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Local treasures: Nepal’s mountain crops drive biodiversity and economic growth

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Jungu village, Dolakha District. Photo by D. Gauchan, Bioversity International

Remote mountainous regions of Nepal are harsh places in which to survive and make a living.

Economic, social and environmental challenges include lack of market access, outmigration, dependency on imports and subsidies, women’s drudgery, malnutrition, unpredictable weather, pests and diseases.

To tackle some of these challenges, UNEP and partners are working with the local community to conserve biodiversity of crops, to boost food security and resilience.

The 2014-2020 Global Environment Facility-supported project was implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and executed by Bioversity International in collaboration with national  partners—the Nepal Agricultural Research Council, the Department of Agriculture, and Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development.

It covers eight sites, at altitudes ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 metres above sea level, in the districts of Humla, Jumla, Lamjung and Dolakha, in Western, Central and Eastern Nepal. High‑elevation agricultural systems often have high levels of environmental instability. Eight mountain crops – buckwheat, common bean, finger millet, foxtail millet, proso millet, grain amaranth, naked barley and cold tolerant high-altitude rice – are targeted.

The project faced two major hurdles in five years: devastating earthquakes in March and April 2015, which badly affected two of the four sites, as well as a major administrative reform which saw the introduction of a new federal system in 2017.

Despite the disruptions, government officials believe the project has made a difference. “The project has developed the foundation for promoting and mainstreaming traditional crops,” says Deepak Bhandari, Executive Director of the Nepal Agricultural Research Council. He also hailed the launching of the national project website.

“The project made us aware of the value of local crops,” says Depsara Upadhaya, a farmer from Chhipra village in the northwest of Nepal. “We received support to establish a community seedbank in the village, and electric machines were made available to process finger and proso millet. This brought great relief to women in my village by reducing the physical strain of manual threshing.”

Under the project, four community seed banks were established to conserve rare, local mountain crops. The banks now conserve 232 unique and endangered varieties of 56 crops. UNEP and partners also encouraged best practices for mainstreaming agrobiodiversity in agriculture through community biodiversity management funds, farmers’ field schools and seed exchanges.

Making a difference

“Crop biodiversity contributes to nature, which is an essential source of many drugs used in modern medicine. Globally, nearly half of the human population depends on natural resources for its livelihood,” says UNEP biodiversity expert Marieta Sakalian.

Since its inception in 2014, the project has been boosting mountain crop biodiversity for the benefit of local communities and farmers. Results include:

  • 20,000 households received seeds, germplasm and information on how to conserve and grow mountain crops.
  • 300 germplasms of eight target crops were sent to project sites for on-farm testing. Over 60 were selected for use by farmers.
  • 500 local crop genes have been stored in the national gene bank for future breeding.
  • In 2019, low-interest, collateral-free loans were given to 58 farmers – mostly women – by a community biodiversity trust fund.
  • Electric threshers for millet reduced women’s’ physical labor and improve efficiency. Finger millet threshers were distributed to over 500 households. Eight improved pieces of processing equipment were given to communities.
  • Capacity building of over 100 local farmers, many of them women
  • Over 70 publications—books, flyers, posters, blogs and brochures—were produced.

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Report: More protection for our seas and oceans is needed

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The Commission adopted today a report on the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) which reveals that, while the EU’s framework for marine environmental protection is one of the most comprehensive and ambitious worldwide, persistent challenges remain, such as excess nutrients, underwater noise, plastic litter, and other types of pollution as well as unsustainable fishing. This message is further reinforced in the European Environment Agency’s “Marine Messages II” also published today.

