‘Lungs of the world’

MY father had the proverbial “green thumb”. He loved gardening and we benefitted from this love enjoying fruit and vegetables from the back yard.

My mother on the other had a green hand. As I child I saw her as the embodiment of Mother Earth herself. While my father would tend the garden or plantation on a regular basis, it seemed that mother tended to the “gardens”, whenever the earth called. The “gardens”, as she called them, would eventually become groves.

She was a firm believer in organic and natural growing. I would be called in to dig the compost pits and be handed pamphlets on caring on for the environment and she explained the reduce, reuse, recycle principles for sustainable development.

My parents always reminded me that whether a tree bore fruit or not, or provided shelter, or timber — it’s most important gift was to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen as the “lungs of the world”.

A 2015 study from The Nature Conservancy, the “Global Development Risk Assessment” is one of the most complete look, to date, at the potential impact global growth will have on forests, grasslands and other natural ecosystems that people depend on worldwide.

The bottom line is that a full 20 per cent, or nearly 2 billion hectares, of the world’s remaining natural lands could be developed by just the middle of this century.

According to Justin Adams, who is the global managing director for lands at The Nature Conservancy, if nations do this poorly, this development could drastically change the lives of long-standing human communities that have lived in harmony with their lands for millennia.

“The planet will lose clean water and critical climate regulation. And, we will lose iconic plants, animals, savannahs and forests — all priceless ingredients of a sustainable future, and nearly irrecoverable once they’re gone.”

Mr Adams believes nations and other stakeholders now have an opportunity to get ahead of the growth curve to bring world-class science to the development decision-making fore and to make conservation a central part of smart development strategies.

“This starts by simply taking a bigger-picture approach to development choices. Governments, companies and communities must trade the narrow single-outcome decision-making of the past in exchange for more fully informed planning across entire landscapes.

“When we evaluate resource, conservation and community needs across entire landscapes, we are able to make better choices about where and how to satisfy those needs in concert rather than conflict with the environment.”

According to Mr Adams, this landscape-scale approach has applications for climate-change mitigation as well through a combination of land protection, restoration and sustainable use practices that maximise the conservation of forests and other crucial natural carbon stores. The science and decision-support tools exist to make this happen, and progress is already being made in rapidly growing places such as Brazil and Indonesia.

The Guardian newspaper reported last month that a recent study found that leaving forests in communal hands cuts carbon emissions from deforestation, helps communities and offers long-term economic benefits for all. According to the study, the expansion of tribal land rights is the most cost-effective way to protect forests and sequester carbon.

The paper by the Rights and Resources Initiative, Woods Hole Research Centre and World Resources Institute is the most comprehensive effort yet to quantify the contribution of traditional forest guardians to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Authors hope to encourage governments to recognise indigenous land rights and include tribal input in national action plans. This is currently not the case for 167 of 188 nations in the Paris agreement, including Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which are home to some of the world’s biggest forests.

The Guardian article states that based on satellite surveys of 37 tropical countries, the study estimates community-claimed lands sequester at least 54,546m tonnes of carbon — roughly four times the world’s annual emissions.

Alain Frechette of Rights and Resources, one of the report’s authors, urged national governments and negotiators to make indigenous communities a more central part of climate policies.

“When communities have secure forest rights, not only are forests better protected, but communities fare better. It’s what economists call an optimal solution. Everyone wins,” he said. “By contrast, large-scale development initiatives produce quick wins, but the long-term environmental, economic and political costs are not taken into account. They are just pushed on to future generations.”

These two studies have a common thread. Fundamentally, ensuring sustainable development and reversing climate change is about transforming our relationship with nature — how we think about it, value it and use it.

Fiji, as chair of COP23 next year and as a recognised champion for climate justice, has a crucial role in leading this transformation.

With such a large percentage of Fiji’s land belonging to our indigenous community, we have a historic chance to show the world what that transformation should look like.

Transformed approaches to land utilisation will take into account not just what that land does for individuals, corporations or even communities. It will take into account what that land is doing for the planet and all creation.

Simplicity, serenity, spontaneity.

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.

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