Conservation news

Greta and Mesoamerica’s five great forests (commentary)

  • In New York’s Battery Park last Friday night, Greta Thunberg rightly said, “This is an emergency. Our house is on fire.” She continued, “This Monday, world leaders are going to be gathered here in New York City for the U.N. Climate Action Summit. The eyes of the world will be on them. They have a chance to take leadership, to prove they actually hear us.”
  • In Mesoamerica, leaders are listening and acting. During the Climate Summit, Mesoamerica’s leaders announced their commitment to protect the “Five Great Forests of Mesoamerica” and shared some of their governments’ lessons learned to date to reduce forest fires and tackle deforestation.
  • We are supporting them by promoting an initiative in which governments, Indigenous Peoples, and civil society are coming together to protect 10 million hectares and restore 500,000 hectares in these critical forest areas, thereby helping safeguard the world’s climate.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

This week’s Climate Strike mobilized and inspired millions of people around the world, including us.

On Friday, we stood with young protesters in New York’s Battery Park, listening to Greta Thunberg’s speech. Her courageous words, her grit, her honesty, her powerful presence, the overwhelming gravity and urgency of her message coming from such an unlikely leader… Greta brought us to tears.

We both belong to conservation organizations and have dedicated our lives and careers to protecting forests and wildlife. In other words, we are already believers in Greta’s message. We know that the world’s intact forests, along with the ocean, sequester half of humankind’s carbon emissions every year, and that protecting them and working to restore ecosystems around the planet are the most efficient ways to mitigate climate change.

We have seen firsthand the magic and majesty of Mesoamerica’s last five great, intact forests. Spanning from Mexico to Colombia, this “Amazon” of Mesoamerica covers an area three times the size of Switzerland and is home to more than 7.5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, such as the jaguar and endangered Baird’s tapir. The five forests hold nearly 50 percent of the region’s forest carbon stocks and provide important ecosystem services to 5 million people, including clean water, clean air, food security, and climate stability.

The jaguar’s range currently extends from Mexico through Central America to South America. The species is listed as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List and the population is declining. Photo Credit: Julie Larsen Maher.

Yet we have also seen the devastation. Since 2000, an insatiable global demand for beef has driven reduction of three of Mesoamerica’s five great forests by more than 23 percent. Ninety percent of deforestation in the five forests results from illegal cattle ranching — sometimes used as a front for organized crime and drug trafficking and sometimes connected to international markets.

To make matters worse, climate change-induced drought has sparked widespread forest fires, with smoke eclipsing the sun and choking both humans and wildlife. At times, it feels apocalyptic.

Greta rightly said, “This is an emergency. Our house is on fire.” She continued, “This Monday, world leaders are going to be gathered here in New York City for the U.N. Climate Action Summit. The eyes of the world will be on them. They have a chance to take leadership, to prove they actually hear us.”

In Mesoamerica, leaders are listening and acting.

During the Climate Summit, Mesoamerica’s leaders announced their commitment to protect the “Five Great Forests of Mesoamerica” and shared some of their governments’ lessons learned to date to reduce forest fires and tackle deforestation. We are supporting them by promoting an initiative in which governments, Indigenous Peoples, and civil society are coming together to protect 10 million hectares and restore 500,000 hectares in these critical forest areas, thereby helping safeguard the world’s climate.

The Five Forest Initiative follows four key principles that give us hope for its success.

A movement, not a project
The Five Forests Initiative will convene and support a “Five Forests Alliance,” including the region’s governments, civil society, universities, and local and indigenous communities, collectively working along a single, coherent strategy. Through mass mobilization of resources channeled to an alliance of the most effective partners in each of the forests, the initiative will effect broad and lasting impact.

Addressing the primary threat
Greater than 90 percent of the deforestation within the Five Forests is caused by illegal cattle ranching that has been allowed to invade protected areas and indigenous territories. The Five Forests Initiative will work to address illegal ranching while providing economic alternatives for local people that result in more trees and fewer cows and that are compatible with local and indigenous cultures.

Local solutions
Nearly half of the Five Forests of Mesoamerica are governed by Indigenous Peoples who have lived and worked sustainably in them for centuries. They have time-tested solutions for how to live and work in these landscapes in ways that promote biodiversity conservation and limit forest degradation and deforestation. The Five Forests Alliance is committed to integrating local and indigenous voices as leaders to understand, promote, and scale community-based solutions.

Trust in local capacity
The Five Forests Initiative endeavors to empower the conservationists of Mesoamerica to create the conditions in which they can implement their own innovative ideas and generate the change needed to save the region’s forests, including consistent and well-paid employment.

Mesoamerica’s people, culture, biodiversity, economic health, resilience to climate change—the very essence of Mesoamerica—all depend on these five great forests. To survive as a planet and stave off the worst effects of climate change, we all depend on the success of movements like Mesoamerica’s Five Great Forests Initiative.

As Greta famously said, “I want you to act. I want you to act as if our house is on fire.”

Mesoamerica’s forests are literally on fire. The region’s governments, Indigenous Peoples, civil society, and the broader conservation community now commit to protect them.

La Mosquitia is a region of rainforest in the easternmost part of Honduras. Photo Credit: John Polisar, WCS.

CITATION

• Baccini, A. G. S. J., Goetz, S. J., Walker, W. S., Laporte, N. T., Sun, M., Sulla-Menashe, D., … & Samanta, S. (2012). Estimated carbon dioxide emissions from tropical deforestation improved by carbon-density maps. Nature climate change, 2(3), 182. doi:10.1038/nclimate1354

Dr. Jeremy Radachowsky is Regional Director of Mesoamerica and the Caribbean for WCS and has worked for more than two decades to conserve Mesoamerica’s forests.
Dr. Chris Jordan is the Central America and Tropical Andes Coordinator for Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC).

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.