‘We Can’t Give Up Anything’: 3 Experts on Protecting Biodiversity

In 2020, the United Nations published an alarming report, stating that in the last two decades —  despite all of the global conferences and initiatives that took place to set agreements to stop the destruction of the natural world and to protect biodiversity, not a single goal was met. 

In the months and years since, we’ve seen a global realization of the high stakes inherent in ignoring these goals. It’s an essential understanding that everything is connected: the mass extinction crisis, climate chaos, the collapse of the world’s coral reefs, sea level rise, and refugees fleeing the loss of their lands and ability to grow food. 

The good news is we know what we need to do. From landscape conservation to carbon reserves and drawdown tactics, the answers are within reach. But this is a global crisis, which raises big questions about how decisions are made. How are we going to create more protected land? What does protection mean? Who gets to decide which initiatives take priority and where the resources come from to address those initiatives? 

We also know what hasn’t worked before. There is a tacit agreement among most biodiversity protectors that the solution isn’t to turn large swathes of land into national parks and kick out the people living on it. Restoring ecosystems or leaving them intact doesn’t inherently require a ban on hunting or farming. While the old, outdated concept of “wilderness” was defined by the U.S. government as “a place where humans may visit, but do not remain,” we now know that a healthy symbiosis between humans, plants, and animals can make ecosystems thrive. There are 9 billion of us on the planet — we have to learn to co-exist. 

Unsurprisingly, an estimated 80% of the Earth’s remaining biodiversity is on traditional lands, where indigenous people have developed traditional ecological knowledge over thousands of years. Honoring and taking cues from this knowledge may very well hold the key to a future in which all of us not only co-exist, but thrive.

Conserving the Amazon with Indigenous Communities at the Helm

NASA calls the Amazon Rainforest the engine of the global weather system. Indigenous Peoples call it the heart of the world. According to Greenpeace, “As an ecosystem, the Amazon is one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Over 3 million species live in the rainforest, and over 2,500 tree species (or one-third of all tropical trees that exist on earth) help to create and sustain this  vibrant ecosystem.”

Development and extractive industry gravely threaten the Amazon, making immediate conservation efforts absolutely essential.

“Every tree in the Amazon lifts up about a thousand liters of water a day into the atmosphere. The area, which is collectively larger than the continental United States, lifts up a river larger than the Amazon River every day, into the sky,” says Atossa Soltani, founder and board president of Amazon Watch. “That atmospheric river summons the rain into the continent of South America, and also the rest of the world. It’s as if it is the engine of the global weather system, pulsating the rain, moisture, and vapor that makes the South American continent so green.”

Soltani served as Amazon Watch’s first Executive Director for 18 years. She’s been documenting and publicizing forest destruction and human rights abuses caused by extractive industries and large-scale energy projects throughout the Amazon, and she’s led successful campaigns to convince oil companies and international financial institutions to adopt stronger environmental and social standards.

“Just to give you an idea of the size of the Amazon, the flow of the Amazon River at the mouth is 209,000 cubic meters per second, which is the same as the next six largest rivers of the world combined,” says Soltani. “Imagine a river 20% bigger than that that’s lifted off the forest every day and into the atmosphere.  What they’re calling ‘the sacred headwaters of the Amazon’ is an area that’s larger than Oregon. It’s 74 million acres, where you have incredibly rich biodiversity, but also incredible amounts of threat. This area is also majority indigenous lands. If business as usual were allowed to go on, this area would be converted to mostly oil and mining reserves or cattle ranching or agribusiness.”

Somewhere around 20% of the rainforest has been destroyed, and Soltani says that we can expect to see a collapse or unraveling of the ecological systems in the region with just 5% more deforestation. 

So how do we stop this terrible trajectory and restore the forests and biodiversity? Soltani says the first step is to finally let the indigenous people who live on the land lead the way.

A coalition of indigenous peoples created an unprecedented collaboration to protect the crucial bioregion shared by Ecuador and Peru.

Soltani is the director of global strategy for the Amazon Sacred Headwaters Initiative, working to protect one of the most biodiverse rainforests on Earth in an alliance with Amazonian indigenous nations of Ecuador and Peru and partners in civil society. It would permanently protect 80% of the Amazon rainforest by 2025 — that’s 34 million hectares of the Amazon forest that would be off limits to fossil fuel extraction, access roads, and mega-infrastructure projects. The initiative also requires that indigenous peoples be deeply involved in all policy decisions about their territories. 

