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De Groene Amsterdammer Blog Post: Lion-Avatars and Parkranger-outfits

De Groene Amsterdammer Blog Post by Sanne Bloemink
Sanne Bloemink is this year's journalist-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at the University of Amsterdam, where scientists conduct interdisciplinary research on complex scientific and societal issues. In a blog, she writes about her findings. Part 2: a conversation with jurist Andrea Leiter, founder of the Sovereign Nature Initiative.
"I've always been an anarchist," says Andrea Leiter; as her enthusiastic, sparkling eyes hide behind a light pink lensed frame. "I believe change should always originate from grassroots." Leiter is a researcher at the Faculty of Law at the UvA, but her research is fundamentally different from 'regular' legal research. "I'm exploring new forms of financing biodiversity restoration, through online gaming for example."

On her computer, she shows me Wildsama, one of the projects developed by the Sovereign Nature Initiative (SNI), which was founded by Leiter. Wildsama is a virtual game which allowed four hundred players to gather lion avatars, each of which was linked to an individual dataset of real lions in Kenya. In four hours, €76,000 was raised for the Kenya Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit organization verified by SNI. The game took place on the so-called Web3, a decentralized version of the internet that aims to keep the major technology companies at bay.

A brief explanation for all digital novices (myself included): Web1 is the traditional internet as it originally emerged, with web pages, searches, and a lot of digital information, accessible to everyone. Web2 is the current 'social internet', referring to the prominent place of social media, which is characterized by an excessive concentration of power in the hands of major technology companies via those same social media. Conversely, Web3 is heavily experimenting with blockchain, NFTs, and other forms of decentralized authority. It is a response to the uncontrolled concentration of power on Web2. On Web3, the so-called 'crypto community' is attempting to revive the original ideals of the internet (free access to knowledge for everyone).
© Wildsama, image by Herman van Borstelen
In Leiter's doctoral research, the concept of 'concessions' played a significant role. "When you make a concession, for example by issuing a license, you always give away a part of your power. Look at the history of major licensing agreements that the oil industry has made worldwide – with each agreement, a piece of sovereignty was transferred." However, Leiter not only aimed to map historical power transfers through concessions, but also, through the realm of blockchain technology, to explore alternatives.

Initially, the SNI team focused on the ultimate goal of 'flipping the economics of ecology'. "What struck me about the environmental movement was that it's usually left-wing people, who are committed to make a change, but don't have the money for it." In the crypto world, on the other hand, there are people who (sometimes) earn a lot of money but are usually not involved in ecological efforts. "We're trying to bring those two worlds together. What if we develop games in the crypto world that generate a lot of money for ecological projects? This leads to more effective funding for biodiversity restoration, but also to a greater sense of 'purpose' for people in the gaming community."

Leiter describes the Nairobi Design Week 2023. All the people involved in the Wildsama project physically came together, including the CTO Adam Nagy. This 'cryptoguy' was confronted with the complexity of nature conservation for the first time in his life. Initially, Adam came across as a stereotypical gamer: hair in front of his eyes, shrugging, and money-focused. "But he did love meeting the parkranger team. A whole new world unlocked for him." In Nairobi, the artwork Tracing the Wild, was also unveiled. "This was created using all the movement data of the lions," explains Leiter. The artwork became a central meeting point during the Nairobi Design Week. "You could really get the sense that it moved people."
Jurist, Andrea Leiter
Despite her petite figure, Leiter radiates an enormous amount of energy and creativity. Together with her team at the Sovereign Nature Initiative, she continuously develops new projects. Naturally, not everything goes smoothly right away. Many projects remain beta versions. There was a major project where players could buy 'collectibles' in the Metaverse. She shows me the website on her computer, and I see a digital world where you can walk around with an avatar among elephants, lions, and buffaloes in Hotel Hideaway, a virtual space inspired by Upemba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Every month for six months, virtual items, so called ‘collectibles’, were 'dropped', which players could then purchase using digital coins. An example of items included is a park ranger outfit from the national park. A portion of the proceeds went to the Forgotten Parks Foundation.

Initially, it seemed like a great success. "More than 120,000 collectibles were sold, and we were ecstatic," Leiter proudly informs me. But then came the fine print of the Metaverse. First of all, thirty percent of all proceeds went to Google nevertheless. “Apparently that was so common that it wasn't even included in the contract. It was assumed that everyone just knew that." Additionally, it was never clear how the value of the in-game currency, used to purchase collectibles, actually related to the value of real money. "Ultimately, only $2,500 remained for the Forgotten Parks Foundation. It was really unfortunate because they had hoped for serious money and had invested a lot of time. Of course, awareness is a goal in itself, and we achieved that, but at SNI, we also genuinely try to make a financial difference."

Sometimes SNI's fundraising approach has been criticised for its emphasis on funding human-run organisations. Leiter understands such objections, but she is convinced that these types of projects ultimately benefit both the local population and the wildlife in its environment. "We verify all the organisations we work with. They are always grassroots organisations that empower the local population." Furthermore, biodiversity restoration and people's living environments are always inherently interconnected. "This way, there is more attention for these areas. More awareness. And that also contributes to improving people's living conditions. Finance for the local population must always be a significant component of the business model for wildlife and habitat protection."

Other obstacles also include institutional barriers. "We have to pay a lot to comply with all the rules. That is a major flaw of existing legal and financial institutions. It is extremely difficult to discover new financial streams at the interface of different worlds. And this difficulty increases exponentially as you become more successful."

I hear this dilemma often from researchers at the IAS. Those who operate in ‘in-between-spaces’ are inherently difficult to categorise and therefore challenging to manage by nature. Moreover, measurable short-term results are often limited, which sometimes leads to interdisciplinary projects being mockingly written off as 'fun and creative, but not relevant'. And to be completely honest: there are undoubtedly interdisciplinary projects to be found to which this criticism applies. However, at the same time, it is precisely these ‘in-between spaces’ where fascinating, groundbreaking ideas emerge—ideas that challenge unspoken assumptions, ideas that break through existing frameworks of thought. Because a 'cryptoguy' may seek meaning. Biodiversity is not a left-wing hobby. And it can even be a game. Connecting the crypto world with biodiversity restoration, raising funds through virtual games: it is precisely these innovative ideas that can lead to truly new ways of thinking.

Lastly, I examined the Soundwaves Collection with Leiter. Here, you can purchase NFTs (non-fungible tokens, a crypto form of digital art). Each NFT is linked to either the song of a specific humpback whale or the clicking of a sperm whale as it approaches the water's surface. Once in possession of such a NFT, you can follow 'your own' whale or sperm whale through sound and video recordings. Of course, the proceeds go towards the protection of these giant mammals. And although the whales are not singing for us, it is still a bonus if their song can lure a new and unpredictable audience (such as the gaming community) and interest this audience to the cause of biodiversity restoration, and to the willingness to pay real money for it. Because financing of biodiversity protection and restoration is increasingly lagging behind, while problems continue to seriously escalate. Money is needed, and through these projects, roughly €160,000 has already been raised. The projects of SNI can stir up the waters and mobilise an audience beyond the 'usual suspects'. And that too is sorely needed.

Published in De Groene Amsterdammer on March 18, 2024. Translated by the Institute for Advanced Study.