The Darwin Initiative Blog

Insights and personal musings from the world of biodiversity conservation and development. For more info on the Darwin Initiative see https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/the-darwin-initiative


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Planet Plastic: #OneLess saves one more sea turtle

We hope that you have enjoyed our ‘Planet Plastic’ blog series – welcome to the third and final post! The Darwin Plus project featured in this post is working with communities in the British Indian Ocean Territories to reduce their use of single-use plastics in an effort to save globally important sea turtles.

If you would like to read the entire ‘Planet Plastic’ series, please follow the links for the first and second blog posts.

How to protect sea turtles from plastics in the British Indian Ocean Territories

The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) covers 640,000km2 of marine protected area including an archipelago of 58 beach-fringed tiny islands. These beaches are targets for breeding females from regionally important populations of green and hawksbill sea turtles. Although only one of the islands in the far south of the archipelago is inhabited (Diego Garcia), the beaches see large amounts of ocean-borne plastic washing ashore. Our new Darwin-Plus funded project seeks to understand and mitigate negative effects of plastic waste on sea turtles. The team partners the Zoological Society of London, Swansea University and the British Indian Ocean Territory administration.

BIOT DPLUS090 Green turtle hatchling found amongst plastic waste on beach, Credit - Nicole Esteban

Green turtle hatchlings found amongst plastic waste on beach, Credit – Nicole Esteban

Beach waste tends to aggregate between the high tide mark and just beyond the vegetation line at the top of the beach. This belt of beach is also the target for nesting sea turtles coming ashore to dig deep pits and lay hundreds of eggs. We know from other studies that plastic can impede sea turtle excavations, affect the conditions in the nest by changing the temperature and humidity of the sand, present a physical barrier when hatchlings emerge from the nest, and be an inadvertent source of food for surface-feeding, omnivorous hatchlings.

The project team visited BIOT in June 2019 to start characterising and determining the origin of beach plastic waste. Comparing data from waste collected during beach cleans in Diego Garcia with that still in-situ on the beaches in both Diego Garcia and Egmont atolls, over 80% was found to fall into three categories: polystyrene pieces, flips flops and single-use plastic bottles. Plastic bottles had labels originating from 17 countries from Japan to Tanzania with the largest contributor being Indonesia, almost 3000km to the west.

BIOT DPLUS090 Marine debris washed ashore on Ile Parasol beach on Peros Banhos Atoll, Credit - Dan Bayley

BIOT DPLUS090 Marine debris washed ashore on Ile Parasol beach on Peros Banhos Atoll,   Credit – Dan Bayley

In addition to investigating beach waste, we are exploring how people stationed on Diego Garcia can reduce their use of single-use plastic. To achieve this, we are bringing experience from our #OneLess campaign, working to eliminate the need for plastic bottled water in London by creating a new system in which people use refillable bottles and tap water. Our key messages relate to the global need to reduce the amount of plastics, the importance of taking responsibility for our plastic use, and that everyday actions and decisions around plastic impact the ocean.

BIOT shares many challenges with other Overseas Territories – small islands in remote locations, difficult and expensive logistics, limited resources, and challenges with waste management. Dealing with ocean-borne plastic waste adds another burden, so as we explore recycling options, these need to incorporate clever technology and be operable in these conditions – preferably in a way that creates further useful and economically beneficial products. Our aim is by the end of this project to have identified suitable possibilities that could work not only in BIOT but potentially across the other Overseas Territories as well.

Further information on project DPLUS090 led by ZSL in BIOT can be found here. To read the full article or this project and others that were featured in our August edition of the Darwin Newsletter, please click here.

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Planet Plastic: Planting plastic

In the first blog of the series we heard how plastic pollution can be transformed into something valuable and sold to benefit both local communities and the marine environment. This post features a project that is using plastic bags to breathe new life into the community through repurposing them for saplings in an effort to reforest Mt. Kenya.

