As dams rise along the Mekong, can leaders balance nature and development?

The floating village of Akal in the middle of Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake

The floating village of Akal in the middle of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

Last month, Laos announced plans to move forward with the development of a third controversial hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River.

For the government of Laos, the newest dam is part of a larger plan to develop and export hydroelectricity, which could, in turn, mean a boost for the Southeast Asian country’s struggling economy. But critics say development of the dam is short-sighted and could lead to dangerous consequences for the river, which snakes through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before reaching the sea in Vietnam. The dam, critics say, could further disrupt fish migration and the flow of water and nutrient-rich sediment to the fields and inland fisheries that nearly 60 million people depend on for their protein and livelihoods.

Balancing energy production with conservation is an age-old dilemma. Now, a new tool could help enable simpler — and smarter — decisions in places like the Mekong watershed where complex water flows are concerned.

Continue reading

Best of 2016: For 70-year-old herder, never too late to become an environmentalist

Shepherd Gertruida Cloete, 70, spends each day following her livestock as they graze outside of Leliefontein, South Africa. (© Charlie Shoemaker)

Shepherd Gertruida Cloete, 70, spends each day following her livestock as they graze outside of Leliefontein, South Africa. (© Charlie Shoemaker)

Editor’s note: As the end of 2016 approaches, Human Nature is revisiting some of our favorite stories of the year. To support crucial conservation work like this, consider making a donation to Conservation International.  

Most days, Gertruida Cloete rises before dawn, walks three kilometers to tend to her livestock, follows them for hours as they graze and then treks back home. In the dry, punishing landscape of South Africa’s Namaqualand, where Cloete lives, it’s a long day for anyone — let alone a 70-year-old woman.

Climate change impacts such as more frequent droughts are expected to make farming in this area more difficult, forcing herders like Cloete to change their traditional practices. To help farmers adapt to these changes, Conservation South Africa is working with them through initiatives such as the Biodiversity and Red Meat farming cooperative. The cooperative gives farmers a range of incentives to help maintain the condition of the veld (grassland) and the water in their pastures.

See a day in the life of Gertrude Cloete in this post from March.

GIVE BACK TO NATURE

Donate to Conservation International to support conservation heroes like Gertruida Cloete.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International. 

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. 

What on Earth is ‘conservation finance’?

Patagonian landscape, Argentina

Patagonia, Argentina. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Editor’s note: From “climate adaptation” to “ecosystem services,” environmental jargon is everywhere these days. Conservation International’s Human Nature blog looks to make sense of it in an occasional explainer series we’re calling “What on Earth?

In this installment, we break down “conservation finance,” which isn’t as dull as it sounds — and which might be the final frontier for protecting nature.

What is ‘conservation finance’?

“Conservation finance” refers generally to a range of financial mechanisms that can help fund the conservation of nature.

Ok. But why do we need to pay for conservation in the first place?

The short answer is that conservation is often just one choice among many that countries and communities make. For example, if you own an acre of tropical forest, leaving the forest in place likely won’t generate the income and livelihoods that you are seeking. So, you may sell the trees for timber and put a farm there — which will make you money in the short term but may not be sustainable over the long term.

Conservation finance seeks to flip that script by aligning incentives to make standing forests (or other ecosystems) more valuable standing than cut. This can create powerful monetary incentives to keep ecosystems intact while still accounting for people’s reliance on these places for their lives and livelihoods.

Continue reading

Why ‘walking’ sharks are at greater risk of extinction than we thought

Hemiscyllium halmahera), one of nine species of walking shark

The Halmahera bamboo shark (Hemiscyllium halmahera), one of nine species of walking shark known to inhabit the waters around Australia and the island of New Guinea. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

Editor’s note: Conservation International (CI) Vice President of Asia Pacific Marine Programs Mark Erdmann is a pioneer in the study of walking sharks, having discovered three of the nine total species over the past 10 years. New research reveals that the species’ ranges are significantly smaller than previously thought, which could put their survival more in doubt. 

My fascination with walking sharks began a decade ago, when I first encountered one of these strikingly colored animals on a night dive while conducting a CI-led marine Rapid Assessment Program survey of Cendrawasih Bay in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape.

Also known as bamboo or epaulette sharks, these curious little bottom sharks are only active at night, when they emerge from hiding places to “walk” about the reef in search of food. Though seemingly a peculiar mode of locomotion for a shark, they are adapted for poking their heads under corals and into nooks and crannies in search of crabs, shrimps, small fishes and various mollusks; they can even use this skill to crawl above water between isolated tide pools.

