This Nature Longread essay first appeared in SNAP Magazine, which features great writing on the intersection of nature and human well-being as part of the website of the Science for Nature and People (SNAP) collaboration. Read more SNAP Magazine articles and learn more about the SNAP collaboration.
I am anthropocentric, a social justice activist at heart. It took a landslide — literally — to turn me into a natural scientist and environmentalist.
I had just moved to El Salvador in 2009 on a Fulbright grant, about to embark a study of food sovereignty of organic coffee farmers to follow up on my senior thesis (Tellman et al. 2011), when it all came crashing down. The hardest and fastest rains in El Salvador’s recorded history pummeled us for four hours on November 7 of that year, triggering mudslides that buried alive nearly 300 people and made thousands more instantly homeless. To make a long story short: I sprung to action; raised thousands of dollars; changed my Fulbright to study community disaster resilience (Tellman 2010); and helped start an NGO, The CEIBA Foundation, based on those findings.
I ended up living in El Salvador until 2011, working alongside the Salvadoran co-founders of The CEIBA Foundation. We trained children’s emergency disaster relief committees, built a hurricane shelter, and even planted a few trees. But even as we made small gains towards building more socially resilient communities with better early warning systems and evacuation strategies, we still were not getting to the root of the problem.Tweet this quote
Storm after storm hit the country, followed almost inevitably by flood and landslide disasters in the region of Santiago Texacuangos where we worked. In the short time I lived there, I spent time in shelters during Hurricane Ida, Tropical Storm Agatha, Tropical Storm Nicole, Tropical Storm Matthew and Tropical Depression 12-E. These storms were devastating to El Salvador — on a scale unimaginable to a Euro-American. Damage from just Tropical Depression 12-E totaled US$1.5 billion, or 4% of the country’s GDP (CEPAL 2011). While Hurricane Sandy’s damages to the United States were US$60 billion, that figure was only about 0.6% of US GDP. Even small and medium flood events can represent a significant blow to a developing country’s economy.
This unprecedented frequency and magnitude of flood events has many ready explanations (Bouwer 2011): climate change; a freakishly wet decade; more people living in vulnerable areas. But could environmental degradation provide another explanatory variable?
El Salvador is the most deforested country in Latin America (FAO 2011). It will also never make it onto anyone’s top-10 lists for biodiversity hotspots, endemic species or being a “green” country. This perhaps explains why there is little money for conservation here, and none of the world’s largest conservation organizations (The Nature Conservancy, WWF not IUCN) have El Salvador country programs.
However, El Salvador seems to make it onto every top-10 list for disaster vulnerability (WorldBank disaster hotspots, Germanwatch global climate risk index, UNDAC 2010). While there might not be any endangered species left to save here, there’s certainly one species in a heck of a lot of danger: homo sapiens sapiens.
Conservation needs to grapple with what climate change is and will do to its traditional work — and it is. But will conservationists also grasp the opportunities they have to help places like El Salvador — where there are no target species, but where the resiliency healthy nature gives us in the face of climate change can mean the difference between prosperity and poverty for tens of thousands of people or more?
Research I’m doing for my master’s thesis at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is showing one promising opportunity. I am using remote sensing to measure land-use change in two watersheds here: one deforested due to urbanization, and one that has maintained its forest cover. I’m building a flood model based on historic storms to assess if tropical forests are indeed providing the ecosystem service of flood mitigation.
By “tropical forests,” I don’t mean fancy cloud forest or even primary forest. These forest areas are active and abandoned shade coffee plantations — pretty much the only kind of forest left in El Salvador. But it turns out some ecosystem services (such as flood mitigation) don’t depend on megadiversity of species.
In fact, the disaster-risk reduction benefits nature provides against landslides and floods — increased soil infiltration, sediment retention and slope stabilization —depend more on soil than they do on primary tropical forest (Bruijnzeel 2004). Many studies of secondary forests in the Amazon found that these benefits (such as soil infiltration rates) were regained in as little as 10 years of secondary forest regrowth (Giambelluca 2002, Ilstedt et al 2006).
Some studies show that even shrubby trees with long taproots (such as coffee) may provide landslide mitigation, as well as invasive species (gasp!) like bamboo (Stokes et al 2009). Forests (be they primary, secondary, plantation or agroforestry) seem to do a better job at protecting soil from compaction and preserving infiltration rates than do other types of land cover.
We already know the importance of habitats in helping to protect us from catastrophic natural events. Ecosystems such as wetlands, dunes and marshes play an important role in attenuating storm surge (Arkema et al. 2013). The 4,800 km2 loss of wetlands in southern Louisiana greatly amplified the storm surge and impacts from Hurricane Katrina (Costanza et al. 2003). More recently, USGS scientists quite accurately predicted Hurricane Sandy’s impacts in the northeast United States by analyzing length of intact beaches and heights of sand dunes there, describing the dunes as the “first line of defense” for storm surge and coastal erosion. (Check out their astounding predictions and before and after Sandy photos.)
Just how much can we rely on these natural ecosystems for protection? Answering that question is a priority for SNAP, and one of the most pressing questions of my generation.
