This week brings one of the largest environmental gatherings in the world, and arguably one of the most important—the World Conservation Congress.  Held every four years since 1948, the Congress is one of the greatest demonstrations of grassroots, ground-up innovations in wildlife and ecosystem conservation. The United States is hosting the gathering for the first time, in Honolulu, Hawaii. The ideas discussed are sure to generate ripple effects throughout communities and economies around the world.

Conservation remains more relevant than ever for solving the world’s toughest problems. More than half of the drinking water in the United States originates in forests, which filter and regulate water for about 180 million people.  Illegal logging and deforestation threaten the 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity that lives in forests, including undiscovered species that may provide the basis for developing new medicines and crops. And wildlife trafficking and illegal logging are increasingly linked with organized crime and the drug trade.

Cleared forest in Orellana, Ecuador. Photo by Tomas Munita/CIFOR
Cleared forest in Orellana, Ecuador. Photo by Tomas Munita/CIFOR

Yet despite these troubling statistics, the conservation landscape has evolved tremendously even since the last meeting in South Korea four years ago. Heading into this year’s Congress, three innovations offer promise for solving pressing conservation problems:

A Technological Revolution

Since the last Congress, technology has transformed the way we observe and manage natural resources. From satellite monitoring of deforestation, smart phone usage to follow wildlife movements, and wood identification and timber tracking tools to combat illegal logging, the linkages between new technology and grassroots action on the ground are game-changers for conservation.

Many of these important new tools will be previewed at this year’s Congress. For example, the Global Forest Watch platform uses satellites to monitor tree cover change in near-real time. The system is evolving to the point where forest managers like park rangers will be able to use it to spot illegal logging and other activities even in remote areas without an internet connection. The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, a U.S. government-supported effort, brings together more than 40 individuals and organizations to develop new technology to spot poaching routes, strengthen forensic evidence, reduce consumer demand for illegal wildlife products and tackle corruption. Others at the Congress will address fast-developing wood identification technologies based on the genetic, structural or chemical properties of particular wood specimens. These emerging tools can help authorities battling illegal loggers, timber businesses seeking to ensure their products are sustainable and legally harvested, and environmental watchdogs ferreting out illicit activities.

New Political Commitments

2015 saw the conclusion of two landmark global agreements, the Paris Climate Agreement and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Congress is the most important global event this year focused on the hard work of turning these political commitments into action to conserve nature.

Limiting global temperature rise to 1.5-2 degrees C can’t be done without drastically reducing deforestation rates. We’re already seeing moves in this direction, with several countries including anti-deforestation measures in their national climate plans submitted ahead of COP21 in Paris. But much more needs to be done, particularly to slow the loss of the planet’s remaining old-growth, primary forests, which are crucial for both combating climate change and slowing the loss of biological diversity. Achieving the SDGs will require massive investment in clean water, sustainable agriculture, marine conservation and more. The SDGs give countries and companies a clear signal to make these investments; the Conservation Congress is demonstrating how conserving nature can and should be a major foundation for achieving the lofty goals set out in the SDGs.

Restoring degraded landscapes in Kenya. Photo by Aaron Minnick/WRI
Restoring degraded landscapes in Kenya. Photo by Aaron Minnick/WRI

A Growing Restoration Movement

The leaders and practitioners gathered at the Conservation Congress must, however, also deal with a sad legacy of the past. About 30 percent of the world’s forests have been completely cleared, and another 20 percent are degraded.  In its rush to develop, humanity has left a significant part of our shared planet a wasteland, stripped of nature and not much good for people either.  Here too, though, signs of hope have emerged in the past few years.

A movement to restore these degraded landscapes into productivity is growing. The Bonn Challenge is a global initiative to restore 150 million hectares of degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030, an area larger than the size of India. We’ve already secured commitments to restore more than 100 million hectares, and national and regional initiatives continue to emerge. Eleven countries and four sub-national groups pledged to restore nearly 28 million hectares of degraded land in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2020 as part of Initiative 20x20. And last December, African nations launched AFR 100, an effort to bring 100 million hectares of degraded landscapes under restoration by 2030.

Albatross chick in Papahanaumokuakea reserve. Photo by Kris Krüg/Flickr
Albatross chick in Papahanaumokuakea reserve. Photo by Kris Krüg/Flickr

Better Conservation for a Better Planet

Just ahead of the Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea marine reserve northwest of the main Hawai’ian Islands. It’s now the world’s largest protected area, spanning a region twice the size of Texas.

There is still room on this crowded planet to think big when it comes to conserving nature, if we realize that conservation is not the enemy of development.  Done at the right scales, with the proper tools and always with the inextricable goals of improved human welfare and respect for the power, laws and limits of nature, conservation is a necessary part of development.