Local heroes across the globe remind us nature is personal, and show what leadership looks like in a world of change
We are all hoping for that news headline that shows us turning the corner—something showing us a glint of a more just, stable and sustainable world. And while it can be hard to imagine what this future looks like, one thing is certain: how essential we all are to each other. People to people. People to nature. Nature to everything.
Indeed, these connections are the bedrock of our existence—when nature thrives, people thrive. But even when we acknowledge this truth on a planetary scale, it’s easy to lose sight of what that means to individual communities and individual people. Thriving means a family finding security through a new way of raising food; it’s a struggling community rebuilding its economy around climate resilience; it’s an Indigenous community once held at the margins of society stepping forward to lead ambitious national action.
In many ways 2020 can feel like a lost year, but even now people and nature find ways to thrive, together—let’s not forget what that looks like. These stories from across the globe remind us that we can achieve incredible things—but it starts with each of us acknowledging we are part of something greater than ourselves.
Where the “land of the ancestors” provides a way forward
“When I was a young kid I’ll always remember my uncles coming back from the barren lands with caribou meat, and I always wanted to go hunting with them. My grandmother always said, ‘it’s too cold for you. Only Thaidenes can survive on that land.’”
The land of Dennis Drygeese and his grandmother is the inheritance of the Lutsël K’é Dene First Nation, located in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT). After decades of effort, Lutsël K’é Dene achieved protection for 6.5 million acres of their homeland in 2019. They named the protected area Thaidene Nëné—meaning “land of the ancestors” in the Denesoline language.
And this is no ordinary national park. The First Nation, the government of the Northwest Territories and Parks Canada established a co-governance relationship that ensures ecological protection while honoring the rights of the Lutsël K’é Dene First Nation.
Today, Lutsël K’é’s Indigenous Guardian program, Ni Hat’ni Dene, is key to protecting the Dene’s ancestral lands, and teaching the younger generations to become stewards themselves ensures their traditions live on.
Tracey Williams, conservation lead for the Northwest Territories with Nature United, TNC’s Canadian affiliate, has seen a positive impact. “There’s a whole cadre of youth individuals that had their lives changed because they were able to have these intensive on-the-land experiences, this intergenerational transfer of knowledge about place that you can’t get from a textbook or a lecture.”
Read More About Thaidene Nëné
Indigenous leaders achieved protection for the 6.5 million acre Thaidene Nëné, which includes Canada's newest national park, and set an example for community-led conservation.
The restorative promise of a small plot of scrubland
“To me, I’m at peace when I’m on my farm,” says Blanca Raquel Guerrero. “I feel as though I’ve amounted to something.”
With millions displaced in the course of a civil war that has spanned generations, Colombians don’t take peace for granted. And like Guerrero, many were forced to resettle on lands the government seized from narcotraffickers and money launderers. It was a fragile lifeline. The farmers would have to negotiate with the land itself for a livelihood, healing and security.
“When I arrived, the only trees we could see were in the distance on the foothills,” Guerrero says. She planted citrus, mango and cashew trees on her barren plot of scrubland. One government-issued cow begot a small herd—but their pastures withered each summer, starving some of the cattle.
That changed in 2012, when Guerrero joined a sustainable cattle-ranching program TNC and partners hosted in her community. She now lives among 6,000 trees and shrubs that support her 17 cows. The dense vegetation attracts a variety of rainforest birds and mammals. Nationwide, more than 4,000 have joined the sustainable cattle-ranching program—and Guerrero has become a sought-after expert in her community.
“These ranchers have learned to protect land, promote productivity of dairy cattle and increase connectivity in agricultural areas,” says TNC’s Andrés Zuluaga. “Their trees and plants have become stepping stones for biodiversity to create a mosaic of natural areas.”
Read More About Ranchers in Colombia
Displaced and disenfranchised by decades of war, some Colombians are rebuilding their lives—and their forests—through ranching.
Will the next generation also walk with wildlife?
The Maasai have coexisted with the most iconic of African megafauna for thousands of years in southwest Kenya. But recently, the landscape has changed.
“When I was young, actually the whole place was open so animals were everywhere,” says Johnson Soit, Pardamat Conservation Area Board Chair and head teacher at Rekero Primary School. “There were so many—you could hardly walk a kilometer without seeing an elephant or even a lion.”