Mt. Kenya forest adjacent community manage plastic waste

In 2017 Kenya made the bold move to ban plastic bags. This decision was gazetted by Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Natural Resources and took effect on August 28th. Through political goodwill the action to ban plastic bags was enforced, however this brought about other challenges related to managing existing plastic waste, particularly in rural areas of the country.

Mt. Kenya Biodiversity Organization (Mt. KEBio) is the Nature Kenya site support group in Mt. Kenya West whose mandate is to monitor, educate, and advocate for environmental sustainability while improving the livelihoods of its members. The Mt. Kenya ecosystem provides water to key National Parks and generates half of the country’s total hydropower. It is an important water catchment – the source of the Ewaso Nyiro North and Tana River systems, which are vital to Kenya’s economic development, food security and energy generation.

Understanding the plastic issue at hand, Mt. KEBio embarked on creating awareness in local market areas and organised clean-up exercises. As a result of these awareness campaigns, Mt. KEBio successfully organised three clean-up activities in the Naromoru town, Burguret and Kibunja shopping centres where over 100kg of plastic waste was collected.

Kenya 25-031 Saplings being propagated on recycled plastic milk packets, Credit - Good Hope Group

Saplings being propagated on recycled plastic milk packets, Credit – Good Hope Group

Once the waste had been collected and sorted, the group separated any reusable plastic bags that were found. These bags were repurposed by using them as tree seedling potting bags, where 500 seedlings were able to be planted in the community nursery. However, the efforts of the group do not stop there, as they are also promoting the re-use of plastic bottles as improvised drip-irrigation for watering tree seedlings in schools and local homesteads, especially during the dry season.

On-farm woodlot capacity has been enhanced through innovatively re-using plastic bags, providing the much-needed fuelwood and livestock fodder. Through this increased capacity at the local community tree nursery, more indigenous tree seedlings have been raised for planting in preparation for the next phase of the Mt. Kenya forest rehabilitation.

Lessons from Mt. KEBio have been replicated by another local community group ‘Good Hope’, a group of people living with disabilities. Good Hope has managed to raise 8,000 tree seedlings by re-using plastic bags as plant potting material. The group intends to sell the seedlings to the local communities.

More information on project 25-031 led by Nature Kenya can be found here. The full article for this project and others can be found in the Planet Plastic Darwin Newsletter here.


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Planet Plastic: Carpet with a conscious

Welcome to the Darwin Initiative ‘Planet Plastic’ blog series! The concern over plastic pollution has grown as the impacts of plastic can be felt all over the globe and is now even found in the food that we eat. This series will feature Darwin projects that are using innovative and creative ways to combat the plastic problem whilst securing livelihoods and improving biodiversity.

Our first blog highlights the work of a ZSL-led project that has taken a transformative approach to the plastic crisis in Southeast Asia.

Net-Works: Empowering communities for Ocean with ‘more fish and less plastic’

Globally, 8 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans and over 100 million tonnes of fish are removed each year. On current trajectories, by 2025 there will be one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of fish. Southeast Asia is home to the Coral Triangle, a well-known marine biodiversity hotspot, but unfortunately it is also one of the major markets for fisheries products. An estimated 3.35 million artisanal reef fishers (>50% of the global total) live in Southeast Asia and depend on these declining fish stocks.

As well as being a hotspot for marine debris, over 85% of carrageenan (a thickening agent extracted from red and purple seaweeds) comes from seaweed that grows in Southeast Asia. An estimated 1 million fishers are dependent on seaweed farming as their sole source of income in the Philippines alone. The coastal communities that are reliant on seaweed farming suffer from the effects of overfishing and marine plastic pollution. Although the global market value for carrageenan is on the rise, with a projected value of around US$1bn by 2021, the current supply chain is fraught with inefficiencies and inequalities. Therefore, carrageenan is fast becoming the ‘palm oil of the sea’.

