"Success at Durban will build upon the 2010 Cancun Agreements and establish a basis for a post-2012 comprehensive climate agreement. This is critical. Without progress under the UNFCCC, we will struggle to get countries to commit to binding emission reduction targets, and without these, we will be looking at catastrophic climate change effects for ecosystems and people."
– Sarshen Marais
Sarshen Marais has always lived in an environment rich in nature. "I live in Cape Town, within the Cape Floristic Region biodiversity hotspot. Table Mountain sits on my doorstep — a place so remarkable that it has just been added to the list of the 'new seven wonders of the world,'" she says.
She was also raised in a family that values nature. Her mother lives on a wine farm and influenced the owners to become both biodiversity and wine champions by initiating visitor walks along the foothills surrounding the farm, where there are remaining patches of critically endangered fynbos plants. Guides explain the need to conserve the services provided by ecosystems, as development advances around us.
Whether it was nature or nurture that led Sarshen to become a conservationist, those who are concerned about climate change will be glad she is there in Durban, South Africa, as a delegate to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP 17 meeting. Decisions will be made there that could affect everything from the fynbos to the world at large.
Durban: Critical Moment for Headway on Climate Talks
As Director for Policy and Markets for Conservation South Africa (CSA), a CI affiliate organization, climate change is one of Sarshen's focus areas. About the upcoming meeting in Durban, she says: "Success at Durban will build upon the 2010 Cancun Agreements and establish a basis for a post-2012 comprehensive climate agreement. This is critical. Without progress under the UNFCCC, we will struggle to get countries to commit to binding emission reduction targets, and without these, we will be looking at catastrophic climate change effects for ecosystems and people."
With strong representation at Durban from both CI and CSA, Sarshen is hopeful that headway will be made in this complex, but critically important, arena. She and her colleagues at CSA will contribute in three major areas:
- Supporting CI's policy team to work toward an outcome in Durban that brings about advances in agreements, particularly in the area of ecosystem-based adaptation, to support conservation efforts. (In other words, acknowledgement by nations of the important role of ecosystems in enabling people to adapt to the realities of climate change.)
- Profiling essential ecosystem services through engagement with the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
- Engaging the business sector through a series of events done in partnership with the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, Wildlands Conservation Trust and Ogilvy Earth. These events will focus on the role business should play to support adaptation and sustainability, as well as payment for ecosystem services — an approach that can create incentives for sustainable land and watershed management.
On the Ground: Connecting Business and Government to Conservation
When she is not participating in meetings such as COP 17, Sarshen advances conservation activities on the ground. She focuses on ensuring that conservation work in Namaqualand — home to world-famous spring wildflower displays — and the Eastern Cape region is supported and integrated into regional and national policy and supported by the private sector.
"We have to show government and business the importance of healthy ecosystems in helping build the resilience of people and nature to the impacts of climate change," Sarshen says.
To gain support from the government and business communities, Sarshen leads capacity-building efforts that help key stakeholders better understand the role ecosystems play in supporting both climate adaptation and mitigation. Other capacity-building initiatives focus on building stakeholders' ability to advance approaches such as payment for ecosystem services and sustainable agriculture, building on the work of the GreenChoice alliance hosted by CSA. These efforts aim to support implementation of climate change approaches on the ground and the establishment of "green economies" that are built on the principle of sustainable development.
Through this work, Sarshen has helped to ensure that South African climate change policy recognizes the importance of ecosystems in adaptation, and has advanced pilot projects that use ecosystem-based approaches to help people to adapt to climate change.
Healing Powers: From Physical Therapist to Climate Guru
Sarshen's career path in conservation was inspired mainly by climate change. "We have an opportunity to change our behavior from a high-consumption, energy-driven society to one that is based on the concept of sustainability," she says. "The time to act is now. We all have a role to play in stopping the destruction of our planet."
For three years, Sarshen was a manager at South Africa's Climate Action Partnership (CAP), where she managed a collaboration among eight of South Africa's larger NGOs to find climate change solutions. CAP — which promotes healthy ecosystems as a strategy to reduce climate impacts and to help people adapt to inevitable changes — was initiated by CSA and continues as a conservation alliance with CSA as a partner.
Before earning her Master's in Environmental Management at University of Cape Town and joining the conservation sector, Sarshen earned a Bachelor's of Science in Physiotherapy (physical therapy) and practiced for six years. She acknowledges a close link between healing people's bodies and her work at CSA with ecosystems.
"A lot of what I loved and enjoyed about helping people heal their bodies, I have brought with me into my conservation work," she says. "Now, I work with ecosystems and their connection to the healing of our Earth.
"I think we always need to keep balance in our lives, in our ecosystems and within the world we live in," Sarshen continues. "We need to respect the role of each person, creature and system in supporting life on Earth. We need to nurture it and ourselves."
That simple concept — that people need nature to thrive — is at the core of each of our conservation efforts, even at a complex, multinational forum such as the UNFCCC COP 17. We're glad Sarshen will be there in Durban, working hard for people and nature in the face of climate change.
LEARN MORE: UNFCCC 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa