Lessons in conservation: When saving nature means fixing a school

(© Conservation International/photo by Marco Quesada)

Marco Quesada (left) with students and community members at one of the schools on Costa Rica’s Chira Island that was recently renovated to make it more accessible for disabled students. (© Conservation International/photo by Marco Quesada)

Editor’s note: After working for years with fishers and mollusk-gatherers on the coasts of Chira Island, Conservation International (CI) Costa Rica’s Marco Quesada wasn’t surprised to find himself working on a local school improvement project — even if it wasn’t traditional “conservation” work such as protecting mangroves or fishing grounds.

In a small community, everything is connected. By finding out what is critically important to people — and working together to fix those issues — essential collaboration to protect nature becomes easier.

January brings the dry season to Costa Rica. That means clear skies, sunny days and warm temperatures, especially along the coast. It also means vacation for schoolchildren all over the country. However, for a group of fishers in two coastal communities on Chira Island, last January meant showing up every morning at school. They were not there for their kids’ school activities, but to complete a surprising task:  building wheelchair ramps and new bathrooms in two local schools in order to improve access for children with disabilities.

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What we’re reading: Malagasy mangroves, dying ‘scrotum frogs’

Grauer's gorilla, Democratic Republic of Congo

Grauer’s gorilla in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

Editor’s note: News about conservation and the environment is made every day, but some of it can fly under the radar. In this occasional series, Human Nature shares three recent stories of interest in our world. 

1.     10,000 ‘scrotum frogs’ die mysteriously in Lake Titicaca

The story: Ten thousand critically endangered Titicaca water frogs also known by their more colorful moniker, “scrotum frogs” have been found dead in South America, National Geographic reported. The frog gets its nickname from its baggy skin, which helps it absorb more oxygen from the water and may have evolved from living at such high altitudes. Scientists are unsure of the cause behind the mysterious die-off, but they’re pointing their fingers at humans: specifically, sewage and illegal heavy metal pollution. Another possible culprit is the chytrid fungus, which has killed millions of amphibians around the world and may be responsible for what some are calling an impending “frog mass extinction.

What’s next: According to National Geographic explorer and frog researcher Jonathan Kolby, “[E]ven in frogs that seem to do relatively well against chytrid, once you start adding additional stresses like pollution and habitat loss that can knock the system out of equilibrium.” By adding stressors to frog populations already weakened by disease, humans are wiping out species whose well-being can give us insight on the health of the ecosystems that we rely on for services like fresh water, food and medicine.

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To improve crop yields, just add trees

Village chief, shopkeeper and farmer Lela Kabeakan sorts turmeric grown on her farm using agroforestry practices

Village chief, shopkeeper and farmer Lela Kabeakan sorts turmeric grown on her farm using agroforestry practices that intersperse forest trees with planted crops. This technique keeps the soil healthy and reduces the need to cut down trees to cultivate new farmland. (© Conservation International/photo by Syaiful Purba)

Editor’s note: To meet global food demand by 2050, production will have to increase by 60 percent, the FAO reports — yet agriculture is already a major source of deforestation. To meet humanity’s food needs, we must use land more sustainably and productively. One solution with potential is agroforestry, a practice that integrates trees and shrubs into traditional agricultural systems to create benefits for nature, people and the economy.

In Indonesia’s North Sumatra province — a region that has experienced massive deforestation in recent decades — one woman recently introduced agroforestry to her village of Surung Mersada. Conservation International (CI) Indonesia’s Syaiful Purba tells her story.

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How ‘protected’ are Amazon’s protected areas?

Sunrise in the Amazon Basin in Bolivia

Sunrise in the Amazon Basin in Bolivia. Recent research on the downgrading, downsizing and degazettement of the world’s protected areas has revealed that their protection is less secure than one might think. (© Jonathan Hood/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: Brazil houses nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest and one-third of all the tropical forest left on the planet — forest that represents 30 percent of the solution to climate change. To protect these crucial ecosystems, the country is home to 12 percent of the world’s protected areas, but new research on a phenomenon known as PADDD suggests that they are not as secure as we might think.

Conservation International’s Senior Director of Social Science Mike Mascia — the world’s foremost expert on this issue explains.

Question: First and foremost, what is PADDD “protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement” and what causes PADDD events?

Answer: PADDD events are legal changes to protected area laws and regulations that relax the rules governing use of resources, shrink park boundaries or eliminate the protected area entirely. These conditions are different from whether a site is well-managed or not; it’s only about the laws and the legal standing of these sites.

There are more than a dozen causes of PADDD events, which can be loosely organized into three categories. The largest cause is industrial-scale resource extraction and development: forestry, oil and gas, mining, industrial agriculture and infrastructure, etc. The second category is related to local land pressures and land claims: Indigenous claims to regain land that had been taken away for the establishment of a protected area in the first place, rural settlements, subsistence use, etc. The last category, and the smallest one, relates to conservation planning: In some cases, people decided that the way that the protected area system was set up was not functional or strategic and that some other configuration made more sense. Continue reading

Want to change the world? Give women land rights

women farmer near Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park, Indonesia

Local farmer near Indonesia’s Gunung Gede Pangrango National Park. Like all farmers in the area, she depends on clean water from the mountains to grow her rice paddies. (© Jessica Scranton)

Editor’s note: October 15 marks the U.N. International Day of Rural Women, which recognizes the critical role and contribution of these women in enhancing agricultural and rural development, improving food security and eradicating poverty.