Phillipines 25-024 Fisherman with seaweed, Credit - ZSL

Fisherman with seaweed, Credit – ZSL

Net-WorksTM was co-founded by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Interface Inc and is an initiative that was created to address these issues. Communities are connected to global brands via a fair and inclusive business model, that started with the collection of discarded fishing nets. Collected nets are recycled by Aquafil, and supplied to Interface Inc who buy the yarn and turn it into eco-friendly carpet tiles. To do this, Aquafil has pioneered state-of-the-art technology to produce yarn from recovered fishing nets and other waste. Net-WorksTM has been progressively building on this foundation and to date have collected more than 200 metric tonnes of nets (and increasing daily) which is enough to go around the world over five times! This tackles several challenges at once: acting as encouragement to communities to clean up their local marine environment and ensuring that they have a way of disposing of old nets.

This business model has since been applied to other raw materials created by these communities in order to help us scale the impact; namely seaweed carrageenan and other plastics. We’ve already conducted successful scientific trials of ecological seaweed farming in the Philippines.

Phillipines 25-024 Fishing boats loaded with nets, Credit - ZSL

Fishing boats loaded with nets, Credit – ZSL

It has been a very positive journey so far, as something that started out as a prototype has now grown into a programme that has improved the marine environment for more than 64,000 people! One of the most striking changes we’ve seen is the sense of empowerment communities have derived from taking charge of their income and their environment, and with a model like this we can have a truly scalable supply chain – one that benefits all life.  Through Net-WorksTM we have the opportunity to empower communities to dramatically change the face of marine conservation, forever!

For more information on project 24-027 led by Zoological Society of London in the Philippines please click here. The full article for this project can be found in the August 2019 edition of the Darwin Newsletter here.


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Fantastic Flora: The rarest coffee in the world

Welcome to the third and final post of the Darwin Initiative “Fantastic Flora” blog series. This post features a Darwin scoping project that recently rediscovered a species of coffee that was seen last in 1954. Unfortunately, the forest where this unique species was found is under threat from mining and deforestation, but through conservation this species may be able to secure the livelihoods of the local communities and Sierra Leonean farmers.

If you would like to read the entire series, follow the links for the first and second blog posts.

Searching for the Sierra Leone Highland Coffee

Whilst leading a project to rehabilitate Robusta coffee production in Sierra Leone with the Natural Resources Institute , we heard about another coffee that is native to Sierra Leone. Known botanically as Coffea stenophylla and colloquially as the ‘highland coffee’, this species was first found in Sierra Leone in 1834, and has probably been cultivated since the 1850s. Reports from the 1920s indicate that the native coffee was of “exquisite” flavour, as good as the best Arabica coffee, and highly sought after. During a trip to Sierra Leone we asked local farmers to help us find highland coffee, but the closest we managed to find were three plants in the Sierra Leone Agricultural Research Institute coffee collection. Later genetic analysis showed that they were hybrids between C. stenophylla and C. liberica.

In 2018 the Natural Resources Institute were able search for this highland coffee through funding provided by the Darwin Initiative to carry out a scoping project. They visited the Western Peninsula National Park on the southern edge of Freetown which was threatened from encroachment, firewood collection and poaching for bush meat. Fortunately, the deeper that the team ventured into the reserve the health of the forest improved due to the lack of human disturbances. Past reports indicated that C. stenophylla was common in such areas, but despite the reassurance from local forest guards no coffee was found.

First native coffee plant

The first native Sierra Leone highland coffee plant (C. stenophylla), Credit – University of Greenwich

The search continued to the Kasewe Hills Forest Reserve, the area where C. stenophylla was last found in 1954. On exploring Kasewe it became apparent that much of the reserve has been deforested, and the only chance of finding the wild coffee would be on the forest-rich hilltops. After much searching of different coffee relatives (plants of the Rubiaceae family), they finally found what they thought was C. stenophylla. The plant was found in a forest patch only about 500m across and was the only one of its kind.

