Hotspots for People: A New Conservation Strategy

Hotspots for People:
A New Conservation Strategy

In 2009, Beth Tellman M.E.Sc. ’14 moved to El Salvador to study the food sovereignty of organic coffee farmers. But after devastating floods and mudslides killed hundreds of people, and left thousands more homeless, her area of focus shifted quickly. In addition to working closely on community disaster resilience, Tellman began exploring how improved land use and forest management can provide a critical ecosystem service in places like El Salvador.

In an article for SNAP magazine (Science for Nature and People), Tellman documents the increasingly dire threats faced by the Latin American country in the face of environmental degradation and climate change, and how investing in natural systems could provide vital social and ecological benefits.

Conservation needs to grapple with what climate change is and will do to its traditional work — and it is. But will conservationists also grasp the opportunities they have to help places like El Salvador — where there are no target species, but where the resiliency healthy nature gives us in the face of climate change can mean the difference between prosperity and poverty for tens of thousands of people or more?

Research I’m doing for my master’s thesis at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is showing one promising opportunity. I am using remote sensing to measure land-use change in two watersheds here: one deforested due to urbanization, and one that has maintained its forest cover. I’m building a flood model based on historic storms to assess if tropical forests are indeed providing the ecosystem service of flood mitigation.

By “tropical forests,” I don’t mean fancy cloud forest or even primary forest. These forest areas are active and abandoned shade coffee plantations — pretty much the only kind of forest left in El Salvador. But it turns out some ecosystem services (such as flood mitigation) don’t depend on megadiversity of species . . .

Just how much can we rely on these natural ecosystems for protection? Answering that question is a priority for SNAP, and one of the most pressing questions of my generation.

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(Photo courtesy of Global Water Partnership/Flickr through a Creative Commons license)