By Siteri Tikoca MSc, Conservation Officer, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti
Towards the end of September, 2017 I was offered an opportunity to be part of the UNFCCC COP23 meeting as the Pacific representative representing NatureFiji-MareqetiViti (NFMV) as part of the Birdlife International partnership. With support from our Birdlife International UK partner, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), I was able to be present throughout the two weeks of the conference from the 6th – 17th November. It was the World’s 23rd Conference of Parties and it was special as it was the first time a small island developing state (Fiji) played the leading presidency role.
I was quite excited as this would be a number of “firsts” for me. First time to step foot in Europe, first time being involved in an international conference of this scale where important representatives from almost 200 countries meet to discuss the world’s most present and pressing issue and threat; climate change. This is only my 2nd year working in the area of conservation, as the Conservation Officer with Fiji’s only local membership-based conservation NGO, NatureFiji-MareqetiViti hence this was going to be my first COP!
I didn’t know what to expect from the conference, I wasn’t aware of the processes, I was quite nervous but at the same time excited by the huge learning opportunity this trip could provide to me personally and what I could bring back to benefit NFMV. I saw it as an opportunity to bring our native voices to that international platform and try our best to be heard for the sake of saving our home and the species that makes them special. On my first day, I was in awe of it all, the huge venues, the meeting spaces, the multicultural people and expertise present, everything!
In the second week I gave presentations at two side events based on challengers to natural heritage brought about by climate change and what NFMV was doing about it. I talked about the link between the iTaukei’s (native Fijians and its communities) to the “vanua” (the land, the diverse ecosystems and species within it, and its culture). My talk focused on current studies and conservation actions currently being conducted by NFMV on the ground to save some of Fiji’s endangered and endemic species which are also important totem species for a number of communities.
Most side events and panel discussions attended by the Birdlife International representatives (including myself) were focused on natural based solutions and ecosystem based adaptations. Attending these side events made me realise that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done in terms of natural adaptation and mitigation measures for climate change and helped me identify opportunities where NFMV can sort funding and help do our part in this fight against climate change.
I made a lot of new friends and built network that I thought was important for NatureFiji-MareqetiViti, moving forward. I had high hopes for the outcome of the conference as we (Fiji) were given a rare opportunity to guide negotiations, talks and commitment in the direction needed on behalf of all the small island developing states in the Pacific that do not have time for politics as our survival depended on it. I was quite disappointed at the outcome as no concrete commitments or agreements were reached about reduction of carbon emissions and an agenda was set for further discussions next year meaning that we’ll just have to wait another year, wasting time that, quite frankly, we don’t have!
I have learnt a lot of useful lessons from my participation in COP23. I have learnt that there are processes that have to be followed when trying to impact change at a global scale and change, irrespective of how important and necessary it is, takes a lot of time! I have learnt that sometimes people will not see things the way you see it because they are either ignorant or simply unaware of the realities in other parts of the world. I have learnt the power of speaking out in large numbers with one voice, and one loud message, I was able to see things from my Pacific neighbour’s point of view and learnt of the urgency and the need for everyone to work together and not think of themselves only. Also, that we can’t keep waiting for other nations to agree to do something. There are little things that we can start working on, and we should see how we can mobilise funds and resources on the ground to kick start these initiatives while waiting for the whole world to do their part! But that it is also important that we never lose hope!
The situation with climate change is so tight that, if we want to achieve the Paris target of 1.5 Celsius average global temperature (and we must), we need to bring land management into the frame of action, and do so urgently.
Peatlands in the UK leak huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – 16 million tonnes of CO2e every year, the same as half the national GHG savings we make. This is because, overall, they’re in really poor condition, with bare peat eroding and losing carbon to both streams and sky. On blanket bogs, this is relatively easy to fix, by restoring habitat.
But the biggest carbon loss from peatlands in England comes from our agricultural peat soils, and this presents a much trickier problem. Perhaps because agriculture began on the arid soils of the Middle East, we’ve come to believe that the only route to productive land is to drain it. So we’ve drained peatlands for farming, across eastern England, in the south west, in the north west. With an even more pronounced impact than in the uplands – four metres of soil gone in East Anglia, clearly shown by the Holme Fen post.
The Holme Fen post - the top was level with the ground in 1851
Which is where swamp farming comes in. We need to keep productive, economic use on much of our farmed peatlands, but we need to do this in more appropriate ways. Grow useful crops on wet soils, keeping the carbon locked up in the soil, and indeed keeping the very soil in its place, halting the long-running erosion. Such agriculture is widespread globally, and known as paludiculture – from the Latin palus meaning swamp.
I’ve been at a conference looking at the different things we might grow on re-wetted soils in the UK, and thinking about how we might make this shift. Practical research, trials and economic assessments are well advanced in Germany. We heard of 75 potential crop species, with products ranging from food to medicines, insulation and biomass, fodder and construction materials. Horticulture is in the mix too, a popular activity on peat soils. And peat extraction companies were also present, interested in growing Sphagnum moss as a replacement for peat in composts.
A lot of opportunity, yet no-one is pretending this is going to be easy. Establishing new markets is just as important as establishing new crops. So the promising signals from the Committee on Climate Change recommending sustainable soil use by 2030, and from early stakeholder discussions on Defra’s England Peat Strategy, need to be matched with similar interest from the business and market development sectors of Government. With this, we could be well on the way to the greener post-Brexit Britain our politicians are talking up - and adding a crucial piece of the jigsaw towards the UK meeting our global climate change responsibilities.
Many thanks to Natural England and Cumbria Wildlife Trust for an inspiring event, hopefully a truly ground breaking one: paludiculture, swamp farming in Britain, just might have been started here.