For many around the world, 2016 was a challenging year. Taking the broadest view, perhaps no headline encapsulates this better than the official declaration made by a group of experts this August that our planet Earth has shifted into a new geological epoch called “The Anthropocene”—an era defined by humanity’s impact on the planet. Can we provide enough food, water and energy for our growing population and still protect the diversity of life on Earth?
Our science says yes. And it will require significant changes in how we value nature and provide the resources people need. But this daunting challenge is also our collective opportunity—one that offers, even, a different view of 2016. Because there have been sparks of hope these past 12 months in the actions of organizations, governments, companies and individuals empowered to make a difference. So, in that spirit, we share today some of The Nature Conservancy’s favorite signs of progress from 2016—milestones that offer a glimpse of a future for Earth where people and nature thrive together.
January: A First for First Nations in British Columbia’s Rainforest
The traditional lands of the Heiltsuk people lie at the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, which stretches across the coast of British Columbia, Canada. It is the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, and has been home to the Heiltsuk and dozens of other First Nations for thousands of years. It is also home to wolves, whales, salmon and the iconic “spirit bear” kermode—a rare subspecies of black bear with white fur found nowhere else on Earth. Early this year, 26 First Nation partners reached a milestone agreement—more than 10 years in the making—with the provincial government and the forest industry to secure the long-term sustainable management and protection of 19 million acres of this ancient ecosystem, while also supporting sustainable economic development in First Nations communities. The Nature Conservancy helped broker the deal, one we now see as a model for working with indigenous peoples and their critically important landscapes worldwide.
February: Tuna Tech Aims for Bycatch Disruption in the Pacific
Each year, fishing vessels in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean haul in more than $7 billion in tuna. These are the most productive tuna fisheries in the world, but we need safeguards to ensure that we don’t take too many from the water and that we don’t endanger other marine species when fishing. For the longline fishermen in the Pacific island nation of Palau, nearly a third of their hooks pull in sharks, turtles and rays instead of tuna. This devastating inefficiency is indicative of a global problem. Early this year, The Nature Conservancy began partnering more closely with Palau fishermen to test new, innovative practices to reduce bycatch (“non-target” species caught in fishing gear)—ranging from on-boat electronic monitoring and data collection to solutions as simple as modifying the shape of the hook. Meanwhile, professionals in the technology community are stepping up to find innovative data-based solutions through a new Conservancy campaign in California and our FishFace project in Australia—a winner of Google’s 2016 Impact Challenge—which aims to help fishermen assess and manage fish stocks through a facial recognition app.
March: Converting National Debt to National Conservation off the Coast of Africa
Located off the eastern coast of Africa, the archipelago nation of Seychelles is a hot spot for ocean biodiversity—and for rising sea levels due to climate change. But the nation is taking groundbreaking action. In the spring, the Government of Seychelles announced the world’s first debt restructuring aimed at ocean conservation and climate resiliency. The deal, made in collaboration with the government’s Paris Club creditors, The Nature Conservancy’s Africa Region and NatureVest (the Conservancy’s impact investment unit) is also the first to leverage impact capital (US$15.2 million). That investment, in combination with US$5 million in grants, allowed the discounted buy-back of US$21.6 million in Seychelles debt. What would have been future debt payments by the country will now go to support its conservation efforts. The country is now working with the Conservancy on a sustainable management plan for their entire Exclusive Economic Zone that will include the creation of roughly 400,000 square kilometers of marine protected area within five years.
April: Economists, Ecologists and Engineers Team Up to Protect Florida
With over $345 billion in assets and 2.6 million people at risk due to flooding, sea-level rise and other climate change impacts, Florida’s Miami-Dade County is one of the most vulnerable metropolitan areas on the planet. This spring, the county teamed up with The Nature Conservancy and global engineering firm CH2M to evaluate nature’s role in bolstering its coastal defenses. The partnership has brought together ecologists, economists and engineers for two pilot projects that are looking at natural systems such as reefs, mangroves and wetlands as part of the county’s infrastructure solutions for reducing flooding, wave force and stormwater runoff. This spring, the Conservancy also released a new tool, the Atlas of Ocean Wealth, which examines the protective value of such coastal ecosystems all over the world, as well as the other economic, social and cultural values of ocean habitats.
May: The Bigger the Better in Brazil
For farmers in Brazil, more strategic land-use decision-making could mean better conservation of one of the country’s most important ecosystems. The Cerrado is South America’s Serengeti—a vast savannah that covers, remarkably, more than 20 percent of Brazil. Home to a dynamic network of rivers, wetlands, rolling grasslands and species like tapirs, Pampas deer and maned wolves, the Cerrado is under such extreme threat from cattle ranching and soy expansion that it has been designated a global biodiversity hotspot. This year, new science published by The Nature Conservancy and The Dow Chemical Company found that by simply upping the scale of land-use planning—from traditional farm-to-farm level to a broader landscape scale—agricultural producers can expand production and minimize the cost of compliance with Brazil’s Forest Code, all while protecting more species, storing more carbon and improving water quality.
