Lina Pohl, minister of the environment and natural resources in El Salvador, speaks at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany, December 2017. GLF/Pilar Valbuena

New U.N. decade to combat the ‘era’ of climate change, with optimism

A conversation with El Salvador’s Minister Lina Pohl

Minister Lina Pohl will speak at the Global Landscapes Forum New York 2019 on 28 September. Learn how to join the event here.

On 1 March 2019, the United Nations declared 2021 to 2030 the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a landmark decision to accelerate efforts to bring degraded landscapes back to health worldwide. The declaration was made following a statement to the General Assembly from El Salvador’s Minister of Environment and Natural Resources Lina Pohl, who has been a leading proponent in bringing the Decade to light. Following, Landscape News spoke with Minister Pohl about the Decade, from its conception to what it will accomplish in the years to come.

The transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

How does it feel to have the Decade finally go through?

It’s an emotional issue, but it’s also a challenge. It’s the start of something that I think is going to be very important to the planet, not only my country. We have a lot of work to do.

Tell me about your connection with nature. What experiences have prompted you to get to where you are today, advocating so heavily on behalf of the natural world?

El Salvador is a country with a high level of biodiversity. It’s located in Mesoamerica, which is one of the most important places on the planet for biodiversity. Since I was there young, naturally I enjoyed the nature, the forests, the landscapes, the seascapes, making me appreciate it all. But in the last decade, we have seen not only how natural resources have deteriorated, but first-hand we know the threats from climate change. My country is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, and to see the risk of my people, the livelihoods of my people and the wellbeing of my people made me think about what I can do for the solution, to make a direct impact and influence this situation, to restore what we have lost in the last few decades.

I truly believe that this is possible… It is political willingness, but it is also having technology, a framework, interchanges and experiences with other countries and looking for solution alternatives together – not only within my country but with other countries, with different organizations. I’m a very positive person. I believe that everything is possible if we are doing it together… I believe it is very hard work, yes, but we have the experience throughout the planet. And especially at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) I really learned that if we do it together, it’s going to be a fantastic world – not only for our kids and the next generation, but for our generation.

It was exciting to hear even more countries join [in supporting the Decade] today.

Yes, have you seen it? Almost 70 countries want to co-participate with us. We’re not alone. Everybody wants to do it, every country wants to be prepared for climate change impact. Everybody wants to adapt to climate change. You just have to convince them that the solution has to be based on nature. It’s cost effective, you can see the improvements in your landscapes, and that’s what you need to prove. Especially with the private sector – this is not only for the governments, this is not only for the citizens, but the private sector has to be involved in this Decade, to work together with us. And it might seem a little bit ambitious, but it’s not. We have no other alternative. That’s the point.

And we have to work together with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), because it’s about the development of the countries, the economies of our countries. It’s not about only the environment.

And you’ve been very clear about the SDGS, and specifically with which ones the Decade will heavily align.

Exactly, but I didn’t mention the most important SDG: SDG 1, to reduce poverty. If you want to reduce poverty, if you want to make a strong economy in your country, you cannot do it without thinking about the restoration. You need to restore your ecosystem and your landscape if you want to have development in your country.

How did the idea first come about for the Decade?

I always say: the best idea, it’s [formed] at a table and in front of a glass of wine. And that’s how the idea came about. I was with Horst Freiberg, we were talking about the future and in the middle of a meeting of the Global Landscapes Forum, in the middle of people who believe in that, people who are very smart and strong in their beliefs. We thought at that time, and we think it now, that we need a framework. We need to put together not only the three conventions – on climate change, on biodiversity and also [desertification] – but we need to put together the agendas of the main organizations, UN Environment and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). Both of them have to work together.

Agriculture is one of the main issues in restoration. You don’t need to restore only the ecology of your natural protected areas. You don’t want only one green island in the middle of a toxic ocean. You need to restore the production… you need to change the way you are doing things right now because it doesn’t work. We are losing all the time. We are losing with every climate impact we have. So I think that institutions such as UN Environment or FAO are supporting us because of that, because they see the opportunity to channel effort and action, to ensure us that we are in the right direction. We also have a fantastic framework in the GLF.

Why have you chosen to use the GLF as a platform for these discussions and this framework development?

For me, it’s a natural forum. It’s a multi-stakeholder platform. It’s not only government, it’s academia, it’s also the local level, indigenous organizations, different stakeholders, a whole range of people who work directly with landscapes, with existing restoration. You can see the implementation of projects on the ground, of mobilizing funding opportunities, harnessing innovation in restoration activities. You can also see knowledge and ideas, and you have discussions.

For me, my country’s restoration program is like a puzzle. In the GLF, when I went there, there were a lot of new pieces in my puzzle: a new time, a new idea, a new technology, a new framework. It’s fantastic. And it’s holistic. It’s the only place that you can understand the restoration of ecosystems and landscapes from different perspectives. It’s the only place. So for me, it was the most natural space where the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration would be embraced and harnessed.

