The power of local action: tales from the sustainability revolution

From the restoration of arid lands in Australia and Spain to the planting of coral reefs off Colombia, we look at the sustainable local actions improving the planet.
Wind energy on Global Wind Day

News recently came to light of a group of elderly Swiss women who persuaded the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to recognize that their country was abusing the human rights of older people by not taking the necessary measures against climate change.

In a world where headlines often focus on the big threats of global warming and environmental degradation, it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such huge problems. A closer look, however, reveals countless stories of individuals, and communities like these Swiss women, making an importance difference.

Such sustainable action not only illustrates the power of individual and collective action, but also offers hope - and examples to follow. Because, often, local knowledge is the best tool, not only for adapting to climate change, but also for caring for the natural resources surrounding us.

What will I learn from this article?


A small army of farmers against desertification

South-east Spain has become a region lashed by drought and desertification. Here, a group of farmers and activists have taken the initiative to reverse environmental damage. Using regenerative agricultural techniques and planting drought-resistant native species, this “small army” is managing to recover land many thought lost.

A decade of their work has not only improved local biodiversity, but is also increasing water retention in the soil, vital for the survival of the region. Their objective is not only to reforest the area, but to “re-vegetate” it, creating not just woods, but whole ecosystems.

What began with 30 farmers now involves 359 people restoring the land and countryside, vital progress since this sustainable action seeks to transform the economy as well ecology.


“Their objective is not only to reforest the area, but to “re-vegetate” it, creating not just woods, but whole ecosystems”


How 8 friends restored an Australian hill

The ReSource RICA tree planting project in the heart of Victoria (Australia) is another inspiring example. What was once a desolate, “ugly” hill is now a green paradise thanks to over 20 years of hard work.

At the end of the 1990s, eight friends sought out the most degraded farmland they could find, not to live from it or profit financially, but to transform it into a reforestation project that could demonstrate the long-term dedication needed to change a landscape radically through ecological restoration. As the participants explain in this article, there were just four trees left surviving on the semi-arid land and the soil was very depleted.

The group undertook courses in tree planting and seed gathering and created the community association ReSource RICA, an acronym for Rehabilitation, Indigenous, Community, and Access. They began planting native species, carefully selected to adapt to the soil and local climate.

Their sustainable action is not just about planting trees and hoping for the best; each species has a specific role, whether it is improving soil quality, providing wildlife habitats or simply because they are beautiful.

Over two decades later and the project has transformed the hill into a vibrant forest ecosystem. Now it is a place hundreds of species of plants and animals can call home, some of which were in danger of extinction in the region. The project also serves as a valuable educational resource for local communities and visitors, palpably demonstrating the positive impact of reforestation and environmental conservation.


The guardian of life in deepest Caleta Talca

In the cold and deep waters of Caleta Talca (Chile), Susana Galleguillos, the region’s first female Mayor of the Sea, has become an emblematic figure in marine sustainability. As well as bureaucratic issues, her work consists of maintaining the brown algae that balances nutrition and conservation in the area.

These macroalgae – named after their large size – not only adorn the seabed with their variegated green and brown colors, but also form unique ecosystems known as “huirals”, essential for marine biodiversity. Over-exploitation of this resource, however, has desolated huge underwater areas, transforming rich sea forests into aquatic deserts. Susana’s work is vital in this respect, testament to the need for sustainable management of marine resources.

The importance of algae to the equilibrium of marine ecology cannot be underestimated. They act as underwater lungs, absorbing carbon dioxide and offering refuge and reproductive habitats for innumerable species.

The role of Susana and her colleagues goes beyond mere maintenance; it has become a race against time to preserve marine life as we know it. The first woman to be elected Mayor of the Sea, she leads crucial initiatives for tackling the loss of these underwater “forests”. Her effort is not only a question of environmental conservation, but also a fight to maintain the integrity of the communities who depend economically on these sustainable practices.


Reforestation in the Dominican Republic: the Plan Yaque success story

In 2015, over half of the land in the Dominican Republic could be called degraded. This was the result of an era of intensive deforestation and non-sustainable forest practices which went on for decades. Population growth and uncontrolled tourism made biodiversity conservation impossible.

Thankfully, six years after the problem came to light, a native collective was already all hands to the pump trying to regenerate nature in the country through sustainable action. In 2009, the Northern Yaque River Basin Development Plan (Plan Yaque) was born through an NGO whose mission was to protect the Dominican Republic’s biggest river basin. 

The aim of Plan Yaque is simple and efficient: to convince landowners that reforesting their plots is also beneficial for them. Reliable access to water – a headache for Dominican farmers – was a persuasive argument.

As solutions, they implemented reforestation projects using native species, which not only helped them restore the natural landscape but also improve water retention in the soil, crucial to agriculture and maintaining a constant water flow throughout the year.

Plan Yaque also worked closely with local communities to promote sustainable farming practices. These included the introduction of crop-growing techniques that minimized the use of chemicals, deploying efficient irrigation systems to conserve water, and diversifying crops to improve food security and farmers’ earnings.

“At first, the landowners asked: what do I get from planting all these trees on my land?” Dulce María Fabián Ortiz told El País. “And when you explain to them that it will assure water supply for 10 to 15 years, they think more calmly about it.”

With the passage of the years, the Plan Yaque has successfully demonstrated sustainability in action and how to conserve natural resources. In 2019, after a decade of environmental work on the island, the country had managed to restore 18% of degraded land. And environmental care translated into economic growth: in 2010, the national GDP was USD 54 billion; by 2019 it had reached 89 billion.


Coral gardeners of the Caribbean

Between 2009 and 2018 around 14% of the world’s coral was lost, according to the latest report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN). Some 11,700 square kilometers, more than all the living coral of Australia. United Nations forecasts are also far from hopeful: between 70% and 90% of these ecosystems will be nearly or wholly extinct by 2050.

Alongside local organizations and corporations in Colombia, members of the community, marine biologists and engineers have been working for three years to avoid the bleaching of the Caribbean coral in 12 of the country’s islands. The people behind the fight are over 200 fisherfolk who changed their rods for underwater gardening. They are known as coral gardeners and have grown more than 850,000 fragments to clean up the marine ecosystem.

Their labor consists of weaving together tiny ‘necklaces’ of different colors and laying them on the seabed. Eight months on and they will have grown by 15 centimeters, ready for the final transplant to the depths of the ocean, which is being returned to all its multi-colored glory.

Such sustainable actions are just a few examples of the positive impact we can have on our planet. They show that, independently of the size of the action, each effort matters. They remind us that change begins locally - in our community. And that, together, we can tackle the environmental challenges of our time.