From South Africa to the White House, linking people to nature

The Udzungwa Waterfall in Tanzania provides a key source of water for crops. The Young African Leaders Initiative unites environmental activists like Nolu in the struggle to protect places like this for nature and people. (© Benjamin Drummond)

The Udzungwa Waterfall in Tanzania provides a key source of water for crops. The Young African Leaders Initiative unites environmental activists like Nolu Kwayimani in the effort to protect places like this for nature and people. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Editor’s note: Nolu Kwayimani is on a mission to spread the word about the links between environmental, social and political issues — in her native South Africa and worldwide. To do so, she left her current home in rural Matatiele first for the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and then for the Presidential Summit at the White House — which included a meeting with President Obama.

As a Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders, Kwayimani was one of the 1,000 — out of 50,000 — applicants chosen to participate in the president’s flagship Young African Leaders Initiative program, which brings together bright minds from sub-Saharan Africa. We sat down with Kwayimani to discuss her ambitious plans for her fellowship once she returns to South Africa.

Question: For you, environmental, social and political issues in South Africa are inextricably linked. Can you explain?

Answer: From an environmental perspective, some of the issues that we have in South Africa right now are the obvious ones: drought, land degradation, symptoms of climate change. But there are also the social issues that link to the environmental issues, namely: We don’t have many women in the conservation sector. I can’t say why, exactly, but there haven’t been many women making decisions concerning the environment in the past, perhaps because many women have been occupied with other things like domestic work and traditional marital duties. It seems like science and technology have been seen as jobs for men for quite a long time in southern Africa. People have never taken science or conservation seriously as a career for women because we grew up being told that the better job for women is either nursing or teaching. It has been a new concept, and people are starting to advocate for broader options for women, understanding that in order for us to advocate for conservation we must be aware of the societal issues that seem to be more crucial to the people we meet, such as the state of their livelihoods.

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From machetes to maps: How a ‘red line’ eased conflict in Bolivia’s Amazon

Carrasco National Park in Bolivia covered in fog. ( © Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)

Carrasco National Park in Bolivia covered in fog. ( © Conservation International/photo by Haroldo Castro)

Editor’s note: In a patch of Bolivian jungle, longstanding conflict over competing land claims had hit a boiling point, threatening to erupt into violence. A recent case study from Conservation International (CI), produced by CI’s Policy  Center for Environment and Peace, shows how an explosive situation was calmed through willpower, trust and a simple map. CI’s Candido Pastor gives a firsthand account.

I remember the first time I made the four-day trek into the heart of Bolivia’s Carrasco National Park (CNP) 12 years ago like it was yesterday. I knew it would be a challenge to help communities agree on the boundaries of the protected area, given the high level of tension between indigenous communities, illegal migrant farmers and park authorities over land rights, but I was unprepared for just how intense our first meeting would be.

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Expedition draws world’s attention to new crown jewel of marine life

humphead wrasse, Atauro Island, Timor-Leste

A humphead wrasse swims near Atauro Island, Timor-Leste. This is one of hundreds of reef fish species spotted on Conservation International’s recent species survey around the island. (© Gerry Allen)

An island off the coast of the tiny nation of Timor-Leste may have the most species-rich waters in the world. As we reported last month, a team of Conservation International’s (CI) researchers recently surveyed 10 sites around the island of Atauro and recorded hundreds of species of fish, with an average of 253 species of reef fish at each site. Many of them are believed to be new to science.

Now a new article in The Guardian is sharing this remarkable discovery with a wider audience, including newly published photos of some of the species that were documented.

Atauro is situated inside the Coral Triangle, an area of the western Pacific Ocean that is home to the most biodiverse marine environment in the world. This new discovery marks Atauro as its crown jewel. “My senior colleague Gerry Allen and I have done well over 10,000 dives in the Coral Triangle region, so we are used to high-diversity sites,” CI’s Mark Erdmann remarked to the Guardian. “But Atauro proved exceptionally rich.”

With so many new and as-yet undiscovered species calling Atauro home, protecting the area is an absolute necessity, both for conservation and economic reasons: “There is a push for the site to be protected with a view to developing an ecotourism industry for the country’s struggling economy,” The Guardian’s Michael Slezak reported.

Ecotourism and sustainable fishing practices can help guarantee a livelihood for Atauro’s 8,000 residents and ensure the health of its waters. To that end, CI is working with Atauro’s residents and the government of Timor-Leste to make the entire island and its surrounding waters a marine protected area.

“Developing … ecotourism income is key to the future of the island’s people and relies directly on the preservation of the reef diversity,” Trudiann Dale, Timor-Leste director at Conservation International, told The Guardian.

Learn more:

Ben Koses is an intern for Conservation International.

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5 rainforest species that could save your life

Researchers collect symbiotic moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in southern Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

Researchers collect symbiotic moths from the fur of a three-toed sloth in southern Guyana’s Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area. Recent research in Panama has identified several types of fungi growing in sloth fur that could help fight human diseases. (© Piotr Naskrecki)

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, several football fields worth of rainforest have been destroyed. Another 2,000 trees will be cut down in the next 55 seconds. This is bad news for many reasons, including the fact that many species native to rainforests hold the potential to save countless human lives. Here are five of them.

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From the archives: The value of an elephant

elephant, Kenya

Elephant near Kenya’s Mara North Conservancy. (© Jon McCormack)

Everyone knows that the ivory trade is taking a massive toll on African elephant populations, but did you also know that live elephants are 76 times more valuable to local economies than dead ones?

