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Latin America

Adapting to Climate Change

"Climate change is one of the greatest threats to healthy ecosystems and the people that rely on them for survival. In short, climate change threatens the entire mission of the conservancy to protect habitat for the diversity of life on Earth."

Mark Tercek, President, CEO of The Nature Conservancy

Climate change is already taking a toll on Latin America:

  • glaciers are melting,
  • corals are being bleached by warming sea temperatures,
  • rainfall patterns are changing.

With 60 major Latin American cities situated along coasts, the region’s urban centers are highly vulnerable to rising sea levels. And millions of people who depend on rivers fed by Andean glaciers face the possibility that their primary water source may disappear within the next 15 to 25 years.

Helping people and nature adapt throughout Latin America

The Nature Conservancy is researching, analyzing and modeling the impacts that climate change will have across Latin America, in places like the Gulf of California, Brazil ’s lush Atlantic Forest, Ecuador’s dry forests, Mexico’s storm-plagued Yucatán Peninsula, and Guatemala’s Atitlán watershed, where restored forests and healthy watersheds can help protect local populations from landslides caused by heavy hurricane rains. This research and modeling will allow the Conservancy—as well as national-level governments and other organizations—to design and put in place conservation projects that can best help people and nature adapt to the effects of global warming. 

Some of the Conservancy’s projects in Latin America are already helping communities and plants and animals prepare for, and adjust to, climate changes.

Adapting to climate change on the Mesoamerican Reef

The Mesoamerican Reef is the world’s second-longest barrier reef, home to some 500 species of fish and 60 species of coral as well as whale sharks, sea turtles, sharks, manatees and dolphins.  The system includes vast lagoons, mangroves, seagrasses, flooded savannas and sand dunes.  It also provides nursery grounds for fisheries that provide food and income such as grouper, snapper, conch and lobster for artisanal fishermen and their families from Mexico to Honduras, as well as a tourism attraction for more than 8 million visitors a year.

Unfortunately, as climate change causes ocean waters to warm, sea levels to rise, and seawater to increase in acidity, the Mesoamerican Reef loses its ability to shelter, feed, and protect fish and marine mammal populations. It loses its strength to withstand tropical storms and buffer coastal communities from flooding and storm surge.  And it will no longer support the vast schools of fish upon which local fishermen depend, nor the multi-million dollar tourism industry that brings so much income to local communities.

To help this indispensible reef withstand the effects of climate change so that people and marine species can continue to depend upon its bounty, the Conservancy is: 

  • Mapping where the effects of climate change will be greatest.
  • Correlating climate change threat information with priority biodiversity and human populations to ensure actions we take to reduce the impacts of climate change benefit both biodiversity and society.
  • Building the reef system’s resilience to climate change by reducing existing threats— especially overfishing, and by working with local fishing communities to establish and adhere to fishing zones and seasons that allow marine species populations to maintain sustainable levels.
  • Addressing the location, extent, and nature of coastal development, leaving space for the array of ecosystems that sustain the reef and the water quality so critical for corals.
  • Identifying and protecting a wide range of representative and connected sites, which include refugiareefs particularly resistant and resilient to climate change that can re-seed more vulnerable reefs after storms and bleaching events

View a video of the Today's show feature on how The Conservancy is working to protect Belize's marine habitats.

Adapting to changing water resources in the Andes

In South America, the Andes are home to more than 20 percent of the world’s biodiversity, and these mountains also harbor watersheds that supply drinking water, irrigation water, and electricity (through hydropower) to tens of millions of people. The ability of diminishing water supplies to support growing human populations in the Andes—and everywhere in the world humans live—has been a concern for a long time. But climate change threatens to alter seasons, rainfall patterns and snow- and glacier-melt in the Andes, disrupting the constant flow of water nature and people rely upon throughout the region.

To keep Andean watersheds healthy and full of clean water in the face of climate change, the Conservancy has established several water funds throughout Ecuador and Colombia, protecting watersheds that supply major population centers like Bogotá and Quito. Financed by major water users with a vested interest in maintaining the quantity and quality of water upon which they depend, these water funds support the protection and restoration of key Andean watersheds. 

Through water funds, the Conservancy is helping nature and people adapt to the changes global warming will bring to the Andes by:

  • Working with local communities to help keep water flowing—even when the climate changes. Capturing and storing water and feeding it into rivers at a natural pace, healthy forests and grasslands regulate water flow throughout the year—even when temperatures and rainfall vary. By providing local communities with materials for planting trees and fencing off waterways from cattle, water fund investments will help keep clean water running to communities and cities downstream, even when precipitation and temperatures fluctuate. 
  • Financing programs to buffer people and plants and animals from flooding and landslides brought on by storms and altered seasonal rainfall patterns. Healthy Andean forests and grasslands sponge up excess moisture and release it slowly, decreasing the risk of flooding; and can also help keep soil and hillsides in place when extreme weather events occur.
  • Establishing multi-sector watershed governance boards with the capacity to react quickly as climate change escalates unanticipated alterations to key watersheds.  Climate change will alter Andean water sources in ways we cannot yet predict, but water fund boards can meet and make decisions quickly to address watershed users’ needs.
  • Securing long-term, sustainable financial support for watershed conservation. Water fund investments guarantee funding now and into the future, so that no matter what climate change brings, there will be financing to help nature and people adapt. 

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