Preparing for the future
by protecting nature

Journalist: Redaktion ceo | Photographer: Andreas Zimmermann | Magazin: Green opportunity – November 2021

Business and civil society need to work together to conserve habitats for plants and animals, says Urs Leugger-Eggimann. The Central Secretary of the nature conservation organisation Pro Natura strives to lead by example.

Gammarus fossarum is a little animal that most of us rarely get to see. Its limbs are delicate, its body fragile – that’s how the freshwater crustacean appears, larger than life, on a huge poster on the wall of Pro Natura’s Central Secretariat in Basel. The amphipod was selected by conservationists in 2021 as Animal of the Year, one of many endangered species in Switzerland that the organisation Pro Natura is working to preserve and protect.

Urs Leugger-Eggimann, Central Secretary of Pro Natura, understands the importance of such examples. The beaver, which has been reclaiming its habitats in Swiss waters for years, and the bearded vulture, whose reintroduction became a success story, are among the popular species that epitomise Pro Natura’s work. ‘Unfortunately, however, such successes are still rare in species conservation overall,’ says Urs Leugger, a biologist by training. The organisation also promotes the interests of nature by helping hares, woodpeckers, wild bees and frogs, which are dwindling in number.

Conservation and environmental protection are now more widely discussed in society, which is a welcome development in itself. ‘The urgency of the issue is gaining greater recognition,’ says Leugger. But it should be noted, he adds, that Switzerland has lagged behind other countries when it comes to the protection of natural habitats. In 1992, Switzerland ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, which entails a commitment to protect 17% of the country’s land area. However, the country is still far from achieving that goal at present. In comparison with the other industrialised nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-oper­ation and Development (OECD), Switzerland brings up the rear, with the highest proportion of threatened species and the lowest proportion of designated protected areas. Switzerland also receives a poor report card from the United Nations in this regard, remarks Leugger.

With around 170,000 members, Pro Natura is one of the largest nature conservation organisations in Switzerland. As a private, nonprofit association with a Central Secretariat in Basel and branches in all cantons, it campaigns for the preservation of native flora and fauna and represents the interests of nature as its advocate. Pro Natura is committed to environmental education and promotes projects to protect endangered species and habitats. Founded in 1909, it oversees more than 700 nature reserves across the country and runs a dozen conservation centres. Switzerland’s only national park to date was created on the initiative of Pro Natura.

Leaving too large a footprint

Unlike the general public, the authorities, namely the Federal Office for the Environment, are well aware of this situation. The legal basis for protection is already in place, but the pressure on the environment continues to grow. ‘Our lifestyles leave too large a footprint,’ says Leugger, with reference to the growing demands and divergent user interests affecting the environment. Intensive agriculture, urban sprawl and soil sealing threaten the habitats for flora and fauna. ‘Some of these habitats, unfortunately, are being irrevoc­ably lost,’ he adds.

This reality makes it all the more crucial to raise awareness of the topic through outreach, environmental education and ongoing communication activities. Field trips for school classes, educational programmes for teachers, training courses for nature educators and teaching materials for all age groups constitute elements of this work, which Urs Leugger carries out with his team of over 100 people at the Basel headquarters and at the two nature conservation centres in Aletsch and Champ Pittet. Around the same number of employees work in the 23 cantonal branches. The number of volunteers involved is approximately 3,000.

Creation of the national park as a ground-breaking achievement

Pro Natura’s activities are financed by membership fees, donations and legacies as well as the generous support of around 27,000 patrons. Public-sector contributions are also provided for specific projects, including the care and maintenance of nature conservation areas. ‘Such protected areas are the gems in our biodiversity chain,’ says Leugger. At present, the organisation is responsible for around 740 large and small conservation areas throughout the country, some of which it owns itself and can thus place under permanent protection. It also looks after protected landscape sites and natural formations such as caves and ponds. The Swiss National Park in the extreme south-east of the country is of particular importance. Pro Natura was founded in 1909 as the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature with the sole purpose of promoting the creation of this first national park in the Alpine region. The 900 reserves that Pro Natura has since been able to secure for specific nature conservation goals cover an area of 737 square kilometres in total.

Urs Leugger-Eggimann (57) is the director of Pro Natura and leads the organisation’s Central Secretariat. He studied biology and geography and has a postgraduate degree in business management for nonprofit organisations. The 57-year-old has been involved in nature conservation since his youth. Urs ­Leugger has worked for Pro Natura for over 20 years. He’s the father of two adult children and lives with his wife in Arlesheim, Switzerland.

Strategic mission

Urs Leugger is pleased that the business community is also beginning to pay greater attention to the issue of sustainability. He argues, however, that it’s important for companies to expand their interest beyond improvements in their own sphere of responsibility. ‘It’s necessary to review all processes and the entire value chain for environmental impacts,’ he says. That would allow leaders to see where there’s still room for improvement.

