Photo essay: 30 years of exploration, discovery and action

When Conservation International (CI) was founded 30 years ago this week, the conservation of nature was viewed by many countries, corporations and citizens around the world as an impediment to economic development.

In the decades since, from the realms of international policy to on-the-ground science, CI and partners have worked to move the needle toward a more accurate perception of nature: as the foundation of our economies and survival. In the words of Peter Seligmann, CI’s co-founder, chairman and CEO, “Our connection to our natural world is more than sentimental. Humanity depends on fresh water, reliable food and a stable climate. For that, we need intact forests, productive fisheries and healthy ecosystems.”

As we look ahead to the future, these photos document some of the places we’ve been.

Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Russ Mittermeier poses with a monkey for a Gap ad circa 1989. The primatologist served as Conservation International’s president from 1989 until 2014; he currently serves as the organization’s executive vice chair.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Wildlife biologist David Emmett trains two CI Cambodia employees and a government ranger in GPS, compass and map use during a survey of the Central Cardamoms Mountains. Emmett is now senior vice president of CI's Asia-Pacific field division.
© Conservation International/photo by David Emmett
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

CI staff and supporters on a trip to Botswana in 2005. Among those pictured: Peter Seligmann, Jeff Gale, Jane Gale, Cedric Rhodes, Rod Mast and Mike Chase.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

CI co-founder, Chairman and CEO Peter Seligmann meets a snake at a 1994 CI board meeting in Bahia, Brazil.
© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Woman inspects coffee growing in Chiapas, Mexico in 2000. For more than 15 years, CI has been working with Starbucks to reduce the negative impacts of coffee production on the environment and improve the lives of those who grow it.
© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Entomologist Chris Marshall and assistants collect moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth on a 2006 Rapid Assessment Program expedition in Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area.
© Piotr Naskrecki
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Russ Mittermeier explores forests near Manaus, Brazil in the late 1980s. While president of CI, Mittermeier was the only active field biologist to head a major international conservation organization.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Stan Malone, former director of CI Suriname, and Lisa Famolare, currently CI’s vice president of Amazonia, participate in a clean-up event in Georgetown, Guyana in 1995.
© Conservation International
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Russ Mittermeier shares a poster about primates with Trio children in southern Suriname in 2001. CI works with indigenous communities like this one to protect forests and other ecosystems that are integral to their survival.
© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier
Iguazu Falls, Brazil

Peter Seligmann and renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle in the Cook Islands. CI is working with Pacific Island governments and partners to expand a network of protected areas that will protect the region's most crucial resources.
© Conservation International/photo by Greg Stone
© Jeff Yonover
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Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation International. 

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Guyana aims to shift economy from gold to green

Alluvial gold mining in the rainforests of Guyana.

Alluvial gold mining in the rainforests of Guyana. This is a medium-scale operation; many Guyanese work in the artisanal, small-scale gold mining sector, which is built around removing minerals from topsoils. As the gold runs out, the supply accessible from the surface will be the first to disappear, leaving many people in search of new livelihoods. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: Last week, Conservation International (CI) Guyana and partners launched a new initiative to improve mining practices and ease the transition to a greener economy in the South American country. In this interview, CI Guyana Vice President David Singh explains how a country dependent on revenues from nonrenewable resources can make this shift.

Question: What is the current state of Guyana’s economy, and how do nonrenewable resources fit in?

Answer: In the decades after Guyana declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1966, gold was a bastion of our economy; in fact, at times it was the direct source of revenues to pay civil servants. Even now, with the distress within the country’s sugar industry and the challenges facing the rice industry, gold has proven to be a reliable source of foreign exchange. It has kept the economy afloat, and it has provided a lot of employment for people. I would estimate 10 percent of the country’s workforce is directly involved in the gold mining supply chain — not just the mining itself but the services that make it possible (shopkeepers, truckers, etc.)

However, the country’s entire economy tends to focus on mining at the expense of other types of industry when the price of gold is high. For instance, the heavy equipment operators in the sugar industry left their jobs to go work in the gold mines, which of course impacted sugar production. With soaring gold prices, teachers and nurses left their jobs to work in the mining industry. Without any active intervention to diversify the economy, such a high-level connection with the gold price is leading us into a “resource curse” situation.

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New partnership combines best of nature and technology to fight climate change

On the edge of the fishing town of Concepcion, Philippines, a permeable seawall made of bamboo works together with mangroves in an attempt to reduce storm surge.

