‘We are not tourist attractions’: Indigenous leaders assert their voices in conservation

© Aaron Joel Santos/Aurora Photos

A Samburu warrior in traditional dress, Kenya. Indigenous peoples are key partners in conservation efforts around the world. (© Aaron Joel Santos/Aurora Photos)

Editor’s note: Today marks the last day of the United Nations conference on indigenous issues in New York, a session that marks the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. While this historic milestone affirmed indigenous peoples’ rights on a global scale for the first time, the world’s indigenous groups — stewards of nearly a quarter of Earth’s land and the vast majority of its wildlife — still face critical challenges.   

With that in mind, Conservation International helped create an Indigenous Advisory Group to collaborate directly with global indigenous leaders in strengthening conservation efforts alongside the communities that rely on nature the most. At a recent meeting of the group, Human Nature sat down with six experts — including Joenia Wapichana, Brazil’s first indigenous lawyer — to get their perspectives on indigenous-centered conservation.

Question: What is the greatest conservation challenge facing indigenous peoples today?

Ole Kaunga, Kenya: Right now, there’s a lot of conflict between conserved areas and access to resources for cultural and traditional reasons. In order to be complementary and not competitive, conservation needs to strike a critical balance between indigenous rights to natural resources and conservation. We need community-led and -owned initiatives to reduce conflicts and dispel the notion that conservation is a way to dispossess people of their lands.

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A 54-year conservation journey

Peter Seligmann

Peter Seligmann in Washington, D.C. (© Jeff Gale)

Editor’s note: Peter Seligmann is a giant of international conservation. As co-founder, chairman and outgoing CEO of Conservation International (CI), Seligmann has grown CI from an idea into one of the largest and most active environmental nonprofits worldwide. Over 30 years, CI has supported the conservation of over 600 million hectares (nearly 1.5 billion acres) of some of the Earth’s most critical lands and waters across 77 countries. These protections amount to the size of Indonesia, Mexico and the Democratic Republic of the Congo combined — a legacy visible from space. This week, Seligmann announced the new leadership team that will carry forward this work. In this post, he looks back on his career and points the way toward new horizons for protecting nature for the well-being of people everywhere.

My own conservation journey and the seeds of my determination to make a difference outside of government began in 1963. In July of that year, I worked in Wyoming on a ranch. My job was to irrigate pasture, which meant getting wet and dirty and waiting for water to flow from one ditch to the next. It was in those moments of waiting that I began to watch birds and insects, listen to the wind, and taste the sweetness of the tall grass. I knew then that I was hooked on nature.

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Researchers discover two tiny new primate species in a far-flung forest


Two species of tarsier — including Tarsius supriatnai, pictured — were recently discovered on Indonesia’s Sulawesi island. (© Conservation International/photo by Russ Mittermeier)

Two new species of tarsier — a tiny, nocturnal primate found only in parts of Southeast Asia — have been discovered on an island in Indonesia, a new study confirms.

With their adorably large eyes and prominent ears, tarsiers are rumored to have been the inspiration for Yoda from the “Star Wars” films. The new study, cannily published in the journal Primate Conservation on “Star Wars Day” — “May the Fourth be with you!” — raises a new hope for future forest conservation efforts in one of the world’s most exquisitely biodiverse regions.

“These two new species are the 80th and 81st primates new to science described since 2000 — this represents about 16 percent of all primate species known, and is indicative of how little we know of our planet’s unique and wonderful biodiversity,” said Russ Mittermeier, a primatologist with Conservation International (CI) and one of the study’s co-authors. “If we haven’t even gotten a handle on the diversity our closest living relatives, which by comparison are relatively well-studied, imagine how much we still have to learn about the rest of life on Earth.”

Tarsiers may as well have come straight out of a science-fiction film.

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Off Panama’s coast, divers resurrect a ‘ghost’ of the deep

Edgardo Ochoa wrestles with an abandoned fishing net he helped remove from a reef off Otoque Island, Panama. So-called “ghost nets” can ravage marine habitats for decades. (© Ramon Lepage)

Editor’s note: Edgardo Ochoa was scouting for dive training sites in Panama Bay in 2000 when he made a troubling discovery. Nearly two decades later, as a marine safety officer for Conservation International (CI), he was able to do something about it. This is his story. 

Back in 2000, as a unit diving officer at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, I was always looking for spots to train my divers. This search took me all over Panama Bay — sometimes to places with absolutely no value in terms of dive training, but sometimes to great sites.

One of the good ones is near Otoque Island, about 43 kilometers (27 miles) southwest of Panama City, with great underwater topography — boulders, cracks, crevices, a few short tunnels and a 24-meter (80-foot) wall — and a wealth of fish, sponges and corals. It was a healthy ecosystem and a perfect training site.

On my first exploration there, though, I found something I never wanted to find.

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In parched South Africa, herders find ally in nature

© Stevie Mann/ILRI/Flickr Creative Commons

Subsistence cattle ranching is a way of life for communities across southern Africa. (© Stevie Mann/ILRI/Flickr Creative Commons)

South Africa recently suffered its worst drought in recorded history, with devastating consequences for communities and wildlife in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere, which borders the famed Kruger National Park. The biosphere, designated by UNESCO in 2001, covers more than 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) and includes forests, grasslands and savanna.

