- In 2021 Canadian entrepreneur Dax Dasilva donated $40 million to launch “Age of Union,” which supports conservation projects working to address climate change and the extinction crisis.
- Dasilva aims to bring a startup mentality to conservation, supporting grassroots, locally-led, and Indigenous-led projects with resources and guidance on scaling impact.
- Age of Union places a strong emphasis on storytelling to demonstrate that conservation efforts can have an impact, and has supported short documentaries and social media videos: “One of the main things we want to do is to show people that things can be done,” said Dasilva. “The worst outcome would be for people to stop believing that we’re out of time and that there’s nothing left to do.”
- Dasilva spoke about his passions, his philosophy on conservation, and more during a March 2023 conversation with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
In 2021, Canadian technology entrepreneur and activist Dax Dasilva launched “Age of Union” with a $40 million donation to support high impact conservation projects. Operating on the conviction that conservation has the potential to make major contributions toward addressing both climate change and the extinction crisis during this critical decade, Dasilva quickly committed all the funds to ten organizations. He also set to work on a communications strategy that seeks to catalyze broader support for conservation by demonstrating that wins are indeed possible when it comes to protecting the planet.
Dasilva’s capacity to undertake environmental philanthropy emerged from his success with Lightspeed, the e-commerce software company he started as a technology consulting business in the 2000s which today is listed on the Toronto and New York stock exchanges. But the seeds for Dasilva’s work with “Age of Union” were planted early in life on family camping trips in the wilds of the forests of British Columbia. That interest would evolve into activism during the Clayoquot Sound protests against old-growth logging in the 1990s.
“When I was a teenager, I started hearing about the logging of the old growth forest and the war in the woods that was happening around Clayoquot Sound. The news affected me deeply because I cared so much about nature in B.C., and it was horrific to see 1000-year-old trees being logged,” Dasilva told Mongabay during a recent conversation.
“It was the drive to Clayoquot Sound that changed my perspective forever on our potential impact on the environment. We drove through hours and hours of clear-cut moonscape to get to the island, and I saw the destructive capacity of humans and what a lack of care for nature can result in. I swore that one day, when I had the resources and the right experience, I would come back.”
Come back, he did. After 17 years as CEO of Lightspeed, Dasilva transitioned to Executive Chairman of the company and transformed his book, “Age of Union” into “a full-time conservation alliance.”
Dasilva’s approach is to bring “startup DNA” to conservation to achieve action on environmental issues faster with a focus on supporting grassroots, locally-led, and Indigenous-led projects. He looks for entrepreneurial changemakers with approaches and ideas that can drive impact at scale in some of Earth’s most endangered ecosystems.
Beyond financial support, Age of Union offers lessons and resources from the business world to its conservation partners, including mentoring on how to scale impact, guidance on management approaches, and practical HR support. Age of Union also has a strong emphasis on storytelling.
“One of the main things we want to do is to show people that things can be done,” said Dasilva. “The worst outcome would be for people to stop believing that we’re out of time and that there’s nothing left to do.”
“We need to demonstrate that action is possible, and that we can have wins on the environment. It’s not time to give up on the environment; the time is now to make this a decade of change that we can build upon. That’s the main goal of the storytelling we want to do.”
To that end, Age of Union has been supporting short documentaries and social media-oriented videos on its partners and conservation issues.
“I’m excited about the potential to reach bigger audiences and bring them into the conservation effort through these really powerful mediums,” said Dasilva. “The proliferation of streaming and the actual love that people have for nature content have become a real tool in the toolkit for conservationists that maybe wasn’t as powerful or didn’t exist before. It’s a real way to get people to care enough about these topics to engage and act.”
Dasilva spoke about his passions, his philosophy on conservation, and more during a March 2023 conversation with Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DAX DASILVA
Mongabay: In your book Age of Union and various interviews, you’ve written and spoken about how your love of nature was inspired at an early age by the natural beauty of British Columbia. Could you recap the developments that catalyzed your transition from someone who appreciated nature to a person of action in terms of protecting the environment?
Dax Dasilva: My parents came to Canada as refugees from Uganda in the 1970s. We grew up in Richmond, a town near Vancouver, surrounded by the natural beauty of British Columbia. Since we didn’t have a lot of money, we did a ton of camping as a family. I was always interested in nature and animals, and we spent a lot of time outdoors exploring many different parts of B.C. and Vancouver Island.