Although C. stenophylla had not previously been recorded in Kenema District, the Kambui Forest Hills Reserve is one of the closest protected forests to the Kasewe Hills. With the help of the District Forest Guards the team explored logging trails in the lowland forest, but had to create a new trail up-hill through the forest and towards the ridge top. The first coffee plant was found 390m above sea level and within 100m of this we found another 15–20 plants including three mature trees about 6–8m tall.

Gold mining in the forest

Gold mining occurring in the forests where C. Stenophylla was rediscovered, Credit – University of Greenwich

In both Kambui and Kasewe the plants had no flowers or fruits, which made it difficult to be completely sure that we had indeed found C. stenophylla. Despite this, leaf samples were used for a subsequent genetic (DNA) analysis, which confirmed that the plants from these locations were indeed the missing highland coffee of Sierra Leone. The Kambui Hills are also under threat from encroachment from the town of Kenema, artisanal gold mining and deforestation for subsistence agriculture, but there is still a significant block of primary forest at its core. Bringing this species into cultivation again and developing it as a unique coffee crop could provide a unique and valuable product, which would benefit local communities and future generations of Sierra Leonean farmers.

For more information on project DARSC196 led by the University of Greenwich working in Sierra Leone please click here. The full article from this project and others can be found in the latest edition of the Darwin newsletter here.


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Fantastic Flora: Flora and fisheries

In the first blog post of the series we heard from a project working with a small community living on the island of Anjouan in Comoros and how through the combination of local and scientific knowledge they aim to preserve native tree species and protect local livelihoods. This post features a project that has found an unlikely relationship between the conservation of fish and foliage. The project led by RIPPLE Africa has found that through fisheries management and the protection of Chambo breeding grounds local plants have been able to thrive.

‘Fish for tomorrow’ protects flora biodiversity today

RIPPLE Africa’s Fish for Tomorrow project has been supported through Darwin Initiative funding since July 2018. Fish for Tomorrow is a community led fish conservation project in Lake Malawi, the 9th largest lake in the world which is home to over 850 different fish species many of which are endemic to the lake. This funding has enabled us to extend the project to cover more than 300km of the shoreline. One of the key species we are protecting is Oreochromis lidole, known locally as the Chambo, which was once the most commonly caught and prized species in the lake but now is classified by the IUCN as Critically Endangered.

Students learn about conservation of the fish and the plant life

Students learn about the conservation of fish and plant life, Credit – RIPPLE Africa

The project empowers local communities to work in partnership with District Fisheries staff to confiscate illegal fishing gear, restrict numbers of fishers through a local permit system and to protect key fish breeding and nursery areas. One problem faced by fishing communities is that these nursery areas are in lagoons and river mouths close to populated areas and have been extensively targeted by local people using mosquito bed nets to catch huge numbers of juvenile Chambo. In order to make this process easier, local people have cut back all the surrounding vegetation to provide better access to the lagoon. The cleared land around the lagoons is then used for farming, preventing reed and grass regrowth and damaging the lagoon further through run off. Once caught, a thousand of these juvenile Chambo will often be used to make a meal for one family, whereas if these fish were given the chance to grow and return to deeper waters to breed each one will go on to produce over 300 young. Allowing this to happen is key to increasing stocks of this fish species, which would simultaneously improve biodiversity in the lake as well as increase livelihoods and nutrition in one of the world’s poorest countries.

We have already witnessed the fishing communities in our project area making huge efforts to protect these breeding areas with consequent benefits not only for fish, but also for flora. Our community fish conservation volunteers have now stopped the use of mosquito nets in most areas, and are also taking positive steps to encourage the growth of reeds and other plants around the lagoons providing protection to the young Chambo from predators.

Conservation committee members inspecting Dema Chambo breeding area

Conservation committee members inspecting the Chambo breeding area, Credit – RIPPLE Africa

Kaweya Fish Conservation Committee have asked farmers to stop the cultivation of maize within 100 metres of the edge of their local lagoon to encourage the growth of protective plant species and have also stopped all burning of vegetation near to the lagoon, a commonly used agricultural land clearance technique.

