A scientific treasure hunt to find — and save — nature’s ‘capital’

floating village, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

The floating village of Akol in the middle of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. The lake — the world’s fourth-largest inland fishery — provides the main source of protein for one-third of the country’s population. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

At Conservation International (CI), we like to say, “People need nature to thrive.” But behind that statement are countless questions revealing a more complicated reality: Where is the nature that people need? Which places are most important to protect? And how much can we chip away at various ecosystems before their value is compromised?

Take Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The nation’s 15 million residents are directly dependent on nature for fish to eat, drinking water and meeting other basic needs. As the Cambodian government strives to develop the country’s economy and improve the lives of its people, it must balance development with the need to maintain the lifeline that nature provides for people.

If nature is not adequately protected, human well-being will ultimately decline. Figuring out which places and resources are most critical to conserve is the first step.

To help countries meet this challenge, a team of scientists at CI has developed a framework for mapping essential “natural capital” — the biodiversity and ecosystems that support human well-being. Cambodia was one of the first places we tested it out.

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5 things you might not know about mountains and climate change

Los Glaciares National Park (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Mountains are seemingly timeless structures, but that doesn’t mean they are invulnerable to change. Climate change poses significant threats to mountain ranges around the world. including this one in Argentina. (© Art Wolfe/ www.artwolfe.com)

Ancient. Enduring. Unshakable?

The health of the world’s mountains is not set in stone. As the climate changes, mountains are changing, and their contributions to the health of the planet — and to human well-being — could shift in ways we cannot predict.

On March 15, Conservation International released “Mountain,” the newest film in its “Nature Is Speaking” series. Voiced by the actor Lee Pace, the film seeks to give a voice to the world’s mountains and to highlight the threats that they face.

While much attention is focused on protecting forests, wetlands and coral reefs, mountains are sometimes taken for granted — yet climate change could crumble their ability to support life as we know it.

Here are a few things you might not know about mountains. Continue reading

Q&A on the business of conservation: Coffee, greenwashing, storytelling

Singapore skyline at night

Singapore skyline. Ensuring sustainable economic growth worldwide requires working with corporations in places like this city-state, which is a global business hub. (© Lucian Teo)

Going “green” is not an extra feature for businesses — it’s now mainstream, according to a leading conservation scientist who emphasized the need for businesses to tell their sustainability stories in a more compelling way.

Speaking in a Q&A session at the eighth annual GreenBiz conference in Arizona earlier this month, Conservation International (CI) Chief Scientist and Executive Vice President M. Sanjayan shared his experiences with host Joel Makower about CI’s work with businesses — and about future trends in the business and sustainability world.

Edited highlights from Sanjayan’s discussion:

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Fishing ban in remote Pacific waters is working, report finds

Phoenix Islands Protected Area. (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)

A lively reef in the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, set aside as a marine protected area by the island nation of Kiribati in 2006. Commercial fishing was banned there in 2015. (© Keith A. Ellenbogen)

A ban on commercial fishing in one of the world’s most significant hotspots of marine biodiversity appears to be working, according to a new report.

The proof is in the pictures — in this case, satellite images compiled by Global Fishing Watch, a web-based platform developed by the marine conservation organization Oceana, in partnership with Google and SkyTruth. Continue reading

On remote Philippine island, female forest rangers are a force to be reckoned with

Nolsita Siyang, forest ranger, Palawan, Philippines

Nolsita Siyang, a forest ranger who regularly patrols the protected area surrounding her village on the island of Palawan, Philippines. (© Conservation International/photo by Tim Noviello)

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), Human Nature is spotlighting “conservation heroines” around the globe. In this piece, we meet Nolsita Siyang, an indigenous farmer and mother of 10 who also finds time to patrol her community’s ancestral home as a forest ranger. 

Nolsita Siyang has not had an easy life. A member of the Palawan indigenous group on the southern end of the Philippine island of the same name, she has spent most of her nearly five decades farming a small plot of land on the slopes of the Mount Mantalingahan mountain range.

Siyang lives in Raang, a mist-shrouded, thatch-roofed village accessible only by a winding footpath that becomes a river of mud during the rainy season.

About 10 years ago, her husband, Federico, had a stroke, leaving him mostly incapacitated. Now the family relies primarily on the income she brings in. Each week, Siyang — usually accompanied by several of her 10 children — trudges several kilometers down the footpath from her village to the market in the lowlands, carrying surplus corn, peanuts and other wares on her back in hopes of making a sale.

Between caring for her land, making trips to the market and looking after her family, Siyang doesn’t have a lot of spare time, yet she chooses to spend it volunteering as a forest ranger, patrolling the protected area surrounding her village.

Why does she do this? Siyang’s community is linked to the land by tradition, spirituality and survival. If the land isn’t protected, life as she knows it will cease to exist. Together with her only daughter, she is proving that women play a vital role in securing their community’s future.

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In Cambodian floating villages, a bold voice helps women boost income

woman fishing, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

In the floating villages on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, women are especially vulnerable to poverty; they have less access to land and property rights, credit, paid employment, education and health services than men do. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), Human Nature is spotlighting “conservation heroines” around the globe. This piece takes us to a floating village in the middle of one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries, where Srey Mom Keng is banding together with fellow female fishers in search of higher and more sustainable incomes. 

For approximately 1 million people, the floating villages in the middle of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake have everything they need — not just their homes, but also floating gas stations, schools, gardens, even pigsties. The lake is the fourth-most productive inland fishery in the world, providing more than one-third of all the protein eaten by Cambodia’s 15 million people. It is no surprise that these fish — and the flooded forests where the fish live — support the livelihoods of almost everyone who lives on or around the lake.