The diverse landscape hosts 75 percent of South Africa’s terrestrial bird species and more than 100 threatened animal species, according to the IUCN Red List. Many of the region’s 1.5 million inhabitants rely directly on the area’s natural capital — the stock of natural resources that combine to provide benefits to people — for survival.

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Statesman of the melting North: A conversation with Ólafur Grímsson

Ólafur Grímsson

Former president of Iceland and current Distinguished Fellow through Conservation International’s new Lui-Walton Innovators Fellowship, Ólafur Grímsson. (© Arctic Circle)

Editor’s note: After 20 years as president of Iceland, Ólafur Grímsson stepped down last year as the longest-serving democratically elected head of state in the world. Under his leadership, Iceland embraced its role on the world stage as a living example of both the impacts of climate change and the promise of climate action. Now as chairman of the Arctic Circle, a network of international dialogue on Arctic issues, and a Lui-Walton Distinguished Fellow at Conservation International, Grímsson is working to advance a new model of social change — one that relies more on mass mobilization than on government decree.  

Tomorrow, marchers will gather in Washington, D.C. and across the United States to raise awareness about climate change. Human Nature sat down with Grímsson to discuss melting glaciers, 100 percent clean energy — and the changing nature of political movements and local action.

Question: How is the Arctic experiencing the effects of climate change? What evidence do you see in Iceland? 

Answer: In Iceland, we have the largest glaciers in Europe, and we have been studying them for more than half a century. And so we do not need to go to international conferences to realize that climate change is happening. Prior to the Paris climate conference in 2015, I flew the president of France, François Hollande, in a helicopter to one of our fastest receding glaciers. I let the helicopter land not at the edge of the glacier but where it was when I was born. And then I let the president of France walk across the black sands and the wet rocks and this area for almost half an hour so that he could personally experience how fast that particular glacier had receded just during my lifetime.

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My ‘aha!’ moment: It started with a stove

Cookstove in North Sumatra

Kasiaro Kalawa and Maslan Lubis use a fuel efficient cookstove in Nanggar Jati village in Tapanuli Selatan, North Sumatra. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s (CI) 30th anniversary, this is the latest post in an occasional series called “My ‘aha!’ moment,” in which CI staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. For Hank Cauley, senior vice president for CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, the journey began with a stint in Somalia and a groundbreaking stove. Read other posts in this series.

I was a kid in the time of the oil embargo back in the ’70s; it really just struck me as a big deal. It led to a decision and interest in energy issues, but energy in the sense of the really critical engineering side. That’s why I went into chemical engineering, which is really about heat and mass transfer, and so you really become good at thinking about energy issues.

I ended up working for an engineering consulting company here in the D.C. area, and did a lot of work with alcohol fuels back then. But I was just bored out of my mind. I like living on the edge, so since I had a couple thousand dollars in the bank, I quit and went to work for a small nonprofit doing what was called “appropriate technology.” They needed someone to go to Somalia to do some building projects in the refugee camps, so I went out there and started building some health clinics and schools. Before I left, they said, “You should see if there’s an opportunity to do something with stoves.”

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Europe moves to restrict import of unsustainable palm oil

Oil palm cultivation in Malaysia. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a resolution aiming to limit the import of palm oil that has caused deforestation. The Parliament also called for new sustainability criteria for palm oil entering the European market. The Parliament’s report, while not binding, could pave the way for binding legislation in Europe that could reshape the palm oil industry.

In a recent interview, Human Nature spoke with Cecile Schneider, a European policy manager at Conservation International (CI), about the report and its ramifications for one of the most widely used commodities in the world.

Question: It seems that Europe has been especially active on trying to ensure sustainability of palm oil. Can you give us some context?

Answer: Palm oil is nearly ubiquitous in consumer products but it has been linked to deforestation; about 80 percent of deforestation worldwide is caused by unsustainable agricultural expansion. Of course this has negative impacts for the climate, for biodiversity and critical habitats as well as for human health.

But by importing these products — which include not just palm oil but beef, soy, maize, rice, cocoa and timber — the European Union (EU) is part of this problem. Between 1990 and 2008, for example, the EU was the leading importer of products linked to deforestation — causing an area of deforestation at least the size of Portugal.

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3 reasons for optimism this Earth Day

Elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust center in Kibwezi, Kenya. New findings are changing what we know about how protected areas work. (© Conservation International/photo by Charlie Shoemaker)

This Earth Day (April 22), you could be forgiven for feeling gloomy about the state of our planet.

No human who has ever lived has seen the things we’re seeing now: Rising temperatures are melting glaciers, bleaching coral reefs and putting islands at risk of vanishing. Pollution is clogging our coasts. Wildlife face mass extinctions.

Humanity has never faced challenges on this scale — but we’ve never had the tools we now have to solve them. With that in mind, here are but a few reasons to be hopeful this Earth Day.

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Got ‘climate change fatigue’? Watch this

Tired of hearing about climate change? That’s normal. A new miniseries explains why, and what we can do about it. Photo: Sumatran tiger. (© Vi Chu)

As “big” problems go, climate change is in a class of its own: maddeningly complex, almost intangible, and bespeaking a kind of dread that makes you just want to stop thinking about it.

“Climate change is the policy problem from hell,” says Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, in a new video miniseries that kicks off today. “You almost couldn’t design a worse problem for our underlying psychology or the way our institutions make decisions.”

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