OPINION: How can climate action balance the needs of nature and people?

by Simon Pollock | Green Climate Fund
Tuesday, 21 January 2020 10:59 GMT

Shildah Nabimanya realises tending bees offers better long-term livelihood prospects than draining wetlands to raise cattle. PHOTO/Media Edge Consult

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Efforts to protect ecosystems must also take into account global development goals intended to lift people out of poverty

A difficult past has taught young Ugandan beekeeper Shildah Nabimanya the importance of protecting ecosystems.

Nabimanya, 18, moved with her family when she was a girl onto one of this landlocked East African nation’s vital wetlands to farm. But their drainage of the wetlands to graze cattle and grow crops did not go well. Their natural source of water depleted, the cattle had nothing to eat, and their only income and a major source of food disappeared.

This bitter experience was shared by others who encroached illegally onto the wetlands.

“When this wetland was drained, we faced shortages of food and water, and mothers had to fetch water from far away on hot sunny days,” Nabimanya said. “Children were no longer going to school.”

Nabimanya’s family was among the many now caught on the frontline of the ecological and social devastation that occurs when rural development clashes with natural protection.

The battering ecosystems are taking at the hands of humans is obvious. A UN report released last year shows ecosystems have lost about half their area, with a million animal and plant species at risk of extinction. Among natural habitats, wetlands have suffered the most, with 83% drained across the world since 1700.

“I now know that I am not supposed to destroy the wetlands, because when I destroy them it will affect me in the future,” Nabimanya said during a recent Green Climate Fund (GCF) fact-finding mission to a project site introducing climate adaptation measures by providing livelihood alternatives.

Now she is more positive about her future, after her family (minus her father who died a few years ago from an illness) joined a local agricultural cooperative of 76 people which formed in 2014 on the outskirts of Rwizi Wetland in Uganda’s western Sheema district.

Most days, Nabimanya can be found tending a collection of beehives nestled in a banana tree grove where the cooperative is located. The cooperative is part of a broader national initiative, receiving GCF funds, to restore Uganda’s western and eastern wetlands by providing different ways for families to sustain themselves, rather than draining wetlands.

Uganda is trying to halt the decline of its wetlands as they offer vital protection against climate change effects such as droughts. PHOTO/Media Edge Consult

Uganda has lost around 30 percent of its wetlands in the past 15 years due to degradation. These ecosystems benefit the whole country as they act as vast water reservoirs - especially important in regulating water flows during floods and in replenishing water supplies during drought.

Keeping the wetlands healthy is important as about 4 million Ugandans live around these marshy areas. They act as breeding grounds for fisheries and feed into a national water table that supplies people’s drinking needs in many parts of the country.

The preservation of these ecosystems also has broad implications for climate change beyond local and national levels – as it reverses rising greenhouse gas emissions from land degradation.

TACKLING POVERTY 

Protecting the environment and people’s wellbeing at the same time is not always easy. The need to avoid taking hard choices emphasising one or the other has become more apparent as concerns over climate change strengthen moves to halt environmental destruction.

The complex networks of plant and animal life that make up ecosystems reduce erosion from flooding, decrease coastal destruction from rising sea levels, and preserve natural water reserves during droughts.

But attempts to preserve nature must also take into account global development goals intended to lift people out of poverty. As deadly riots in Ecuador last October showed, attempts to introduce efforts to tackle climate change (in this case, an aborted attempt to reduce fossil fuel subsidies) can backfire if they have detrimental effects on society’s most economically exposed. 

For many people in developing countries, accessing natural resources through farming represents their primary form of subsistence and family income. So enhanced activities to protect their environments will provide them with little solace if those measure lock them away from their use of the land and exacerbate their poverty. 

GCF is providing Ugandan people with livelihood alternatives such as beekeeping to avoid damaging ecosystems. PHOTO/Media Edge Consult

As the world’s largest provider of climate finance, GCF is expanding its support of ecosystem-based approaches that increase communities’ climate resilience, but not at the expense of making poor rural people poorer.

GCF has invested $24.1 million in Uganda to strengthen moves balancing wetland restoration with livelihood protection by the government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Paul Mafabi, a leading wetlands specialist in the Ugandan Ministry of Water and Environment, said the key to effective wetland restoration is providing opportunities that both protect the environment and reduce poverty levels. The conservation of wetlands enriches biodiversity and helps to “increase productivity, which is the key factor in eradicating poverty”, he said.

Approaches that protect the planet and people’s livelihoods through ecosystem protection are not easy to establish as they require extensive community consultation. Nevertheless, the way these initiatives tap the resilient power of nature represents great opportunities to prepare for a warmer world, while hopefully also preventing the chances of a future, unbearably hot one.

This is a shortened version of an article that first appeared on the GCF's website