Indigenous leaders: Traditional knowledge can save the planet

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape.

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape. (© Conservation International/photo by Will Turner)

Editor’s note: Could observing the stars or planting bushes help the world adapt to climate change impacts? Conservation International’s 2016 indigenous fellows think so. Martha Ntoipo hails from a Maasai village in northern Tanzania; Jamer López is a Shipibo-Conibo man from the Peruvian Amazon. Below, they discuss their research on traditional knowledge in their own communities and its implications for conservation and the future. (Note: the thoughts and opinions expressed on Human Nature are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CI.)

Question: What first inspired you to get involved in this kind of work?

Ntoipo: My father is a polygamist with seven wives; the youngest is a little older than my daughter. I grew up seeing the situation with my mother and stepmothers, and I clashed with my dad. He wanted me to marry a person he chose — actually, he chose six men, and I refused all of them. I felt that something needs to change, and that I should be part of that change.

After high school I went back to my community and started training and creating awareness among women of their rights, and trying to make men understand that women are the holders of much of the traditional knowledge that dictates how we relate to the natural world. It wasn’t easy; at first men were reluctant, and women were scared. But the good thing is if you are one of them, they tend to listen.

López: I could see that my community and others in Amazonia are losing traditional knowledge. Currently there are lots of people studying traditional knowledge within these communities, but generally they come from the outside. I was drawn to this work because I felt it was my responsibility as a young man who is part of this culture.

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Why aren’t we doing more to protect wildlife rangers?

Park ranger in Rwanda

For Conservation International’s new executive director of wildlife trafficking, when it comes to tackling this global problem, nothing can replace a ranger. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

Editor’s note: Since 2003, more than 1,000 park rangers have been killed in the line of duty. These rangers are the frontline between poachers and their prey — the literal boots on the ground trying to keep wildlife alive and out of the hands of the organized crime network profiting from their death and sale. Being a ranger or game warden is a rough, dangerous job that requires training and support — and it can mean the difference between success and failure in an anti-poaching mission. Unfortunate, then, that so often they are overlooked in trafficking policies and conservation programs.

Some would have you replace rangers with drones or other expensive, high-tech solutions. In a recent interview, Keith Roberts — Conservation International’s new executive director of wildlife trafficking — explains why, when it comes to fighting this global problem, nothing can replace a ranger.

African elephant

Rangers risk their lives daily to protect elephants, rhinos and other species in Africa. (© CIFOR / Daniel Tiveau)

Question: Starting June 5, you’ll be deep in the Peruvian jungle, running an ultra-marathon on behalf of Runners for Rangers. Why this event and this organization?

Answer: The “Beyond the Ultimate” Jungle Ultra in Peru will be a true test of endurance: Runners traverse 230 kilometers (192.9 miles) over five days on jungle trails, mountain roads and village tracks, making their way from the cloud forest down 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) to the Amazon jungle below. Humidity levels will approach 100% and the runners will have to be self-sufficient, carrying their own hammock, sleeping bag, food and supplies for the entire race.

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How fashion can bring about ecosystem collapse

Sea otter

A fashion for otter fur is directly linked to the degradation of kelp forests, a new study shows. (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)

Editor’s note: A new scientific paper argues that drivers of social change like technology and fashion play a key role in bringing about environmental change and it’s time the scientific community pays attention. The authors   including Jack Kittinger, senior director of Conservation International (CI) Hawai‘i   contend that in order to protect ecosystems before it’s too late, we have to look beyond traditional data and clue into these social forces, which can forewarn scientists when an ecosystem is in decline.

In a recent conversation, Kittinger laid out the paper’s key findings.

Question: What’s an example of a social factor that can tell us about the health of an ecosystem?

Answer: It may be hard to believe, but to understand the decline of kelp forests, you have to understand how the demand for otter pelts was driven by a fashion craze in China. The demand for this species was so great that the price was astronomical, driving the intensity and geographic expansion of the harvest. This explains why some people were still financing expeditions long after the majority of otters were extirpated — the pelts were worth more than gold. We are doing the same thing now with bluefin [tuna], actually.