On the edge of the fishing town of Concepcion, Philippines, a permeable seawall made of bamboo works together with mangroves in an attempt to reduce storm surge. CI’s green-gray project — which will be aided by MIT research — is located nearby on the island of Iloilo. (© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello)

Nature and technology have long had a complicated relationship. The factories of the Industrial Revolution set in motion the escalation of resource exploitation, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that eventually led to the global climate change we face today. On the other hand, technological innovations such as hybrid cars and biodegradable packaging are making it possible for humanity to lessen its toll on the health of our planet.

Although nature and technology are often pitted as opposites — the past versus the future — in truth we don’t have to choose one or the other. In fact, to sustain life on this planet, both are crucial. That’s what makes Conservation International’s (CI) new collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) so exciting.

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Expedition to ‘island of sharks’ gathers hundreds of hours of new ocean data

Tiger shark investigates a net filled with bait on a recent scientific expedition to Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica.

A tiger shark investigates a net filled with bait on a recent scientific expedition to Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica. By documenting which species are attracted to it and how they interact with it, scientists are learning more about predator numbers and behavior around the island. (© Mario Espinoza/University of Costa Rica)

Editor’s note: Last December, a scientific team began the rocky 36-hour boat journey from Puntarenas, Costa Rica, to one of the world’s best dive sites: Cocos Island National Park.

In a project developed jointly with the University of Costa Rica, 18 scientists specializing in diverse fields of marine biology made the trip as part of an ongoing effort to evaluate the health of the underwater ecosystems surrounding the island, a World Heritage Site that Conservation International (CI) has supported for 12 years.

Over the next week and a half, the team would log 310 dives — the equivalent of one diver spending more than 10 straight days underwater. Here are some highlights from the busy expedition.

Research goals

Our main objective was to assess the status of pelagic fish stocks — the species that spend most of their time far from coasts and the seafloor. Monitoring the health of the reefs surrounding the island was also a priority. CI and the University of Costa Rica created a baseline years ago; since then scientists have been assessing changes that have occurred in this natural laboratory and exploring the influence of different factors, such as El Niño, illegal fishing, climate change or the implementation of better protection measures within the park’s waters.

But our scientists weren’t just comparing the past with the present. They were also implementing new research experiments never before conducted in Cocos Island’s waters.

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The countdown is on to protect nature, save economy of tiny forested country

A boy wades through a river in Suriname

A boy wades through a river in Suriname. As the under-funded government has reduced services such as electricity and healthcare to the country’s rural interior, residents have been forced to pursue destructive activities like gold mining in order to make a living. Alternative livelihoods can provide a more sustainable solution. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

On the wall in Conservation International’s (CI) office in Paramaribo, Suriname, we recently installed a 1,000-day countdown clock. The clock ticks down toward the year 2020 — a big benchmark for many global environmental agreements that will impact the future of millions of people worldwide. Every day, this clock reminds our entire team that when it comes to protecting Suriname’s valuable forests and rivers and building a sustainable economy in what is called the “greenest country on Earth,” time is running out.

2020 is a milestone year for the Paris Agreement, when implementation of countries’ climate change action plans is set to ramp up. The Aichi Targets — a set of 20 biodiversity-related goals set in 2010 — also have a targeted 2020 due date. And one of the Sustainable Development Goals states that countries should manage their forests sustainably by 2020. If Suriname intends to meet the promised contributions to all these efforts, we have to make these 1,000 days count.

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These 7 maps shed light on most crucial areas of Amazon rainforest

Iwokrama Reserve in northeast South America's Guiana Shield

Iwokrama Reserve in northeast South America’s Guiana Shield. The Guiana Shield is one of the Amazonia region’s most intact areas, providing water, carbon storage and other benefits for people near and far. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: Between now and March, Human Nature is exploring the complexities of living in, using and protecting one of the planet’s most valuable types of ecosystems — tropical forests — in a series we’re calling “No forests, no future.” This is the first post in this series.

If you have never visited it, the world’s most famous forest may inspire visions of dense, pristine forest, thundering waterfalls — and very few humans.

In fact, the Amazonia region — which encompasses parts of nine countries in South America and includes both the Amazon rainforest and the water-rich Guiana Shield — is home to 30 million people, including 375 indigenous groups. It contains the largest tropical forest in the world, the richest biodiversity on the planet, almost one-third of the world’s tropical forest carbon and one-fifth of the planet’s fresh water that flows into the ocean.

