Robert Goodland was the first ecologist hired by the World Bank and worked hard for 30 years to improve that institution’s environmental and human rights practices. He was the first winner of the IUCN’s Harold Jefferson Coolidge medal for lifetime achievement in the conservation of nature.
Robert was initially assigned to the task of screening every single proposed World Bank project, and selecting for scrutiny those with the largest potential impacts, for which Robert would draft recommendations. But project designers resisted implementing his recommendations. As a remedy, Robert took a lead role in drafting overall environmental and social standards for the World Bank Group, notably covering Environmental Assessment, Indigenous Peoples, Natural Habitats, and Physical Cultural Resources. Robert did much to open the World Bank to dialog with the NGO community.
Robert’s work on indigenous peoples led the institution to hire a cadre of anthropologists. A key issue was to prevent forced resettlement, and to mitigate its adverse impacts when it did occur. Robert also worked to complete the Environmental Assessment Sourcebook, which became a key worldwide reference on various aspects of environmental assessment. As a capstone to Robert’s work on the principles of environmental and social assessment, he served a term as president of the International Association of Impact Assessment in 1994-1995.
Earlier Robert taught tropical ecology and environmental assessment at the University of Brasilia and the National Amazonian Research Institute in Manaus. His time in Brazil led him to co-author with Howard Irwin the book “Amazon Jungle: Green Hell to Red Desert”. It became a seminal work in the birth of the international environmental movement.
Robert developed ways to stop the World Bank Group from financing projects involving tobacco and asbestos, as well as avoiding the most destructive types of agricultural and forestry projects. Later, after Robert had analyzed the impacts of some of the world’s largest hydroelectricity projects, he played a key role in the establishment of the World Commission on Dams in 1997.
Robert cooperated with Salah El Serafy , Herman Daly, and Roefie Hueting to develop a series of conferences throughout the 1980s on Greening the UN System of National Accounts. They also collaborated, under Robert’s leadership, on a critique of the 1992 World Development Report (the first on the theme of development and the environment), entitled “Environmentally Sustainable Economic Development: Building on Brundtland,” published by UNESCO.
Robert co-authored with Jeff Anhang a 2009 article entitled “Livestock and Climate Change,” which assessed how replacing some livestock products – and reforesting land thereby freed from livestock and feed production – could be a pragmatic way to stop climate change. Robert was invited by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to speak about this work in Rome and Berlin, and also invited to deliver a keynote speech to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
After Robert’s official retirement from the World Bank in 2001, Emil Salim recruited him to play a key role in the independent Extractive Industries Review. In retirement Robert worked all over the world as a consultant, often pro bono, in protection of the environment and of indigenous peoples. He once remarked that in retirement he was doing much the same things as when in the World Bank, but the difference was that now the people he worked for were more cooperative.
Throughout his career Robert encouraged many people who benefitted greatly from his kindness. Robert’s life and career is an example of how with quiet courage, unfailing courtesy, and hard work, one can accomplish much even in a politically adversarial environment.