It is still early days for the regrowth of species of reeds and grasses in the area where work has just begun but where the project has been operating for several years, reeds and grasses have returned and are growing thickly along the edges and in shallow areas of the lagoon, enabling the baby fish to thrive and find shelter from high temperatures and predators. Species such as Phragmites mauritianus and Phragmitis australis (reeds), Typha domingensis (bulrush) and Cyperus papyrus are now increasingly being seen again in these nursery areas and the vegetation and larger numbers of fish is also attracting more bird life back to the areas. A win-win situation for all involved!

For more information on project 25-009 led by RIPPLE Africa in Malawi please click here. The full article from this project and others can be found in the latest edition of the Darwin Initiative Newsletter here.


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Fantastic Flora: Native trees offer a new hope

Our latest Darwin blog series aims to bring awareness to the multitude of uses and resources that plants provide. Plants play an important part in everyone’s lives by providing oxygen, medicines and nutrients. This series will feature projects working to conserve plant biodiversity and aims to raise awareness of the importance of plants by combatting plant blindness.

This first blog shares the story of a small community on the island of Anjouan, Comoros, and how they are securing their future and livelihoods through the domestication of native tree species.

Trees in the mist: domesticating local forest trees to restore the Comoros archipelago

Forming a part of the Madagascar and Indian Ocean biodiversity hotspot is the island of Anjouan. In recent decades Anjouan has lost 80% of its forest cover, resulting in severe soil erosion, habitat degradation and loss of water resources, making life even more difficult for local farming communities. This Bangor University-led project is using a transdisciplinary approach to restore landscapes and enhance livelihood resilience around the Moya forest in the south of Anjouan.

“Our trees like Mpori [Khaya comorensis] and Mkindri kindri [Weinmania comorensis], with their large and dense crowns, are the ones that help trap the clouds in the mountains and bring the rain”, explains Nabouhane Abdallah, a farmer in his early 70s and President of the water committee in Adda, a village in the uplands of the Moya forest. The occasion was a series of participatory workshops that brought together groups of women and men from the Anteniju catchment. During the workshop maps of land cover changes were created and discussions focused on the linkages between the loss of forest trees and land degradation, drawing on the attendees’ sophisticated knowledge of their local environment. They spoke of what they once knew as permanent rivers, which have now been reduced to ephemeral streams. They spoke of their problems with water scarcity.

But they are neither hopeless nor despairing, as their knowledge of the local trees may be able to provide a solution. They explained that certain species of native trees are known for their ability to retain water around their roots like the Mvuvu (Ficus or fig) trees and Mkora dzia (Rheedia anjouanesis). For Misbahou Mohamed, Technical Director of the Comorian NGO Dahari and implementing project partner, protecting native trees and promoting sustainable land-use planning around spring and headwaters is the key to restoring degraded ecosystems. Some of the species are endemic to the island, and each provides important services or products. Mwaha (Nuxia pseudodentatata) and Ficus esperata, for example are roosting sites for the endangered Livingstone bats. Other tree species provide fodder, timber or medicine.

photo3

ICRAF domestication specialist demonstrating vegetative propagation for forest species, Credit – Dahari

 

The project has built local capacity for the domestication of native and endemic tree species with support from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Between 2018 and 2019, over 3,800 native wildlings and seedlings from five species including two endemic tree species were planted in the uplands. The project has plans to produce an agroforestry manual as well as tools for tree selection and management, which integrates both scientific and local knowledge.

“We still have large knowledge gaps about trees and their ecological functions at the landscape scale in the Comoros,” says Dr Emilie Smith Dumont, the project research coordinator from Bangor University. For this reason, she adds, “it is very important that scientists, technicians and farmers work closely together to co-design and monitor options that are most locally relevant.” Over the next two years, the project aims to promote the planting and protection of ecologically important native tree in five additional micro-catchments. Concurrent work will drive the protection of key areas of forest important for biodiversity conservation.

