The Conservancy is pursuing strategies like these across the globe. Incorporating lessons from Noel Kempff, we have launched forest-carbon projects in Louisiana, California, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and elsewhere. These projects absorb carbon, create sustainable jobs and ensure that indigenous communities get a say in how their traditional lands are used.
In other places, restoring degraded lands can help the climate. In Australia’s northern tropical savannas, for example, the setting of small fires early in the dry season—an indigenous practice—was largely abandoned after European settlement. Today, devastating wildfires devour the parched vegetation during the late dry season—fires that emit significant amounts of carbon. But the Conservancy has been working with several indigenous communities across northern Australia to set controlled fires early, before vegetation gets too dry. The resulting patchy, less-intense burns safely restore habitat for small mammals and birds, and they emit less carbon.
At one ranch, called the Fish River Station, the indigenous rangers have reduced the amount of land charred by wildfires from an average of 36 percent a year to just 1 percent. Since 2010, the project has cut annual carbon emissions nearly in half while helping to maintain a healthy savanna.
Conservationists also can partner with farmers and ranchers to manage working landscapes in ways that reduce carbon emissions. Research suggests that the world’s cultivated soils used to hold much more carbon—perhaps as much as 50 to 70 percent more—than they store today. The science is still evolving, but some of that carbon-storage capacity can be restored by adopting conservation-oriented practices, such as planting cover crops on fallow agricultural fields.
I recently saw this in action while touring the Midwest. I joined a group visiting a pioneering Iowa farmer, Tim Smith, who is working with the Conservancy and the Natural Resources Conservation Service to demonstrate what’s possible when farmers focus on soil health. We looked at fields that had been traditionally tilled and kept “square and bare” after harvest as generations of farmers have learned to do. On other fields, Smith had planted cover crops or practiced conservation tillage, where more crop residue is left in the ground. More carbon is retained in these soils. They also absorb water more quickly and retain water better. Such soils reduce the nutrient-laden runoff that emits greenhouse gases and pollutes rivers, lakes and oceans. These practices can also deliver higher returns for the farmer and, planned correctly, can get more production off the same acreage.
Ultimately, we will need farmers, ranchers, foresters and indigenous communities on board if we are to bring natural climate solutions to bear on a meaningful scale. The conservation movement can’t achieve the necessary scale on its own.
Yet I’ve seen firsthand how partnerships can make these types of solutions possible. A few months ago, I visited the Dayak village of Merabu in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province. After a long canoe ride upriver, I met the village chief, a 28-year-old dynamo in flip-flops and trousers named Franly Oley. He showed me a three-dimensional map that the Conservancy had helped him create, detailing the region’s veins of forest woven between limestone karst pinnacles. Armed with these maps, Merabu had gained legal title to nearly 20,000 acres of forest that had been under threat from the expansion of palm oil plantations. This forest could have been destroyed. Instead, it stands, storing carbon dioxide every day. The Conservancy has worked with partners on similar efforts with more than 20 villages in this part of Indonesia and plans to help hundreds more in the coming years.
Land conservation has been part of the Conservancy’s mission for some
65 years, during which time we have protected hundreds of millions of
acres around the world. It’s exciting to realize that expanding our
efforts can also solve a substantial portion of the climate challenge.
Unlike any generation before us, we have the scientific and economic
tools to analyze how to manage our natural resources in a more
sustainable way. Ours is the generation that can actually begin to
restore the planet on a significant scale.