My ‘aha!’ moment: A day in the life of an illegal logger

Sepahua, Peru

Sepahua, Peru in 2012, one decade after Natasha Calderwood completed the research project that set her on a conservation career path. (© Asier Solana Bermejo/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s (CI) 30th anniversary, this is the third 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 Natasha Calderwood, director of projects for CI’s Carbon Fund, that moment came during a summer she spent in the Peruvian Amazon. Read other posts in this series.

In 2002, I was completing my second year of an undergraduate degree in French and Spanish literature. But by the end of my first year I already knew a career in publishing or academia was not for me. So that summer, with a sense of adventure and a love for nature nurtured during my childhood in Mexico, I joined a seven-student research expedition to the Peruvian Amazon.

We were headed to a frontier riverine town called Sepahua, a settlement of 4,000 residents sandwiched between four ecologically important reserves rich with teak and mahogany. Fifteen years later, these forests are still home to a number of indigenous tribes who choose to isolate themselves from the outside world. Our team’s goal was to complete additional research on the threats — namely illegal logging and mining and gas exploration — that were putting increasing pressure on these forests and on the indigenous peoples who lived there.

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Behind an island landslide, a degraded forest

Coeur de Voh

New Caledonia’s “Coeur de Voh” is a heart-shaped patch of vegetation in Voh commune in the Northern Province of the island. (©cachou44/istockphoto)

Editor’s note: Human Nature is exploring the complexities of living in, using and protecting one of the planet’s most valuable types of ecosystems — tropical forests — in a series we’re calling “No forest, no future.” Read other posts in this series.

On November 22, 2016, a few weeks before New Caledonia’s rainy season normally begins, a night of unceasing rainfall in the island territory’s Néaoua Valley caused the greatest flood in human memory and numerous landslides that brought the earth crashing down on the 300 residents of two tribes in the community of Houailou. As the waters rose and hill slopes simultaneously collapsed, 70 houses were flooded and another 12 were buried or destroyed. Eight people disappeared, and the community found itself facing US$ 2 million in damages.

“The flood came up from the valley floor to my house so fast that I knew right away I couldn’t save anything; I only had time to run away,” said Kiki Marara from the Kamoui tribe. Maxime Poedi from the neighboring Goareu tribe added, “Within minutes after the flood hit my house, I heard a very loud noise, like an aircraft taking off — a wave of trees and rocks rushed down the mountain on the side of the valley. My brother’s house was eventually destroyed by this mixture of water, mud, wood and huge rocks the size of cars. We lost two people and are still missing two.”

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My ‘aha!’ moment: In Madagascar, a fisheries discussion without the fishers

woman octopus fisher in southwest Madagascar

In this remote community in southwest Madagascar, women fish for octopus in the shallows while the men take fishing boats out to deeper waters. In order to catch their prey, the women wait for the tide to recede, gather their children and spears, and head out to the reef flats where the octopus hide in their dens. (© Kame Westerman)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s (CI) 30th anniversary, this is the second post in an occasional series called “My ‘aha!’ moment,” in which Conservation International staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. On International Women’s Day, CI Gender Advisor Kame Westerman reflects on a realization she had while working with octopus fishers in Madagascar. Read other posts in this series. 

I was sitting on a narrow bench in the community center — a hot, dim room lit only by small windows and bright sunlight streaming in through cracks in the wooden walls. Outside, the sound of waves hitting the beach only 20 feet away and a slight dry breeze from inland provided some relief. At the front of the room stood Roger Samba an energetic man with graying hair and bright, kind eyes. He held the audience captive, leading them through the annual planning process for the local octopus fishery closures.

In this remote, arid region of southwest Madagascar, octopus is the area’s main income source, providing much-needed cash for nearly every family. For years now, the communities in this region have been closing off certain areas of their reef flats where reef and shoreline meet — for several months at a time to allow the fishery to recover. It has proven very successful, both biologically and economically, and has been replicated around the region, including in CI co-managed sites.

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Nature’s new ambassador: A conversation with Christiana Figueres

(Christina Figueres)

Christiana Figueres (left), executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, celebrates the historic adoption of the Paris Agreement on climate change in December, 2015 with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (second from left); Laurent Fabius (second from right), minister for foreign affairs of France and president of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris; and François Hollande (right), president of France. (© UN Photo/Mark Garten/Flickr Creative Commons)

Editor’s note: Seven years ago, Christiana Figueres was asked to do the impossible. Months after the failure of the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, she took the reins of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change with a mandate to rebuild the global diplomatic process on climate change. Five short years later, the world agreed to the first-ever binding global agreement on climate change in Paris, a stunning achievement for climate action. Now as a Lui-Walton Distinguished Fellow at Conservation International, Figueres is working to ensure that nature plays its part in making the Paris Agreement real. In this interview, Figueres talks cities, women and the climate change actions that must come next.

