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Autumn Peltier has taken the weight of the world’s water on her shoulders. As Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishnawbek First Nation in Canada, she’s at once an advocate for clean water security and Indigenous rights. Peltier is 15 years old.
“Flowing within us is original water, lifeblood of Mother Earth that sustains us, as we come from this land,” Peltier said in an address at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City on 28 September 2019. “Mother Earth’s power is in the lifeblood of mother earth, which is our waters. Mother Earth has the power to destroy us all, and if we keep harming her, one day she may decide to destroy everything.”
Peltier’s address opened the Global Landscapes Forum on 28 September, a final bookend of a Climate Week and U.N. climate summit pillared by youth-led climate strikes worldwide, excoriating remarks from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, and delegates marking the 2020s as the ‘climate decade.’ Putting forward an antidote to these outcries, the Forum focused on a proven solution to slowing global warming and combatting climate change: restoration of the Earth’s landscapes.
In March of this year, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, devoting 10 years beginning in 2021 to building research, traditional knowledge, finance, activism, consumer markets and public awareness around the economic, social and environmental benefits of restoring degraded landscapes.
According to the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (GPFLR), there are some 2 billion hectares of degraded landscapes – a footprint the size of South America – which negatively impacts the lives of at least 3.2 billion people and costs a 10 percent loss of global GDP.
While a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year warned of the necessity of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2030, another report from the same body released in August of this year stated that warming in land surface air already averages 1.53 degrees Celsius above those levels.
Estimates of the cost to restore a 350 million hectare portion of the degraded territory tally in at approximately USD 800 billion, according to Inger Andersen, executive director U.N. Environment, who pointed out that this equates to only two years’ worth of fossil fuel subsidies. Robert Nasi, director general of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) added the world’s military expenditure of USD 1.8 trillion, for perspective.
Restoring the same territory could bring returns of USD 9 trillion.
“This Decade is about our very survival,” said Andersen.
Alexandria Villaseñor, a co-founder of U.S.–based climate strikes and activist organization Earth Uprising, said that the climate crisis is threatening children’s right to life, as stated in Article 6 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
To inform the Decade, the event focused on the current state of world’s different ecosystems, including forests, agricultural landscapes, mountains, drylands and rangelands, peatlands and wetlands, and oceans and coastal areas. Discussions highlighted profitable solutions for restoring each type of ecosystem, such as growing biomass for biofuel on peatlands; integrating forests and farmland to improve soil health and biodiversity in food production; or mobilizing individuals to plant trees through a fun-to-use phone app.
Nearly all of the restoration methods discussed are what environmentalists call “nature-based solutions” to climate change, a term that has been gaining airtime in international climate discussions and was a focus of the U.N. summit and Climate Week.
“We’re in a race against time, but we cannot be in a race against nature,” said Tony Simons, director general of World Agroforestry. “It must be a race with nature.”
The role of Indigenous peoples, whose customary lands are home to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, was positioned as central to the Decade as well as environmental and sustainability efforts writ large, through amplifying traditional knowledge on restoration methods that work.
Hindou Oumaro Ibrahim, coordinator of the Indigenous Women and Peoples Association of Chad, where two-thirds of the land is still degrading due to climate change, advancement of the desert and loss of biodiversity, gave the example of her grandmother: “She does not have a PhD in land restoration but is now being recognized by the IPCC because she is an expert on her land. So why can’t we move from saying ‘we need to be experts on this’ and go to those who have already been restoring for centuries, because those Indigenous peoples who don’t have PhDs know better how to sustainably restore their land?”
The change needed in food systems and consumption in order to protect landscapes was a focus of the day, running from dietary habits to increased aid for farmers. Harvard professor Walter Willett, one of the world’s leading nutritionists and co-commissioner of 2018’s headline-making EAT-Lancet report, encouraged diets composed in half of fruits and vegetables, which is proven to reduce strain on healthcare systems by lowering risks of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes as well as greenhouse gas emissions through decreased demand for livestock and unsustainable grazing.
Plant-based-meat producer Impossible Foods, which served lunch, stood as a market-based equivalent to such recommendations, with a soy-based meat substitute that produces 90 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than meat and requires approximately 28 square meters less land. The brand’s ground beef substitute has been hailed as indistinguishable from cow meat, seeing the brand’s sales grow fivefold since the beginning of 2019 alone.
Incentivizing farmers to plant in a sustainable manner that accounts for soil health, biodiversity and water in food production – a practice known as regenerative farming – was discussed by Chris Newman, co-founder of permaculture-focused Sylvanaqua Farms. More support from private finance is crucial for fair pay for farmers and incentivizing future generations to continue learning how to farm, as well as incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into farming practices.
World Farmers’ Organisation president Theo de Jager pointed out that international discussions on climate change must include more representation from farmers, noting that in the 27 years since the Kyoto Protocol was signed, there is still little inclusion of farmers in international decision-making processes.
“Seeds sleep deep, waiting for the right soil conditions to grow again,” echoed Janene Yazzie, member of the Native American Diné people and co-convenor of the Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group for Sustainable Development.
But restoration cannot become a silo of its own and must go hand-in-hand with decarbonization and reduced reliance on fossil fuels. Mountaineer, photographer and documentary filmmaker Taylor Rees spoke on her recent work filming in the Andean Atacama desert, where the expansion of lithium mines for electric car batteries is coming at the expense of the region’s Indigenous peoples, with the mines requiring enormous amounts of freshwater and impeding on customary lands. “It’s crazy to think that electric cars might also be putting lives in danger,” she said. “We must be courageous enough to face the complexities.”
“I said it once and I will say it again,” said Peltier. “We can’t eat money and we can’t drink oil.”
“We need to be a downpour,” said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and bestselling author, turning Peltier’s work for water into a broader metaphor. “We need to be a human flood in this next decade, to wash away much of the old world and make room for what comes next.”