For centuries, development has come at the expense of nature.
What if nature and people could thrive in the same place, forever? What if communities could become resilient to climate change and protect their livelihoods and food security without destroying nature’s life-support systems?
Conservation International aims to create self-sustaining, scalable conservation models that can be adapted from one country to another by focusing on large ecological systems that we call landscapes and seascapes. From the Galápagos Islands to the rangelands of South Africa, this integrated “Sustainable Landscapes and Seascapes” approach is offering lessons for how humanity can protect nature while weathering — and even abating — climate breakdown and wildlife extinction.
In 2015, 193 countries signed onto the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to end poverty, fight inequality, prevent environmental degradation, improve public health and tackle climate change by 2030.
One essential element underlies nearly all of these goals: nature. In fact, most of the goals cannot be met if we don’t have healthy, functioning ecosystems. And we are failing in our protection of nature: Businesses, governments and communities are not yet working together in the right ways and in the right places to sufficiently protect nature so that it can help deliver sustainable development for all.
Recognizing that conservation works best when it takes into account the many uses and functions of an area of land or sea — and the people who rely on it — Conservation International has selected 16 places on the planet to deploy our Sustainable Landscapes and Seascapes approach.
Where humanity needs to be by 2030
We must adopt a model of sustainable nature-based and climate-resilient development that supports the Sustainable Development Goals in some of the world’s most ecologically important places by 2030.
Here's what we are doing
Conservation International supports nature-based development approaches in the world’s most important places for nature by:
- Working with partners in a number of landscapes and seascapes to demonstrate that when nature is conserved and restored, human well-being improves.
- Developing innovative ways to combine government, corporate, donor and investor funding to help places transition to nature-based development.
- Creating and demonstrating viable production models for commodities that link public demand, sustainable production, protection of essential resources and local benefits.
By 2025, Conservation International aims to:
Transition at least three large-scale landscapes or seascapes to a nature-based development model that improves human well-being, enhances nature and can sustain long-term progress without depending on external intervention.
Deploy more than US$ 30 million in innovative financing to build nature-based development models across our portfolio of landscapes and seascapes.
Build at least five models that provide blueprints for companies to implement sustainable production; for governments to build financial and regulatory systems that incentivize nature-based development; and that prove to people, companies and governments the essential roles nature plays in helping them meet their goals.
On the ground
Conservation International is hard at work around the world
The Bird’s Head region in West Papua, Indonesia, is the world’s epicenter of marine biodiversity, boasting phenomenally high concentrations of marine species. But a little over a decade ago, this underwater paradise was decimated by unregulated commercial fishing, poaching and damaging practices such as dynamite fishing.
The Bird’s Head Seascape Initiative was launched in 2004 and is among the world’s most ambitious community-based conservation programs. Together with over 30 partners, Conservation International created a network of 12 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering more than 3.6 million hectares (8.89 million acres). These MPAs employ local people to survey and protect coasts, reefs and fish, supporting communities to protect and sustainably manage their resources and their livelihoods. Since the initiative’s inception, fish populations have rebounded; sharks, whales and rays have returned; poaching by outside fishers is down 90 percent; coral is recovering; and ecotourism has flourished.
Spanning nearly 2 million square kilometers (770,000 square miles), the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS) covers the waters, coasts and islands off the shores of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador. Known as the “Serengeti of the seas” because of its large concentration of iconic marine species — including sharks, turtles, whales and seabirds — these coastal and marine ecosystems underpin food, employment and climate security for local communities.
But the area is at risk — threatened by overfishing, illegal fishing methods and poorly planned urban and agricultural expansion. Since 2004, Conservation International has worked with national governments and many partners to restore and protect the ETPS. Today, there are more than 20 MPAs covering 8 million hectares, demonstrating the recovery of mangrove ecosystems and fisheries and showing the powerful impact of regional cooperation to protect nature.
The capital city of Colombia draws its water from the largest intact high Andean grasslands ecosystem in the world. But the area, known as the Páramos Conservation Corridor, is at risk from intensive cattle grazing and cultivation, a rapid increase in urban growth rates and climate change. This threatens the ecosystem’s capacity to deliver fresh water to Bogotá and its surrounding municipalities — including some 8 million people.
In 2006, Conservation International, in partnership with the Colombian government, started the country’s first climate change adaptation project. Currently, we are implementing climate change adaptation projects around Bogotá to protect its residents’ water supply. Over the past decade, much of the sensitive high grasslands have come under protective management. Loss of the critical forests connecting these spongelike areas to urban populations has practically ceased, and local communities have benefited from thriving community agriculture.
Conservation International is working with communal farmers in high-biodiversity rural areas of South Africa to help degraded rangelands recover and become more resilient to climate change, while improving cattle health and providing access to new markets for farmers. The Herding 4 Health program, an ambitious partnership between Conservation International and the Peace Parks Foundation, aims to expand this work to cover more than 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of rangeland under improved management across at least five countries over the next five years.