Continue reading

Best of 2016: Hummingbirds give illegal logger new hope

Crimson topaz hummingbird in Guyana. A favorite of many bird-watchers, hummingbirds can be found across much of South America, including Peru's Alto Mayo region, where illegal logger turned coffee farmer Norbil Becerra has set up a small (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Crimson topaz hummingbird in Guyana. A favorite of many bird-watchers, hummingbirds can be found across much of South America, including Peru’s Alto Mayo region, where illegal logger turned coffee farmer Norbil Becerra earns extra income by allowing bird-watching tourists on his farm. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Editor’s note: As the end of 2016 approaches, Human Nature is re-sharing some of our favorite stories of the year. To support crucial conservation work and help us continue to spread the word, consider making a donation to Conservation International.  

For Norbil Becerra, a career dedicated to protecting hummingbirds and their forest habitat in Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest (AMPF) was an unexpected — but welcome — change.

After years of earning his livelihood by illegally cutting down trees for logging companies in the Peruvian Amazon, Becerra heard about a new opportunity for coffee farmers in the AMPF, which despite its protected status had Peru’s second-highest deforestation rate at the time. As part of a new conservation initiative, farmers received help to improve the quality of their coffee crops in exchange for not clearing additional forest.

Recognizing this opportunity, Becerra began working as a coffee farmer — but his focus took an unexpected twist after a visit to a community-owned reserve that provides habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Read the original post.

GIVE BACK TO NATURE

Donate to Conservation International to support conservation heroes like Norbil Becerra.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for Conservation International.

Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. 

What we’re reading: good news edition

Rhino cow and baby in South Africa

Rhino cow and baby in South Africa. New advancements in forensics technology could make it easier to track where seized illegal wildlife products came from. (© South African Tourism/Flickr Creative Commons)

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. World CO2 emissions stay flat for third year, helped by China falls: study

The story: In 2016, global emissions are projected to rise 0.2 percent from 2015 — a negligible amount, particularly when compared with 3 percent growth rates in the 2000s. Much of this is due to reduced economic growth and coal consumption in China; the country’s carbon emissions are projected to fall 0.5 percent this year. In the United States, emissions will likely fall 1.7 percent in 2016, also due to reduced coal use.

What’s next: As scientists reported at the U.N. climate talks in Marrakech, it’s too soon to tell whether this reflects a peak in global emissions, partially because emissions in developing countries continue to rise. Much will also depend on continued emissions reductions in China, which accounts for almost 30 percent of emissions worldwide, as well as continued clean energy development in the U.S. Continue reading

In Morocco, world’s nations reaffirm commitment to climate change action

Moroccan vlllage in the Dades Valley.

Moroccan vlllage in the Dades Valley. The latest round of U.N. climate talks recently concluded in Marrakech. (© Mauro Pezzotta)

For the past two weeks, the world has come together here in Morocco to begin the urgent task of making last year’s Paris climate agreement a reality.

Paris was an historic achievement, as 193 countries from all corners of the globe recognized the severe threat posed by climate change and agreed to act as never before. With the Paris Agreement now in force, the Marrakech climate talks at the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22) served as a foundational conversation on implementing the landmark climate accord and galvanizing action toward concrete solutions.

Continue reading

Charting a sustainable path in a land of peat, oil palm and pollution

Smallholder oil palm plantations are a common sight in Mandailing Natal, in Indonesia's North Sumatra province.

Smallholder oil palm plantations are a common sight in Mandailing Natal, in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Editor’s note: In Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producer, the crop is critically important to the livelihoods of the smallholder farmers who grow about 40 percent of it. But too often, palm oil represents a trade-off between economic expansion and clearing forest and peatland areas that are important for conservation, raising the question of how to expand production of a commodity like palm oil without degrading the environment.

Conservation International (CI) is tackling this problem through its Sustainable Landscapes Partnership (SLP) program, which works to reconcile the conservation of natural capital — the sources of the benefits that nature provides to people — while supporting sustainable development. In a recent interview, the senior technical advisor of CI Indonesia’s terrestrial program, Simon Badcock, explains how the SLP is helping preserve species-rich areas, reduce deforestation and educate farmers about how they can maximize productivity.

Question: Can you give us a brief background on the state of the palm oil industry in Indonesia and why it has expanded so much?

