How to fix Earth’s broken landscapes? Start with forests, farms, finance

© Elfstrom

Editor's Note: Climate Week took place from September 23 to September 29. Check Conservation News for coverage of this global forum.

A week of conferences in New York aimed at devising solutions to the environmental crisis ended Saturday. 

With a daylong conference aimed at devising solutions to the environmental crisis. 

But the Global Landscapes Forum, held inside UN headquarters — its usual inhabitants having departed after snarling Manhattan traffic all week — was different. 

The usual gathering of scientists, technocrats and academics were there, but joining them onstage were an unlikely smattering of indigenous activists, teenagers, CEOs and a farmer or two. 

They were there to discuss a topic that got a lot of attention over the week: the restoration of nature.

‘A human flood’ 

In a nod to the moment, the forum began with the words of a youth. 

“Our water is alive and has a spirit,” said Autumn Peltier, 15, a water activist and member of the Wikwemikong First Nation in Ontario, Canada. “We spend our first nine months in water. Flowing within us is original water, the lifeblood of Mother Earth … the same water our ancestors drank thousands of years ago.”

Echoing the calls for accountability that have resounded through the youth climate movement, Peltier said, “The [Canadian] prime minister promised me in 2016 he would look after our water. I will hold him to his promise.”

Peltier was followed by one of the lions of the climate movement. 

“Water is a perfect way to look at the world we inhabit now,” said activist Bill McKibben, founder of the environmentalist website “Think about how water flows have changed in our lifetime,” he said, in a year of extreme flooding events, an unprecedented hurricane and the disappearance of glaciers

“We need to be a human flood over this next decade, to wash away much of the old world and make room for what must now come next.”

What followed was a chorus of voices from unlikely corners laying out what’s really happening in the world of “landscapes” — and how to restore them.

What is a landscape? 

No agreed-upon definition exists for what a landscape is in the ecological sense, but generally it’s taken to mean a distinct geographic region and the many land types, land uses and people who live within it.

With that in mind, the Global Landscapes Forum, which bills itself as the world’s largest knowledge-led platform on sustainable land use, embraced a wide range of voices in discussions to turn the tide against the destruction of nature.

Despite the gravity of the topic, optimism was on hand. 

“If you look at the past 50 years, we’ve destroyed the environment pretty efficiently,” said Benoit Blarel of the World Bank. “Why? Because we had the right policies in place. I'm hopeful that with the right policies, we will be equally efficient in restoring it.” 

So what has to happen to fix our broken landscapes? 

The first step, said one indigenous leader, is to talk to — to learn from — the people who tend to them.

“[My grandmother] does not have a Ph.D. in land restoration,” said Hindou Oumaro Ibrahim, an Indigenous Leaders Conservation Fellow with Conservation International and coordinator of the Indigenous Women and Peoples Association of Chad. “But she is now being recognized by the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] because she is an expert on her land. So why can’t we move from saying, ‘We need to be experts on this,’ and go to those who have already been restoring [land] for centuries?”

Chris Newman, a Virginia farmer who practices regenerative agriculture, agreed, urging a shift in policies and financing to help make responsible farming a more viable way of life. 

“I get asked, ‘What’s the scariest thing about farming?’ And to me, the scariest thing is the sheer smallness of the number of people who know how to do it and the fact that the skills are not being transferred.”

In the United States, Newman said, the average age of a farmer is in their 60s. Given the amount of long-term human and financial capital needed to farm in a way that restores instead of depletes the environment, he said, “we need for it to be easier to get into.”

‘We are far too comfortable’

One theme that suffused the day’s discussions: Humanity must move quickly to restore the environment, even if it hurts.

“Restoration is a journey, not a destination,” said Ravi Pranay, deputy director general of the World Agroforesty Centre. “We are going to be doing this for generations.”

“We are far too comfortable. … We need [to forge] unusual partnerships. Let’s leave this room with a desire to get uncomfortable.”  

Another thing: The movement to restore nature needs money, and it’s not all going to come from the usual places.  

“We’ve heard some fantastic examples of how we’re evolving technologies around planting and reforestation and restoration, and that’s amazing,” said Jennifer Morris, president of Conservation International. “But to use the analogy of a ‘moonshot,’ we are not investing enough even to build the launchpad for the rocket for the moonshot.”

“Philanthropy is amazing, but it’s not enough,” she continued. “Let’s be honest: The Green Climate Fund, the biggest fund out there, is only $10 billion in its first cycle. You know what we spent in the U.S. on pet food last year? Seventy-three billion dollars! … We’ve got to get the private sector into this game. Without it, we’re never going to get off the launch pad.”

The “moonshot,” all agreed, has to happen immediately.

“Fasten your seltbeats. The next decade is going to the critical decade,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. “We hold a frightening responsibility to forever change the very trajectory of our planet. It was not supposed to be like that. But we have messed with its systems.

“We’ve been saying the window’s been closing, but now we really mean it.” 

The stakes are sky-high, as Autumn Peltier, the 15-year-old indigenous activist, reminded the audience.  

“Mother Earth has the power to destroy us all.”

Bruno Vander Velde is the senior communications director for Conservation International.

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Cover image: Beams of sunlight pierce through a jungle canopy. (© Elfstrom)



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