When I see wetlands forest, I see a place of beauty, wonder, and adventure. A place that provides clean air and purifies our water systems. A place where we can recreate and receive spiritual renewal. A place that protects us from flooding and natural disasters. But I also see where greedy corporations are destroying these special places so fast. And I see how rural and marginalized communities suffer the consequences of that greed.
We have a problem, but we also have a solution.
Rural communities and Indigenous territories are often targets for destructive industries. These industries destroy valuable natural resources. They build in marginalized communities where local officials are desperate for jobs. Industries choose these places because they can profit with very little red tape. The health and economic cost to the communities doesn’t concern them.
These companies leave communities with health problems from polluted air and water. They clearcut forests, which increases the risks of severe flooding and blistering heat. It makes communities vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It robs them of the opportunity to thrive. This is an environmental injustice.
The US South is ground zero for industrial logging. This is not a solution.
In North Carolina over 200,000 acres of forest are clearcut every year. That’s over 400 football fields of forest clearcut every single day. This leaves a black hole in the landscape that can take decades to regenerate. That’s decades where the forest can’t do its job. It can’t capture carbon, purify air and water, or protect communities from storms.
The biomass industry clearcuts Southern wetlands and ships the wood pellets to Europe. Europe then burns our precious forests for electricity as a replacement for coal.
We’re going backward, and we don’t have time for that.
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for a huge shift. The report encourages efforts on the maintenance and growth of natural systems. Wetland forests are an important natural system. To avoid the worst, the IPCC urges us to conserve half of the Earth’s lands. The report tells us we need to move away from “maladaptive solutions” (like biomass) or well-meaning solutions gone wrong.
We can’t keep supporting solutions that aren’t clean or green. We’re losing one of the most powerful natural tools (forests) to remove carbon from the atmosphere. We’re losing wetlands, an essential ecosystem. We need wetlands to help us lessen the impacts of climate change.
We have a solution! Protect nature.
Now we’ve got to invest in projects that foster green economies and healthy communities.
We need bold policies that protect wetland ecosystems. We must protect and even expand our water, food, health, and safety.
The Rights of Nature movement believes ecosystems could be legally protected. Protected from environmental degradation such as development, pollution, or extractive practices. We can’t let corporations and economic interests overshadow the value of nature. For example, Ecuador included the Rights of Nature in its constitutional provisions. Then in 2011 Loja, Ecuador found that building a road near a protected river violated the river’s rights. This was the first successful legal rights of nature case in western law.
Recognizing the legal rights of nature is not a new idea. Many different Indigenous populations have recognized the rights of nature for centuries.
Protecting wetland forests is an effective way communities can avoid damage from flooding.
This investment saves states, counties, and communities millions in taxpayer dollars.
Our national commitment to wetlands protections is more than good environmental policy. Wetlands restoration can even help the nation recover from the ongoing financial crisis. One report found preservation and restoration for wetland and stream impacts leads to “compensatory mitigation investments total[ing] an estimated $1.3 to $4.0 billion annually.” It also noted these restoration wetland projects create between 6.8 and 29.0 jobs per $1 million invested.
We need to change the economic, political, and social systems that perpetuate racial, environmental, and ecosystem injustices. Because these are all interconnected. We must create a regenerative economy based on:
- ecological restoration
- community protection
- equitable partnerships
The community conservation model is exciting. It considers forest and wetland conservation through the lens of environmental justice. This model focuses on partnerships with communities vulnerable to climate change effects. It also uses environmental, social, and economic indicators to define the priorities.
The Pee Dee Indian Tribe in South Carolina is using this community conservation model to break the cycle of abuse and exploitation they’ve suffered.
The tribe acquired 15 acres of wetlands forest and is working to acquire another 35 acres. This will show new possibilities for non-extractive practices.
Another example is the Britton’s Neck community in South Carolina. They’re planning a conservation project with Dogwood and New Alpha Community Development Corporation. Right now, the community is purchasing land for protection.
We all must transform our thinking. Our future lies in the restoration and protection of forests and wetlands. Together we can drive business and innovation. We can create new opportunities for rural communities.
Our wetland forests are such an important solution for a changing climate.
Let’s all take bold action to protect wetland forests.
A healthy economy and a healthy environment can and must coexist.