I just searched for an image of a farmer on Google. The page loaded with a splash of hearty white men in overalls standing in rich green fields. I started counting … it wasn’t until the 24th image that I saw a woman farmer.

When you hear the word “farmer,” the person you picture is probably male. However, this stereotype is far from reality. In fact, women compose up to 70 percent of agricultural labor force in some countries. Here in the U.S., the number of rural women farmers has nearly tripled over the last three decades, and they now make up about half of farmland owners in the Midwest states.

The rural livelihoods pursued by billions of people around the globe are intimately linked to the land, yet half this population faces greater challenges than the other when it comes to making decisions about land use.

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Historic airline emissions agreement could be good news for forests

Aerial view of a forest in Guatemala.

Aerial view of a forest in Guatemala. (© Robin Moore/iLCP)

Last week, 191 nations agreed on a plan to offset emissions from international air travel, committing to carbon-neutral growth starting in 2020. The resolution may prove to be a major boost to forest conservation efforts as airlines seek carbon-absorbing projects to complement their efforts to increase fuel efficiency and sustainable alternative fuel sources.

The decision of the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization addresses a major gap in the historic Paris climate agreement, which will enter into force in early November. Though it is not automatically binding, already 66 countries representing 85 percent of all international flights have signaled their intention to join the initiative from the start.

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In remote Pacific, popular fishing method spells trouble for tuna

School of yellowfin and bigeye tuna in the Pacific Ocean.

School of yellowfin and bigeye tuna in the Pacific Ocean. (© Fabien Forget/ISSF)

Editor’s note: Tuna are some of the most commonly consumed fish in the world, with different tuna species facing varying degrees of threat depending on the region in question and the catch methods used.

In this post, we look at a fishing technique that is snaring more fish than it intends to — with negative effects on tuna populations in the Pacific.

Chances are the fish that went into your last tuna melt or sashimi came from the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO). This vast expanse of ocean supports the largest tuna fishing grounds in the world; over 50 percent of global tuna catch — including stocks of skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore tuna — comes from this region.

To find tuna in this swath of ocean, fishers use helicopter observation and other tracking methods. But over the last few decades, some industrial fishing fleets have relied more heavily on another tool to amass fish for an easier catch: fish aggregating devices, or FADs.

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Trust fund to help protect some of Philippines’ last primary forests

Rainbow in the municipality of Rizal on the western side of Mount Mantalingahan, the highest peak on the Philippine island of Palawan

Rainbow in the municipality of Rizal on the western side of Mount Mantalingahan, the highest peak on the Philippine island of Palawan. A new trust fund aims to finance the management of the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape in perpetuity. (© Conservation International)

Earlier this year, Human Nature shared the story of Nolsita Siyang, a farmer and mother of 10 who spends two out of every six weeks volunteering as a forest ranger, patrolling the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (MMPL) and monitoring human activities within the park covering much of her ancestral homeland.

With the launch of a new trust fund that aims to finance the management of this 120,000 hectare (almost 300,000-acre) park in perpetuity, the future of Siyang’s family and neighbors just got a little more secure. Continue reading

What on Earth is ‘land tenure’?

Kayapó woman

Kayapó woman. The Kayapó people maintain legal control over an area of 10.6 million hectares (around 26 million acres) of primary tropical forest and savanna in the southeastern Amazon region of Brazil. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “blue carbon,” from “landscape approach” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?

In this installment, we break down “land tenure,” a concept with major implications for conservation.

What is land tenure?

At its most basic, “land tenure” refers to the rights of people or communities to manage (own and use) the land that they reside on.

Meaning, if you reside on the land, you get to have control over managing it?

Sort of — it’s not that simple. In some places in the world, it’s not easy to ascertain who has the right to manage land, or even who has the right to live there. Many indigenous groups, for example, live on lands that are governed not by formal laws but by informal “customary” agreements — their historical, even ancient, association with the land is the basis of their “right” to manage it. This lack of formal, legally binding land rights can expose these communities to risks.

What kinds of risks?

Here’s a simplistic example. Say there’s a community in a remote area surrounded by forests. They’ve managed the forest for centuries; they derive their food, their livelihoods, even their spiritual beliefs from the forest. But one day the government wants to dam a nearby river; or a timber company wants to begin logging in the area; or a neighboring community wants to expand their farms into the forest. Even if there is legal recognition of the forest community’s tenure through their ancestral links to the area, if there is no legal protection to back it up, the community can be powerless to prevent incursions on it. As a result, their well-being, livelihoods and culture can be eroded.

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Paris climate pact to enter into force ahead of schedule

Early morning mist envelops a forest in Papua New Guinea.

Early morning mist envelops a forest in Papua New Guinea. Tropical forests are incredibly effective at storing carbon — they hold as much as a quarter of the world’s carbon and represent at least 30 percent of the solution to limiting carbon emissions. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

What was once heralded as impossible has happened: The Paris climate agreement will officially enter into force in early November.

In order to bring the agreement fully into force, two targets must be met: 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions must formally sign up. As of October 5, 72 countries representing all regions of the world — and almost 57 percent of global emissions — have formally ratified the agreement.

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