Herding 4 Health uses a community-driven approach to address challenges faced by farmers living within and next to protected areas. In southern Africa, the integrated program will incorporate lessons learned from the South Africa Rangeland Program, while also focusing on human-wildlife conflict and novel approaches to animal disease control, as well as market access in partnership with the local organization Meat Naturally.
Related conservation news from the field
Expert: Ending the global water crisis ‘starts in your back yard’
Reports on the state of the world’s freshwater ecosystems sound a single refrain: humanity is facing a water crisis.
Researchers project that by 2030 the demand for water could outstrip supply by 40 percent. And severe floods and droughts caused by climate change are only exacerbating the problem.
Although climate change and the water crisis are linked, tackling these issues requires a different set of strategies, according to Derek Vollmer and Ian Harrison, freshwater scientists at Conservation International.
In a recent paper, they argue that countries and companies looking to improve water security should steer clear of global goals and instead focus on addressing impacts closer to home — in specific watersheds and communities.
Conservation News spoke to Vollmer about the key differences between the climate crisis and the water crisis — and why we must tap into different solutions for each.
Question: How does the climate crisis affect water insecurity around the world?
Answer: Two of our most pressing environmental issues, climate change and water insecurity, overlap in many ways. Climate change is already affecting rainfall levels around the world, resulting in extended droughts in the Middle East and severe floods in the United Kingdom. And, like climate change, water scarcity disproportionately affects poor communities. Without clean water, diseases spread more easily; conflict and displacement can arise.
Despite these similarities, we found that borrowing from the climate action “playbook” is not the most effective way to address the water crisis. The same place can suffer from too much or too little water in the span of a year. And water insecurity means more than just a lack of water — it’s also about the quality and access to that water. Finally, the way a watershed is managed can have a profound impact on freshwater biodiversity, which has dropped in recent years as habitats shrink due to urban and agricultural development. These conditions can vary widely from one place to another and require a local response.
Q: So you’re saying that climate change and the water crisis must be addressed very differently?
A: Exactly. Many of the global strategies for tackling climate change will not work for conserving watersheds. Take the Paris Agreement: Under the landmark climate pact, countries committed to a single goal — limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That makes sense because a reduction of emissions in one country benefits others and countries must work together to be effective. For the water crisis, it is much more difficult to come up with a global goal because the amount of water on the planet is very unevenly distributed, and saving water in one place doesn’t benefit another.
This also means that you can’t look at a “water footprint” in the same way as a “carbon footprint.” Calculating how much water a company or individual uses is not as valuable as measuring the carbon emissions they release. That’s because a key element is usually missing: the source of that water. Some ecosystems around the world have plenty of water to spare, so using their water liberally is not as harmful as it might be for an ecosystem with little rainfall. Simply calculating a person or company’s water use overlooks the local conditions, which determine how water use impacts the environment, livelihoods and human health — therefore providing little practical value to decision-makers.
Q: What should people do instead to track their impact on freshwater ecosystems?
A: Ending the water crisis starts in your back yard. Acting locally to address water issues is a far more effective conservation strategy than setting broad global targets, such as those designed to prevent catastrophic global warming. Many companies have committed to offsetting their water usage by replenishing that amount somewhere else in the world. Instead, they should improve freshwater health in their own watersheds, by understanding the local challenges and working with other stakeholders to design lasting solutions. Rather than investing in far-flung projects that simply add up the “gallons saved,” companies should support local efforts in their specific watersheds through wetlands restoration projects or community-based management of protected areas.
Q: Are there any tools that can help them do this?
A: Yes, one tool is called the Freshwater Health Index (FHI). Developed by Conservation International scientists, the FHI aims to help governments, communities and businesses better analyze the benefits and risks of human activities — such as developing dams or increasing agriculture — before making big water-related decisions. Using ecological data and surveys from local communities, the Index can help businesses and governments identify vulnerabilities within a basin and make more informed choices to conserve it.
For example, Conservation International is currently working with provincial government agencies and universities to conduct the first-ever FHI assessment for China’s Poyang Lake basin, which is home to two internationally important wetlands and supports the jobs of more than 45 million people. In partnership with sustainable textile company Sateri, this work is helping identify local priorities for freshwater conservation and strengthening community-managed nature reserves to combat wetland degradation.
Once stakeholders understand the ecological and social contexts of a freshwater ecosystem, they can start making investments that will have the greatest conservation benefits. There isn’t going to be a single solution, but taking this approach is more likely to improve the health of the watershed, benefitting people and nature.
Cover image: Children at Gunung National Park, Indonesia (© Jessica Scranton)
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