Then, in the early 2000s, legal titles carved claims into this landscape for the very first time, as landowners fenced in their newly titled lands. But the fences interrupted ancient customs: the free ramblings of wildlife in search of food, water and breeding grounds.
Soit decided to find a way to work with nature in his homeland. Like many other local landowners, he now leases his unfenced land to one of the 15 community conservancies of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association—this translates to added income for his family, and room for wildlife to roam free.
“I don’t want my kids going to a zoo to see animals that once belonged to us. It’s a collective responsibility that we protect our wildlife on our ancestral lands.”
Read More About Maasai Mara National Reserve
Innovative lease agreements are opening up wildlife corridors and improving livelihoods in Kenya’s community conservancy areas.
The grasslands of opportunity, ambition & culture
Mongolia’s heritage survives on its grassland landscape—one of the last remaining of its kind. Almost a third of the population is made up of nomadic herders who rely directly on nature.
“Mongolians are very proud of their heritage and their nomadic culture, and the families of many of the people in parliament are still herders,” says Galbadrakh Davaa, director of TNC’s Mongolia program. “Because of that close connection with the landscape, they deeply understand that Mongolian culture and identity depend on nature.”
The country’s Eastern Steppe—10 times larger than the African Serengeti—is the world’s largest intact temperate grassland. In 2019, Mongolia made a landmark commitment to formally protect 20 percent of its territory—but local communities remain the first line of defense.
“The conditions were different when I was younger—I remember this place with tall karagana and rich grass and my parents had no problem agreeing with the neighbors on pastureland use,” says Sukhtsogzol, a leader in her local community-based organization (CBO). “But now, we can hardly find a decent place to graze our animals. I don’t blame nature; we did this to ourselves, and so we can change the situation ourselves.”
Thanks in part to the CBOs, the nineteenth-largest country in the world is now leading the charge toward protecting 30 percent of Earth’s lands.
“[Mongolia is] one of the least populated countries, and we still have an opportunity to manage our land and resources sustainably for the interest of Mongolian people,” says Davaa. “That opportunity’s not lost yet, and we have to do it right, right now, before it’s too late.”
Read More About Milestones in Mongolia
With both national and local government support, Mongolians have designated nearly 40 percent of their territory for protection—and communities are leading this global charge.
For the love of trees, a model for urban forests emerged
When Melbourne gave 70,000 trees email addresses, their inboxes were inundated with love letters.
“Dear Moreton Bay Fig, You are beautiful. Sometimes I sit or walk under you and feel happier. I love the way the light looks through your leaves and how your branches come down so low and wide it is almost as if you are trying to hug me.”
But this city is growing—and new development often encroaches on its invaluable urban forest.
Nature faces similar pressure worldwide, but Melbourne is one of the first major cities to develop a plan to protect and restore green space on a metropolitan scale. A broad coalition of public and private sector partners have committed to nurture abundant nature across the region, promoting equitable public health benefits and natural infrastructure solutions in the process.
“It’s really rewarding seeing small birds like thornbills, scrubwrens and robins populating revegetated creeklines, urban parks and even backyards,” says James Fitzsimons, director of conservation and science for TNC’s Australia program. “This new plan we call “greenprinting” should accelerate this encouraging trend.”
Read More About Greenprinting in Melbourne
Urban green spaces generate a multitude of benefits for cities—now there's a guide for helping nature flourish in communities across the globe.
A lesson in how to live off a rising sea, rooted in nature & tradition
The islands of Micronesia are separated by the ocean even as it unites them in rich coastal traditions—and a common fate.
“Coming from Yap, a small island, climate change is big to us. We face a lot of impacts from climate change like sea level rise coming onto our land, getting into our taro patches,” says Bertha Reyuw, Capacity Building Coordinator for the Micronesia Conservation Trust.
“We are islanders living off the sea, so our food security is at stake. Most of our homes are along the shoreline, so many people may have to move inland, but not everybody has land to move inland.”
On a regional scale, the Micronesian islands are collaborating to conserve 30 percent of near-shore marine resources by the end of 2020. Reyuw’s community has planted coastal trees to help defend the shoreline—and moreover, the Yapese way of life.
“The older generation who is here talking about climate change, we really have to learn from them. They have so much knowledge that we need to feed on, because they’ll be gone soon and it’s us who will still be here. We need that knowledge to continue the work that we are doing today, and it’s our future and our children’s future that we have to secure.”