To celebrate World Elephant Day, get up to speed on the current plight of the world’s largest land mammals — as well as signs for hope for their future.

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Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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Stopping deforestation in the Amazon by 2020? It’s possible

deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in northern Brazil. In the Amazonia region, many countries and companies are pledging to reach zero net deforestation in the next few years. (© luoman)

Editor’s note: Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics mentioned in this blog come from Conservation International’s calculations.

Since the 1970s, “save the Amazon rainforest” has been a rallying cry for environmentalists and human rights activists worldwide.

Yet despite significant progress on slowing destruction in some areas of this forest, it continues to disappear at a rate of 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres — an area the size of Connecticut) each year. Amazonia — a region that includes the Amazon watershed and rainforest as well as adjacent forests in Guyana and Suriname — is still the largest tract of tropical rainforest on our planet, but 9 percent of the forest is already gone.

In recent years, countries and corporations are ramping up their commitments to cut down fewer trees and plant more of them. In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests united 30 governments and 50 companies under the goal of cutting natural forest loss in half by 2020 and ending it by 2030.

But others have a shorter timeline in mind, seeking to reach “zero net deforestation” — meaning that whatever deforestation that is unavoidable is offset by planting new trees that can absorb an equal amount of carbon — in the next four years.

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What we’re reading: Night fish, pollution-fighting rice

rice paddy in Indonesian village

In countless villages around the world — including this one in Indonesia — farmers grow rice as a staple crop. New research has identified rice varieties that may require less fertilizer, which is good news for people and the planet. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

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. Some fish tackle global warming by pretending it’s night

The story: Australia’s Planet Ark Environmental Foundation reported on an unusual method some fish are adopting in order to acclimate themselves to the changing ocean chemistry resulting from climate change. Carbon dioxide levels in the ocean naturally vary between day and night; algae, seaweed and other ocean-dwelling plants are more active during the day when they can absorb more sunlight and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. A recent study found that in order to adapt to increased ocean acidification, a species of damselfish in the Great Barrier Reef is altering its body clock to permanent nighttime levels.

What’s next: Scientists are cautiously optimistic that this change demonstrates one method fish might employ to adapt to climate change. However, Dr. Philip Munday of Australia’s James Cook University believes that “more study is needed to see how far beneficial genes can be inherited.” Higher acidification levels and other climate change impacts may also reduce the ability of fish to reproduce and pass on such beneficial genes.

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From the archives: How Brazil’s environmental decisions affect the world

(© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Wild golden lion tamarins like this one are found only in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which provides critical fresh water to some of the country’s largest cities. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

This month, all eyes are on Rio de Janeiro as the city hosts the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the first time the iconic sporting event has been held in South America.

Although Rio’s environmental issues related to the Games have been well-documented, as a nation Brazil has taken some important steps toward sustainability in recent years.

As the Games begin, learn more in this re-share of an August 2015 post — and remember that, like the Olympics themselves, Brazil’s decisions stretch far beyond Brazil. They affect the wider world we all call home.

Ben Koses is an intern for Conservation International.

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Further reading

In Kenya’s famed ‘green hills,’ saving water means saving forests

Namawe Sompol, village of Illtalal near Kenya's Chyulu Hills

Namawe Sompol, a mother of two who works as a clinical health worker in the village of Illtalal near Kenya’s Chyulu Hills, has noticed a decline in fresh water available to her Maasai community in recent years. (© Conservation International/photo by Christina Ender)

Ernest Hemingway called them “The Green Hills of Africa” in 1935 — but these days they’re not so green.

In 2009, a severe drought killed as much as 90 percent of livestock in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills. Chronic drought, deforestation and overgrazing are taking an increasing toll on the hills, whose springs are a major water source for the more than 1 million people living in the downstream city of Mombasa.

Namawe Sompol, a mother of two who works as a clinical health worker in the village of Illtalal near the Chyulu Hills, has witnessed the change in the ecosystem over the years. “Water shortages during the dry season are a serious problem,” she said.

This has become a common story: a watershed in which a cycle of more people, less rain and fewer trees creates a dangerous spiral. In the face of widespread poverty and unsustainable development, how can communities like Sompol’s protect their life-giving springs?

If done right, putting a price on the value of nature’s benefits can help people across Africa protect and benefit from their historically rich resources. One project in the Chyulu Hills could show how.

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Your forest reading list: 6 must-read books about trees

Curl up somewhere comfortable and let one of our recommended books transport you to a serene and majestic location, like this scene of Peyto Lake in Canada. (© Sergi Akulich)

Curl up somewhere comfortable and let one of Conservation International’s recommended books transport you to a serene and majestic location, like this view of Peyto Lake in Canada. (© Sergi Akulich)

Summer in the Northern Hemisphere isn’t over yet — which means there’s still time to curl up in a hammock in the shade of a leafy tree with a good book. Relax and venture into the woods with one of these forest-related book recommendations by Conservation International staff.

1. “White Waters and Black, by Gordon MacCreagh

“This is one of my all-time favorite books. The Amazon basin is famous for its biological diversity and new species are still being found all the time. No one even had a firm estimate of how many kinds of trees are in the Amazon until a great new study came out, just this month. What we know about the Amazon is built on the work of thousands of scientists and their expeditions, and ‘White Waters and Black’ is a laugh-out-loud, irreverent account of a major expedition from 1923. Well worth a read!”

– Steven Panfil, Technical Adviser of REDD+ Initiatives

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