logically. That still helps me during difficult meetings. What also keeps me going in tough situations is my mantra: ‘Do the right thing and stay true to yourself’. I just stop doing things I don’t feel good about. If you have to play a role, you’re not being authentic as a leader.

‘When things get really tough, that’s when I feel like I am strongest and I grow the most’

How do you deal with conflicts?
Over the past few years, we’ve had plenty of crisis situations to deal with. And whenever situations like that occur, I notice I actually feel really calm. Somehow, I thrive in those moments. When things get really tough, that’s when I feel like I am strongest and I grow the most. I don’t have this job just to maintain the status quo. We’ve got to take action. There has to be movement. And a crisis, or a conflict, that is movement, of course. Keeping calm while everyone wants something from you, keeping a clear view, thinking rationally and not letting yourself get caught up with opinions from the outside world… That will get you a long way.

If we made a film about your life, what is one scene that absolutely must be included?
The first time I saw the Great Rift Valley in Kenya. I was 23 and had just graduated. I was driving out of Nairobi and saw this beautiful valley with its herds of kudu and zebra. I felt so small and at the same time so powerfully connected to nature. I hadn’t felt that since I was a child. A magical moment.

If you could write a new law now, what would it say?
It would say that not a single product that contributed to the destruction of important nature regions can be sold in stores in the Netherlands anymore. Companies may have the best of intentions with their quality marks and certificates, but if we leave regulation entirely to them, it won’t happen fast enough.

Photography: Pieter Bas Bouwman