Rio+20: Confessions of a Turtle-Hugger

Hawksbill Turtle Soars above the reef in Rinca Island, Indonesia

Misty Herrin is The Nature Conservancy’s director of freshwater communications.

This morning I was paired with a burly Indonesian security guard to keep late-comers and non-VIPs out of a special event at the Rio+20 conference. He was as intense and stern as a bodyguard for a president should be. I’m a 110 pound female whose Secret Service name would be “deadweight.”

Fortunately, he didn’t need my back-up to keep the secured room sealed.

The event was organized by The Nature Conservancy and the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) to launch a “Leaders Valuing Nature” platform, which is designed to bring together world leaders to make commitments to invest in nature.

After a year of “push-pull-then pray” diplomacy by the Conservancy and GLISPA external affairs staff, the room was filled with six Heads of State and Government (presidents and prime ministers), more than 100 government ministers of everything from finance to fisheries, ambassadors and other notables.

A "Leaders Valuing Nature" event organized by The Nature Conservancy and Global Island Partnership brought together six heads of state and government to make commitments to preserve nature and the benefits it provides to people.

The event was co-hosted by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Prime Minister Tillman Thomas of Grenada, on behalf of the co-chairs of the Global Island Partnership, President Michel of Seychelles and President Toribiong of Palau.

They were joined by:
Antigua and Barbuda: Prime Minister Winston Baldwin Spencer
Australia: Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Colombia: Vice-Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development Adriana Soto on behalf of President Juan Manuel Santos
Seychelles: Vice President Danny Faure
Nippon Foundation: Chairman Yohei Sasakawa

Since I was outside the room watching out for party-crashers, I kept my ear close to the door. One after another the leaders announced steps that they will take to preserve nature and the benefits it provides to people. (Read summaries of the commitments here.)

They were all impressive and inspiring. For example, Antigua and Barbuda committed to protecting 20 percent of their near shore marine area and 15 percent of their terrestrial area by 2020, joining with other countries participating in the Caribbean Challenge Initiative. Colombia made three bold commitments, including to dramatically expand an already massive national park in the Amazon basin.

But when Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced Australia’s goal to create the world’s largest network of marine protected areas I was suddenly shaken out of my conference-daze. I remembered why I’m here: sea turtles, whales and too many favorite animals to name.

We all have our reasons for loving nature. I’m in it for wildlife. I’m an animal-hugger and proud of it. At the same time, I want nature preserved and used in ways that improve peoples’ lives today and for the long term, especially the poor.

Creating protected areas and improving fishing practices in Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Indonesia, Seychelles and Grenada will mean a brighter future for animals and for communities that rely on the sea for food, income and more.

There are a lot of ways to help protect nature. Frankly, some are more fun than others. Planting a tree is fun and gratifying. Big conferences don’t pack the same emotional punch and obvious immediate result. But there was real buzz at this event, genuine excitement.

It was a stark contrast to the jolt of disappointment on Tuesday when the official negotiations churned out a text that may as well have been written on a white flag. These UN conference “outcomes” as they are called are essentially a “we believe in and promise to” document. They really do influence government policy. The Rio+20 outcome was  more a “we’ve reached general agreement on some watered down concepts and will consider to do some things in the future about them” document.

But today, standing with my new Indonesian bodyguard friend, listening to these leaders take a stand to do something real for nature, I came back to my faith in the power of individuals who commit themselves to do the right thing and do it.

I saw that in my external affairs colleagues rushing around the event venue with walkie-talkies to ensure that presidential motorcades were orchestrated according to protocol. I’ve seen them greet ambassadors by their first name because they’ve been in the trenches together. I’ve seen them work through the night and put their hearts and souls into this effort and I’m both humbled and proud to work with them. I wish that every Nature Conservancy supporter could be here to see it because you’re very much a part of it, too.

[Top image: Hawksbill Turtle soars above the reef in Rinca Island, Indonesia. Image source: Jeff Yonover]

[Second image: (left to right) Adriana Soto, Vice-Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia; Prime Minister Tillman Thomas of Grenada (event co-host); Prime Minister Winston Baldwin Spencer of Antigua and Barbuda; President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia (event co-host); Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia; Vice President Danny Faure of Seychelles; Chairman Yohei Sasakawa of the Nippon Foundation (which committed funding to implement the commitments); and Glenn Prickett, Vice President of External Affairs for the Conservancy, who served as master of ceremony. Image source: Nadia Peimbert, TNC]

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