When I was a teenager, I started hearing about the logging of the old growth forest and the war in the woods that was happening around Clayoquot Sound. The news affected me deeply because I cared so much about nature in B.C., and it was horrific to see 1000-year-old trees being logged. So, when I was 17, I joined the protest with my stepbrother.
It was the drive to Clayoquot Sound that changed my perspective forever on our potential impact on the environment. We drove through hours and hours of clear-cut moonscape to get to the island, and I saw the destructive capacity of humans and what a lack of care for nature can result in. I swore that one day, when I had the resources and the right experience, I would come back.
From that point forward, I never stopped thinking about conservation, although for my career, I pursued tech, which was another passion of mine. I built a consulting company that grew to become Lightspeed, which is now a public company. After 17 years as CEO, I transitioned to Executive Chairman and evolved my book, “Age of Union”, into what is now a full-time conservation alliance.
This journey recently came full circle for me when I had the privilege of speaking at COP15 and IMPAC 5. While I was there, I had the chance to meet Tzeporah Berman, who led those types of protests and was a luminary hero to me as a teenager. I was able to have dinner with her one-on-one and learn about her work on Stand.Earth and the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. We talked about the Clayoquot Sound protests from both my perspective and hers. She was only 23 when she led those protests, and it’s just an incredible story. So, the story of how change shaped my life and led me to what I’m doing today just recently came full circle in February at IMPAC 5 in Vancouver.
Mongabay: What issues are you most concerned about when it comes to protecting nature?
Dax Dasilva: I think it’s important to frame the current situation around the environment as a series of crises. So, how do we approach that?
One way we’ve chosen to approach it is by acknowledging that this is the decade of action. We must achieve some wins before the end of the decade and change the trajectory. We can’t end this decade feeling like we’re still in a downward spiral where things are not going in the right direction. Initiatives like 30 by 30, protecting 30% of land-based and marine-based nature by 2030, align with this belief that this is the decade of action.
Of course, we must also recognize that there are species and ecosystems on the brink, and that’s what we’re focused on. We’ll delve into that further, but one of the main things we want to do is to show people that things can be done.
The worst outcome would be for people to stop believing that we’re out of time and that there’s nothing left to do. That’s the real conservation issue. We need to demonstrate that action is possible, and that we can have wins on the environment. It’s not time to give up on the environment; the time is now to make this a decade of change that we can build upon. That’s the main goal of the storytelling we want to do.
We focus on Changemaker-led grassroots projects that demonstrate that anybody can save an ecosystem or species, or even many species. These are the stories we want to tell to inspire people to think that this is not the time to give up, but rather to get active.
Mongabay: You’ve enjoyed immense success as a technology entrepreneur and leader. What lessons or experiences from that world are you bringing to the conservation realm?
Dax Dasilva: I think it comes down to the power of the individual. Why do we believe in entrepreneurs? Why do we believe that individual entrepreneurs can make such an impact? It comes down to how much of a difference a single person can make, especially when they galvanize a team and rally people together to do something important that could change the world. So it’s the power of belief in the individual, and entrepreneurship goes beyond tech and business. It extends to making social change.
We want to bring the entrepreneurial spirit that we built Lightspeed with to conservation. Not just the entrepreneurial spirit, but also the pace. We want to inject startup DNA into conservation because it needs to happen faster, with more data, tools, elevated storytelling, and different formats, including video and social media.
These are the principles that we’re building into Age of Union. Many people from Lightspeed and Never Apart, a non-profit, have joined the team.
Never Apart is an arts non-profit run like a startup, so we have an arts startup and a tech startup coming together to form a conservation startup. We want to bring the best of both worlds – how art reaches people’s hearts and how tech can help us scale the movement to reach more people. My experience at Lightspeed and Never Apart can contribute to Age of Union, which I think is an even more important mission than tech. Together, we can combine all of the human creativity and beauty that we achieve through the arts.
Mongabay: You are a strong advocate for inclusion and diversity. How do you see these issues fitting into efforts to protect the environment?
Dax Dasilva: I think a huge part of Lightspeed’s DNA was having very diverse beginnings and representing the kinds of entrepreneurs we see in our communities. We wanted to include businesses owned by all sorts of people. These values carry over to each of our Age of Union projects. Specifically, do our conservation efforts represent the people that live in these communities? Are those grassroots locally-led initiatives getting the support that they need? When Age of Union went from being a book to an organizational initiative, I realized that those were the really underfunded projects, but they were the ones that actually seemed to be having the greatest impact.
