Listening to the Forest Giants

This is the eighth blog in CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.

“I’ve seen just about everything.”

Robert Redford — playing The Redwood in our Nature Is Speaking film — sums up the incredible life history of redwood trees, which are older and bigger than most living things on Earth.

We can look upon trees that grew under the same sun as Julius Caesar and were already immense by the time Columbus traveled to the New World. But although they capture our imagination, few realize that just a short time ago, these botanical “dinosaurs” and national treasures were on the brink of destruction.

Logging of these giants began soon after westward expansion reached California in the mid-19th century. Yet the majesty of redwoods was enough to eventually convince President Abraham Lincoln that these trees needed to be protected.

In 1864, during the height of the Civil War, Lincoln took the remarkable step of setting aside the Mariposa Grove of redwoods and sequoias for “public use and recreation … for all time” — essentially creating the first protected area in the country, and in so doing acknowledging that forests have a value beyond the sum of their timber. Public good had won out over short-term private business interests.

But the redwood story did not end there. Although more patches of redwoods have been protected over time, incredibly the logging of giant redwoods continued well into the 1960s and eventually saw over 90% of these ancient trees being cut down for what is considered to be timber of mediocre quality. Continue reading

Hope for Conservation and Peace in the Korean Demilitarized Zone

Todd Walters is currently attending the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia.

red-crowned crane, Japan

A red-crowned crane, one of many threatened species that has rebounded after years of minimal human impact in the Korean DMZ. (© Olivier Langrand)

It’s the most heavily militarized border in the world — a strip of land 248 km (155 miles) long and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide that is fenced with barbed wire and in some parts still contains land mines. But the “no man’s land” between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea (better known as North and South Korea, respectively) is far from lifeless; in fact, it has become a de facto protected area providing a refuge for rare species and a stopover point for migratory birds.

On top of the death toll and destruction that conflict wreaks on human societies, it also negatively impacts nature, which is considered just another form of collateral damage. Resources are intentionally destroyed as part of the conflict, or indirectly through increased exploitation by local people struggling to survive amid the chaos. But sometimes — as in the case of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) — there’s a silver lining. Continue reading

What We Need from the World Parks Congress

A fishermen in Cape Range National Park, Western Australia. (© Jeff Yonover)

A fisherman in Cape Range National Park, Western Australia. (© Jeff Yonover)

I’m in Sydney, Australia, reporting from the World Parks Congress (WPC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a once-a-decade event that focuses on the global importance of protected areas. This important gathering brings scientists, government representatives and conservationists together to discuss how best to protect the Earth’s most important lands and waters.

Protected areas come in many forms — national parks, nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, etc. — and for more than 50 years, the WPC has played a critical role in their creation. Continue reading

3 Steps to Save the World’s Water Supply

This is our seventh blog about CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.

girl playing in river, Guyana

A girl plays in the Rupununi River in Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Picture the world the size of a classroom globe. Now imagine a small marble; this is larger than the 0.4% of fresh water available for us to use — the amount not locked up in glaciers or underground.

This “marble” is what allows all people on Earth to survive and thrive. In addition to quenching our thirst, it waters our crops, helps prevent the spread of disease and provides a huge source of electric power.

Our ponds, streams, rivers and lakes contain a larger concentration of life than terrestrial or marine biomes, providing habitat for about 120,000 species (about 8% of all known species). Freshwater plants and animals provide their own benefits for people, from food to water filtration to storm buffering and everything in between.

Yet fresh water, voiced below by Penélope Cruz, is in grave danger.

Continue reading

Power through Handicrafts: Supporting Rural Women in Bolivia

This blog is the fifth post in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” blog series.

boat of tourists in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia

Ecotourism in the Rurrenabaque region of Bolivia. Women involved in the jipijapa project in New Horizons sell their handicrafts to tourists passing through Rurrenabaque, a popular tourist town. (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)

The three women stand confidently behind their wares and tell the story of New Horizons, an indigenous community in the tropical northwest area of Bolivia.

Recognizing that the community’s meager agricultural production was not providing sufficient income, the women’s club of New Horizons began weaving jipijapa palm fronds into hats, baskets and other items. Thanks to the nearby tourist town of Rurrenabaque, the women were able to successfully market their crafts.

Now, nearly 15 years later, they are reporting some of the changes these activities have had on their lives: “It is we women who control [our income], we now have enough money for the kids for school, clothes, food … we complement our husbands.” Continue reading

3 Ways Conservation Efforts Can Promote Peace

From greenhouse gas-induced climate change to the rapid depletion of fisheries to dwindling freshwater supplies, the natural environment is increasingly linked to global conflict and insecurity.

Buddhist monks, Bhutan

Buddhist monks in Bhutan. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Illegally mined minerals and timber stripped from Africa’s forests have financed some of the continent’s most brutal wars. Similarly, the illegal ivory trade has been linked to terrorist groups that pose a global threat.

In South Asia — home to three of the most densely populated river basins — competition for water is increasing at an alarming rate, presenting a major security challenge to the region.

And as we’ve learned in the Middle East and North Africa, drought and decreased agricultural productivity in one part of the world can fuel political instability in another.

