A Harrowing Journey in Search of Climate Clues

I remember the pitch from the producers: I would accompany, on horse and foot, a team of climate scientists to the Andes to film a segment for “Years of Living Dangerously,” Showtime’s ground-breaking series on climate change.

Paul Mayewski, Sanjayan in Andes

Paul Mayewski and Sanjayan filming “Years of Living Dangerously” in the Andes. (© The Years Project/SHOWTIME)

Sitting in a sunny office in New York City with the executive producers, we watched clips of Dr. Paul Mayewski, a genial yet distinguished “ice scientist” from the University of Maine who would serve as our expedition leader. Frankly, the whole storyline sounded rather tame — even a bit predictable.

Yet as viewers will see tonight on the season finale (see preview below), the expedition was anything but.

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Visiting the World’s Only Underwater Research Station

The sun was burning hot and high in the sky above the Florida Keys as we cruised across the aquamarine waters off the Gulf Coast. I could think of no better place to be today, June 8th: World Oceans Day.

Greg Stone underwater

Greg Stone in the Aquarius, the world’s only underwater research station. (© Brian Skerry)

It was a trip I had made before, but for my companion on this trip to the Aquarius underwater habitat — actor, philanthropist and friend Ian Somerhalder — it was his first time. As I stood on the bow of our boat, my whole body was filled with the ocean breeze; I could smell the lovely salt in the sharp fragrance of the sea.

Soon we arrived at the Aquarius, the world’s only underwater research station. Imagine something akin to the International Space Station, but located about 63 feet [19.2 meters] beneath the ocean surface. We were here to dive and pay a visit to Fabien Cousteau.

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The Guardians of Raja Ampat: Community-Driven Conservation in Indonesia

This is a guest post co-authored by Shawn Heinrichs and John Weller, two critically-acclaimed photographers, filmmakers and marine conservationists who are producing the film “Guardians of Raja Ampat” in conjunction with CI. The teaser for the film is below.

Lush vegetation clung to all but the steepest slopes of the towering islands. Their near-vertical walls hung over the sea, which had undercut the razor-sharp honeycombs of eroding rock. It was as if the spectacular bullet-shaped islands had erupted out of the bay and frozen in time, hovering just above the surface. The landscape eluded words.

Shawn Heinrichs and colleagues, Wayag Bay, Raja Ampat

Shawn poses with Ronald, Abam and George from CI’s monitoring team overlooking Indonesia’s Raja Ampat archipelago. (© Shawn Heinrichs for Conservation International)

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Small Farms, Large Stakes: Climate Change and Smallholder Farmers

Growing up in England, I never imagined that I would someday develop a passion for working with smallholder farmers and biodiversity conservation in tropical countries. Yet both my professional and personal lives have become intertwined with these issues, and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Farmer in Tanzania. Smallholder farmers are estimated to represent 85% of the world's farms and provide over 80% of the food consumed in the developing world. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Farmer in Tanzania. Smallholder farmers are estimated to represent 85% of the world’s farms and provide over 80% of the food consumed in the developing world. (© Benjamin Drummond)

As a scientist with CI, I conduct research on agricultural practices and approaches that can help ensure farm productivity, improve farmer livelihoods and conserve biodiversity; participate in related technical expert groups and consortia (such as the Landscapes for People, Food and Nature Initiative); and work with our field programs to promote climate-smart, biodiversity-friendly landscapes across the tropics.

On a personal level, I am married to the son of a Costa Rican campesino (farmer), live on a small farm in rural Santa Elena (Costa Rica) and am surrounded by many in-laws, friends and neighbors who are small coffee or dairy farmers.

For me, the impacts of climate change on smallholder farmers are therefore visible on a daily basis. When the rains come late and temperatures soar above normal, I can see from my window that my father-in-law’s maize field is withering, and know that other families will also suffer both the loss of important food crops and potential income.

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Filming in Cambodia, Part 3: Fishing at Sunrise

This is the third post in a three-part series documenting CI’s visual storytelling team’s recent trip to Cambodia. Read the previous posts. 

filming fishing at sunrise, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

CI’s visual storytelling team films fisherman Mao as he paddles out to check his nets at sunrise. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

The next morning we rose even earlier. The team would be filming Sophy’s husband, Mao, as he did his morning check of the family’s fishing nets.

Mao sat at the very front of his rough-hewn wooden boat, paddling it with one oar. We followed in two motorboats. One carried John with the camera, Becca with the sound equipment and Nara, along with the boat driver. Peter, Sokrith and I took the other boat, making sure to stay out of the shot of John’s camera. Continue reading

Filming in Cambodia, Part 2: Why It’s Hard to Film in a Floating House

This is the second post in a three-part series documenting CI’s visual storytelling team’s recent trip to Cambodia. Read the previous post.

filming from boat, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

CI’s visual storytelling team heads off for a day of filming on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

We all rose before sunrise — easy to do when you turn in at 8 p.m. Lights were already blinking on in the floating homes nearby.