Virginijus Sinkevičius, Commissioner in charge of the Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, said “This report and the accompanying EEA Marine Messages confirm that we need to step up action to protect our seas and oceans. We have made progress, for example in the field of sustainable fisheries, but we need additional efforts and stop the irresponsible pollution of our seas. I note with regret that EU Member States will not achieve the Good Environmental Status they were legally required to achieve across all their marine waters by 2020 and that, for some marine regions, efforts required are substantial. The Commission will launch a review of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, to see what has worked and what has no’t, and act upon the shortcomings identified. Protecting our seas and oceans is an integral part of the European Green Deal, and it is the precondition for our fishermen and fisherwomen to provide us with healthy and sustainable seafood also in the future and therefore deserves our continued attention across policy areas”.

Hans Bruyninckx, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, said “Our seas and marine ecosystems are suffering as a result of years of severe over-exploitation and neglect. We may soon reach a point of no return, but, as our report confirms, we still have a chance to restore our marine ecosystems if we act decisively and coherently and strike a sustainable balance between the way we use of seas and our impact on the marine environment. In this context, the new EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 and other elements of the European Green Deal bring must guide urgent and coherent action for protection and restoration to be underway.”

The MSFD report paints a mixed picture of the state of Europe’s seas. Almost half of Europe’s coastal waters are subject to intense eutrophication. Although EU rules regulating chemicals have led to a reduction in contaminants, there has been an increased accumulation of plastics and plastic chemical residues in most of the marine species. Thanks to the EU’s common fisheries policy, nearly all landings in the North-East Atlantic come from healthy stocks. This is however not yet the case in the Mediterranean, for which more efforts are needed.  

The EEA’s Marine Messages II report, which feeds into the Commission’s review, shows that historic and, in some cases, current use of our seas is taking its toll resulting in changes in the composition of marine species and habitats to changes in the seas’ overall physical and chemical make-up. It suggests solutions that can help the EU achieve its goal of clean, healthy and productive seas, mainly through ecosystem-based management. It also adds that there are signs of marine ecosystem recovery in some areas as a result of significant, often decade-long, efforts to reduce certain impacts like those caused by contaminants, eutrophication, and overfishing.

Background

The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) has provided a push towards a better understanding of the pressures and impacts of human activities on the sea, and their implications for marine biodiversity, their habitats, and the ecosystems they sustain. The knowledge gained from implementing this Directive was, for example, a driving force leading to the adoption of the Single Use Plastics Directive. It has led to increased cooperation among littoral Member States of the four European sea regions, as well as across marine regions. As a result non-EU Member States also aim to achieve good environmental status or its equivalent.

The Directive requires that Member States set up regionally-coordinated strategies in order to achieve clean, healthy and productive seas. This overarching goal, referred to as “Good Environmental Status”, is determined over a number of so-called ‘descriptors’ (e.g. biodiversity, fisheries, eutrophication, contaminants, litter, underwater noise). It is a key piece of legislation that protects and preserves marine biodiversity and its habitats, it is therefore an important tool to implement the 2030 Biodiversity and Farm to Fork Strategies and a major contributor to achieving the Zero-Pollution ambition at sea. It is also closely linked to the upcoming Strategies for Sustainable Chemicals and Smart and Sustainable Transport.

The MSFD must be reviewed by mid-2023 and where necessary, amendments will be proposed. The review will further analyse the achievements and challenges to environmental protection of European Seas in accordance with the Commission’s better regulation agenda and will be carried out in parallel with a review of the Common Fisheries Policy.

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Sadeem International Wins Innovate4Climate Top Prize for 2020

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Today during a live virtual contest Innovate4Climate, the World Bank Group’s flagship event on climate change, announced Sadeem International as the winner of its second Pitch Hub Competition. Sadeem – focusing on early warning solutions for flash floods in urban environments – beat out over 400 applications from around the world.

This year’s challenge focused on climate-smart cities, with innovations required to be at Minimal Viable Product stage, to help cities become low-carbon and/or climate-resilient across a range of sectors: energy, food/agriculture, mobility/transportation, waste/water, fintech. Solutions had to demonstrate potential for climate change mitigation or adaptation, and that they were feasible, with a clear value proposition, implementable and scalable.

