Alumnus Portrait
30 November 2019

Alumnus Links Past with Present as He Works to Save the Amazon

After moving from Switzerland to Brazil, Roland Widmer (MA, '99) decided to dedicate his career to the Amazon's survival, implementing knowledge he learned not only through professional experiences but also from his time at the Graduate Institute. 

Sustainability challenges and related interdisciplinary issues have accompanied me from the Graduate Institute in Geneva all the way to my current work in the Amazon. After my graduation (Licence/MA in International Relations 1999), I stayed in Switzerland – where I was born and raised – for seven and a half years.

I first joined a group of people to develop a socially responsible investment fund, then worked in consulting and in a multinational private sector company. In parallel, I helped to launch initiatives such as Sustainable Finance Geneva and CSR Geneva. I also did an MSc in Responsibility and Business Practice in Bath (UK) that added, among other things, action research approaches to my professional practice.  

My first move to Brazil in 2007 started as an experiment. It was the hospitality of its people and the richness and diversity of nature that initially attracted me, in addition to my desire to gain experience outside of Switzerland, which at times felt like a "bubble".

Before long, I met Renata who has now been my wife for almost twelve years. Thus, the move that was foreseen as a three-year stint turned out to be a life changer. In Brazil, I worked in consulting, led a civil society programme on sustainable finance and then worked at the World Resources Institute in development finance.    

From 2015 to 2018, my wife and I lived in Switzerland where I joined the international cooperation branch of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs. As a policy adviser in the Strategy and Policy Unit I participated, for instance, in the Swiss delegation that negotiated the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (Financing for Development).

In 2018 my wife and I moved back to Rio de Janeiro. I wanted to take advantage of this move to work directly with and for those whose voices tend to carry less weight, especially Indigenous peoples, traditional communities and the biosphere they inhabit.  

In this new move, the Amazon and its survival have taken the centerstage. I use finance and sustainability issues as a means of engagement. Concretely, I work at SITAWI - Finance for Good, where I manage a department that runs a dozen philanthropic funds and I also lead a sustainable development programme in the Amazon that is comprised of 15 interlinked projects that benefit people and nature.

I spend two to three months a year in the Amazon with my local team and local implementing partners. The rest of the time I work from Rio managing current and creating new programmes and philanthropic funds. As conservation and sustainable development initiatives must "work" for all stakeholders, I often intermediate between project sponsors that generate positive social and environmental impact and local protagonists in the Amazon.  

This work draws upon and integrates experiences and skills I have had along the way and stimulates me to cultivate new ones: currently I am doing a Tropical Forest Landscapes certificate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.  

In hindsight, the education at the Graduate Institute nurtured several threads that have informed my professional practice as I moved from projects to programmes and to the policy level – and all the way back again: sustainability and interdependence; international affairs and interdisciplinary issues; finance and its impacts; connecting people and amplifying voices.

Keywords: international relations/political science

The Médio Juruá Territory Program combines biodiversity conservation with sustainable livelihoods of river dwellers in the Médio Juruá territory, a remote area along the Juruá River in the Amazon state of Brazil. The territory is approximately a quarter the size of Switzerland and is home to four Indigenous peoples and more than 4,000 river dwellers that live in traditional communities. Nature is thriving, and the biodiversity is amazing. In 2018, it was recognised as a RAMSAR site.  

Together with my team and local partners, I coordinate all aspects of the programme that provide a concrete and replicable alternative to the Amazon in flames recently making headlines. Our partners include the US Agency for International Development, two private sector companies and half a dozen local associations that directly implement most of the projects.