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

Aboard the Hokule‘a: Sailboats, Small Islands and the Stewardship of Nature

Both hulls of the Hokule‘a pointed with pride out to sea from Pago Pago Harbor. Leaving port, the sun was high above us, the waves broke with white peaks of foam, and the worn edges of the dark green island of American Samoa bade us farewell.

Hokule‘a vaka arrives in Apia, Samoa

Crew aboard the Hokule‘a upon arrival in Apia, Samoa. (© Conservation International/photo by Greg Stone)

The open ocean was ahead of us, and beyond that our destination: Apia, Samoa. It’s only the next island over, but in the Pacific the “next island over” can be about 100 miles [161 kilometers] away.

It is fitting that I traveled on board this ship, of a style and tradition that Pacific cultures used for centuries to convey themselves from island to island, to a meeting where the future and survival of island cultures around the world would take center stage. The sail brought us to Apia to attend the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS). It is a gathering that only happens every 10 years, and it brings together the heavy hitters and decision-makers for ocean and island conservation. Continue reading

The Story of Indonesia’s Ciliwung River — Upstream and Down

World Water Week — the leading global event dedicated to freshwater issues — is currently underway in Stockholm, Sweden. Read our recent post about how cloud forests support energy security. 

Boys, six of them, dive off a bridge into the Ciliwung River in Jakarta’s Rawajati kelurahan (subdistrict).

The bridge was washed out in floods in 2007 and again in 2011. The city government built a new bridge above it, but the remnants of the washed out bridge continue to serve the kelurahan’s foot and motorcycle traffic. It also acts as the boys’ diving board, launching them into the murky, floating debris of the Ciliwung. The river’s name means “turbid waters” in Sundanese.

The boys tell me they’re not too concerned about water quality, but they have to be careful to avoid debris. Continue reading