Question: Why is protecting nature important to fight climate change, and how are you using the Lui-Walton Innovators Fellowship to further your work?

Answer: I come mostly from an energy background. My association with Conservation International and with this fellowship is giving me an additional window into everything having to do with nature-based solutions, because nature is 30 percent of the problem and hence 30 percent of the solution to climate change. If we do a much better job at land use, if we do a much better job at reducing deforestation in the next few decades, if we do a much better job in agricultural practices, then we can reduce emissions, and we can make land much more productive, and we can make our forests much stronger sinks, or absorbers, of emissions. Over the next decades, by 2050 at the latest, we need to have a global economy that is not emitting any more than can be naturally absorbed by the planet, which means that land-based solutions are a very important part of that formula.

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How Incan ruins and Brazil nuts are fighting deforestation in Bolivia

Conservation International Bolivia's Daniel Maidana (seated, middle) and residents from the indigenous village of Macahua pose amid Incan archaeological ruins near the town

Conservation International Bolivia’s Daniel Maidana (seated, middle) and residents from the indigenous village of Macahua pose amid Incan archaeological ruins near the town. Through a conservation agreement, community members received tourism training in exchange for leaving the nearby forest standing. (© Conservation International/photo by Analiz Montano)

Editor’s note: Human Nature is exploring the complexities of living in, using and protecting one of the planet’s most valuable types of ecosystems — tropical forests — in a series we’re calling “No forest, no future.” Read other posts in this series.

In the forests of northwestern Bolivia, an Incan fortress bears witness to the architectural prowess of an ancient civilization.

However, for the indigenous Tacana nation, it also points toward a new future.

“We have decided that this area from which we used to extract wood will now be used for nature-based and archaeological tourism,” explained Javier Delgadillo, leader of the Tacana community of Macahua. “I think we have made the right decision.”

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Research: Climate change disrupting farming in Central America

Coffee farmer, Mexico

Farmers in Central America are already feeling the effects of climate change. Coffee farmers such as this man in Chiapas, Mexico will likely need to move to higher elevations in order to keep their crops productive. (© Joshua Trujillo, Starbucks)

A collection of new scientific papers has confirmed what many Central American farmers already know: climate change is affecting weather, ecosystems, agriculture and people in the region. Central America’s smallholder farmers are the most vulnerable to these effects, which include shifts in rainfall, temperature and water availability — not only because of their reliance on nature and the benefits it provides, but because they often have limited financial resources and the ability to adapt to a changing climate.

This new research by Conservation International (CI) and partners from more than 20 institutions addresses many aspects of climate change in Central America: the extent to which it’s affecting smallholder farmers, the crippling lack of access to timely data, and the absence of the analytical tools farmers and policymakers need to help this vulnerable population fight climate change and adapt to its impacts.

Lee Hannah, CI’s senior scientist for climate change biology, led the synthesis paper that summarizes the research and its key findings. “These results show that climate change will have major impacts on crop productivity, smallholder farmers and ecosystems in Central America. This research improves our ability to help the most vulnerable farmers and those in poverty,” Hannah said.

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In a career full of fish discoveries, these 5 species stand out

tubeworm dwarfgoby (Sueviota tubicola)

The tubeworm dwarfgoby (Sueviota tubicola), Mark Erdmann’s 100th new fish species description, resides in Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay. (© Conservation International/photo by Mark Erdmann)

The recent publication highlighting the discovery of a new reef fish in Papua New Guinea called the tubeworm dwarfgoby (Sueviota tubicola) marked an important milestone in my career: my 100th description of a new fish species, all completed during my 13 years at Conservation International (CI). (If you include the species I have both discovered and described, the number increases to over 150.)

Among those 100 fish that I have introduced to the scientific community, here are five of my favorites.