Over a breakfast of fish, pork ribs, eggs, rice and instant coffee, the visual storytelling team met in a corner of the floating office to discuss priority shots for the day. We would only have three full days of filming here on Tonle Sap Lake, so we needed to make the most of it. Continue reading

Filming in Cambodia, Part 1: Behind the Scenes with CI’s Video Team

This is the first post in a three-part series documenting CI’s visual storytelling team’s recent trip to Cambodia. Read the next post in the series. 

filming, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

CI’s visual storytelling team films in a floating house on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. (© Conservation International/photo by Molly Bergen)

As a writer, it’s my job to use words to try to do justice to the visually stunning places where CI works, along with the remarkable stories of the people living there. So it’s tempting to be jealous of the team behind CI’s videos; they hold up a camera and the striking sights and sounds of Colombia, Madagascar or Kiribati are perfectly captured.

Of course, anyone who knows anything about filmmaking knows that’s not how it works. Even with non-fiction videos, film crews constantly deal with challenges, from bad weather to securing filming permits — not to mention the hours of editing that await them back in the studio.

When I accompanied CI’s visual storytelling team on trips to Mexico and Brazil in 2011, I was impressed by the hard work they put in behind the scenes. So when I recently got the opportunity to join the team on a visit to Cambodia, one of my goals was to document how they capture their footage. Continue reading

Finding Hope in a Degraded Mangrove

mangrove seedling, Chira Island, Costa Rica

Newly planted mangrove on Chira Island, Costa Rica. (© Conservation International/photo by Marco Quesada)

Last month, Marco Quesada blogged about a women’s collective that is improving livelihoods in Palito, a community on Costa Rica’s Chira Island. Fortunately, this female-led initiative is not an anomaly on Chira and is being adopted in other areas. Marco recently joined another group of women — this time in Montero — at a mangrove planting that culminated many months of work.

“This is the island of Chira, where women work and men cry.”

It was the third time the joke was told, and it still caused a good laugh among this group dominated by women from Chira Island, in Costa Rica’s Gulf of Nicoya. I was standing at the beginning of a “human chain” that was moving, one by one, more than 200 mangrove plants through a degraded mangrove forest.

With me were CI consultants Maguil, Annette and Alejandro, as well as Ana, our CI marine program manager. This was their fourth day of work that week — my first — and we had all been up since 4:30 a.m., trying to evade the sun and high temperatures.

At 8 a.m. it was already very humid and hot in the mangroves in the small community of Montero. But nothing seemed to dampen the spirits of the group — not mosquitoes, thirst, mud or the fact that each bag carrying dirt and a 12-inch mangrove plant weighed over 5 pounds [2.3 kilograms]. Nor the fact that once our chain of hands moved all the plants 100 feet [30 meters] or so, we would have to line up four more times to move the plants further into the more degraded areas of the forest. Continue reading

South Africa’s ‘Ecorangers’ Preserve Grasslands, Reduce Livestock Loss

herder and horse, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Herder on horseback in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. (© Tessa Mildenhall)

In late 2012 I came across an ad for a job as a technical manager with Conservation South Africa (CSA), based in Matatiele in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. I had been working in Johannesburg, but it was my dream to return home to the region to eventually raise a family on the farm where my parents, brother and sister still live.

However, things didn’t look as I remembered them.

I was shocked to see that the black wattle (a kind of acacia tree that is invasive in this region) had taken over the farmlands where I grew up. These thirsty trees are shrinking wetlands that farmers depend on to water their livestock, exacerbating the freshwater scarcity that has plagued much of South Africa in recent years. Meanwhile, erosion from overgrazing has left some parts of the area inaccessible.

These impacts affect the more than 1 million people who live along the Umzimvubu River. It’s critical that we farm smarter than we have been, protecting the land while we still can.

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Measuring What Matters: Acknowledging Nature’s Role in the Global Economy

A version of this post was originally published on the World Bank’s Voices blog.

Waterfall, Madagascar

Waterfall in Madagascar. Although Madagascar is often cited as one of the world’s poorest countries, its unique species and ecosystems provide critical benefits for the country’s people. (Cristina Mittermeier)

“Accounting” may not be a word that gets many pulses racing. But what if I told you that a new kind of accounting — called natural capital accounting — could revolutionize the way the world’s nations assess and value their economies?

Currently, gross domestic product (GDP) is the most widely used indicator of a country’s economic status. But while this number places a value on all the goods and services produced by that economy, it doesn’t account for its “natural capital” — the ecosystems and the services they provide, from carbon sequestration to freshwater regulation to pollination. Continue reading