A man throws a net from a boat while one man paddles.
Local fishermen casting nets The Totumo Lagoon (in the lower Magdalena River basin), a freshwater lagoon near the town of Lomitarena, Colombia. © Bridget Besaw

Companies Investing in Nature

The Caterpillar Foundation

Supporting River Systems Worldwide through the Great Rivers Partnership

The Challenge – Protecting Freshwater

Around the world, deforestation, pollution, climate change and other environmental pressures are shrinking the planet’s freshwater supply. Companies, governments and communities are feeling the impacts and share a common vision—we must understand, manage and develop large, working rivers in order to sustain them. These natural assets provide water, energy, food, jobs and recreation to people, as well as habitat for native plants and wildlife.

The Commitment

In 2005 and again in 2011 the vision for sustainable rivers became a reality when the Caterpillar Foundation made a cumulative $17 million commitment to The Nature Conservancy to support river systems worldwide through the Great Rivers Partnership (GRP). The mission of the Great Rivers Partnership is to bring together diverse partners and best science to expand options for achieving the sustainable management and development of the world’s Great Rivers and their basins. The GRP’s initial investment rivers included the Mississippi, Yangtze, and the Paraguay-Paraná. The GRP is now expanding to include additional great rivers to advance conservation, restoration and sustainable development by investing in innovative strategies, sharing results and exchanging knowledge through scientific research and lessons learned. By building partnerships among great rivers worldwide, the knowledge we gain in one place can be utilized by river managers facing similar issues half a world away.

Solutions in Action

Not long after the launch of the GRP in 2005, an opportunity to help restore the health of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois rivers presented itself. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was undertaking a study on navigation efficiency and ecosystem restoration along the two rivers. The Conservancy shared its science-based approach to conservation planning and restoration as well as its experience on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers with the Army Corps, helping to strengthen the ecosystem restoration portion of the study. The Conservancy worked with the Army Corps, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, state agencies and other partners, leading to $1.7 billion designated for ecosystem restoration and about $2.2 billion for navigation improvements. This funding will help increase the Conservancy’s ability to restore floodplain connectivity, improve river water levels for the benefit of riverine habitat and provide fish passage, while ensuring continued economic prosperity for the nation.

The Mississippi River basin is at the heart of our nation’s agricultural economy. Working with local producers and partners, The Nature Conservancy continues to test innovative ways to keep valuable nutrients and soil on the land, improve water quality in rivers and increase grower productivity. Recent work has seen significant advancement in 10 states along the banks of the Mississippi, and restoration of nearly 100,000 acres of riverine and floodplain habitat in the nearby ecosystems.

On the Yangtze River in China, local fish populations have declined due to overharvesting for food, and the growth of hydropower dams that are powering China’s burgeoning economy. Through the GRP, US Geological Survey scientists shared the techniques and tools they use to monitor fish populations on the Upper Mississippi River with their Chinese counterparts to help protect a vital food source. Additionally, a full assessment of the Upper Yangtze River basin was completed through GRP staff and funding support to create a conservation “blueprint” that is helping to set conservation priorities throughout China.

In Brazil the GRP focused on improving the health of the Parana and Paraguay rivers. The GRP helped to initiate the Water Producers Program, focusing on conservation implementation in watersheds that supply drinking water to some of the area’s major cities, including Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo. Best practices include reducing soil erosion and nutrient runoff from agricultural lands, as well as protecting and rebuilding the local ecosystems along the rivers. The Water Producers program first implemented in the Piracicaba-Capivari-Jundiaí watershed financially compensates rural landowners who help improve water quality and quantity by preserving and restoring grasslands along streams and by implementing best practices on cropland and cattle ranches. This program was one of the Conservancy’s pilot projects for our water funds work – now a major sustainable finance strategy more broadly.

A Sustainable Future

Today the idea of fundamentally changing the way great rivers are managed has taken hold. Business, industry, government, academia and others who are committed to preserving healthy river systems are working together to implement innovative conservation solutions on great rivers such as the Mississippi in the United States, the Yangtze in China and the Magdalena in Colombia. The GRP is expanding to include great rivers around the world through knowledge sharing and exchange programs that connect world scientists, resource managers and decision makers to further leverage and expand the sustainable management of the world’s great rivers.

Funding from the Caterpillar Foundation began a ripple effect that has continued to improve and elevate the Conservancy’s work around the world. Many new companies, foundations, and individuals have stepped forward to support GRP, which has allowed the Conservancy to monitor the effectiveness of conservation practices; share results locally, regionally and globally; and provide information to the USDA and foreign governments so these practices are adopted and funded through legislated conservation programs for greater implementation and system-wide impacts.

Caterpillar employees are also showing their support for the Nature Conservancy and the GRP by participating in the Caterpillar Foundation’s Employee Matching Gifts Program with financial contributions and rolling up their sleeves to plant native seedlings along the banks of the Emiquon Wildlife Refuge. Caterpillar Dealers are getting involved as well by funding conservation projects in their territories. The Caterpillar Foundation matches dealer investments through its Dealer Environmental Sustainability Fund.