“It’s an area in which the carbon in the trees and the carbon that’s in the oil reserves combined would be over almost six billion tons. That’s carbon that we could be conserving,” says Soltani. “Plus it would be the most biodiverse rainforest on the planet.”

In practical terms, what does it mean to protect this area? “One of the keys has been to create an alliance in which Indigenous Peoples are calling for no further major resource extraction, no industrial-scale anything, no dams, no roads, nothing that is at odds with the fabric of life,” says Soltani. “But it’s not just about protecting or conserving. It’s also about governing these territories from a life-centric view. It’s a community-collective vision articulated through many, many participatory activities that help define the future vision for the territory.”

Ocean Conservation that Recognizes Community Impacts

Our planet’s oceans sequester carbon at scales similar to those of rainforests. Despite the history of conservation and the role oceans play in biodiversity, a small percentage of oceans are protected from commercial exploitation. There are about 17,000 marine-protected areas covering the surface of the ocean, but that only represents about 8% of the ocean’s surface. And even for that 8%, what does “protection” really mean?

Rod Fujita is a marine ecologist and highly effective ocean conservationist. He is Senior Scientist and Director of Research and Development for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Innovations Program.

“When you really get down to looking at how these marine-protected areas are functioning, are they actually prohibiting killing? Are they actually preventing pollution? Are they actually preventing oil and gas extraction? The answer is no, not really,” says Fujita. “Less than 2% of those 17,000 marine-protected areas are functional. 8% is not enough, and 2% is definitely not enough if we’re going to save the ocean and allow it to contribute to the carbon drawdown.”

Fujita has studied ocean ecosystems all over the world and worked to preserve them for more than 30 years. When it comes to protecting and restoring oceans, Fujita says, we need to set goals that will actually help save ourselves and the planet. He’s helped protect over 10,000 square miles of ocean habitat, created a novel financing system for sustainability, and developed innovative tools for improving the wellbeing of the ocean and the humans that depend on it.

Fujita says that one reason conservation of the oceans is not scaling as we would like is that we are not aligning the value of conservation with the value of people whose livelihoods depend on fishing.

“Consider creating a marine reserve in a place where people are impoverished, and fishing is the employer of last resort,” says Fujita. “The proposition that we’re giving these folks is, hey, why don’t you stop fishing in your best fishing grounds so that stuff can grow, and so that I, in the United States or in Europe, can enjoy the biodiversity. It’s a terrible value proposition, and that’s why conservation is not scaling in the ocean.”

Fujita suggests approaching ocean conservation with a keen eye toward the needs of affected communities. “We have to align their incentives and their needs with the conservation proposition,” he says. “The way to do that is to embed these marine-protected areas within areas that are secure, that are reserved for the use of the people who are paying the conservation price so that they can reap the benefits of their own conservation action. That’s the key. The people who pay the cost need to get the benefits.”

In Belize, Fujita and his colleagues witnessed fishermen who were staunchly opposed to expanding marine-protected areas to benefit ocean ecosystems. That dynamic only shifted once a “territorial use right” for fishing was established. “It turns out the reason the fishermen were opposing these no-take reserves is not because they’re not interested in stewardship,” says Fujita. “It’s just that they were asked to pay the costs of not fishing while illegal fishermen from other countries and other places were coming and taking the fish. [The territorial use right] completely changed the political dynamics. It aligned the economics and the incentives with conservation, and Belize has tripled the size of its no-take reserves.”

The successful model in Belize of granting territorial rights could potentially be applied in fishing areas around the world. Though one larger scale challenge is that there are stark wealth inequalities between countries around the world, and the reality that climate change is shifting access to fish populations in favor of the Global North.

Cooperation on a large scale is crucial to address the crisis in biodiversity that we are witnessing. Scaling up successful models where collaborations and techniques are working can be a reminder that humans are part of nature and that restoration is possible. Fujita says there are examples like in Bristol Bay, where the state works with Indigenous communities to preserve the largest salmon run in the world because they understand that seeing the fish as a commodity is what got us in this situation in the first place. 

Restoring whale populations is another success story. Once the international community agreed to stop killing whales, the dire situation turned around.  

“The humpbacks are more abundant now. Blue whales still have a ways to go, but they are returning,” says Fujita. “When we get these big creatures back, all kinds of good things will happen. Big whales make big poop. And big poop falls down into the ocean, and that sequesters carbon. It’s a very important part of the biological pump that is saving us from even more severe climate change.”