As we’ve expanded to the first 10 projects, we’ve learned how to find and support locally-led or Indigenous-led projects that have diverse leadership. Perhaps there are some partners and leaders that come from the West, but we prioritize those grassroots projects and make sure that, even though they’re more difficult to fund and donate to, they receive the support they need. They may not be Canadian or US-based charities that I can write a check to and get a tax receipt, but it’s important that we fund these vital projects no matter the challenges.
I’ve tried to visit every project that Age of Union has supported. So far, I’ve been to eight of the 10 projects and spent time there because while the proposals that we receive are always accurate, they never tell the full sociological, economic, and political story of the place or of who the stakeholders are. It’s only by going on the ground and doing short documentaries or meeting with the people and spending time with them that you really start to understand what it takes to save a species, what it takes to save an ecosystem, what it takes to transform a community or mindset, starting with those passionate individual changemakers that believe it can be done. We need to get them from experiencing a string of losses to a string of wins and bring the greater community into that story. That’s what we’ve been able to see in our projects, but it’s by showing up and understanding the challenge and struggle and being there for some of those wins that we can really be good partners and allies for those grassroots locally-led or Indigenous-led projects. I think this is inclusion: a way for us to include ourselves in a local story and also bring in the people that are really going to be able to make a long-term difference because this is their home.
Conservation needs to put its resources behind those grassroots, locally-led, and Indigenous-led projects that may not be at scale today, but with the right partnership and investment, could be the ones that ultimately drive the broader population to believe that the corner can be turned on the environment and that real progress is possible.
Another big lesson for conservation is that it’s the frontline fight against climate change. While we focus a lot on emissions and carbon capture, which are important components, land-based solutions represent 25 gigatons. These solutions are conservation initiatives, restoration initiatives, Indigenous protected areas, and things like climate-smart agriculture, forestry, and agroecological systems. If we can protect those areas, support those Indigenous communities, do those restoration projects, and more, that represents real climate action. And it’s something that we can show people by materially demonstrating progress in a particular place.
It’s difficult to show progress on climate when you focus on emissions because they aren’t readily apparent to most people. But conservation offers a direct, tangible thing that people can see and experience in the form of biodiversity and natural areas.
If we can win the fight on land by achieving 30 by 30, we can take a big punch against climate change. And then there are oceans as well. Conservation offers opportunities to lock in wins, allowing us all to be part of the fight against climate change and not feel disempowered.
Mongabay: You’ve noted the importance of communications when it comes to protecting the environment. Can you talk a bit about your approach on this front? And what do you see as key talking points to move audiences to action?
Dax Dasilva: It goes back to my personal experience. Even with the $40 million we put across 10 projects, in the grand scheme of things, there’s so much more we need to do. But seeing what grassroots projects can do, like Junglekeepers, which has protected 250 square kilometers in the Peruvian Amazon, is a huge success story. We’re hoping to protect 500 kilometers with local rangers, many of whom are Indigenous men and women bringing their communities together. Some of the loggers’ sons and daughters even want to be rangers for Junglekeepers. This is just one example, but we’ve got many more.
Seeing stories of hope and real change happening, and the slow expansion of the vision for each project, gives me hope. For example, Kalaweit’s project is an island in a sea of oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo. This is a depressing story, but when you see the Dulan forest being established with Indonesian leaders, and all the villages around it thinking about their areas as part of the reserve, that’s the kind of outcome we’re looking for. People are rallying around the fact that they understand that palm oil is a death sentence for their way of life and the nature they rely on in the area.
The effort we put in can multiply, as we’ve seen in Quebec with the restoration we’re doing along the Saint Lawrence River. The amount we put in with the Nature Conservancy inspired the Quebec government to make a huge investment of $650 million for conservation, the biggest commitment coming out of COP15 in the whole province. We’ve heard through backchannels that they’re inspired by the things that private citizens are doing, expressing how much they care about the river, which has been used as a highway for cargo throughout the history of Canada. These are the narrative changes we need to see. When we lock in wins, they can multiply. When we sit back and decide that nothing can be done, that’s when the losses start to rack up.
