From rainforest to row houses, honoring rights to home

Australia makes a humble return of a rainforest to its Indigenous residents, and in U.S. cities, aggregated data is making it easier for people to hold property owners accountable for their renter practices and building upkeep. 

1. United States

Tech-driven tools are helping curb evictions and urban blight in cities throughout the United States. Baltimore is posting QR codes on 17,000 vacant properties, allowing the public to find out who owns a building and keep track of its development. In San Francisco, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project is teaming up with housing advocacy organizations to track renter displacement. The platform, available to residents in the Bay Area as well as those in Los Angeles and New York, identifies serial evictors and “Wall Street landlords” – investment trusts that have bought thousands of houses in California since the Great Recession. In Detroit, city officials adopted a local software company’s mapping data to help identify abandoned buildings, and civic groups now canvass properties to counsel residents on avoiding displacement.

Why We Wrote This

In our progress roundup, governments and collaborative citizens champion the importance of preserving both nature and built environments for their inhabitants.

Crowdsourced data helps the public identify negligent property owners and hold these landlords accountable. The data used in these tools – ownership records, pending court cases, construction permits, etc. – is already public, but people often don’t have the time or knowledge to navigate city and state data portals, untangle webs of shell companies, and ask the right questions. “We’re talking about democratizing access to information,” said Brendan Schreiber, president of an affordable housing development firm in Baltimore.

2. Costa Rica

Monteverde, a Costa Rican mountain district, has created Latin America’s first grassroots electric vehicle charging network. Experts agree that electrifying the transport sector is key to reducing fossil fuel reliance and car pollution, but the slow rollout of EV charging stations in Latin America and other regions contributes to “range anxiety,” or the worry that EVs won’t be able to reach their destinations. One remote tourist destination is trying to dispel those concerns.

In a typical year, Monteverde’s cloud forests draw hundreds of thousands of visitors – and their SUVs. Since 2019, business owners and climate activists have worked to protect the area from excess fumes by promoting EV tourism. The group embraces simple strategies: reserved parking for EV cars, well-maintained plug-in stations with clear signage, and online maps charting all charging points. Monteverde’s Ruta Eléctrica has helped establish about 85 slow 120-volt charging stations throughout the region. Many businesses welcome the opportunity to cater to eco-conscious clients, say coordinators. “In rural areas like Monteverde, people are actually more environmentally conscious,” says Richard Garro, the sustainability manager at Hotel Belmar, which offers free EV charging through Ruta Eléctrica. “It’s part of why people come here.”

3. Switzerland

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
A “Yes, I will” flag is hung ahead of a vote on same-sex marriage in Bern, Switzerland, Sept. 8, 2021.

Switzerland has legalized marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. Parliament approved expanded federal marriage laws in late 2020, but opponents collected enough signatures to trigger the recent referendum. Nearly two-thirds of voters in the historically conservative country leaned in favor of amending marriage laws, with overwhelming support throughout rural and urban areas. The new rules will likely take effect on July 1, 2022, according to the justice minister.

In addition to bringing the country in line with most Western European nations, the change will have a significant impact on the LGBTQ community, say advocates. Equal marriage rights mean easier paths to naturalization for non-Swiss spouses, and more options for starting families. Now people in same-sex relationships can adopt children with no biological relationship to them – a right previously limited to heterosexual couples and single people. 
Reuters, The New York Times, Financial Times

4. Madagascar

Conservationists are releasing 1,000 critically endangered radiated tortoises back into the wild. Named for the yellow starburst pattern on their shells, these tortoises are found only in Madagascar and play an important role in regenerating native forests. Faced with illegal poaching and trafficking, the tortoise population is believed to have dropped from 12 million to 3 million over the past 20 years.

Dita Alangkara/AP/File
The illegal pet trade is a major threat to Madagascar’s radiated tortoise, pictured on sale during a flora and fauna expo in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2010.

The Turtle Survival Alliance, which currently cares for 25,000 radiated tortoises rescued from poachers, is releasing 1,000 in a secret 15-acre plot of forest in southern Madagascar. The tortoises will be microchipped, and 30 to 40 will be outfitted with GPS trackers to help researchers monitor their progress. The release marks a milestone for local conservation efforts, say coordinators. “If we can establish a reliable and effective method to return confiscated tortoises to their native landscape in protective communities, then we can begin to draw down the massive numbers we are supporting in captivity,” said TSA-Madagascar Director Herilala Randriamahazo. “The persistence of our treasured radiated tortoise in nature depends on it.”
Radio France International, BBC

5. Australia

Australia has returned the Daintree rainforest to its Indigenous custodians. Part of the Wet Tropics UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest tropical rainforest in the world, Daintree is Australia’s closest link to the ancient Gondwana forests that covered the continent 180 million years ago. Daintree holds thousands of important plant and animal species, and has traditionally served as the home of the Kuku Yalanji people, some of the earliest humans to live in Australia.

In a historic deal that the government called a “step on the path towards reconciliation,” 395,000 acres of rainforest and neighboring national parks have been returned to Indigenous residents. The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people will co-manage the land with the Queensland government, and eventually gain complete oversight. “The Eastern Kuku Yalanji people’s culture is one of the world’s oldest living cultures,” said Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon, “and this agreement recognizes their right to own and manage their Country, to protect their culture and to share it with visitors as they become leaders in the tourism industry.”

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