We at CI have seen the links between conflict and the environment for ourselves. While these connections are many and complex, we are demonstrating that just as deteriorating environmental conditions can bring about or exacerbate conflict, abundant natural resources and healthy ecosystems can equally serve as the bedrock for healthy, prosperous and peaceful societies. Continue reading

Stop Treating Soil Like Dirt

This is our sixth blog about CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.

farm in Oklahoma during Dust Bowl

Homestead and farm in Texas County, Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. (By USDA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Less than 100 years ago, a catastrophe of enormous proportions left thousands dead and millions homeless across the United States. The worst part? We could have prevented it.

The Dust Bowl is a stark example of how poor land management — and particularly poor soil management — can unravel a natural system. As farmers spread across America’s grasslands in the 1920s, they plowed the land until they broke up the structure of the soil and removed natural grasses and vegetation, leaving the soil exposed and making it more susceptible to erosion. When a drought hit the weakened landscape, it fed massive dust storms that blanketed entire states with soil.

The more soil was lost, the harder it was to grow anything — and the harder it was to grow, the longer soils were left exposed to the elements and the harder it was to stop the problem. We created a downward spiral. True, a drought sparked all of it, but the drought played upon conditions resulting from humans’ poor management of natural resources.

The question is: Have we learned our lesson?

In some cases, yes; in many other cases, signs point to no. The U.S. farming sector has made significant strides in reducing soil erosion — but improvements in managing soils and other natural resources like forests have been inconsistent, and more needs to be done.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), about 25% of the world’s farmland is highly degraded. The cost of soil loss in the U.S. alone is hundreds of millions of dollars per year; the loss of just one inch of topsoil could take centuries to replace.

In 2013, record levels of haze from fires associated with clearing land in Indonesia led to dangerous air quality conditions in Singapore and Malaysia, resulting in closure of many schools and businesses, negatively impacting public health and economic development.

Clearly, we are — as Edward Norton says below — treating the soil like dirt.

Continue reading

First-ever World Lemur Festival Celebrated in Madagascar

This week marks the first-ever World Lemur Festival in Madagascar, which will culminate in World Lemur Day on October 31. This event is intended to raise awareness of the importance of these wonderful creatures both across Madagascar and around the world.

black-and-white ruffed lemur, Madagascar

Black-and-white ruffed lemur in Madagascar. All 105 known species of lemur are found only in Madagascar. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

Why should we care about lemurs? Well, aside from being delightful, beautiful creatures that are part of the mammalian order Primates of which we ourselves are members, they are also a major economic asset for a country historically plagued by poverty and political instability. Continue reading

Not Just a Rock: Why You Need Coral Reefs

This is our fifth blog about our Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.

coral reef, Malaysia

Coral reef in Malaysia. (© Comstock Images)

At 12 years of age, my life was about to change.

It was my first dive on a coral reef. As I slowly descended onto Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, I was magnetized.

Everywhere I looked, new forms of life revealed themselves in a flurry of activity. Colorful butterfly fish nibbled on the reef. Christmas tree worms retracted as I swam by. A baby whitetip reef shark trailed behind me, curious about my bubbles. I left the water charged with a sense of urgency to share everything I had just seen.

Since then, I have had the privilege of exploring many of the world’s most vibrant reefs — places buzzing in a riot of life. Sadly, I have also visited far too many reefs that are a mere shadow of what they once were.

Threatened by overfishing and destructive fishing methods, coastal development, pollution and climate change, 19% of the world’s coral reefs are already gone. Scientists consider approximately 75% of the remaining reefs to be threatened, a number that is projected to increase to 90% by 2050 if negative impacts continue. At that rate, by the time my grandchildren are old enough to dive, there may not be a healthy reef left for them to experience.

Like other ecosystems, coral reefs don’t have a voice like you or me. In “Coral Reef,” the newest edition of the Nature Is Speaking film series, Ian Somerhalder gives the reef a human voice.

Some people think I am just a rock, when in fact I am the largest living thing on this planet.” Continue reading

The Rainforest Speaks — and Costa Rica Listens

This is our fourth blog about our Nature Is Speaking campaign. Today’s post spotlights “The Rainforest,” a short film featuring Kevin Spacey as the voice of the forest. Read all blogs in this series.

rainforest, Chiapas, Mexico

Rainforest in Chiapas, Mexico. Almost 1 in 4 people depend on forests for their livelihoods in some way, yet global deforestation rates threaten the longevity of these ways of life. (© Conservation International/photo by Miguel Ángel de la Cueva)

Today, Costa Rica is known for its rainforests, where tourists from across the globe journey to swim in waterfalls, zip-line through the trees and search for the country’s unique wildlife. But it wasn’t always this way; just 40 years ago, the landscape (and economy) looked much different.

By and large, Costa Rica has learned from its mistakes; in the last 25 years, the country has doubled the size of its forests while tripling its GDP per capita. In the same time period, developing countries like China, India, Indonesia and Brazil have also multiplied their GDPs per capita, but they have all done so with a high environmental cost.

Costa Rica is proving that the protection and restoration of nature is not a burden for growth and prosperity. I believe my home country can be a powerful model for countries that still aren’t listening to what their rainforests have to say.

Perhaps the best way to explain Costa Rica’s shifting attitude toward forests is to tell you the story of my grandfather, Arturo Echandi Jimenez. Continue reading