No, we should not stop building levees in New Orleans, or pretend that mangroves will stop tsunamis. Understanding the trade-offs between green and gray infrastructure is a life-or-death matter and will require serious interdisciplinary teams of ecologists and engineers. But it behooves us to start those analyses for natural and managed ecosystems, even if they are not the most “biodiverse” in terms of number of species per square whatever (Kareiva and Marvier 2003).
Climate change makes this focus essential. The effects of climate change will threaten and destroy many areas of habitat for people and biodiversity — especially in the global South and along coasts. Even though mangroves might not stop a tsunami, healthy ecosystems like mangroves can increase livelihood resilience for post-disaster communities that can rely on natural capital to produce ecosystem services like food and building material (Adger et al 2005).
Can we both protect vulnerable habitat and ensure the resilience of the livelihoods of people in the face of climate change? Only if we — conservationists, not just development agencies and organizations — make people a priority.
Over 15 years ago, Jane Lubchenco, marine ecologist and administrator of NOAA from 2009-2013, published a seminal article on the “Century of the Environment,” which called for a “Social Contract for Science” — arguing that scientists should “address the most urgent needs of society, in proportion to their importance” (Lubchenco 1998).
Conservation should consider Lubchenco’s suggestion, and allocate resources not only for biodiversity hotspots, but also towards some of the most degraded places on Earth, where vulnerable and densely populated human communities reside in biodiversity coldspots. These hotspots of environmental degradation and human poverty are places where investing in nature could provide fantastic social and ecological returns.
Take Haiti as an example. Haiti is the most deforested country in the Western hemisphere, and one of the least developed countries in the world. The 2013 UN Human Development Index ranked Haiti #161 out of 164 countries. Nearly all of the 49 least developed countries, like Haiti, have now submitted National Adaptation Programs of Action (NAPAs) to receive international funding from GEF (Global Environmental Fund) to adapt to climate change. An analysis of all NAPAs (Promova et al 2012) reveals Haiti as one of the countries with the most number of projects targeting ecosystem-based climate change adaptation.
Despite its current state of degradation, Haiti’s NAPA plan contains explicit language about the importance of ecosystem services to social well-being, and includes proposed large watershed restoration programs with reforestation components to “reduce the negative impact of climate events” (Promova et al 2012). Restoration of previously forested lands in Haiti could provide important hydrologic ecosystem services to mitigate flooding and landslides, regulate microclimates, increase aquifer recharge and control erosion to increase water quality. Investing in nature could begin to restore both biodiversity and essential ecosystem services to vulnerable Haitian communities.
Another example is Bangladesh, ranked #141 in the Human Development Index, and with only 1.59% of its land under any protected status (Waldron et al 2013). I recently spent a week in Bangladesh with 24 scientists at a workshop called the UN Resilience Academy to discuss how to increase livelihood resilience in the face of climate change. I was most impressed by the creativity and passion of the Bangladeshi scientists at The International Center for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, who are looking at how restoring the ecosystem functions of mangrove forests and wetlands could help prepare for massive climate change adaptation planning in their country that may require the relocation of millions of people. In a future of sea-level rise and increased flood events, largely undervalued ecosystem services such as these will play a key role in mitigating disasters and enhancing recovery.
Conservation has historic and growing opportunities to apply the concept of ecosystem services to help shift the present patterns of environmental degradation in the countries that need and want it most. But major conservation organizations have yet to step up to this challenge.
A database of global conservation funding by multiple public and private sources compiled by Waldron et al (2013) tells the tale clearly. From 2001-2008, a mere $811,000 a year was spent on conservation efforts in Haiti. And while $6.8 million and $8.5 million dollars were spent on conservation in El Salvador and Bangladesh, respectively, more than $30 million is spent annually on conservation in places like Costa Rica or Namibia¹ — countries with much smaller populations and with comparatively less environmental degradation.
So what if conservation spent more money not only preserving biodiversity, but also restoring ecosystem services?
Restoring ecosystem services to degraded working landscapes is challenging, and requires creative approaches to sustainable development. Such approaches include:
- Multifunctional agriculture (producing food and other ecosystem services like pollination);
- Silvopastoral systems (sustainable ranching in managed forests);
- Fair-mined “green” gold (artisanal chemical-free mining in rainforests in Colombia); and
- Water funds (investing in watershed protection for clean drinking water).
Packaging “hectares of coffee forest conservation” as “cubic meters of mitigated flood water” for local land-use planners in El Salvador at my research site shifts the development paradigm into closer alignment with conservation. Visualizing and measuring where ecosystems services exist on a landscape may convince some local policymakers to protect a little more forest, and allow a little less urbanization. Maintaining a few more hectares of overgrown coffee forest as part of a long-term land-use plan might not seem like a conservation win to conservation traditionalists. But it can be one in a hotspot of environmental degradation and human poverty.
And for at least one species — the homo sapiens sapiens who live downstream of that forest — that win might make a big difference.
¹The $30 million annual spending figure for Costa Rica and Namibia is based on my calculations from data in Waldron et al. (2013).