Life on a Sustainable Planet: Creating a Resilient Future for Our Oceans 

by Ana K. Spalding, Director of the Adrienne Arsht Community Based Resilience Solutions Initiative

At a time when climate change and biodiversity loss are threatening our natural environments – for instance, 75 percent of coral reefs are at risk due to human impacts – it’s clear that we need to develop scalable nature-based solutions and policies that will lead us toward a more sustainable future. Since 1901, we have seen a 1.5-degree Fahrenheit increase in the temperature of our oceans. This change may seem small, but the ripple effects are immense, with healthy coral reefs disappearing and entire species and coastal communities in jeopardy of survival. 

As we conclude the 2024 Our Ocean Conference in Greece, it is an opportune time to consider the critical work underway at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) to advance tropical science and the Smithsonian Institution’s vision of Life on a Sustainable Planet: an investment in a future where humans and nature coexist in harmony. Through my work as director of the Adrienne Arsht Community-Based Resilience Solutions Initiative at STRI, we are constantly exploring how, through research, training, and collaboration with global partners, we advance our collective understanding of the interaction between nature and human communities to pursue nature-based solutions for a more resilient planet. 

Coral bleaching events are on the rise globally, due to warming sea temperatures. The degradation of coral reefs due to climate change could have important consequences for marine biodiversity. Photo courtesy of Arcadio Castillo for STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). All rights reserved.

The Need for Social Science in Identifying Climate Solutions 

Taking center stage at Our Ocean 2024 were commitments focused on tangible actions necessary to drive change toward ocean protection, worth more than $10 Billion across all thematic areas of the conference. Amidst the week’s discussions, it became apparent there’s a strong need to approach solutions through an inclusive lens. Organizations and companies globally have a great opportunity to learn from Indigenous and other coastal communities on the frontlines of biodiversity loss and climate change about how to achieve a sustainable future. Examples include “tropical majority” communities who contribute least to climate change, but who are impacted the most.  

For example, Ngäbe indigenous communities residing near the Isla Bastimentos Marine National Park in the Bocas del Toro archipelago have valuable knowledge regarding the marine ecosystems they have relied on for their livelihoods for centuries, but which are now being impacted by over exploitation of resources and unsustainable tourism practices. Their active involvement in the National Geographic project, led by me, titled “The Many Faces of Conservation: Impacts and Meaning of Bastimentos Island National Marine Park on the Ngäbe in Panama,” provides a unique lens into their approach to the conservation of marine resources that transcends the perspectives of environmental scientists or policymakers alone. 

Examples like this reveal how putting community engagement at the center is key to developing inclusive conservation approaches. Integrating the human perspective in this work is both educational and critical for establishing change in the tropics and across the globe. 

A discussion group with indigenous community members of Salt Creek in the Bocas del Toro archipelago aimed to understand the impacts of the Isla Bastimentos Marine National Park on their livelihoods. Photo courtesy of Ana Endara for STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). All rights reserved.

Driving Ocean Resilience for Nature and People 

Less than 10 percent of our world’s oceans are protected, when oceans make up 70 percent of our planet’s surface. At STRI, we utilize a coupled socio-ecological approach to social and natural science to address climate and ocean conservation needs, developing tools like “The MPA Guide.” This guide provides a common language to define and assess MPAs, providing insights to the design and implementation of marine protected areas. The Guide features a social outcomes section highlighting the importance of including local peoples in decision-making.  

An MPA designed with local people’s needs at the forefront will be more effective for conservation than one that does not. In particular, in small island developing states and low-lying coastal communities, it is essential to protect coastal ecosystems to ensure food security for communities, pollution filtration, and shoreline stabilization; and to prevent the negative impacts of bioinvasions, sea level rise, and warming waters, among others.  

To cite Sheila Babauta, an indigenous environmental advocate from the Northern Mariana Islands and chair of the Friends of the Mariana Trench, we must: 

“Make space for indigenous leaders and indigenous communities to lead. Implementing an MPA means investing in people,” she said as a panelist in the side event Ten Years of the Our Ocean Conference: Commitments Lead to Real Ocean Protection. “MPAs that are designated and implemented the right way are one way we can show our deep love and respect for the ocean.” 

The panel ‘Ten Years of the Our Ocean Conference: Commitments Lead to Real Ocean Protection’ at OOC Greece brought together an international group of leaders to share insights from their own work implementing effective ocean protection. Our Ocean Conference 2024, Greece. | Photo courtesy of Ana Endara for STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). All rights reserved.

In addition to conducting research on MPAs, a critical conservation tool, our team at STRI is exploring other approaches to conservation. For instance, staff scientists are actively engaging with stakeholders in the lower Pacuare River area in Caribbean Costa Rica, fostering dialogue to develop community-based solutions tailored to manatee conservation while also addressing unique needs of the coastal community members. 

To ensure equitable conservation and climate action for oceans, there is an urgent need to utilize local voices to create a sustainable environment for future generations. We look forward to further advancing this mission through STRI’s Adrienne Arsht Community-Based Resilience Solutions Initiative. The Center will lead cross-disciplinary and innovative efforts supporting community-based solutions to pressing social and environmental challenges like ocean conservation. We all have an opportunity to help preserve our coasts for generations to come – so that a future of vibrant and resilient coastal ecosystems is possible. 

This story was originally published on Dr. Ana K. Spalding’s LinkedIn page