“Balu Wala” and Collective Momentum for Landscape-level Conservation

By Dave Kramer, EcoLogic’s Senior Manager for Impact, Learning, and Innovation

Dave Kramer in Honduras

Dave Kramer in beautiful Pico Bonito National Park in Honduras, near where EcoLogic is building our first large-scale regional landscape conservation project (Photo: Kathrin Winkler)

With this week’s Winter Storm Juno packing a wallop and reports of crippling drought across Central America, climate change is once again top of mind here at EcoLogic and across much of the world. I was fortunate enough to travel to Lima, Peru, last December, during COP20—but I was actually there to attend a fantastic side event, the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF), organized by the Center for International Forestry (CIFOR) and two UN agencies (FAO and UNEP).

For a representative of an organization so interdisciplinary in focus, the two-day conference was like being in the world’s most well-stocked candy store. Rooms hummed with palpable energy as indigenous communities, governments, academia and corporations came together to envision a world where sustainably-managed landscapes are key to the climate and agriculture equation. I heard a great deal of talk about power and rights—exposing what is all too often a catch-22 for local communities. Rural and indigenous people spoke of being sandwiched by negative consequences of land grabs for conservation when communities are pushed off their land—a tragic but frequent occurrence, for example, when a national park is established—or having their livelihoods damaged or rights infringed upon by extractive industry and large development projects.

I spoke with countless people empowered to make change within their organizations or communities. Many were passionate about different tools they saw as holding the potential to have great impact in supporting communities and agents of change from all sectors to better manage large, regional landscapes. I met with Manon Koningstein, a representative of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who is focused on participatory video and photography within their Gender & Climate Change program. I also talked to Ruth Nogueron from the World Resources Institute, whose work along with Google on Global Forest Watch is revolutionizing how anyone can gather and contribute real-time data on deforestation anywhere in the world.

And I re-connected with former EcoLogic intern Julian Moll-Rocek, who produced a powerful short documentary about our local partner communities in Totonicapán, Guatemala, in 2014. Julian is now working with EcoLogic Board member Dr. Robin Chazdon in the PARTNERS network, which is an international research coordination network dedicated to understanding reforestation in the tropics, and is exploring creative ways to regain and restore natural systems.

Speaking of forest restoration, one of the most inspiring moments of all was the launch of Initiative 20×20, where the environmental and agriculture secretaries of Latin American nations committed to restore 20 million hectares of land in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2020. The initiative supports the Bonn Challenge, a global commitment to restore 150 million hectares of land around the world by 2020. Mexico and Guatemala, two countries where EcoLogic works, have made particularly bold commitments, and I hope we can help these two governments achieve their goals—and that they in turn will help us achieve ours.

I also heard people like Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, make bold statements about the duty of business beyond value to shareholders and up and down the supply chain, including to the livelihoods of the “little guy”—such as the smallholder farmers and fishers with whom EcoLogic works. And I had the chance to mentor a young Colombian woman named Xiomara Acevedo, founder of Barranquilla+20, an organization of young people fighting for sustainability in Barranquilla, Colombia, and around the world. She and I were matched through a Youth-Professional mentoring program set up by CIFOR and the International Forestry Students Association (IFSA).

For me, one of the most rewarding parts of my career is the chance to connect with people like Xiomara and Julian—I’m sure I learn more from them than they get from me! My love for guiding young professionals comes back to what I see as a core principle of my life and work—life, like landscapes, is a mess of interconnected, winding paths, with unruly masses of webs and branches. It requires a lot of patience and balance to weave people and institutions together and un-knot challenges—most often without a clear end in sight, just threads of hope.

Perhaps most inspiring of all were two Panamanian indigenous participants: Candido Mezúa Salazar, Chairman of the National Coordinating Body of Indigenous Peoples of Panama, and Sara Omi, legal assessor for the Emberá-Wounaan General Congress (CGEW). They spoke about Balu Wala, the Emberá community concept for interconnectedness across time and space, represented by the Tree of Life. They reminded us all that concepts of wealth need to be upended if we are to solve the world’s challenges together.

The energy of the gathering in Lima simultaneously exhausted and invigorated me. I flew home with more reassurance that the time has come for the landscape approach, and that EcoLogic’s renewed focus on collective impact is both fresh and relevant. To me, this was actually the elephant in the room: aside from smaller sessions and the indigenous Panamanian representatives, there was very little panel-level discussion about the kind of on-the-ground organizing and solidarity that will make conservation at the landscape scale really stick. It’s a point EcoLogic will continue to make: that landscape-level conservation requires empowered rural grassroots leaders.

PS: Here’s some additional reading on landscape-level conservation—especially if you have extra time on your hands to read if you’re buried under three feet of snow! (1) The official GLF outcomes statement; (2) this blog about the evolution of landscape approaches and the confusing 78 terms used for landscapes (!) ; and (3) this systematic review about what constitutes a landscape approach.