How Cloud Forests Support Global Energy Security

The theme of this year’s World Water Week (kicking off this Sunday in Stockholm) is “energy and water,” an acknowledgement of the critical yet complex relationship between these two forces.  A version of this post was originally published on CGIAR’s Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog.

Cloud forest in Haiti. (© Robin Moore)

Cloud forest in Haiti. Tropical cloud forests act like a sponge, filtering water, regulating flow to rivers and reducing sedimentation — important services that can prolong the life of dams. (© Robin Moore)

Who would have thought that restoring cloud forests could help keep the lights on during periods of water scarcity and electricity rationing? This news may seem surprising — but as one of the scientists behind this research, I can tell you that it’s quite encouraging.

Electricity rationing has been a special concern lately for tropical countries like Brazil, which depend heavily on hydropower. This year, the risk of electricity shortages in the country tops 20%, well above the 5% the Brazilian government deems acceptable.

Why? To put it simply, there’s just not enough water. According to a recent article in The Economist, Brazil generates roughly 80% of its electricity from hydropower plants. Yet minimal rainfall coupled with high temperatures has meant that reservoirs in the southeast and west, which represent around 70% of Brazil’s total storage capacity, are currently only 40% full.

Other countries like Colombia have also been stricken by severe drought this year. Although there is no risk of electricity rationing, the public has been advised to save water as a precautionary measure. Some of the drought impacts have likely been exacerbated by poor environmental management — and if climate change continues to have the effect scientists predict, they won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

But here’s the good news: Cloud forests can help. Tropical cloud forests act like a sponge, filtering water, regulating flow to rivers and reducing sedimentation — important services that can prolong the life of dams. Continue reading

Getting Energy Prices Right — for a Cooler, Healthier Planet

Last month in a speech at the Center for Global Development, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde said, “When the environment is degraded, the economy is degraded.”

oil refinery, United States

Oil refinery in the United States. (© VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm)

For those of us that work in the environmental sphere, this is not news; CI has been saying that “people need nature to thrive” for years. However, when this statement is uttered by the woman running the world’s central bank, it’s a sign of just how much the global understanding of our economic system is shifting beneath our feet. Continue reading

Restoring Hawaiian Fishponds Important Step toward Seafood Security

fisherman, Hawaii

Fisherman in Hawai’i. (© Troy K Shinn/

Over the last several decades, many Native Hawaiians have taken up the ancient practice of Hanai i’a, or raising fish in loko i’a (fishponds) that were built by our ancestors.

These ponds once supplied as many as 2 million pounds [907,000 kilograms] of fish per year for local people. These days, many loko i’a are in disrepair; if they are ever to be as productive as they once were, they are in desperate need of restoration.

Approximately 400 traditional fishponds exist in Hawai’i today. Not one has been fully restored for fish production. For years, the main barriers that slowed this progress were the strenuous effort and time it took for fishpond practitioners to obtain all the necessary permits — 17 in total — that would allow for the ponds’ complete restoration. Continue reading

Conservation Tools: Africa’s Tech Boom Could Aid Farmers, Sustain Ecosystems

This is the latest blog in Human Nature’s “Conservation Tools” series, which spotlights how cutting-edge technology is helping scientists explore and protect the natural world. 

GPS device, Tanzania

GPS unit at the Vital Signs training in Tanzania. (© Benjamin Drummond)

We’ve all heard of Silicon Valley, but on the other side of the globe a new tech hotbed is gaining traction: Nairobi’s “Silicon Savannah.” In the past decade, Africa has experienced its own impressive burst of technology growth, and people around the world have taken notice.

As the executive director of Vital Signs, a monitoring system that collects agro-ecological and social data and develops tools for decision-making around sustainability in Africa, I’ve watched this development with growing interest. And now our project is honored to be partnering with Ushahidi, a global nonprofit technology company founded and rooted in Kenya. Continue reading

‘WildLeaks’ Encrypted Website Protects Wildlife Crime Whistle-blowers

gibbon rescued from illegal wildlife trade, Cambodia

Gibbon at a rescue center in Cambodia. The center houses many gibbons confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade that for various reasons cannot be released back into the wild. (© Conservation International/photo by Emilie Verdon)

Imagine for a moment that you’re a security guard at a busy, international seaport. You’ve noticed that throughout the last few months, a well-dressed businessman has been visiting the shipping container storage area at the port, associating with people he doesn’t normally interact with.

They meet at odd times, often outside of business hours. His visitors’ vehicles are always covered in dust or mud. Every time they meet, the businessman’s associates transfer several large bundles from their trucks into the container, which is nearly full.

Didn’t you see on the news that the port has been pinpointed as a hub for trafficking ivory? You know something isn’t right, but what can you do? Who do you tell? You need your job, and the businessman is very influential. Continue reading

Are Wildlife Declines Fueling Slavery and Armed Conflict?

girl chops fish, Indonesia.