  1. The tilefish with the vanishing stripes
A species of tilefish (Hoplolatilus erdmanni) discovered by Mark Erdmann in Indonesia's Bird's Head region

A species of tilefish (Hoplolatilus erdmanni) discovered by Mark Erdmann in Indonesia’s Bird’s Head region. (© Gerald Allen)

During our first marine rapid assessment of Indonesia’s Kaimana coastline in the southern Bird’s Head region, I found a beautiful tilefish on a deep 70-meter (230-foot) dive. This striking fish builds large communal mounds of rubble that cover its labyrinthine burrows beneath. It bears a striking resemblance to another tilefish that my fellow scientist Dr. Gerry Allen and I had described, differing only in the presence of tiger stripes on its body.

When I first encountered this fish, I had very limited time to safely stay at this depth, and I had to choose between photographing and collecting the fish. I decided to collect it, but by the time I emerged from my very long dive, the specimen had died, and its stripes disappeared! Gerry was underwhelmed and reckoned I had hallucinated the stripes on the fish. This meant I had to do yet another very deep dive — this time as the sun was going down, and our survey time running out — to properly photograph the live fish in its natural habitat. I managed to find another mound and photograph the elusive tiger pattern, and Gerry decided on the spot to name the new species after me.

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What we’re reading: Water and climate change edition

Bolivia snow melt

La Paz, Bolivia depends on glacial melt for its freshwater supply. But climate change is causing the Andean glaciers to disappear, leaving residents without a vital resource. (© Conservation International/photo by John Martin)

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. La Paz adapts to a world without water

The story: La Paz, Bolivia, is feeling the heat of climate change. Situated in the “high tropics” zone, La Paz relies on two main sources for its water: nearby glaciers and seasonal rains that replenish the city’s reservoirs. The glaciers have all but dried up, and the rains aren’t coming, prompting the government to suddenly cut water to about half of its 800,000 residents last October.

As Popular Science reports, the situation in La Paz likely could have been prevented: “For years, scientists predicted that climate change would cause a devastating water shortage in the Andean plain.” NGOs pleaded for better water management strategies while an important lake dried up and winter rains decreased by 25 percent. Yet when a local professor warned the government in 2005, no action was taken.

What’s next: La Paz’s waterless future may already be set: “[B]ecause of Bolivia’s location and elevation, the Andean nation is experiencing the impact of … [its] carbon emissions at a far more accelerated pace than the U.S.” the professor, Edson Ramirez, said.

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To save Hawaiian fisheries, scientists look to locals for answers

fisher in Hawaii

In many coastal Hawaiian towns, small-scale fishers have a more thorough knowledge of the health of local fish populations than scientists do. (© Troy K Shinn/

Editor’s note: The world’s fisheries are in decline just as demand for seafood is rising. To restore and protect the overtaxed fisheries that 3 billion people depend on for their main source of protein, two new research papers propose that the scientific community must turn to the traditional knowledge and observation skills of local fishers.  

As the science adviser for Conservation International (CI) Hawai‘i, Eva Schemmel, lead author of the two studies, noticed that the state of Hawai‘i lacked the fish reproduction data necessary to effectively manage local fish populations sustainably. When she started visiting communities, however, she found well-informed people ready to get to work. We sat down with Schemmel to discuss her findings.

Question: How can communities help the state of Hawai‘i make its fisheries more sustainable?

Answer: In creating effective rules and regulations for maintaining small-scale or “coastal community” fisheries, there are two commonly used practices worldwide: setting size limits for catch, and closing down areas of the fishery during spawning. It’s important to allow fish to spawn at least once so they can replace themselves. But catch size limits should also be capped on the upper end: Bigger fish spawn more and have [healthier] offspring, so protecting them can have a big impact on overall fish numbers. Fishing for species while they are aggregating and spawning, which happens at certain locations and times of the year depending on the species, can quickly deplete fish populations, which is why closed seasons are important.

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‘Aha’ moment: A missing link in an island forest

Primatology students hike to their research site on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Primatology students hike to their research site on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua. (© Molly Bergen)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s 30th anniversary, this is the first post in an occasional series called “‘Aha’ moment,” in which Conservation International staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. In this piece, blog editor Molly Bergen kicks off the series with a story about how a brief academic detour in primatology led her to rekindle her interest in the monkeys’ human cousins.

If howler monkeys had more interesting social lives, things might have turned out differently.

I was halfway through a two-week field course on primate behavior on Ometepe Island, whose two forest-and farm-draped volcanoes emerge from the middle of freshwater-shark-filled Lake Nicaragua. At the moment, I was searching through the field station’s “library,” in this case a musty trunk full of yellowed scientific papers stored in a dark, cobwebbed closet.

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