Or at least they once did. As Cambodia’s population grows and more people migrate to the Tonle Sap floodplain in search of work opportunities, the lake and its resources are being stretched thin. From 1998 to 2008, the number of full-time fishers on the lake grew by 38%; part-time fishers grew 33%. Overfishing and deforestation of surrounding forests for fuelwood and to make space for rice farming and other activities mean that there are fewer fish to be found in the lake — and making a living there is becoming more difficult.

High male fatality rates during the Cambodian civil war and its aftermath has resulted in a disproportionate number of female-led households on the lake. Yet because local Khmer tradition prescribes a passive role for women, these women still have few opportunities to participate in community decision-making. They are also particularly vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity; women have less access to land and property rights, credit, paid employment, education and health services than men do.

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Photo essay: In South Africa, a woman’s struggle to sustain the land that sustains her

Shepherd Gertruida Cloete, 70, prepares for a day following her livestock as they graze near Leliefontein, South Africa

Shepherd Gertruida Cloete, 70, prepares for a day following her livestock as they graze near Leliefontein, South Africa. (© Charlie Shoemaker)

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), Human Nature is spotlighting “conservation heroines” around the globe. In this piece, photographer Charlie Shoemaker and Conservation South Africa’s (CSA) Tessa Mildenhall spent a day with Gertruida Cloete, a herder in Namaqualand who — at an age when many people are slowing down — continues to face daily hardships while struggling to make a living and protect her fragile, wild homeland.
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Q&A: How the coffee sector is mapping a path toward global sustainability

Coffee Beans In An Open Burlap Sack. (© Migin)

Coffee is a staple beverage worldwide and a major source of income for many farmers in the tropics where coffee is grown. However, an unpredictable mix of market forces and climate change threaten the global stability and sustainability of the crop. (© Migin)

Editor’s note: The 600 billion cups of coffee we consume every year globally start out as berries on trees in the tropics. In the coming years, those trees — and the farmers who harvest and export their beans — will be buffeted by an unpredictable mix of market forces and climate change, threatening the global stability and sustainability of coffee and of the forests and farms that make it possible.

In response, the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, a new initiative launched in part by Conservation International (CI), aims to make coffee the world’s first completely sustainable agricultural commodity. The initiative, still in its formative stages, will begin to take shape at the upcoming World Coffee Conference in Ethiopia.

With major organizations adding momentum to the effort, the next step is providing direction, as Bambi Semroc, a CI senior strategic adviser, explains in the following interview. With forecasts of growing demand and a changing climate, she says, the time to protect this crucial crop is now.

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Cyclone devastation in Fiji latest sign of worrying trend in Pacific Islands

building destroyed by Cyclone Winston, Fiji

Building flattened by Cyclone Winston in Ra province, Fiji. The storm, which hit the island on February 20, is the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. (© Conservation International/photo by Bridget Kennedy)

A week ago, Tropical Cyclone Winston smashed into Fiji with ferocious force. By the time it reached the island’s shores, the storm had escalated into a Category 5 event, with gusts of wind reaching 325 kilometers (200 miles) per hour. It was the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere.

The extent of the devastation across Fiji is astonishing. The death toll has reached 43 people and is expected to rise. The winds demolished farms and collapsed buildings, folded concrete electric poles, twisted palm trees and scattered metallic debris across the countryside. The Fijian government has declared a 30-day state of emergency, as electricity and cell phone coverage is slowly restored and debris is piled along the roadside. According to UNICEF’s latest report, roughly 39,000 people continue to be sheltered in evacuation centers.

As I’ve taken in the scale of the damage and watched communities begin the long process of rebuilding, the importance of protecting and restoring healthy ecosystems to bolster and defend vulnerable coastal communities against increasingly hostile weather — in Fiji, across the Pacific and around the globe — has never been clearer.

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Tourism, traditions combine in fight to save a threatened forest

Dino Cabrera Mestanza in Tingana, Peru

Dino Cabrera Mestanza, a 24-year-old son of an organic coffee farmer who was raised in Tingana, Peru and now works as a consultant for CI’s BioCuencas project. He is using his university degree in environmental engineering to help his hometown restore their flooded forest. (© Adrian Portugal)

Editor’s note: Deep in the Peruvian Amazon, a remote, flooded forest supports a menagerie of life and livelihoods — but faces increasing incursions from farmland and fertilizers that threaten the vitality of this unique wetland. In this piece, Paulina Jenney gives an inside look at how a small community took charge as caretakers of the nature around them.

The journey to the world’s highest flooded forest begins on a winding dirt road out of the city of Moyobamba, Peru. About an hour’s drive down the road, there is a small dock, where visitors climb into a long, wooden boat called a pekepeke, named for the noise the motor makes.

The boat gurgles down the Avisado River, startling white herons from the reeds. As the channel narrows, the captain stands up and pulls the boat around overhanging vegetation. After half an hour, a small stream branches to the right, and a sign reading “Tingana” marks the exit on this aquatic highway.

Tingana lies just east of the Andes in the rainforests of northern Peru’s Alto Mayo region. As one of the last remaining wetlands in the area, it’s a stronghold for swamp-loving plants and animals, like kingfishers and the San Martín titi monkey (found nowhere else on Earth), that attract researchers and tourists from around the world. It’s also home to a small community of about 25 families who depend on this land — and water — for survival.

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