Firing on All Cylinders: A Global Conservation Initiative

“People from all corners of the world agree that we actually need much more audacious and ambitious conservation targets than we currently have,” says Carly Vynne, an ecologist and Director of the Biodiversity and Climate Program at the nonprofit RESOLVE. “But it turns out that if your goal is to save most of life on Earth or provide essential ecosystems services or just regulate the climate, you’re going to need close to half of nature intact, if not conserved.”

Vynne is a key innovator in finding ways to develop maps of ecosystems to help other scientists, activists, and policymakers identify priority areas for protection and conservation attention.

Vynne is a key innovator in finding ways to develop maps of ecosystems to help other scientists, activists, and policymakers identify priority areas for protection and conservation attention. 

Earlier in her career, she co-led a project in South Africa to reintroduce lions on private lands and studied maned wolves, jaguars, pumas, giant anteaters, armadillos, and tapirs in the Brazilian Cerrado. At the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Vynne helped launch several corridor initiatives to help large mammal movements in the West, creating the Northern Great Plains program to protect the underrepresented grasslands.

She co-authored the book The Global Deal for Nature, which calls for an ambitious, time-bound set of nature-based targets that must be achieved if we are to solve the climate and extinction crises.

Vynne has been working in the world of conservation long enough to have seen and participated in a variety of approaches as the global situation has grown more and more dire. There seems to be a consensus that many dramatic approaches are necessary. 

“In biodiversity conservation, we’ve treated our prioritization efforts as sort of ‘how do we get the most for the least?’” she says. “How do we conserve the most knowing that globally flexible conservation dollars are very rare? With the climate science coming on board and the threat of ecosystem disruption being so much greater than any of us imagined, we actually can’t give up anything else if we’re going to be successful at stabilizing the climate and/or stopping the biodiversity crisis. All of those approaches are important; all of them are necessary.”

That also means pulling together data and strategies from areas around the world to create a collective vision and a way to implement it. Vynne and her colleagues have consulted with people in regions that don’t map along the official lines of counties, or states, or even countries. Instead, these are realistic maps of living systems, ecoregions where the biodiversity of flora, fauna, and ecosystems tend to be distinct and usually cross over state and county lines.

“There have been eco-region-based approaches for a while,” says Vynne. “There are a variety of approaches to setting conservation. Because we wanted a comprehensive strategy for the whole Earth, where anyone and everywhere would necessarily be a part of designing strategies and contributing to that, it seemed like an eco-region-based approach really made sense.”

Vynne and her colleagues have assessed the locally determined conservation needs of all 846 eco-regions with the understanding that the needs of each area will vary. “At the end of the day, the regions will need to look at what the goals are and how do they conserve the species for that place.”

Setting the priorities for each region is key, and it’s where the complications lie. There’s conserving and protecting areas that haven’t been wrecked, restoring lands and biodiversity where it has been wrecked, focusing on areas to help stabilize climate, and finding ways to sequester carbon, to name a few.

In one-quarter of the world, only 4 percent of habitat remains. With such a staggering reality of destruction, the real goal is clearly restoration, not conservation. But in the other three-quarters of the world, protection and restoration where it’s needed would be the goal. Vynne says the intact habitat maps that they’re able to generate show those areas have enough habitat to do that right now. It’s also where the concept of climate stabilization comes into play.

“There are large areas of intact forests that might not be the highest priorities,” says Vynne. “They might not be biodiversity hotspots, but they’re really important for climate regulation. What if we consider maintaining them intact or, when necessary, doing restoration or management to promote their ability to store and sequester carbon, and finance and manage them accordingly?”

Tools are needed to make it as easy as possible to track our changing landscapes in real-time. To that end, Vynne co-created a cloud-based mapping tool called TerrAdapt, which helps decision-makers understand the landscape-scale impacts of their local land-use decisions on regional species and ecosystems. She says now is the time for everyone to dive into land-based restoration and that policies in the U.S. and other places could provide good training and jobs around restoration and monitoring and management. 

“There’s a lot that we don’t know,” says Vynne, “but we do know that we need to adhere to the basic principles of conservation biology, which we’ve known since long before the climate was changing. I think we’ve got to hope that some of the worst-case scenarios don’t come to fruition. In the meantime, we’ve got to do all the good work that we know how to do as people who think about large landscapes on the ground.”

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