This Earth Day, It's Our Turn to Lead!

Shannon Hilsey, Climate and Energy Programs

Today marks the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, and this year's theme is "It's our turn to lead!" It's an important year for the environment - one that could bring a new global climate change treaty, continued divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy, and a stronger link between economic growth and sustainability. But to achieve these goals requires each of us - individuals, governments, corporations, universities and civil society included - to take a stand and do our part. It can start by protecting our trees.

For decades, the world’s forests have been decimated not only by global resource use patterns and a growing need for agricultural land, but by poor management. Institutions and private investors have failed to apply dedicated technical expertise and concern for native ecosystems to their work in and around forests. The consequences are wide-reaching, affecting everything from downstream ecosystems and our global air and climate systems to local communities reliant upon forests and their natural products.

In few places is expert forestry as vital as in Belize. Long the basis of the country’s economy, the nation’s once-vast tropical forest resources have been impacted by hundreds of years of logging. Fortunately, a culture of environmentalism, low population density, modern selective cutting methods, and the establishment of numerous reserves have ensured that over half of Belize’s land remains forested. The country is committed to managing that forest – much of which is primary, making it essential for global carbon capture – and to making continued hardwood harvesting sustainable in the long-term.

Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) Fellow and sustainable forestry expert Dr. Janaki Alavalapati believes better management can be achieved through the empowerment of local stakeholders with technical expertise in sustainable forest management. In 2012, Alavalapati initiated a partnership with the University of Belize that has evolved into the Sustainable Forestry Capacity Building Initiative. Funded by a small grant from the ECPA Senior Fellows Program, the course aims to create space for the improvement of research techniques and collaborative on-the-ground training for passionate Belizean students, recent graduates, and young natural resource management professionals.

Between March 1-10, 2015, a month ahead of Arbor Day in the United States, the Initiative’s first course, Tropical Forestry Management, was held in Gallon Jug, Belize. Led by Dr. Francis E. Putz and Dr. Anand Roopsind of the University of Florida, Dr. Elma Kay of the University of Belize Environmental Research Institute, and Dr. Alex Finkral of the Forestland Group, LLC, participants gained valuable skills and created two promising works on the effects of reduced impact logging on biodiversity which are headed for publication. The results of the course will be also applied to education, planning, and outreach by government and educational institutions.

The Sustainable Forestry Capacity Building Initiative enjoys the participation of partners including the University of Florida, the University of Belize, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Embassy in Belize, the Belize Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development (MFFSD), the Forestland Group LLC, and Virginia Tech, where Alavalapati also heads the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation.

Let's join Dr. Alavalapati and the rest of our ECPA Fellows as we demand a change and show the world a new direction towards the future of our planet. Join the conversation using #EarthDay2015 and #OurTurnToLead.

The Senior ECPA Fellows program is a network of high-level technical experts in the fields of climate change and energy who travel between countries in the Western Hemisphere to consult with governments or other institutions. The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs and administered by Partners of the Americas.