That’s great to hear. And so you had this conversation with Horst over a glass of wine, and this idea came to light. What have been the challenges and what has been surprisingly easy in getting the Decade from that initial conversation to the adoption today?

Surprising for me was to know that we’re not alone. There are a lot of people trying to do the same thing. I thought because we are a small country, and maybe no one knows us a lot, it would be very difficult for El Salvador to launch this initiative. And I thought it would be very difficult to put together UN Environment and FAO, because they have very different perspectives about restoration.

However, it was totally different, and they rapidly supported our idea for the decade and started working together. FAO understood at that time ecosystem and landscape restoration’s potential for sustainable agriculture, food security, livelihoods. And UN Environment is aware of the need to reorient actions and the agenda into restoration activities. We were discussing that for almost two years… and the reception of the Decade was very easy. It was a little bit surprising – like El Salvador is talking with the big guys, and people were very, very open to this.

And at the same time with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)… with the president of the General Assembly here in the UN – it was so quick to connect with them, and to see the Decade like a platform to improve their own activities.

I’m going to finish the government in three months, so I’m not going to see the Decade through implementation, maybe. And this is going to be a little difficult, I don’t know. But it’s going to be fantastic.

I imagine a big reason that it was adopted and there was so much support for it was because of your optimism. Everyone is looking for that in the face of these big challenges and rapid degradation. It’s really nice to see a country and a person with such hope. What do you hope your continued role is in the Decade after the next three months?

Well, we need to discuss the implementation. FAO and UN Environment want to make a steering committee, which is very important. I think we’re going to have other countries in that steering committee, and also I think we need to have a discussion in the next Global Landscapes Forum about what we need to do to implement the Decade. It’s not my fear, I know it’s going to be implemented, but it has to be very quick. So we need to make this steering committee in the next few weeks and build a framework for the Decade’s implementation, and also a roadmap. We have to be sure that it’s going to be a success.

Unlocking private finance is often cited as a major hurdle for getting restoration efforts underway. What do you hope that this Decade can and will do differently to boost private finance?

I think the big challenge that the Decade has is to demonstrate to all sectors in society is that restoring ecosystems is not a philanthropic activity or charity. On the contrary, it makes the economic sector highly competitive. Ecosystem restoration is a central, a key issue for the sustainability of economic activity. We have to work very hard to demonstrate this to the private sector, to ensure long-term productivity to them to give the natural resources [they need]. We need to protect biodiversity, not against the people, but for them, so they have the natural resources available for their own productive activities.

So the Decade I think needs to make this mainstreaming of conservation, restoration, productivity also an economic issue. It has to be in national policies and development plans to mobilize financial resources. And the private sector must really understand that they are going to have more financial resources to attain their own activities. This is the main issue for me, to establish an atmosphere of trust, to allow for more facilitation of great activities and to involve the relevant sectors.

It’s often said that there are 2 billion hectares of opportunity for restoration. You’re an optimist, but you have also said that you’re a realist. Of those 2 billion, what do you think is realistic for this Decade to accomplish in 10 years?

I think the goal is realistic. The problem is that we need to convince the others that it is important for them. This is for me the big issue. We need to demonstrate that if you restore a landscape, main activities in your country will be easier, even cheaper. The goal is not the problem, the problem is that we cannot convince the others. And the Decade is going to allow us to convince.

Are there any specific landscapes that you have seen suffer the detrimental effects of climate change and are passionate about restoring?

We have an area in Central America called the Corredor Seco – the ‘Dry Corridor.’ It is a very vulnerable area because of climate change. So my dream is to see this area with a different name, like the ‘biodiversity corridor.’ And I think it will be possible in the next 10 years.

After you gave your speech and the Decade was officially adopted today, the US voiced some of their concerns. How will these concerns be addressed, and going forward how will countries’ concerns continue to be addressed?

I think we need to improve our dialogue with these countries, and especially with the US. We need to convince them that climate change is a reality, that climate change impacts our natural resources, that our restoration program is an issue about sustainable development. It is a wake up call. And I think they make the same issue in every Decade or declaration and so on, because they need to put their position in every subject. But… they support our declaration. They made that statement but just after the decision.

What can the general public, the average citizen do to help this decade achieve its goals?

I think in the first place they must understand that they are not an average citizen. I mean, we all have a role, an important role during the decade. It’s a change in the way we produce, but it’s also a change in the way that we consume. We’re consumers. We need to change that. It requires a transformational change – a change in how we use our natural resources, take care of them. [We need to] make an awareness campaign on what these resources mean to all of us and how they affect our living conditions… It’s not only about a good life. It’s about libertad. We need to understand about the people who live in the coastal areas, the people who live in the mountains. And we need to assume that restoration impacts directly on livelihoods.

We are in a new era, the climate change era. We are in a new scenario. We need to restore together to make change. Nobody is an average citizen, nobody. Everybody is important, and every decision is a key decision for our future.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I just want to say that I’m super happy. It is going to be a successful story. And if we do it together, nobody is going to stop us, really.



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