Nature Is Speaking — Is Humanity Listening?

© Kyle Obermann

Editor's note: This is our second blog post about Nature Is Speaking, our communications initiative that uses a series of short films narrated by major celebrities to spotlight the vital links between nature and human well-being.

Twenty-two years ago, I was living in northern Namibia, teaching English to local women and looking forward to pursuing a career in public health. But what I saw throughout the next two years radically changed that.

Living right next to a village health clinic, I witnessed some incredible things. I saw babies being born. I saw people very sick with diseases such as malaria, cholera, tuberculosis and a new, particularly deadly one — HIV, which was just emerging in this area and still much stigmatized in the communities. I also saw many others suffering from chronic conditions that were symptoms of the poverty in which they lived.

I remember noticing the women in particular. A lot of the respiratory diseases that plagued them came from inhaling smoke while cooking over fires in their small huts. Many women and girls would walk for miles every day to find water and firewood, labor which took its own toll on their health. In addition, the time and energy this required also had opportunity costs, as it kept them from being able to do other activities, like study, tend their fields or look for work.

So many of the health issues I saw in these communities were directly related to poverty — and directly related to the environment.

One typically hot day, I was collecting firewood with a small hand axe with my friend Ria. Like most women in her village, Ria is deeply religious. That day, however, as we struggled to find wood and water for her five children, she said in a moment of desperation, “God must truly hate us. It has not rained in weeks, we have no money for firewood, our goats are dying and the boreholes are almost dry. What have we done to deserve this?”

As she spoke, I looked around at the arid landscape. At the cattle roaming through the empty creek beds, eating trash since there was no grass. At the young kids with distended bellies carrying half-empty pails of water on their heads. I knew while her God may not have cursed this land, it certainly seemed that it was close to environmental collapse, taking the local people down with its decline.

Women like Ria, along with millions of others like her across the globe, are mothers who undergo extreme sacrifice in order to provide for their families. It’s the same with Mother Nature. She’s trying to take care of us, but we’re not showing her enough respect.

The world’s forests filter our air and maintain a stable climate, yet we have chopped down nearly half of them. Today, 842 million people across the globe do not have enough to eat, yet if we are to keep up with a population ballooning to 9 billion by 2050, we will need to double our supply of food, water and energy. More than half of modern medicines are derived from wild plants and animals, yet we’ve elevated the extinction rate to 1,000 times its natural level.

The challenges facing us are monumental, so the solutions must respond in kind, across unprecedented scope and scale. Nature is speaking … and it’s time for humanity to listen up.

My experience in Namibia convinced me that health and poverty issues needed to be approached from another angle. I realized that in order for these people to not only survive, but thrive, the ecosystems that provided for them had to be protected and managed sustainably.

Conserving the world’s most important natural areas has always been central to Conservation International’s work. Since our founding in 1987, we have helped to protect almost 3.4 million square kilometers (more than 1.3 million square miles) of land and sea, from Madagascar to Brazil to the Pacific Islands.

Keeping critical natural areas free from development can sometimes be the best way to preserve the ecosystem services they provide to people, from freshwater provision to pollination. But protecting nature in a bubble is not the answer. We also need to make sure that the people who own and use the resources — whether they be local communities, global businesses or national governments — are able to benefit more from keeping nature intact rather than destroying it.

When I first came to Conservation International 17 years ago, I joined the conservation enterprise team, which focused on helping small businesses in rural communities actually earn an income while using nature sustainably. We explored numerous options — ecotourism, tagua jewelry, candles, medicinal plants — and had a lot of successes, but ultimately these were pretty small-scale interventions that engaged with villages one by one. We realized that in order to achieve the necessary level of impact, we had to scale it up.

These days, Conservation International doesn’t just collaborate with local communities all over the world. We advise governments, helping them enact policies that promote sustainable economic growth. We partner with companies that want to green their business practices but don’t quite know how. Most importantly, we try to bring everyone who should be involved together, to ensure that decisions are made collaboratively and responsibly.

In many ways, our current “macro” approach to achieve systemic governance change is a lot harder than working with individual villages. But I firmly believe that the impacts we will have if we’re successful are much, much greater than before.

In the coming weeks, our Nature Is Speaking campaign will use a series of thought-provoking films to spur people to think about just how much we all depend on nature every day, for everything. Stay tuned to Conservation News for more insight from our experts about just how important nature is — and what we're doing to protect it.

Jennifer Morris is the president of Conservation International.