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30 August 2022

Nature-Based Solutions: Learning from Dodos and People to Save Life on Earth

Carlos Zepeda, Assistant Director in Policy and Practice at the LSRI, reflects on his participation in the  Nature-Based Solution Conference held at the Oxford Museum of Natural History on 5 - 7 July, 2022.

Source: Unsplash

It is increasingly hard not to think about dodos these days, especially the phrase ‘dead as a dodo’. This summer, I joined over 300 delegates at an in-person conference on ‘Nature-Based Solutions’ (NbS), together with other 900 joining online from around the world, to discuss this emerging approach of NbS at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Our university museum, rather fittingly, hosts the only surviving remains of dodo soft tissue that exist anywhere in the world. The dodo was a flightless bird that became extinct soon after Europeans first encountered it in the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean in the late sixteenth century. Sadly, this bird became extinct due to its vulnerability. The dodo symbolised the fragility of nature to human impact. Here was a bird that could not fly, fight, or run away from the multiple dangers that humans created when they first encountered it. And it is why the phrase ‘dead as a dodo’ also used to come charged with derogatory meanings towards the naivety —and even stupidity— of a creature unable to save itself from extinction.

The fate of the dodo does not have to be the fate of humanity and all life on our planet. The problem of survival for the dodo was that as a species it could not change itself, its behaviours, and relations to its habitat. But humanity arguably can. I joined the NbS conference on behalf of the LSRI, looking forward to debating the state of the art of NbS as an increasingly popular approach exploring how nature can inspire new solutions challenging our present ecological planetary crisis. Could humanity wake up from its slumber and jump into action with an ‘NbS’ approach?  After all, delegates attending the conference did not have to imagine the ecological crisis; they just had to feel it. Reflections emerged as participants sweated through the record-breaking temperatures raging across the UK, Europe and beyond. On 19th July, for the first time, record temperatures in the UK exceeded 40ºC. It was the driest July in England for more than 100 years and some areas experienced their driest summer on record, making droughts tangible.   The extreme heat hit the most vulnerable ecosystems of life, including people.

The fate of the dodo does not have to be the fate of humanity and all life on our planet. The problem of survival for the dodo was that as a species it could not change itself, its behaviours, and relations to its habitat. But humanity arguably can.

Among the many interesting ideas spread at this very inspiring NbS conference, at least three captured my attention. The first was sparked by Inger Andersen, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Ms Andersen stressed that humanity is sleepwalking towards an abyss carved by a triple ecological crisis in which climate, biodiversity, and pollution crises are pushing humanity and ecosystems of life into danger zones. We need to take more radical paths if we want to save life from extinction. It is not enough to follow a ‘protect-and-keep-nature-healthy’ mantra. We need to also analyse the systems of governance and power that enable destructive policies and practices to continue. As Mark Hirons and Constance McDermott from Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute illustrated, this applies for instance in the way we govern and use land. We cannot restore land that has been deforested and degraded if we do not also consider who holds the invisible strings, pulls and levers of power that sustain its exploitation. The same applies to ‘greenwashing’. Some entities declaring themselves as following NbS have used its name and ethos as a façade to legitimise and perpetuate practices that degrade, pollute, or destroy ecosystems while maximising their interests or profits. NbS as an approach is so popular that it is now full of potential ‘impersonators’ where dubious governmental or corporate practices are now tagged as ‘NbS’. Ms Andersen recognised how NbS as an approach can help rethink policies and practices challenging the ecological crisis. But to revolutionise practices we first need to revolutionise the ideas that sustain them. 

The second interesting point regarding the state of NbS was that there is a lot of healthy and creative discussion around the concept itself, including its lineage and ideological roots. Is it a concept, an approach, a toolset or a set of principles or recommendations? Is it a universal paradigm rich in compatibility across cultures, or a prefabricated blueprint of recipes made in rich Western societies?  Critical voices from the poorest and most marginal communities in the developing world, including indigenous populations, have highlighted that their viewpoints, ideas, and approaches are often ignored in global spheres of decision-making. Remember the way they were included and taken into account in the largest climate change conference COP26 last year? That’s right. They were still largely absent from the key decision-making spaces. Can we do more to avoid this in NbS and in policymaking spheres such as the United Nations climate and biodiversity summits? The panel entitled ‘Defining NbS: solutions from whom, by whom, and for what?’, convened by Rutgers University and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), illustrated these tensions. Teething problems arise from the ways in which people understand NbS: is it ‘nature for people’? Or is it a ‘nature and people’ approach? This issue erupted into animated discussions dissecting how NbS as an approach is sometimes narrowly framed and communicated. Speakers highlighted how it has often failed to be sufficiently inclusive.

Indigenous communities cannot be token participants. Too many voices from indigenous and grassroots level communities from the developing world are continuously ignored in global policymaking arenas.

The discussion around the topic ‘Critical role of Indigenous People and local communities in delivering successful NbS’ on the second day of the conference also captured my attention as it was related to what ‘success’ looks like in NbS. It was interesting here to learn that NbS aims to achieve ‘transformative change’ with the help of indigenous communities. But it also made me wonder what kind of change this entails with regards to capitalism? This was not clear. Does NbS listen deeply to indigenous voices, perspectives, and their holistic cosmologies? Helen Tugendhat, Programme Coordinator for the Forest People’s Programme and Dilys Roe, Principal Researcher and Team Leader (Biodiversity) at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) co-chairing this panel discussion argued that a lot can be learnt from NbS cases in Peru, Zambia, Tanzania, China among others. At the very least, the journey of learning from people and nature implies focusing on how the participatory and methodological process takes place. Power relations matter. Indigenous communities cannot be token participants. Too many voices from indigenous and grassroots level communities from the developing world are continuously ignored in global policymaking arenas. To this day many indigenous communities fall victim to human rights violations as they defend their ecosystems and territories.

NbS is an approach with great power for positive change and our planet urgently needs it. As eco-activists have stated elsewhere, in this planetary crisis ‘we need every solution and every solver… to change everything we need everyone’. However, it is also true that not everyone was convinced that NbS as an approach was enough to save humanity from the fate of becoming as ‘dead as a dodo’. Many participants felt that at least its overarching principles give a much better starting point than the dominant market-based approaches exacerbating the ecological crisis. It was perhaps best seen as a ‘work-in-progress’ approach with plenty of room for improvement. For example, some felt that the current state of NbS, starting with its name, still feels too prefabricated, colonial, and Western-centric, or that it suffers from a top-down approach ‘standardisation’ and ‘branding’ style. See for instance ‘IUCN’S Global Standard for NbS’ where IUCN defines it as a ‘user friendly framework for the verification, design and scaling up of NbS’. But there’s still further urgent discussions needed on the issue of who has the power to set and validate these standards? For instance, for others, it was more important discovering common guiding principles for caring for people and nature across cultures rather than checklists or ticking criteria sourced from a single Western NbS ‘standard’.  Could new, ‘unbranded’, bottom-up policies and practices rooted in people and nature, in indigenous cosmologies in their conceptions about ‘Mother Earth, ‘Pachamama’, and socio-ecological justice and ethics, help raise a wider range of radical solutions inspired in people and nature?

From an ‘integral ecology’ lens, where we understand that everything is interconnected and that we have the moral duty to hear and respond both to the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth, NbS as an approach feels like an invaluable space for positive energies to be channelled for change. On a more critical perspective, it still feels in urgent need to connect and listen deeply to the wider diversity and quiet voices of the vulnerable. Perhaps the radical solutions that will save humanity cannot just come from nature, but also from the principles, values, beliefs, and moral understandings that make us closer to it and to one another.