A big part of how we experience these wins is through video, documentaries, and social media. We’ve already done four short documentaries that you can view on ageofunion.com. We’re also sponsoring some larger film projects, like Wildcat, which was the number one movie on Amazon Prime over Christmas. It’s in the same part of the Peruvian Amazon where Junglekeepers is doing their work.
I’m excited about the potential to reach bigger audiences and bring them into the conservation effort through these really powerful mediums. The proliferation of streaming and the actual love that people have for nature content have become a real tool in the toolkit for conservationists that maybe wasn’t as powerful or didn’t exist before. It’s a real way to get people to care enough about these topics to engage and act.
It gives me a lot of hope that people are joining the movement at a time when they’re potentially more disconnected from nature because of their phones and living in urban environments. Some of these documentaries that bring us onto the frontlines will reach people in their hearts and have them ally with those folks that are out in the field.
Mongabay: You’re supporting a range of conservation initiatives around the world. What do you look for when identifying projects and organizations to support?
Dax Dasilva: It comes down to backing changemakers with that entrepreneurial spirit and projects that have created an impact in their community and for nature and wildlife, often on a shoestring budget. To put it in tech world terms, we’re giving some of these projects their seed funding or their Series A funding. They have something great, but imagine what they could do with three, five, or ten times the budget if they could plan not just for a year, but for five years.
We look for projects that have the potential to take on $300,000 to $500,000 per year and have a bigger vision of what they want to accomplish. We stay close to them and offer mentoring from our own backgrounds in scaling a tech business, legal matters, and team management as they grow. We provide HR support as well. We are true partners, and we find it rewarding to see how we can help them more.
So, we’re looking for projects that are ready to scale, and our first fund of $40 million was allocated in just one year. We’re not a foundation trying to spend the interest. We need to have an impact for the next five years and want to make longer-term commitments to these projects beyond that.
Our first ten projects meet the criteria of inspiring changemakers, where we can tell the story of their teams and show that things can be materially done to turn that tide. These are inspirational stories and real educational tools. We’ve chosen ten projects that break down into three in the equatorial forests (Amazon, Congo Basin, Indonesia), four in Canada (restoration and waterways in B.C. and Quebec), two in the Caribbean, and our partnership with Sea Shepherd‘s M/Y Age of Union, which is fighting illegal fishing off the coast of West Africa. The range of these projects allows us to talk about all kinds of ecosystems. The next projects will also allow us to tell stories of inspiring local leaders who are making significant contributions at the grassroots level.
Mongabay: How do you measure success when it comes to conservation investments?
Dax Dasilva: As tech professionals who are used to dashboards and reports, we want our projects to have unique dashboards. This will allow us to show other tech leaders, who may consider donating to our cause in the future, the kind of dashboards they are used to seeing.
Each project will have different metrics, depending on its focus. For example, the Sea Shepherd vessel will track metrics such as the number of dolphin lives saved by shutting down illegal trawlers off the coast of Sierra Leone.
In contrast, Paul Rosolie’s Junglekeepers project will show the number of kilometers monitored by the ranger program, the amount of new hectares protected, and the number of species cataloged.
The Saint Lawrence River restoration projects, of which there are 30-40 per year, will have different key performance indicators for each project.
While we are customizing the metrics, we are also trying to introduce some consistency across the board. We are learning about key metrics related to biodiversity that we can track across all projects. It’s an exciting project to quantify the impact.
Mongabay: What gives you hope when it comes to protecting the planet?
Dax Dasilva: I believe that witnessing action in our projects and acknowledging the power of the individual are crucial. I draw inspiration from notable conservation heroes such as Paul Watson, who, over 50 years as a captain, not only saved one species but also prevented whales from being hunted to extinction after 400 years of human exploitation. His success was achieved through direct action and tremendous bravery from him and his crew.
Similarly, Jane Goodall’s lifetime achievements are remarkable, and she continues to inspire others to this day.
Now, a younger set of conservationists, including Dominique Bikaba, Suzan Lakhan Baptiste, and Paul Rosolie, are demonstrating what can be achieved when people take action on the ground. This gives me hope and motivates me to join them to see firsthand what it takes to make a difference. Then, I want to share that experience with everyone to help people understand that in this decade of action, we all need to get involved.
Header image: Dax Dasilva. Photo credit: Monique Weston