A girl chops fish in Indonesia. A recent study suggests that declines in wildlife and fish populations contribute to social unrest, child labor and even slavery. (© ILO/Ferry Latief 2012)

Wildlife is in trouble. From vanishing gorillas and rhinos due to hunting in Africa, to losses of orangutans as their rainforest habitats are cleared in Southeast Asia, to declining sharks and tuna around the world due to overfishing, we hear often how wild animal populations are threatened by human activity.

A 2010 study reported that out of more than a dozen important indicators of global species status and the threats they face, most are worsening  — and none are improving. Yet these species are essential. Wildlife and fisheries are the primary means of putting protein on the table for more than a billion people. They are the key to livelihoods for many of the world’s poorest people, and the direct source of more than US$ 400 billion in trade annually.

Given their importance, it’s clear that decline of these populations will impact people. What’s surprising is that these impacts seem to be more far-reaching than previously thought.

In a recent study in the journal Science, University of California, Berkeley researcher Justin Brashares and colleagues suggest that declines in wildlife and fish populations contribute to social unrest, child labor and even slavery. Their analysis finds not just one case but a range of ways in which wildlife declines exacerbate existing social and political tensions and contribute to conflicts. Continue reading

Newly Discovered Whale Shark Population Brings Tourism Potential to Indonesian Communities

Read previous posts in correlation with Shark Week 2014.

whale shark under fishing platform, Indonesia

Whale shark under bagan (fishing platform) in Indonesia. (© Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock)

In late 2011, CI’s Mark Erdmann blogged about an exciting expedition tagging whale sharks in Cenderawasih Bay off the northern coast of West Papua, Indonesia. The trip was conducted in collaboration with WWF-Indonesia, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and the Cenderawasih National Park Authority. Data received from the tags exposed the migratory behavior of these mysterious creatures along Indonesia’s coasts.

In Kaimana, on West Papua’s southern coast, the recent discovery of another whale shark population has triggered similar research, providing us with vital information backing the development of critical regulations to protect these species and support a burgeoning whale shark tourism industry that is both sustainable and benefits local communities. Continue reading

Global Policy Needed to Keep Sharks in Our Oceans

It’s Shark Week again, which means it’s time for more shark-themed blogs! Check out Greg’s appearance in “Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss,” airing tonight at 9 p.m. EST on the Discovery Channel.

lemon shark in mangrove

A young lemon shark hunts in a mangrove forest. It’s been estimated that people kill around 100 million sharks each year. (© Matthew D Potenski 2011/Marine Photobank)

Sharks swim in every ocean. They are important not only for the complex ocean ecosystem, but for people everywhere who, believe it or not, benefit in some way from them.

The past decade has seen tremendous leaps forward in shark conservation around the world, but we still kill 100 million sharks a year. We have to do better. We need to adopt a global shark policy. Continue reading

Conservation Tools: Radar System Could be Instrumental in Protecting Sharks

This is the latest post in our “Conservation Tools” blog series, which spotlights how cutting-edge technology is helping scientists explore and protect the natural world. It’s also the first of our shark-related posts in tandem with the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week 2014.

hammerhead sharks

The waters of Cocos Island hold one of the highest numbers of marine predators in all the oceans — including record numbers of hammerhead sharks. (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

The only sounds are those of seabirds, the wind and the Pacific Ocean striking the ship. On the horizon is the island for which they have been searching the past few days. Its 1795, and explorer George Vancouver describes what he sees upon his arrival to Cocos Island:

“[sharks] assembled in the bay in very large shoals, constantly attending on our boats in all their motions […]” (excerpted from Callum Roberts’ 2007 book “The Unnatural History of the Sea”)

Explorers like Vancouver began visiting Cocos in the 1520s. Soon pirates came too, using the island as a temporary secret storage site for stolen goods.

Centuries later, the human presence around this remarkable island has evolved, but retains a common thread.

The “pirates” of this century do not come to hide treasure. They come to steal fish. But with the help of new technology, modern-day explorers — scientists like me — are teaming up with the Costa Rican government and local partners to stop them. Continue reading

3 Reasons Timorese Women Aren’t More Involved in Conservation Efforts

This blog is the third post in Human Nature’s new “Gender + Conservation” blog series; read previous posts.

women in Timor-Leste

Robela Mendes, a local leader In Com, Timor-Leste. Among other projects, she is working to start a community garden at this site to improve food security for the families of these and other women. (© World Wildlife Fund, Inc. / Tory Read)

Sitting at a seaside guesthouse in Com, a small community in Timor-Leste, I watched the moon rise over the ocean. Tiny lights began to flicker along the shoreline as women waded in the shallow waters of the reef flat, collecting crabs, octopus and sea urchins and using baskets woven from palm leaves to catch small fish.

Women in Timor-Leste interact with nature on a daily basis, but as the owner of the guesthouse, Robela Mendes, explained to me, women have a different relationship with natural resources than men. “It is important to get women involved in conservation, because they use natural resources too.”

It was the end of my research project, and I was about to return to Dili armed with stories and inspiration from the women of Nino Konis Santana National Park (NKSNP). Continue reading