Nature Is Speaking — Is Humanity Listening?

This is our second blog about Nature Is Speaking, our communications initiative that uses a series of short films narrated by major celebrities to spotlight the vital links between nature and human well-being. Read all blogs in the series. 

Twenty-two years ago, I was living in northern Namibia, teaching English to local women and looking forward to pursuing a career in public health. But what I saw throughout the next two years radically changed that.

A Bolivian boy examines a long-horned beetle. (© Trond Larsen)

A Bolivian boy examines a long-horned beetle. (© Trond Larsen)

Living right next to a village health clinic, I witnessed some incredible things. I saw babies being born. I saw people very sick with diseases such as malaria, cholera, tuberculosis and a new, particularly deadly one — HIV, which was just emerging in this area and still much stigmatized in the communities. I also saw many others suffering from chronic conditions that were symptoms of the poverty in which they lived.

I remember noticing the women in particular. A lot of the respiratory diseases that plagued them came from inhaling smoke while cooking over fires in their small huts. Many women and girls would walk for miles every day to find water and firewood, labor which took its own toll on their health. In addition, the time and energy this required also had opportunity costs, as it kept them from being able to do other activities, like study, tend their fields or look for work.

So many of the health issues I saw in these communities were directly related to poverty — and directly related to the environment. Continue reading

To Protect Madagascar’s Forests, Men and Women Play Different Roles

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

women farmers in Madagascar

Gardening activity conducted by the women’s association FIVEMITA (with CI’s support) in the village of Marofandroboka. (© Conservation International/photo by Soloson Ramanahadray)

If you’re quiet enough, you may be able to spot one of the forest’s furry inhabitants in the high reaches of the canopy.

Despite the many threats facing Madagascar’s lemurs and the forests on which they depend, there is some hope for their survival. In the remote southeast region of the country, we are working with local communities to reduce threats and create sustainable livelihoods for people that do not rely on the destruction of forests.

Although I usually work in our main office in the capital city, I’m here in the field to lead a team looking at how men and women engage in CI’s conservation work. Continue reading

Environmentalism Gets a Much-needed Rebrand

This is our second blog about Nature Is Speaking, our communications initiative that uses a series of short films narrated by major celebrities to spotlight the vital links between nature and human well-being. Read all blogs in the series.

"Nature Is Speaking" campaign by Conservation International

“Wilderness is hard on our economy.”

I recently heard those words coming from an elected official in Idaho during an NPR story on the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Unfortunately his words express a common belief.

For too long, environmentalism and conservation have been focused on saving nature for its intrinsic value. We talk about endangered species and national parks, and worry about the state of the world’s coral reefs. We don’t really talk much about people except almost as an afterthought. In some instances, we’ve even allowed our efforts to be framed as favoring nature at the expense of people.

A Ghanaian woman prepares saabu — a porridge made from maize — for the morning meal. (© Benjamin Drummond)

A Ghanaian woman prepares saabu — a porridge made from maize — for the morning meal. Ensuring food security for the world’s growing population will only be possible in the long term if we protect and restore the ecosystems that provide pollination, water and other crucial services for farms. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I love nature and have as long as I can remember, starting with my childhood in West Africa where colobus monkeys and pygmy hippos were never far away. But I have become frustrated with the view of nature as a fragile painting: a Sistine Chapel dripping with life, to be admired from afar and described in reverent tones.

Sure, some people are drawn to this idea, but they are far outnumbered by the number of people negatively impacted by the rapidity with which we are stripping our forests, mining our soils, drying up our water and fundamentally altering our planet’s atmosphere and ocean’s chemistry. Love alone is not enough; we need this place. Continue reading

Despite Its Remoteness, Antarctica’s Health Matters

iceberg in Paradise Harbor, Antarctica

Iceberg in Paradise Harbor, Antarctica. (© Levi S. Norton)

I’ve had the privilege of doing research in places that are seldom seen by humans: remote, nearly pristine reefs in the Phoenix Islands; seamounts near Cocos Island; and the waters of Indonesia and Palau. But Antarctica was the locale that took my breath away. It is the biggest, wildest, strangest and most remote place on Earth. There the air is so clear and its beauty so stunning, you wonder if you have just learned to see.

Today, the Ocean Health Index released its first assessment of the health of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. The results show that distance, fierce winds, bitter cold, the raging seas and plenty of ice have managed to diminish the human impact on the inaccessible Southern Ocean. But despite its geographic isolation, it has not been enough. Continue reading

A Big Week for Climate Change — But Is It Enough?