For more information on project 24-009 led by Bangor University in the Comoros archipelago please click here. The full article for this project and many others have been featured in the May 2019 Darwin Initiative newsletter that can be found here.


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Collaborations in Conservation: The value of a promise

Welcome to the fourth and final instalment of the Darwin Initiative “Collaborations in Conservation” blog series. The project featured in this blog post is working with communities in the Dja Faunal Reserve, Cameroon to reduce the occurrence of illegal hunting. This article highlights that strong partnerships can only be established through a secure foundation of trust and mutual understanding between local communities and NGOs.

To read the full series please follow the links for the first, second and third blog posts.

Managing expectations in development and conservation

Ask anyone who has been working in international development or wildlife conservation in the past thirty years what the main challenges of working with the rural poor are, and the chances are that they would list “managing expectations” in their top three.

With the introduction of integrated conservation and development projects, participatory processes and trying to find ‘win-wins’ for people and wildlife has come the recognition that if people are being asked to modify their working practices, then they should receive some sort of benefit. What the benefits actually are, the amount of time they take, and the value of the benefit are areas where often there is a difference in perception between the ‘donor’ and the ‘beneficiaries’ and the direction they are heading.

Cameroon 24-005 Manfred Epanda introducing format to villagers, Credit - FCTV

Manfred Epanda from AWF presenting the format of the signing of reciprocal environment agreements to Ekom villagers, Credit – FCTV

This can often be the case when well-resourced NGOs interact with people living in poverty and aim to change situations based on principles of ‘doing the right thing’. All very admirable, but in order to change, people need options, and incentives. It can’t just be stick and no carrot.

The situation gets worse if expectations of the benefits are not met. In our experience, engaging with a community that has been a ‘partner’ in interventions where local communities felt ‘let down’ or promised more than what was actually delivered, is a far harder task than working with people who have no previous interactions with well-meaning NGOs.

One model that we increasingly rely on is based on working under some sort of agreement. We can call them ‘Conservation Partnerships’ or ‘Reciprocal Environmental Agreements’ the idea being – that if we’re asking for change, we need to pay. The payment is rarely monetary based, but from the very beginning of the project we are clear about what we want to see happen and what the benefits will be if people engage. Working under written agreements is part of the process because it helps to deliver clarity, responsibility, and commitment to action – from both the donor and the beneficiary.

Cameroon 24-005 Alternative protein source support signed for, Credit - FCTV

Reciprocal environment agreements were signing for alternative protein source support (effective fishing and cocoa production) Credit – FCTV

The people living in the northern buffer zone of the Dja Faunal Reserve (DFR) have had many years’ experience of working with Government agencies and NGOs, all looking to stop illegal hunting. Almost all of these interactions have been around conflict. Yes, it’s true that people have been breaking the law; it’s illegal to hunt anything in the DFR, or set snares, or take out trees. But when options are limited, law enforcement is weak or corrupt, and there are no incentives other than punishment if caught, it isn’t a surprise that tensions and conflict are a part of the daily struggle for survival.

After 16 months of discussions with the villagers that live alongside the DFR, agreements were signed that committed both sides of the party to various obligations. One of the very first things we had to do in order to show that we were genuine in our understanding of their circumstances was to deliver benefit. In return for agreeing to shift from hunting, we have taught them how to grow cocoa and market it so that they can earn an income. We have given them new fishing materials and taught them about water safety so that they can obtain more animal protein from fish, rather than just bushmeat. We know this will not completely solve the problem of illegal hunting, but it’s a start based on a clear understanding of what each party expects from one another.

For more information on project 24-005 led by Royal Zoological Society Antwerp in the Dja Faunal Reserve please click here. The full article for this project and many others have been features in the February 2019 Darwin Initiative newsletter that can be found here.