As a basis for such work, boards of directors and company management need to set an appropriate strategic course and binding goals. Only then can concrete measures be implemented at downstream levels. The achievement of goals can be monitored through comprehensive controlling, which also provides a foundation for the sustainability reports that more and more companies have begun to publish. ‘Such transparency is crucial, both for companies themselves and for civil society and the authorities,’ notes Leugger.

“Companies that lead the way today in terms of sustainability are giving themselves a competitive advantage.”

In dialogue with companies

Pro Natura actively seeks to communicate with companies and their leadership. Wherever possible, it also exerts influence. As an example, Urs Leugger cites the sale of non-native plants, or ‘neophytes’, in garden centres. ‘Through dialogue, we’ve aimed to convince people that product ranges don’t need to include such plants, which are a major cause of the decline in biodiversity,’ says Leugger. He’s rather cautious, however, when it comes to more far-reaching cooperation with individual companies. ‘If we see any signs of ‘greenwashing’, in other words a primary focus on marketing goals, we prefer to avoid close cooperation.’

As a biologist, Urs Leugger is convinced that the environmental challenges of the coming years and decades will be enormous for the business world and civil society. Environmentally destructive behaviour will increasingly be blamed on the culprits. Meanwhile, companies will face ever higher societal expectations. ‘Companies that lead the way today are giving themselves a competitive advantage,’ Leugger says. This perspective also applies to the Swiss economy as a whole.

Preparing for the future

In June 2021, Swiss voters rejected the CO2 Act amendment, which was backed by large parts of the business community. For Urs Leugger, this is a highly worrying development. ‘Burying our heads in the sand now isn’t an option,’ he says. It’s also essential for the private sector to become more efficient and seek innovations that require less energy input. Climate protection and the preservation of biodiversity need to be on the agenda. That’s the only way to prepare for the future.

Pro Natura as an organisation must lead by example in this context, notes Urs Leugger, in his role as operational head. At the offices of the Pro Natura Central Secretariat in Basel, housed in a former commercial property in the Gundeldinger district, plants are a prominent feature of the interior design. Like in a biotope, greenery thrives both inside and around the employees’ offices. Leugger explains that the practice of sustainability means paying attention to what you consume and how you get around. ‘We constantly consider how our behaviour in everyday life affects the environment.’

“We constantly consider how our behaviour in everyday life affects the environment.”

Credibility as capital

Credibility is part of the capital of a non-­governmental organisation, as Urs Leugger emphasises in his role as director. This kind of capital is also necessary for political work. As an advocate for nature, Pro Natura participates in the legislative process, makes submissions to consultations and launches initiatives and referendums in cooperation with other groups. Pro Natura also makes careful use of the right of associations to lodge objections. A high success rate has shown that this important right is wielded with care, Leugger notes. He believes that the importance of non-governmental organisations will continue to grow in this context. ‘Civil society expects this of us.’ Meanwhile, however, Pro Natura’s work remains focused on the key priorities of practical nature conservation, as carried out in protected areas, and environmental education.

Urs Leugger feels hopeful about the revised objectives of the government in Bern. It’s a good sign, in his view, that the Federal Council has endorsed the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and this summer is adopting its 2030 Sustainable Development Strategy on that basis. Switzerland has thus set itself binding goals for sustainable development by 2030 under international law. Among other things, this commitment is intended to safeguard the diversity of both terrestrial and aquatic species – thus addressing one of Pro Natura’s core concerns. This development will likely also benefit the little freshwater amphipod Gammarus fossarum as well as its endangered habitat.


Urs Leugger-Eggimann – In the spotlight

What personal goal do you want to achieve?
Living up to family, professional and social responsibilities isn’t always easy. I’ve set myself the goal of improving my work-life balance and strengthening my role as a family member.

How sustainably responsible is your private lifestyle?
Whenever possible, I aim to follow the principles of sustainability, both in terms of transport and consumption. I’m passionate about cycling and using public transport. We live without a car, and air travel is out of the question. When shopping, I always think about whether I really need something, and I try to purchase ecological and fair-trade products. I prefer to buy locally grown food with an organic label. We consume meat in moderation.

What have you learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Cherished habits were suddenly called into question. The pandemic has shown us all how vulnerable we ultimately are, and reminded us that we should be more careful with things that we’ve taken for granted.

Has the pandemic changed anything for you in the long term?
I mainly realised that not everything we’re given can be taken for granted. That’s all the more reason for us to take care of what we have.

What’s your vision for the world of the future?
That people will learn to appreciate and preserve the great diversity of nature, as a gift that we merely share with our planet, and will come to view nature as the basis for a healthy future for all. After all, a healthy future for human beings goes hand in hand with a healthy, biodiverse planet.