People near and far rely on Amazonia’s ecosystems for everything from climate regulation to fisheries and food security. But despite these crucial services, ongoing deforestation and climate change impacts threaten to permanently alter this massive system — drying it up, decimating its biodiversity and slowing the flow of benefits to its people to a trickle.

If we want to prevent irreversible damage, we must first figure out what parts of Amazonia we can’t afford to lose.

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Wild ring-tailed lemur population has plummeted 95% since 2000

Endangered ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar.

Ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar. New research indicates that the number of wild ring-tailed lemurs has dropped significantly since the last known population estimate in 2000. (© Art Wolfe/

A species made famous by a series of hit animated films is now threatened with extinction after a dramatic drop in its wild population.

Two new independent studies estimate that there are only between 2,000 and 2,400 ring-tailed lemurs — perhaps the most charismatic of Madagascar’s animals, and a flagship species of the country — left in the wild. This is a 95% decrease from the year 2000, when the last known population estimate was published. It also means that now there are more ring-tailed lemurs in zoos around the world than remain in the wild.

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Where does half your wild-caught seafood come from? The answer may surprise you

An artisanal harpoon fisher in Bahia, Brazil.

An artisanal harpoon fisher in Bahia, Brazil. Coastal community fisheries catch half of the world’s wild-caught seafood supply. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

We live on land, but the oceans feed us: Seafood is consumed more than any other animal protein in the world — more than pork, chicken, beef or eggs. In fact, fisheries feed three out of seven people worldwide.

You’re likely picturing gigantic commercial fishing vessels pulling in millions of pounds of fish with mechanized nets to meet this global demand. But the source of our seafood is much more varied — it depends on the millions of fishers that make up the community fisheries scattered across the world’s coasts.

Small-scale, artisanal fisheries support food security, livelihoods, economic development — even climate change solutions. Here are four things you might not know about them.

  1. Coastal community fisheries feed the world by providing 50% of global seafood catch.

Fish is the last major food source that humans collect from the wild — and the main protein source for 3 billion people. And half of the wild-caught fish people eat comes from coastal community fisheries. Making sure that these fisheries are sustainable is critical to the environment and to ocean-dependent communities — which is ultimately good for productivity. Because coastal community fisheries often use less harmful techniques than commercial fisheries, and because many fishers live close to the waters they fish in, fishers are motivated to protect and sustainably manage the waters to ensure fish health and availability. Healthy waters, thriving ecosystems, fishing practices that allow fish to reproduce and create more fish — these sustainable practices all help coastal community fisheries provide half the world’s seafood catch.

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Whale, dolphin ‘superpods’ could be an economic boon for one tiny country

Fraser's dolphins spotted in Timor-Leste.

Fraser’s dolphins spotted in Timor-Leste. (© Olive Andrews)

Editor’s note: In the tiny Southeast Asian country of Timor-Leste, Conservation International (CI) and the University of Adelaide recently carried out a short survey to expand scientific knowledge of the range and abundance of whales and dolphins in the waters around the island nation. The survey’s results, which CI marine mammal expert Olive Andrews shares below, will help inform the management of these species. 

Flying into the Timorese capital of Dili, I looked expectantly down into the vast blue of the Ombai Strait. In just one more sleep we would be on a boat searching the area for the largest creatures on our planet — blue whales — and their close relatives.

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What we’re reading: 2017 predictions edition

Woman harvests crops in Tanzania

Woman harvests crops in Tanzania. For the first time in international climate discussions, agriculture is appearing front and center in countries’ plans to cut carbon emissions and curb climate change. (© Benjamin Drummond)

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. 2017: Agriculture begins to tackle its role in climate change

The story: For the first time in international climate discussions, agriculture is appearing front and center in countries’ plans to cut carbon emissions and curb climate change. Previously, countries’ emissions reductions plans focused on areas such as clean energy and transportation. But at the 2015 climate talks in Paris, according to InsideClimate News, “nearly 80 percent of the countries said they would use agricultural practices to curb climate change, and more than 90 percent said they would use those practices in addition to changes in forestry and land use linked to farming.”

What’s next: Agriculture has emerged as a critical sector within which each country can — and must — take immediate climate change action. The article suggests this is because agriculture is “existentially linked to a country’s very survival and increasingly under threat from weather extremes, drought and floods.”

Many sustainable farming practices, such as growing more crops on existing land to reduce the need for further deforestation, can support both climate change adaptation and mitigation goals. Crucially, changes to agriculture that have climate change benefits can also benefit farmers by increasing yields. Continue reading