This week has been one of the most important for climate change in recent history. On Sunday, I was one of nearly 400,000 people participating in the People’s Climate March in New York City — the largest-ever climate change rally. In 161 other countries, thousands more gathered in public spaces to demand global action.

people's climate march, New York City

A few of the nearly 400,000 participants in the People’s Climate March, held last Sunday in New York City. (© Shyla Raghav)

The march’s timing was particularly significant; it was held to draw attention to Tuesday’s United Nations Climate Summit. Convened by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the summit encouraged the more than 125 heads of state, corporate leaders and civil society representatives in attendance to put forth ambitious commitments of climate change action.

The march was deeply personal for most attendees. Messages ranged from critiques of global capitalism to promoting meat-free diets. For me, it demonstrated that climate change really isn’t just an environmental problem anymore. There is now a pervasive, deeper understanding that climate change is a development, societal and even moral issue. Continue reading

Community-based Tree Kangaroo Program Wins Top Conservation Prize

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most diverse places on Earth — a country with over 850 languages and numerous mountain ranges that have historically limited contact between clans.

Matschie's tree kangaroo

Juvenile Matschie’s tree kangaroo in Papua New Guinea’s YUS Conservation Area. (© Bruce M Beehler)

These clans traditionally manage their own land their own way. Yet over the past two decades, communities scattered across the Huon Peninsula have defied tradition, joining hands to create a community-based group that collectively manages what in 2009 became known as the YUS Conservation Area, the first legally protected area of its kind in PNG.

These communities did this because they realized it was their best chance of saving an important cultural icon: the Matschie’s tree kangaroo. Five years later, their success has been internationally recognized; today their community-based NGO, the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program-PNG, was officially awarded one of this year’s Equator Prizes. Continue reading

Urban Jungle: How Vulnerable is Bogotá to Climate Change Impacts?

This is the latest post in Human Nature’s “Urban Jungle” blog series, which explores the inextricable connections between intact ecosystems and thriving cities. 

Bogota, Colombia

Bogotá’s more than 8 million residents are dependent on the mountains and grasslands surrounding the city for their water supply. (© Andres Rueda)

During 2010 and 2011, millions of Colombians were in the rain.

Throughout many months that saw little relief from the downpour, urban areas of Bogotá and several rural areas of the department of Cundinamarca experienced very severe flooding as rivers spilled over their banks, flooding a nearby university and destroying agricultural fields.

Other areas on the slopes of the northern Andes saw a lot of landslides, causing not only significant losses in human life, but also economic costs like crop failure and infrastructure collapse. Continue reading

Cambodia’s ‘Giving Tree’ Makes Life Possible in Floating Villages

I have spent eight years working in the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake, one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries.

fisherman and raing trees in Cambodia

Fisherman pulling up net in Tonle Sap Lake. Raing trees, which provide numerous benefits for local people, can be seen in the background. (© Conservation International/photo by Bunra Seng)

Almost all of the families I know make their living in some way from the lake where they live, which provides two-thirds of Cambodia’s protein consumption. But I was recently surprised to learn that one of the species they’re the most dependent on is not a fish, but a tree. Continue reading

In Guyana’s Indigenous Villages, Gender, Livelihoods and Nature Intersect

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

Far from my creature comforts in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, I found myself jostling around in a 4×4 SUV over the rough terrain of the Rupununi. Red dust billowed behind us as we moved across the savanna toward the village of Sand Creek, in the foothills of the Kanuku Mountains.

road in Rupununi, Guyana

Seasonally flooded savanna in Guyana’s Rupununi region. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

My colleagues from CI Guyana and I were on our way to learn about how the indigenous men, women and youth of this region interact with each other and their environment. Our assumption was simple: Greater equality and equity within communities will lead to more conservation success, spur economic development and improve livelihoods.

But how do we achieve this? How can we ensure that everyone can equally participate in — and benefit from — our projects? Continue reading

In Pacific Islands, Tomorrow’s Leaders Must Act Today

Boy jumps into water in the Cook Islands. (© Toby de Jong)

A boy jumps into the water in the Cook Islands. (© Conservation International/photo by Toby de Jong)

If someone told me a year ago I would soon be presenting at a United Nations conference dedicated to the issues faced by small island developing states, I’d truly believe that person was pulling my leg. Yet last week, I found myself doing exactly that.

Here on my home island of Samoa, around 3,000 people — including more than 20 government leaders, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and civil society representatives — are currently gathering for the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

These islands, which occur across the globe, have been identified as special case studies for sustainable development. Although these islands are particularly vulnerable to threats like species extinction and sea level rise, how they deal with these challenges could serve as useful examples for the rest of the world. In fact, the U.N. has acknowledged their importance by christening 2014 as the International Year of Small Island Developing States.

So, how did I get here? I was born and raised on this island; all that I love belongs to this land. My interest in conservation lies with the desire to see the environment and development work together to ensure sustainability. Continue reading