The winning startup and four other finalists were chosen after evaluation by 40 expert reviewers and multiple rounds to assess its viability.

“Participating in this competition was a really enriching experience; the level of exposure and networking potential is unique. It is also really refreshing to see that every day there are more and more startups aligning business with climate innovations. We are so happy as a team for getting this prize!”, said Esteban Sanchez Canepa, Co-Founder and CTO at Sadeem International. “We have a commitment to keep addressing the urban and climate challenges of our generation”.

The winning startup will receive Amazon Web Services credits worth $30,000, with the runner up and third finalist receiving $20,000 and $10,000 respectively. The top three winners will receive invitations to major industry events and training opportunities. All 5 finalists will be part of Innovate4Climate’s Startup Incubation Bootcamp Program, designed and facilitated by partner, The Venture City, and will be invited by Innovate4Climate to meet with potential investors and venture capital firms and will have access to Innovate4Climate’s 2021 event. Sadeem also won the audience choice category.

“It is really inspiring to see climate-smart innovations and new approaches to addressing climate change for urban communities”, said Bernice van Bronkhorst, Global Director, Climate Change, World Bank. “The kinds of inventive solutions we’ve seen today from this group of entrepreneurs are a great opportunity not only for communities tackling climate change but also for creative entrepreneurs delivering solutions that can work, and the World Bank’s Innovate4Climate team is pleased to support their efforts.”

This year’s competition was held virtually with finalists submitting recorded pitches that were reviewed by the judging panel, followed by a virtual Q&A between judges and competitors. The judging panel comprised Riyong Kim (EIT Climate-KIC), Dr. Tara Shirvani (EBRD), Assaf Wahrhaft (UpWest), Martin Wainstein (Yale OpenLab), Vikram Widge (Climate Policy Initiative).

“All the finalists this year offered innovative solutions to address climate change, with several harnessing state-of-the-art technologies. It was a difficult decision, but it seems appropriate that the winner was the one that can help cities become more pro-actively resilient”, said Vikram Widge, Senior Advisor, Climate Finance, Climate Policy Initiative, part of the judging panel.

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Long-term data series are key to assess health of forests

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Forest ecosystems are affected by many different stressors, such as climate change and air pollution. Drought periods, like the one in 2018, strongly reduce tree growth and increase tree mortality in the UNECE region. At the same time, air pollution affects forests from the leaf to the ecosystem level. For example, elevated levels of pollutants, such as ground-level ozone, decrease photosynthesis significantly, directly affecting plant growth and other plant functions. In addition, indirect effects of air pollution can cause nutrient imbalances and increase vulnerability to insect and fungal species. These, in turn, might also expand their distribution range as a result of a changing climate, thus severely damaging forest ecosystems.

The reduced performance and impaired health of forests affects us all. By absorbing carbon dioxide, purifying water, producing timber, filtering the air we breathe, and providing us with a place for recreation, trees and other plants are essential for environmental and human health, help mitigate climate change and improve air quality. Reduced tree and plant performance thus mean less ecosystem services, such as effective filtering capacities to clean our air.

To address the impact of global change on forest ecosystems and their resilience, long-term data series are indispensable to evaluate state, trends and processes in forest ecosystems. More than three decades of monitoring effects from air pollution within the International Cooperative Programme on Assessment and Monitoring of Air Pollution Effects on Forests (ICP Forests) operating under UNECE Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution have provided harmonized and standardized long-term data series which allows scientists, stakeholders and policymakers to predict the fate of forest ecosystems in the UNECE region and their functioning in a changing environment and take action accordingly.

This week (11-12 June 2020), international experts working together through ICP Forests thus met virtually to discuss data series on forest growth, phenology, biodiversity, nutritional status of foliage and litter fall, ambient air quality, deposition, meteorology, soil and crown condition. Experts agreed that further quantifying the response of forest ecosystems to a changing environment is fundamental for determining the long-term sustainability of forest ecosystems.

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