Dan discovered many similarities between his home Cape Fear River and the Orotoy River in Columbia.
When I received an email announcement regarding the U.S. Department of State's Legislative Fellowship Program, I was knee-deep in the final weeks of finishing the Masters of Public Administration Program at UNC Wilmington. Reading through the specifics of the program, I knew that I shouldn't let this opportunity pass by.
Partners for the Americas administers the program, which connects professionals from the United States with South American counterparts. The fellowship gave me the opportunity to focus on an area that is of particular interest to me - developing government policy to further effective conservation.
A month after I submitted the application, I was notified that that I would be traveling to Bogota, Colombia for three weeks to work with the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Biological Resources. The Humboldt Institute is a nonprofit organization that functions as an independent, nonregulatory branch of the federal government. It collects information on biodiversity and uses that research to make policy recommendations to the government.
One of my first impressions of Colombia was its progressive mindset that healthy ecosystems contribute to healthy people. In the United States, the concept of "ecosystem services" – nature’s benefits to people - is relatively new, but it has been a part of the Columbian constitution since 1994.
My counterpart at the Humboldt Institute Sergio Penaloza and I developed a work plan. I would work on two initiatives: developing the annual "State of Nature" report and participating in a watershed improvement project in the Llanos region.
The State of Nature report is a critical document that identifies trends in the health of the country's species and ecosystems. The challenge is to translate complex biological data for laymen’s use. I drew upon my experiences with developing biological indicators for TNC's conservation action plans to help develop measures to determine if Columbia’s management of federal reserves is protecting biodiversity.
The second initiative was a project on the Rio Orotoy in the Llanos region. This extremely diverse area of Colombia has been beset by land use changes including petroleum extraction, palm oil production and cattle grazing. A pilot project is being developed in the watershed to protect the health of the flora and fauna living in the water as well as the benefits that water provides to people such as drinking water.
I drew on my work with the Cape Fear River Partnership to inform this work. In the Cape Fear, we are working to improve migratory fish habitat by removing barriers to upstream migration and we are looking at how land use changes have affected the water quality. The two project sites are eerily similar, with fish passages blocked by man-made obstructions and algal blooms fueled by nutrients that are largely the result of changes in land use, particularly agriculture.
My experience working as a Legislative Fellow was humbling. There is a learning curve with any new organization and operating in a second language curtailed how effective I could be in such a short period of time. That said, the opportunity was eye-opening as the ecosystems, agencies and politics may vary, but more often than not the measures, strategies and solutions are similar. Conservation is global – We can’t just work within state or national boundaries – we must work together across jurisdictions – sharing our experiences and lessons learned.