From prolonged droughts to plastic clogging the oceans to accelerating species extinctions, stories about the state of our planet are often bleak. But it’s important to also remember the good news: the stories of people working against all odds to protect nature and all it does for humanity, and the signs of progress, no matter how small.
Here are five of our favorite conservation victories from 2015.
In March, indigenous groups in a small South American country that punches above its weight in the conservation world set another incredible conservation precedent: the creation of the Southern Suriname Conservation Corridor, a territory that essentially covers a forest as large as Austria, or more than four times the size of the state of New Jersey.
In the past 50 years, many of the world’s rainforests have been destroyed by industrial agriculture, logging and mining activities — industries that according to CI Executive Vice Chair Russ Mittermeier “have provided very few benefits to indigenous people.” In a country retaining more than 94% of its original forest cover, the declaration of this conservation corridor sends a clear signal that recognizes the contributions and rights of Suriname’s indigenous groups over their traditional lands.
When funding limitations made it more difficult to pay villagers to protect nests of a rare turtle species in the Mekong River, CI’s Yoeung Sun found a cheaper alternative to persuade people not to eat the turtle eggs — an approach cited among Time.com’s “five best ideas of the day.”
As Sun writes in his post: “Behavior change does not happen overnight.” It requires patience, perseverance and the flexibility to adjust tactics based on the needs and customs of local people.
In many ways, this year was a tough one for wildlife, as new statistics illuminated the devastating toll that the illegal wildlife trade is taking on the remaining populations of endangered species including elephants and rhinos. This isn’t just bad news for animals; the killing of African elephants for ivory has been linked to organized crime, and many contend it is linked to the funding of terrorist networks.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of the bipartisan Global Anti-Poaching Act signaled a growing public awareness of the direct connection between the illegal wildlife trade and national and global security. If it becomes law, it would strengthen wildlife enforcement networks and expand training for African countries in combating wildlife poaching and trafficking.
When one poverty-stricken coastal community in Madagascar began closing its fishing grounds for several months each year, it was a risky but crucial move to protect the town’s main source of livelihood. Now not only have fish stocks already bounced back, but fishers-turned-farmers have a new source of income in the off-season.
The speed of this success may be the most hopeful part of the story — revealing just how quickly motivated communities can reap the benefits of conservation.
In October, West Papua declared itself a “conservation province,” the beginning of a process to create a legal framework that aims to ensure that increased economic development in the province doesn’t damage the environment.
This decision — which covers both land and sea — is a natural expansion of years of collaboration between CI and partner organizations, the local government and coastal villages to protect the marine treasures of the Raja Ampat archipelago, which boasts manta rays and other species that are worth far more to local economies alive than dead.
In perhaps the most high-profile conservation victory of the year, the world’s nations agreed to a historic climate change deal this month that lays the foundations for effective action to fight and adapt to the biggest global challenge of our time. Although there is still much work to be done, this could be a crucial turning point as humanity winds down the fossil fuel era and charges into a clean energy future.
Molly Bergen was the senior managing editor of Human Nature.
Cover image: A young Cantor’s giant softshell turtle at Cambodia’s Mekong Turtle Conservation Center. Together with the local Buddhist monastery, CI is working with communities to protect nests of this rare turtle, whose eggs are sometimes eaten by people without other protein sources available. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)