By Annie Arbuthnot
Tigers poached in India, trees illegally felled in Peru, seeds stored in Morocco, and the quality of drinking water in Southeast Asia are just a few examples of what the staff in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES) Office of Conservation and Water (ECW) think about every day.
The 20-person ECW team of Civil and Foreign Service officers, science fellows, and contractors work to protect nature for people’s benefit worldwide and to support the U.S. private sector. ECW coordinates policy to conserve and sustainably use important ecosystems—forests, wetlands, and coral reefs—the species that depend on those ecosystems, and the world’s water resources. All of this requires multilateral, regional, and bilateral diplomacy; interagency collaboration; science, data, and technology; and stakeholder engagement. ECW leads the U.S. whole-of-government effort on the Combating Conservation Crimes initiative, countering wildlife trafficking, illegal logging and associated trade, crimes associated with illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and the illegal or unregulated extraction and sale of gold and other minerals, both separately and at their convergence. These efforts also support the 2017 Executive Order 13773, which called for a comprehensive and decisive approach to dismantle organized crime syndicates and explicitly recognized the connection between wildlife trafficking and transnational criminal organizations.
ECW relies on science to promote sound conservation policies. For example, they coordinate U.S. government efforts in the Intergovernmental Platform on the Science-Policy Interface for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The 2019 IPBES Report on Biodiversity painted a sobering picture: 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the coming decades unless the world takes action. ECW promotes the needed actions, many of which are based on U.S. conservation practices. For example, ECW works with other countries to end the land degradation crisis. Similar to the U.S. Dust Bowl in the 1930s which significantly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies, the current crisis is causing an annual loss of 12 million hectares of productive land due to desertification and drought. The crisis is destabilizing communities and reducing grain production by up to 20 million tons a year, contributing to food insecurity and migration. By working with the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations and U.S. embassies overseas, ECW helps to set up pollinator gardens focusing on local plants. They encourage others to sustainably manage wetlands, which provide numerous benefits for people such as freshwater, food, and flood control, and they work with international partners to protect the world’s threatened coral reefs.
The office also focuses on the world’s forests. Without forests, there would not be coffee or chocolate or a host of important medicines. Forests are among Earth’s most critical ecosystems and are home to 80 percent of land-based species. Forests protect water and soil and provide much of the food, fiber and medicines that the world depends on. However, protecting forests is not just an environmental issue; it is big business for U.S. companies. The United States imports and exports more than $50 billion in forest products annually. At the same time, the global trade in illegal timber is valued at well above $50 billion per year. This illicit trade costs legitimate producers in the United States up to $1 billion per year in lost revenue, can exacerbate transboundary conflicts and provides funding for organized criminal networks and insurgent groups.
ECW leads U.S. international efforts to protect seeds and other genetic material to feed an ever-growing world population. Working with the U.S. private agricultural sector, public and private research centers, and international institutions such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, ECW works to promote food security and protect U.S. industries’ access to essential crops and their genetic material, fostering research that benefits everyone.
The office also leads the development and implementation of U.S. foreign policy on water resources, focusing on water resources management, transboundary cooperation, drinking water and sanitation, and water sector governance. For example, in the face of increasing demand for water in Southeast Asia, ECW and other agencies across the U.S. government are helping the countries of the Lower Mekong—Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—work more effectively together to share water data and manage the flow of the river, benefiting all of the countries. At the December 2019 Mekong Research Symposium in Vietnam, more than 170 participants explored opportunities to collaborate on data models and tools to address issues from weather forecasting to fisheries management.
President Donald Trump stated in the 2017 U.S. Government Global Water Strategy, “Water may be the most important issue we face for the next generation.”
Water scarcity is also a threat to U.S. national security. Today, one-quarter of the world’s population lives in water-stressed countries, and that number is growing. Floods, droughts, pollution, and mismanagement of water resources push desperate migrants across borders; destroy crops; undermine economic growth; and threaten peace and stability in regions critical to U.S. strategic interests.
ECW also links U.S. experts to water-stressed areas of strategic importance through the Ambassador’s Water Experts Program which is managed in partnership with the Department of the Interior’s Technical Assistance Program. The program recently sent data scientists from a private U.S. company to train Ugandan government officials on how to use data analytics to help determine the best locations to construct water access infrastructure and to model where such systems are likely to fail.
ECW leads efforts to strengthen international cooperation to end wildlife trafficking, which generates tens of billions of dollars each year for transnational organized criminal networks. Not only does this illegal trade push species to the brink of extinction, but it spreads disease, and undermines the rule-of-law.
“These criminals must and can be stopped,” said former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2018. “Future generations must not say that the nations of the world sat back or responded with action that was too little or too late, while great species disappeared forever.”
ECW brings together specialized U.S. government agencies, other governments, international organizations, and a full array of non-governmental and citizen organizations to combat this scourge. They helped establish regional Wildlife Enforcement Networks across the globe, which bring together wildlife rangers, police, customs, prosecutors, and communities to improve transboundary cooperation and communication to stop the illegal trade.
The office is also using technology and citizen engagement to advance its work. In partnership with the OES Public Affairs Office, ECW promotes public awareness and new technological approaches to combating conservation crimes. Through the Zoohackathon initiative, coders competed at 15 events worldwide in 2019 and produced innovative tools to tackle conservation crimes and raise awareness, especially about wildlife trafficking and illegal logging. Forty participants convened at the Zoohackathon in Bogota, Colombia, last November, where OES Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Marcia Bernicat served as one of the judges.
“To stop these crimes in their tracks, countries need laws and regulations—but also innovation and technology solutions, “said Bernicat. “This is why we invest in programs like Zoohackathon.”
Team “Quantum” won first place for its solution to help determine whether trucks are loaded with more lumber than their permit allows.
Whether combating wildlife trafficking, conserving forests, monitoring water, or preserving seeds, ECW plays a crucial role in environmental conservation. Through policy, coordination, outreach, and research, they mobilize resources across the Department and work with other agencies, governments, and international organizations to protect the world’s natural resources for today and future generations.
Annie Arbuthnot is the senior technical advisor on conservation crimes in the Office of Conservation and Water.