But markets are just one example: For cod off the coast of Newfoundland and the northeastern U.S., new technologies were the culprit. Suddenly people were able to use fish-finding technology, allowing them to increase or maintain their catch per unit effort, even while the stock was declining precipitously. If you’re just watching the catch, you’d miss the importance that technology played in crashing the fishery. It’s never recovered — clearly we need to be more vigilant in our monitoring of technology and its impact on species and on ecosystems.

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3 ways protecting nature can help resolve conflict

A man looks out over the East Nimba Nature Reserve in Liberia.

A man looks out over the East Nimba Nature Reserve in Liberia, an area rich in both forests and large deposits of iron ore and gold. CI and local partners worked with the communities to help implement conservation agreements that addressed conflicts over resources. (© Conservation International/photo by Bailey Evans)

From the murders of environmentalists to wars that threaten iconic wildlife, the links between human conflicts and natural resources are clear — and as populations grow and unsustainable development is exacerbated by climate change impacts, tension over ever-scarcer resources will only escalate.

But there’s good news: A growing body of evidence is showing that protecting nature can help promote peace — and, in some cases, resolve active conflict. Here are three examples.

1. Peace parks

The peace park concept was popularized by the Peace Parks Foundation, which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela. Also called transboundary protected areas or transfrontier conservation areas, peace parks are areas spanning two or more national borders that have been formally designated to conserve biodiversity, maintain animal migration patterns and protect natural resources required for a growing human population.

Peace parks can imply a cooperative and peaceful relationship between nations. The first peace park, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, was established in 1932 by Canada and the United States in celebration of the peace and goodwill shared between the two countries.

In some cases, a peace park may also help calm tensions between nations. The Cordillera del Condor Peace Park between Peru and Ecuador signified the first time that a peace park was written into a treaty between nations as a means of stopping active violence.

For decades, the mountainous region between Peru and Ecuador had been contested and was subject to periodic encroachment and active conflict between the countries. In the early 1990s, Conservation International (CI) worked with the two governments and local scientists to carry out a scientific assessment that confirmed the region’s biological importance, including the role it plays in maintaining the hydrological cycle that links the Andes mountain range to the Amazon.

This independent analysis of the shared natural resources ultimately led to the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries, whereby each committed to ending hostilities and finding ways to collaborate. The agreement set a precedent for a binational vision of conserving biodiversity through cooperation.


Around the globe, people are standing up to protect the nature they rely on. Get the latest news from the front lines.


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Nature’s summer reading list: 5 staff picks

Si'u Point Trail, Ta'u Island, National Park of American Samoa

A beach scene in American Samoa perfect for enjoying one of the books recommended by CI staff. (© U.S. Department of the Interior/Flickr Creative Commons)

As the summer kicks off here in the Northern Hemisphere, millions of people will flock to beaches, mountains and lakes in search of a brief respite from everyday life. Whether you’ve got a vacation coming up or are just daydreaming about one, get closer to nature with these book recommendations from Conservation International (CI) staff.

1. “The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene,” by Richard Dawkins

1. “The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene,” by Richard Dawkins

“The trouble with evolution is that everyone thinks they understand it.” Richard Dawkins’ writings changed my life. This book is a rollicking good read — never boring, always stimulating and sometimes surprising. Its arguments are pervasive and persuasive — how natural selection actually works at the level of individual genes — and, above all, why this is the most magical show on Earth. You’ll understand all of life and its wonders just a little bit more after reading this book.”

– Keith Lawrence, senior director of CI’s seascapes program

The Urban Bestiary, Encountering the Everyday Wild

2. “The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild,” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

“An aspiring “urban naturalist” myself, I’m looking forward to reading Haupt’s humorous but ecologically insightful observations of the nature she encounters on a daily basis near her Seattle home. After moving to D.C. from Maine two years ago, I still struggle at times to appreciate the smaller pockets of “everyday wild” that call this urban center home — so I’m eager to learn more about Haupt’s perspective on uncovering wilderness just outside your window.”