June: The Power of Healthy Rivers in Myanmar
Myanmar’s rivers produce more than 1.3 million tons of fish per year and employ roughly 1.5 million people. But, as only a third of its population currently has access to electricity, harnessing its rivers for hydropower is one of Myanmar’s energy options. With half of predicted global hydropower expansion expected to take place in Asia, Myanmar has the opportunity to be a leader in steering this growth in a more sustainable direction. This spring, The Nature Conservancy released a report that recommends the use of system-scale planning in Myanmar to best balance energy development with the needs of people and critical ecosystems. The country’s government is now studying the costs and benefits of hydropower to find options that are in the best interest of the country’s communities and environment.
July: Growing a Green Future for Indonesia
Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province is home to millions of forest-dependent people and crucial biodiversity, including rare species such as the orangutan. The province boasts 6.8 million hectares of tropical forests, but forest loss and degradation from unsustainable logging, palm oil production, mining and forest fires threaten its long-term economic and ecological health. In a major leadership step this year, East Kalimantan’s provincial government finalized its Green Growth Compact, a cross-sector agreement that will generate shared commitments in sustainable forest management. The compact—in the works since 2010 with companies, universities, local communities and NGOs including The Nature Conservancy—will help the province chart a new course for its development and move closer to its 2030 goal of increasing economic growth by 8 percent while significantly reducing its emissions (1,000 tons CO2 equivalent per US$1 million GDP).
August: A Market Solution for Australia’s Water Woes
Although it’s the driest inhabited continent, Australia produces 93 percent of its food domestically, using extensive irrigation from its river systems. This can lead to strain during low-rain periods, for both farmers and freshwater ecosystems. But a new market-based solution could help to distribute water entitlements more equitably amongst people and nature in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and perhaps other water-scarce regions, too. Working with a range of partners in Australia, The Nature Conservancy’s Australia program, Global Water program and NatureVest developed the Murray-Darling Basin Balanced Water Fund. As highlighted in our new Water Share report, the fund raises capital from investors to purchase water entitlements on Australia’s open market exchanges. These entitlements can be used to help depleted wetlands when water is plentiful, or sold or leased to farmers seeking more supplies during low water years. Watch this short video to see what this amazing transformation can look like.
September: Paris Agreement Ratification and Momentum in Marrakech
The Paris Agreement, the world’s first comprehensive, international agreement to address climate change, has now been ratified by over 115 nations, including China, India and, as of September, the United States. The Paris Agreement was put into place for three main reasons: to limit global temperature increases, to increase resilience to climate change through adaptation measures and to increase finance to address climate issues. The agreement went into force November 4th and was reaffirmed by this year’s UN climate meeting in Marrakech where parties began the hard work ahead of meeting agreement goals.
October: Planting Healthier Air for the World’s Cities
Air pollution has reached dangerous levels in many cities around the world, but city planners have a simple way to improve public health: plant more trees. This fall, The Nature Conservancy published a new report, Planting Healthy Air, which found that an investment of just US$4 per resident in tree plantings in each of the 245 global cities studied could improve the health of millions of people. An exciting part of the findings is that any city can benefit. Most of the effects from trees are fairly localized, so densely populated cities—as well as those with higher overall pollution levels—tend to see the highest overall return on investment, but the localized nature of the effects also means that benefits can extend to particular neighborhoods in virtually any city.
November: The Next Agricultural Revolution Is Beneath Our Feet
To feed our rapidly growing population, the world’s agricultural lands will have to produce 60 percent more food than they currently do by 2050—an especially tall order considering that we are currently losing 24 billion tons of fertile soil every year. But with changes in soil management, farmers can quickly restore soil health, allowing them to keep feeding society, generate tens of millions of dollars in additional annual farm income in the US, and generate billions of dollars in water and climate mitigation benefits at the same time. In November, The Nature Conservancy published a Soil Health Roadmap—developed with support from General Mills—which provides steps for how the US can lead in this new agricultural revolution.
December: Funding Flows Back Upstream for Nairobi’s Water, Climate and Food Security
The Tana River supplies 95 percent of the water for Nairobi’s four million residents and another five million people living in the watershed, but agricultural activities in the Upper-Tana watershed have led to heavy sedimentation—causing water shortages and reduced hydropower production. To address the shortages, the local government, utility companies, and other stakeholders joined with The Nature Conservancy to establish the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund. Downstream water users contribute to the fund to support work with farmers upstream, including planting cover crops and digging trenches that trap soil runoff. The result is improved water quality and supply, increased agricultural yields and strengthened climate resilience and mitigation. This year, we also released our Sub-Saharan Africa’s Urban Water Blueprint report, which found that watershed conservation activities could improve water security for more than 80 million people in the region.