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'Solutions for nature are solutions for people'

May 26, 2020

Jean-Marc Sinassamy (left) on a learning mission of the Sustainable Land and Ecosystem Management Country Partnership Program, Uttarakhand, India.
Jean-Marc Sinassamy (left) on a learning mission of the Sustainable Land and Ecosystem Management Country Partnership Program, Uttarakhand, India. Photo courtesy of Jean-Marc Sinnassamy

Jean-Marc Sinnassamy is a Senior Environmental Specialist who oversees the GEF’s project portfolio related to land and forest management in Africa, including the new Congo Basin Sustainable Landscapes Impact Program. In an interview, he shared life lessons from his work with communities, activists, academics, government officials, and business leaders to prioritize nature at both the global and local levels.

When people ask what you do for a living, what do you say?

My job is to explain nature to people and translate it into action: turning ideas into projects and programs that help individual communities, countries, and the planet. More specifically, in my current role, I work with partners on GEF-supported initiatives to reduce land degradation, support sustainable and climate-resilient agriculture, and improve forest management in Africa.

What is land degradation, exactly?

Land degradation is a process starting with the reduction of tree cover, loss of vegetation, and loss of soil properties. It is directly linked to global issues such as deforestation and desertification. When land is degraded, soil carbon is released adding to greenhouse gas emissions. On a local level, land degradation has a negative impact on vegetation and water balances and decreases the productivity of croplands and rangelands – this leads to food insecurity, water scarcity, and lost livelihoods. Ultimately, land degradation can lead to hyper-arid desert-like conditions.

What does success look like in your work area?

Most of the projects I am involved with aim to generate benefits related to the land, biodiversity, climate, water, and forests, and are related to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. This international convention helps countries to combat land degradation, especially in dryland areas where smallholder farming and nomadic herding is typical. Responses we support include environmentally friendly agricultural practices, such as ecological intensification and climate-smart measures. We are on the right track when local farmer groups in a rural commune in Niger or a watershed in Ethiopia tell us they have been able to significantly increase their yields, earn more, while at the same time, underground water is more accessible, and trees are back in the landscape bringing shade, reducing erosion, drought, and enriching the soil. We are looking for such solutions that can be replicated at scale, across Africa and in other regions facing similar challenges.

Another path to success is by targeting the root causes of degradation and anticipating upcoming threats. The Congo Basin Sustainable Landscapes Impact Program for instance is an initiative spanning six countries, four GEF Agencies, and several regional and local partners all working together to protect nature in their development path. Country ownership is very important, notably in setting up governance and land-use planning systems at local level. The goal is to transform the way key transboundary landscapes are managed to protect large patches of intact rainforests in the heart of the Congo Basin, including unique assemblages of global important species, such as the great apes, forest elephants, and others. We are working on local decision-making systems to empower local communities and forest dependent people about land rights, access to natural resources, and livelihoods. Finally, we are also exploring business models with the private sector that can prevent deforestation and fragmentation of natural habitats.

How has the COVID-19 shutdown changed how you approach your work?

As part of my work, I am in regular contact with government officials, project managers, and representatives from communities, including indigenous people in Africa. I am now doing this remotely from home. In a continent where so many families depend on informal work and daily wages, I am obviously very concerned with the impacts of the disease and the economic shutdown affecting the most vulnerable communities. The COVID-19 situation in countries already facing fragility, conflict, and violence is a real subject of concern. The international community has responded with immediate and short-term measures focusing on health, food, and social services. Information is essential and we must stay alert on how the situation evolves in the countries.

Jean-Marc Sinassamy at a project meeting in Niger
Mid-term evaluation of a sustainable land management project in Niger, part of the GEF’s Integrated Approach Pilot on Food Security. Photo courtesy of Jean-Marc Sinnassamy

In the medium-term, the GEF is encouraging project designs that address the new situation brought up by the pandemic, along with the risks it brings for project teams and beneficiaries. We need to deal with a new context where the mobility is reduced, and large gatherings are limited. Now, one of our efforts is to promote integrated approaches and invite different sectors working together. People working on natural capital may see an opportunity to work closer with those working on human capital, for more integration.

In the longer term, the coronavirus crisis has persuaded me that our work at the GEF, to keep ecosystems healthy, makes even more sense. It is noticeable that many recent infectious diseases – COVID-19, SARS, H1N1, Ebola, etc., came from animals and often wildlife. The human population, soon to approach eight billion people, is creating pressure that the planet and its ecosystems cannot support, with high risks of mass extinction. The more we destroy forests, wetlands, rangelands, seas, the more we risk becoming exposed to diseases and destroy potential solutions. Nature-based solutions are the best way to work at scale and make the planet more resilient, meaning more resistant to shocks.

I would like to share a thought for Augustin, a traditional healer I was working with in Benin. He was always telling me that great apes or monkeys should not be eaten. It was and still is wise advice.

Is there someone you have met through your work who has had a lasting impact on you?

I lived for four years in Benin, working on land-use planning issues at the national level and supporting an ecosystem management project with local communes, farmer associations, and women groups. In 2003, I had a chance to meet Daagbo Hounon, the spiritual leader of the Vodun religion. Meeting him, his council, and his advisors, was the beginning of an amazing journey that impacted the way I approach my work. “The way is open” was his conclusion to our first meeting – this openness gave me the opportunity to work with traditional authorities on the sustainable management of natural resources in a way that might not have been otherwise possible. When I later met hunter groups far away from the capital, I spent exceptional moments exchanging ideas about our respective visions of the world, the universe, and the rest. I took part in amazing ceremonies celebrating nature in a different way. It was fascinating. Now, every time I am working on a new project, I ask to myself: "How will I explain it to the hunter groups and the village?"

How did you get into this line of work?

My first job related to the environment was monitoring seagrass beds via scuba diving along the Mediterranean coast! A dream job! I spent two years at the GIS Posidonie, and I returned to Marseille after my Master’s degree for about one year. After some consultancies in France and abroad, I joined the Tour du Valat Foundation, a unique research institute for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands where I stayed eight years to develop a program on site management planning in natural areas in France and the Mediterranean. Luc Hoffmann, its founder and first president, had a huge influence on my professional life.

Jean-Marc Sinassamy monitoring seagrass beds in Marseille’s Prado Bay.
Monitoring seagrass beds in Marseille’s Prado Bay. Photo courtesy of Jean-Marc Sinnassamy