A: Palm oil’s rapid growth can be traced to two things: productivity and versatility. Not only is its production more land-efficient than other oils, it can be used by many industries in many different products, ranging from pharmaceuticals to foods like ice cream and cookies, to the products that we use every day it’s even in toothpaste. If you go into the supermarket, you’ll see it in almost everything.

However, in Indonesia large islands like Sumatra, Kalimantan and West Papua contain incredibly important areas for conservation they have a lot of unique plants and animals, they’re important for water, etc. And so as the palm oil industry has expanded rapidly over the last 10 or 15 years, there’s been significant deforestation and loss of biodiversity. So one of the challenges now for the country is figuring out how to create a development path that has less impact on the environment.

Continue reading

Earth’s last stewards: 5 questions for Peter Seligmann

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape. (© Conservation International/photo by Will Turner)

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape. (© Conservation International/photo by Will Turner)

Editor’s note: For nearly 30 years, Conservation International (CI) has sought to protect the natural ecosystems that make life possible for all people on Earth. In order to do this, one strategy the organization has returned to time and again is working with local indigenous populations — also an important approach for the Emerson Collective, a group dedicated to removing barriers to opportunity so people can live to their full potential. Emerson Collective President and Founder — and CI Board Member — Laurene Powell Jobs recently sat down with Peter Seligmann, chairman and CEO of CI, to discuss the enormous potential of indigenous peoples in the preservation of the natural world. This post was originally published on the Emerson Collective website.

Question: For decades, the work of protecting nature meant sequestering it from the impact of humans. CI, on the other hand, has a different approach, recognizing that conservation serves not just nature but also humanity. Can you walk us through your premise of connectedness and how that thinking has matured over time?

Answer: We’re all connected — all humans rely on nature. If nature doesn’t thrive, we don’t thrive: It generates crucial benefits in the form of fresh water, reliable food, a stable climate and protection from storms and floods, and so much more.

Earlier in our history at CI, we solely focused on protecting biodiversity hotspots — places where rare species are highly concentrated and endangered — and we had great success. But we saw that over time, the world was still losing forests, people were still overfishing, climate change was still getting worse, and so on. And at the same time, we began to look at our dependence on nature, not just as repositories of species but generators of these benefits services that we need to survive.

So, our approach has evolved. Today, everywhere we work we do so with local communities and indigenous peoples. They are the best and most long-standing stewards of nature. We work with businesses because businesses influence what we eat, buy, drink and wear and can scale ideas rapidly. And we work effectively with governments worldwide.

Continue reading

As native plants vanish, parched Moroccan peaks get seeds of hope

Planting wild lavender seedlings at a nursery in Morocco's High Atlas Mountains. (© Inanc Tekguc, for Global Diversity Foundation)

Planting wild lavender seedlings at a nursery in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. Lavender’s medicinal and aromatic qualities make it a popular plant for both household use and for sale at market. (© Inanc Tekguc, for Global Diversity Foundation)

Editor’s note: In its efforts to support crucial conservation efforts from the ground up, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) — a joint initiative of Conservation International and six partners — has spent 15 years awarding grants to small non-governmental organizations in important ecosystems across the planet. A version of this post, about a project reviving native plants and protecting livelihoods in the Moroccan mountains, was originally published on CEPF’s blog.

Within sight of the convention center in Marrakech, Morocco, where negotiators from around the globe are gathered for the latest U.N. climate talks, are the stark peaks of the High Atlas Mountains, where a rising number of droughts and floods are among threats facing the native vegetation that supports the livelihoods and well-being of Amazigh (Berber) indigenous communities.

The valley of Ait Bouguemez, near the town of Azilal in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains.

The valley of Ait Bouguemez, near the town of Azilal in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. (© Inanc Tekguc, for Global Diversity Foundation)

The mountains, which fall within the Mediterranean Basin biodiversity hotspot, are teeming with thousands of plant species, hundreds of which are endemic, or found nowhere else on Earth. The remote and largely self-sustaining communities in the region depend on these plants, both to sell and for sustenance and medicinal use to fight ailments such as stomachaches, joint pain and flu. But overharvesting and livestock overgrazing — along with climate change-exacerbated drought and floods — have had a serious negative impact on this fragile ecosystem. And though locals may know that certain plant populations are threatened, their need to support their families doesn’t give them much choice but to harvest.

Recognizing this challenge, CEPF grantee Global Diversity Foundation chose two communities — Imegdale and Ait M’hamed — for a pilot project. The organization’s aim: to improve local livelihoods while simultaneously reducing the pressure on medicinal and endemic plant species.

Continue reading