– Cassandra Kane, communications manager of CI’s ecosystem finance division

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Before and after: In four short years, new forest takes root

Schoolchildren planting trees with CI on the edges of the Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park, Indonesia

Schoolchildren planting trees with CI on the edges of the Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park, Indonesia. (© Jessica Scranton)

As a freelance photographer, I’ve shot everything from Tibetan wheat farmers to reproductive health clinics in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’ve become skilled at capturing a “day in the life” of many of my subjects, but it’s rare that I get the chance to go back and discover what happened to them after I caught them on film.

In 2012, I spent two days on my first Conservation International (CI) assignment, photographing the Green Wall project in the Gunung Gede-Pangrango National Park, about two hours’ drive from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. When I returned four years later for another assignment, I was struck by what had changed — and what had stayed the same.

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In cyclone-plagued country, forests help farmers recover

A woman carrying a bucket, Madagascar

New research derived from interviews with 200 smallholder farmers in eastern Madagascar underscores the role that forests can play in helping impoverished communities prepare for and recover from cyclones. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

When Cyclone Giovanna hurled violent winds and 35.5 centimeters (14 inches) of rainfall onto Madagascar over three days in February 2012, it left a path of destruction in its wake, destroying more than 44,000 houses, damaging upwards of 12,500 hectares (30,888 acres) of farmland and affecting a quarter of a million people.

Madagascar not only has one of the highest rates of cyclones in Africa, it is one of the most cyclone-prone tropical countries in the world — and even when the storms aren’t deadly, they’re disastrous. A paper published this month in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction examines for the first time the strategies used by vulnerable Malagasy smallholder farmers to cope with the impacts of cyclones — and the importance of forests in helping those farmers recover.

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Amid lifelong search for lions, 20 cherished minutes

lion in Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Lion in Tanzania’s Mikumi National Park. Across Africa, lions have experienced population declines in recent years; researchers predict their numbers could drop by 50% over the next two decades. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

In over 15 years of traveling with Conservation International’s (CI) visual storytelling team, I have been fortunate to visit many of our planet’s most magnificent wilderness areas. During field expeditions to film and photograph nature and its interaction with people, I have also encountered a great variety of animals and plants, from lemurs in Madagascar to humpback whales off the Brazilian coast to giant succulent plants in South Africa. But until recently I had yet to have a wild encounter with my all-time favorite animal: the lion.

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When protecting nature isn’t enough

aerial view of Polopiña island, Iloilo, Philippines

Aerial drone footage reveals just how close many fishers in the Philippines live to the coast. (© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello)

During a recent visit to a coastal village on the Philippine island of Iloilo, Conservation International marine scientist Emily Pidgeon asked residents how high the storm surge had been during Typhoon Haiyan, the massive storm that devastated the country in November 2013. Their answer: higher than the coconut tree she was standing under.

“Storms like Haiyan are coming again; it’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’” said Pidgeon. “And honestly, there is no number of mangroves that can protect that village from that level of storm surge. Protecting nature is often the cheapest, easiest answer, but it’s only one part of the overall solution — and figuring out how to adequately adapt to climate change requires every tool in the box.”

Pidgeon is part of a global team working to combine these tools to help Philippine communities adapt to stormier seas. In this special report, she explains the tough choices inherent in this process.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. 

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What the Hawaiian language revival means for conservation

girl on Makaha beach, Hawai'i

A Hawaiian girl dips her toes in the Pacific on Makaha beach, Hawai’i. After decades of cultural suppression, a slow revival of the Hawaiian language, culture, and spirituality is taking place. A huge part of that spirituality is their connection to the sea. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

In Hawai‘i, we have a proverb that says “He aliʻi ka ʻāina, he kauwā ke kanaka”: “The land is a chief, and man is its servant.” In our worldview, there is no separation between nature and people; just as the land takes care of us, we need to take care of the land.

This concept may seem simple, but years of cultural repression following the United States’ takeover of Hawai‘i jeopardized this connection — and we’re only now beginning to restore it. Much of this recovery is due to the resurgence of the Hawaiian language.

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