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Message of Mérida: Saving Wild Places Will Save the Planet

MERIDA, Mexico, November 13, 2009 (ENS) – For the first time in decades, the eggs of endangered sea turtles buried on a small strip of Nicaraguan beach will not be collected and sold in local food markets. A program developed by nonprofit Paso Pacífico pays residents up to $2.50 for each turtle hatchling that reaches the surf — almost 10 times what they would have brought from the market.

Newly hatched sea turtles scramble across a Nicaraguan beach to reach the ocean, guarded by Paso Pacifico rangers. (Photo courtesy Paso Pacifico)

While only one resident participated in the program last year, this year brought in scores.

“The problem was no one believed we would actually pay for a baby turtle and everyone knew they were going to get cash from the sea-turtle egg trader,” said Paso Pacífico founder and executive director Sarah Otterstrom.

Otterstrom’s aims, however, extend beyond sea turtles. Through the organization she hopes to one day establish a chain of protected areas linked by ecologically protected corridors along the entire Pacific Coast of Central America.

The same concept first informed a Central American jaguar protection effort, Paseo Pantera, in the 1990s, and the dream that followed of a Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that would protect undeveloped wilderness from Panama to Mexico. It reflects the deepening conviction that isolated parks are not enough to allow wilderness to thrive. Connectivity is what matters.

Connectivity is a message reverberating in multiple work sessions as the week-long 9th World Wilderness Congress in Mérida comes to a close.

Conservation biologists have long understood that preserves and parks surrounded by developed land are essentially biological islands and so are more prone to species extinction and vulnerable to the invasion of destructive non-native species.

By contrast, a chain of protected areas spanning the length of India and Nepal’s boundary has already seen degraded lands reduced by about 4,400 acres after just a few years, and tigers are returning, said Ghana Gurung, conservation program director at World Wildlife Fund – Nepal.

A similar bi-national Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative habitat protection plan is gaining preliminary support from a range of private interests and nonprofits.

A pair of Canadian lynx in northern British Columbia, an area that is part of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. (Photo courtesy British Columbia Tourism Travel Guide)

Even a national park as large as Yellowstone, it seems, needs connections.

“Yellowstone will not make it through time unless it is connected, or reconnected,” said Harvey Locke, a Canadian conservationist, WILD9 committee member, and one of the visionaries behind the proposal to expand protected lands between Yellowstone National Park and Canada’s Yukon Territory.

“We will not stop climate change if we don’t stop killing nature. It’s that simple,” said Locke.

As the most intact mountain ecosystem remaining on Earth, the 2,000 mile (3,200 km) long Yellowstone to Yukon region offers the kind of vast and resilient landscape that species and processes will need to survive the coming climate changes, Locke says.

Encompassing 463,000 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) and spanning 15 degrees of latitude, Locke believes the region is uniquely situated to serve as a refuge for biodiversity in western North America.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is working on a Climate Change Readiness Program to support the region’s globally significant biodiversity, and serve as a world-class model for other initiatives operating at a large landscape scale. Phase I of this Program is scheduled for completion by the end of 2009.

Even the most wide-ranging conservation strategies are sure to be challenged by the unpredictability of climate change, said Lisa Graumlich, director of the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona.

In recent years, snow cover in parts of western Canada has decreased by 25 percent, wildfires have increased six-fold, and snowmelt is coming weeks earlier, she said.

 

“We know that high latitudes will warm more quickly than middle and low latitudes,” Graumlich said. “This is the place where you get those runaway warming effects.”

The cumulative impact of these changes has enabled pine bark beetles to reproduce more quickly and has left pine trees across western North America more vulnerable to infestation.

“All of the kinds of conservation planning we are doing has on some level assumed that if we could just have some conservation conversation with logging interests and provisional authorities we could maintain old growth forests. That’s not so clear,” Graumlich said. “As we look at two and three degrees [Celsius] warming, we’re going to see the demise of old growth forests … at a scale we have not seen in the 20th Century.”

Of course, forests are not the only ecosystems that will suffer from climate change.

Less than two degrees Celsius is expected to bleach out the world’s remaining coral reefs, half of which are already dead or dying. More than three degrees and “we basically see a massive extinction of all the wildlife,” Graumlich said.

To avert this scenario, delegates at the Congress drafted a message for the hundreds of international delegates gathering in Copenhagen next month to work out an international climate framework that will kick in when the Kyoto Protocol’s first commitment period expires at the end of 2012.

Dignitaries at WILD9 pose for photos after completing the signing of El Mensaje de Mérida, The Message of Merida. (Photo © Greg Harman)

El Ménsaje de Mérida, The Message of Mérida, demands that UN delegates “recognize that large-scale nature conservation is a first-order climate change strategy for both mitigation and adaptation, and is necessary to address both the climate change and biodiversity extinction crises.”

The declaration has been signed by many of the world’s leading conservation organizations since it was released at WILD9 earlier this week.

It urges the governments that are Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to adopt 350 part per million as the upper limit on global greenhouse gas concentrations “to avoid the disappearance of key elements of life on Earth such as coral reefs.”

While carbon dioxide levels have fluctuated over millions of years, the higher end for the past 500,000 years has been around 250 parts per million. However, over the last few decades that concentration has climbed to today’s level of 387 ppm.

And while natural systems like forests and oceans absorb huge quantities of carbon, very little attention overall has been given to wilderness protection as an answer to climate change, WILD9 delegates said.

When you look at the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Graumlich, "there are hundreds and hundreds of pages and thousands of scientific references about what will happen in the future with different degrees of warming. That part on adaptation, particularly for wild lands and wild species … it’s about 20 pages."

As nations chart a common response to the climate crisis, the protection of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is not a given, said Peg Putt, of the Australian Wilderness Society and a former Green Party member of the Australian Parliament.

Putt excoriated the currently proposed forest protections in the UN’s Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, or REDD.

“It all depends on what you mean by forest,” she told audiences at WILD9. “[REDD] does not distinguish between natural forests and plantations, so massive conversion of natural forests to plantations is not covered," she said.

"For many forest areas, they can be degraded to the point of ecosystem collapse and still meet the definition of forest,” Putt warned.

It is this the sort of situation that the Message of Mérida seeks to address.

“We’re saying, ‘This isn’t good enough … Let’s get serious about the state of life on this Earth. Let’s get down to 350 ppm where we should be, at the very minimum. And let’s get on with having a sane century, shall we?’” said Locke.

Organizations that have signed the Message of Mérida include The Wild Foundation, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Unidos para la Conservacion, Reforestamos Mexico, Conservation International, The Wilderness Society, and the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

WILD9 working sessions conclude today, although workshops on ecosystem management strategies continue through the weekend.

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