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People around the world strongly depend on nature to provide for their livelihoods. And the benefits that nature provides — such as clean water, clean air, and coastal protection — are even more important in our rapidly changing world where the environment is degrading and climate is becoming harsher.

What are the best ways to protect those benefits? Ecosystem-based adaptation — using nature conservation to help make people more resilient to climate change — is gaining traction as an important approach to climate adaptation for people and nature. However, this approach has yet to become widely accepted and infused into the way institutions around the world are approaching adaptation.

Ecosystem-based adaptation and other ecosystem service approaches need to become mainstream, but this cannot be accomplished by conservation organizations working alone.

So what’s missing? Partnerships with global development organizations. The world’s poorest people — those who global development organizations are focused on helping — heavily rely on natural systems for their livelihoods, and could greatly benefit from ecosystem-based climate adaptation approaches. Planning and implementing ecosystem-based adaption will require a broad understanding of a) the way climate will impact water resources and food security, as well as b) how nature’s benefits can help minimize these impacts. Conservation organizations cannot and should not tackle this complex problem alone, but rather need to work collaboratively with humanitarian and agricultural development organizations to create a better future world in the face of climate change.

Here’s one such organization — or, rather, 15 of them. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR, is a group of scientific research organizations that conservation organizations can partner with to plan for conserving ecosystem services and implementing ecosystem-based adaptation. Fifteen organizations make up the CGIAR, all of which are potential partners for conservation work. Here are few of the centers with the highest potential for collaboration with conservation organizations for their greater focus on natural ecosystems:

The CGIAR Centers have already indirectly contributed to conservation as they help people grow more food on less land. According to independent reviewers, without CGIAR contributions to agricultural development, the cultivated area in developing countries would be 11-13 million hectares larger — having expanded at the expense of primary forests and marginal lands that are fragile and harbor high biodiversity — while global food production would be 4-5 percent lower.

The CGIAR is currently undergoing the most major change process in its 39-year history. One of its three major new strategic objectives is “Environment for People: Conserve, enhance, and sustainably use natural resources and biodiversity to improve the livelihoods of the poor in response to climate change and other factors.” That objective is clearly in line with the goals of conservation organizations.

Conservation organizations should be especially interested in working with the Challenge Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, a research initiative launched by CGIAR and Earth System Science Partnership. This initiative seeks to overcome the threats to agriculture and food security in a changing climate by exploring new ways of helping vulnerable rural communities adjust to global changes in climate. This collaborative program brings together the different CGIAR centers to tackle the issue of how we should respond to climate change. Here is the type of program that needs input and collaboration from conservation organizations in order to help infuse ecosystem-based climate adaptation strategies into our global response to climate change.

A similar collaborative program of interest to the conservation community is the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food. This program is an international, multi-institutional research initiative with the goal of “increasing the productivity of water used for agriculture, leaving more water for other users and the environment.” In addition to working toward achieving food security and poverty alleviation, the Challenge Program on Water and Food works to promote environmental security through improved water quality as well as maintenance of water-related ecosystems and biodiversity. The CPWF represents the largest, most comprehensive investment in the world on water, food and environment research.

What would this collaboration look like? A good example is a water funds project in the Cauca Valley surrounding Cali, Colombia. Led by The Nature Conservancy, this project is working closely with CIAT’s CGIAR center to run ecosystem services models that assess how climate change will impact the benefits that nature provides people — including water production, agriculture suitability, and biodiversity.

Later this year, the project will host a climate adaptation workshop — including local stakeholders — to identify ecosystem-based climate adaptation strategies that can be implemented on the ground in the Cauca Valley to make the water fund more climate-resilient. By bringing a conservation-minded approach to planning for water sustainability in the face of climate change, this project is expected to help people while protecting and resorting habitat for biodiversity.

With the complexity of environmental and humanitarian issues facing our rapidly changing world, conservation and development organizations cannot go about their work separately. Each set of organizations bring valuable skills, tools, and assets that need to be integrated. Conservation organizations should work hard to build collaborative partnerships with the global development community — or risk becoming marginalized as people’s needs overshadow nature conservation in an increasingly contested world with more people and a changed environment.

— Text by Evan GirvetzCool Green Science Blog

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