Read More About the Micronesia Challenge
Since its inception, the Micronesia Challenge has achieved great success in protecting land and sea for people and nature, and it has inspired other nations to take similar action.
Where nature and people can heal together
“West Virginia is known as ‘Coal Country,’ but I see us becoming ‘Climate Resilience Country’ more and more every day,” says Coalfield Development CEO Brandon Dennison, whose organization has partnered with TNC on workforce development to support green jobs in the region.
The West Virginia native is working to diversify the local economy, putting former coal miners back to work on retired mine sites with projects ranging from reforestation, solar installation, carpentry and sustainable agriculture. This kind of local vision could have global impact: TNC estimates that previously degraded lands can support enough new clean energy infrastructure to meet the world’s emissions reduction goals 17 times over.
“Rebuilding an entire economy from the ground up is a daunting task, but that’s what we need in central Appalachia,” he says. “The people in our community are facing many challenges, but we don’t want you to feel sorry for us: this is a place that has a lot to offer our country, and our planet. We are an under-invested-in asset.”
Dennison has seen firsthand how the decline of coal has wrought “deep pain and suffering” on Appalachian communities. The region has had to contend with a devastated ecology, stark unemployment, and a deadly rise in substance abuse.
“Despite the sense of loss our communities feel, a transformational vision for a new economic reality is taking root,” he says. “Our coal and gas and timber has been tapped, but the courage and creativity of our people has not. The country and the world need us to succeed.”
Read More About Renewables in West Virginia
Nevada and West Virginia, two U.S. states with distinct identities, are finding themselves on the frontier of clean energy exploration.
Changing the way we see the ocean
The southeastern coast of the Dominican Republic boasts all the natural amenities that lure tourists to the Caribbean—pillowy beaches, world-class diving, a reliably fresh catch-of-the-day. For Yulissa Reyes, this is home.
“Bayahibe is the town where I was born, so from a very young age I’ve been close to the sea and always felt the duty to conserve it,” Reyes says. “My family and I used to go to the coast to look for shellfish, but now you don’t see as many. I’m worried the generation after me may not get to know these species.”
As a youth conservationist, Reyes found support in the Fundación Dominicana de Estudios Marinos (FUNDEMAR). In 2013, the organization began cultivating coral to restore the region’s reefs, with strong support from the hotels and diving centers along the coast.
“Everybody in the Dominican Republic depends on the tourism sector or fisheries,” says Rita Sellares, executive director of FUNDEMAR. “If we lose the coral reefs, we lose the economy of the whole country.”
Today, the team manages seven coral nurseries in the area, which nurture 3,000 meters of coral. And now, to facilitate these and other restoration efforts, TNC and partners have created the first-ever high resolution maps of the entire Caribbean reef system, which promise to guide reef protection with science-backed precision—and change the way we see the ocean.
“When you start working on corals, you have to love them, because of all the things they show you,” Sellares says. “At FUNDEMAR, we always say you have to learn about things to love them, and then you’re also able to protect them.”
Read More About Coral Reefs in the Caribbean
A breakthrough in aerial mapping technology is bringing new clarity to reef protection in the Caribbean.
Where the world will come together, and leaders will emerge
China is home to 18 percent of the global population, 7 of the 10 largest cities and 10 percent of Earth’s remaining wildlife species—what’s more, the country is a key investor in infrastructure abroad. With a growing influence, the country is sure to have an outsize impact on the world’s future sustainability trajectory.
China’s efforts to address sustainability and development can be seen by its recent commitment to hit peak emissions before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality before 2060. The proposal promises to deploy nature-based solutions for climate change that will not only help China meet its Paris Climate Agreement targets, but also ensure a more secure future for a broad range of wetlands, forests, farmland and urban greenspace.
Perhaps the biggest sign of China’s aspirations as an environmental leader is its role as host country of the UN’s 15th Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Representatives from 196 countries are aiming to gather in the city of Kunming in 2021 to agree on a new global framework to protect nature.
This represents a long delay, of course, with the original gathering scheduled for October of 2020. It’s one of several major summits delayed in 2020, from the UN climate convention to a first-ever treaty to protect the high seas. While there’s no doubt some progress and momentum have been lost, the previous stories show ambitious action is still possible. We owe it ourselves and this beautiful blue and green planet to make the framework in Kunming a transformational one, ensuring that people and nature thrive—together.