Lush, mixtures of green vegetated mountains with clouds misting the sky in the background.
East Alaka'i watershed Waikamoi Preserve, Maui. © TNC


Passing the Torch from Hawaiʻi to Marseille: Message for World Conservation

Sam ‘Ohu Gon, Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor, TNC, Hawai‘i and Palmyra | Manuel Mejia, Hawaiʻi Regional Director, Coral Reef Alliance

Record-breaking fires, floods, drought events, more frequent and intense storms, disease, extinctions, inequity. These have been the headlines of late. The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that these will become even more commonplace and destructive in the coming decades. While people around the world are shaken by these events and at a loss on how to prevent future disasters, what they fail to see is that Nature can be a major part of the solution.

Hawaiʻi’s bold actions to address the impacts of the climate crisis and other environmental concerns serves as an example. We were the first state in the union to sign the Paris Agreement when the U.S. pulled out; the first to announce our goals of protecting 30% of our forest watersheds and 30% of our coastal waters by 2030, utilizing 100% clean energy by 2045, and pursuing aggressive goals for biosecurity and local food production. The announcement of the Sustainable Hawai‘i Initiative by Hawai‘i Governor David Ige was made in 2016; since then, we’ve made great strides in curbing plastic waste, reducing emissions by “electrifying” government vehicle fleets and increasing renewable clean energy in homes and businesses.

Man in dressed in Hawaiian cultural clothing, mountains in the background.
Sam 'Ohu Gon Senior Scientist and Cultural Advisor, The Nature Conservancy, Hawai‘i and Palmyra © Ian Shive

While COVID-19 threw a wrench into this momentum by turning the world’s head to another crisis, the pandemic did bring something unexpected and wonderful to light: those first few months of global lockdown showed us that nature can and does rebound when given a chance. Skies normally choked with smog cleared in cities around the world. Forests saw a respite from trampling on overcrowded trails. Oceans were quiet, buzzing only with sounds of marine life, not distracted by the constant cacophony of the world’s shipping lanes. Fish swam right up to the shore and turtles nested on an O‘ahu beach for the first time in living memory. Countless other examples abound worldwide, and natural systems emerged as an important part of pandemic recovery.

For those of us who work in conservation, this is not news. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL) have seen this kind of recovery for decades. We already know that nature is resilient if provided the opportunity. And we know that protecting our natural environment is not only good for nature, but also for humans.

Man in the ocean in snorkel gear in chest height water with mountains in the background.
Manuel Mejia Hawaiʻi Regional Director, Coral Reef Alliance © TNC

Our work at TNC Hawai‘i and Palmyra reminds us that as we remove threats such as invasive weeds and animals, nature thrives and in turn, so do we. Our forest preserves are the source of our islands’ fresh water and are among the last strongholds for endangered forest birds. Our work with communities is helping to restore nearshore fisheries abundance and coastal health. At Palmyra Atoll, we are working to identify what enabled corals to recover from the 2015-2016 bleaching event that decimated reefs elsewhere.

At CORAL, our work with communities to reduce local stressors such as sedimentation and wastewater pollution gives reefs the best chance to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate. By preventing tons of sediment from smothering corals, restoring watersheds with native plants that keep the soil and ecosystems intact, and securing government funding to address wastewater pollution, we are actively addressing threats to coral reefs and human health.

As we emerge from the pall cast by the pandemic, we have the opportunity to reimagine our future and guide the world toward a safer, stronger planet based on the successes we’ve had.

This Fall, Hawaiʻi is sending a delegation of conservation experts, community stewards and cultural practitioners to the IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) in Marseille, France. Hawai‘i, the previous—and first U.S.—host of the congress in 2016, will pass the torch to the new host and report on the Commitments made at the last gathering, which set targets for IUCN’s conservation efforts from then to now.

As part of the delegation heading to Marseille, we hope to share our success stories and brainstorm the next critical steps for marine and freshwater protection, nature-based solutions to global climate change, integrating the knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities, working with the business sector and filling the financial gap toward a biologically diverse, thriving—and sustainable—planet. As nature thrives, so do we.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit or follow @nature_press on Twitter.