Biodiversity, People and Parks: Nature-Based Solutions Bring All Three Together for Sustainable Development
Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth
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WPC 2014 convened at the mid-point between the adoption of the Aichi Targets in 2010 and their deadline for achievement in 2020.

Taking place just once every 10 years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Parks Congress (WPC) allows for a long view – both of past achievements in biodiversity conservation and of the trajectory of conservation efforts. In this regard, WPC in Sydney, Australia, in November 2014 was uniquely placed, occurring at the mid-point between the adoption of the Aichi Targets in 2010 and their deadline for achievement in 2020.

The Aichi Targets are part of the Strategic Plan of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted at the 10th Conference of the Parties to the CBD in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan. Two months ahead of WPC in Sydney, the CBD Secretariat launched the ‘Global Biodiversity Outlook 4′ (GBO-4), reporting that Aichi Target 11, to conserve at least 17% of terrestrial areas and 10% of marine areas, is one of the few areas in which sufficient progress is being made towards achievement by 2020.

On the face of it, the Sydney Congress should have been able to celebrate progress toward this Target, which relates most closely to the future of parks and protected areas.

It did not.

Instead, WPC served to unpack the meaning of Target 11, and unmask the weaknesses behind the seeming achievement. Going beyond that, it also successfully recast conservation aims as ‘nature-based solutions’ toward an overall vision of sustainable development.

Unpacking Target 11

Target 11 is about more than just conserving square miles of the land and marine environment, as a focus on the quantitative measures noted above might suggest. The Target says areas to be conserved should be “of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services.” They should also be effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative, well connected, and integrated into wider landscapes and seascapes. On all these counts, achievements toward this Target are further away than GBO-4’s hopeful green ‘dashboard’ sign implies.

In its ‘Protected Planet Report 2014,’ the IUCN cites research suggesting that just 22% of Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) and 23% of Alliance for Zero Extinction sites were completely covered by protected areas in 2013. On average, less than half of such sites were protected. Furthermore, the global protected area (PA) network is not yet ecologically representative: temperate grasslands and tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests are significantly under-represented and, in terms of geographic regions, less than10% of Oceania and the Indo-Malayan region is protected.

While the gazettement of terrestrial areas has seen significant progress, marine areas lag behind: 15.4% of the world’s terrestrial and inland water areas are protected, but only 3.4% of the global ocean area is protected, for several reasons. Conservation aims are often seen as conflicting with the livelihoods and rights of coastal communities; there is less scientific knowledge about marine than terrestrial areas; and many marine species are relatively less visible and therefore of less public concern, with the exception of a few ‘poster child’ species, such as whales, dolphins, turtles and seals. On the high seas, in areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), only 0.25% of areas are protected, for reasons summarized by conservationist N.A. Sloan as “public confusion over maritime governance, uncertainty over appropriate civility toward marine resources, and cultural expectations of freedom on the seas.”[1]

Researchers at WPC described a trend dubbed “PADDD” – protected areas downgrading, downsizing and de-gazettement – whereby the status of many protected areas remains open to being revoked or otherwise weakened. For example, Australian researchers at the meeting highlighted the 2013 lifting of prohibition against livestock grazing in five national parks in the state of Queensland on the grounds of “drought relief,” noting that this hindered conservation objectives without actual de-gazettement of the park area.

Beyond the formal status of protected areas, Target 11 also calls for protected areas to be equitably managed. WPC in Sydney discussed concerns on both the ‘equity’ and ‘management’ aspects of this clause. The Protected Planet report notes that there is currently insufficient information as to whether parks and protected areas are being managed equitably, and that while the role of indigenous peoples and local communities in biodiversity conservation is well recognized, this area remains one of the most under-reported aspects of this Target. Several delegates also pointed out the management deficit in protected areas. For example, one panelist’s PhD research in Bangladesh showed that even where areas have been zoned for conservation, management plans are often absent or minimal, or are developed but not implemented.

Meanwhile, human rights abuses are taking place in the name of conservation. Research by the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Natural Justice indicates that many PAs continue to be established and managed in ways that breach agreed international human rights standards for indigenous peoples and local communities. Both NGOs lobbied at WPC for the application of minimum human rights standards in conservation activities, citing as examples, the ongoing struggle of villagers in eastern Tanzania to stop their eviction from their ancestral lands due to the expansion of the Saadani National Park, and the eviction of nomadic Endorois pastoralists from the area around Lake Bogoria, Kenya in 1973, a violation recognized by the African Commission on Human Peoples’ Rights in 2010, which the Government of Kenya has yet to redress.[2]

Nature-Based Solutions

More than 40 years ago, environmental writer Peter Matthiessen described the contradictions involved in parks management in Africa, where big-game hunters could shoot wild animals as trophies, while indigenous peoples were persecuted as poachers, quoting the Samburu Maasai, “We are fined and imprisoned when we kill these animals for food even in times of extreme famine despite the fact that we share our land with them. The presence of these animals in our district means loss of lives and stock every year and nothing else.”[3]

WPC recognized that these contradictions still need to be addressed, as discussions highlighted that the management of parks and protected areas in the developing world encounter a different set of problems than those in the developed world: the former are primarily concerned with issues of livelihoods, whereas those in the latter may be concerned with visitor numbers and the quality of visitor experience. At the heart of these issues, suggested some delegates, is getting people to have “the right relationship to parks” through recognition of the role of parks and protected areas in offering what many termed nature-based solutions.

Through the various discussion themes, participants made strong arguments for parks and protected areas as the answer to problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification and even general health issues. Parks and protected areas are strongly linked with drinking water supply, food security and resilience as they maintain water sources, store carbon, harbor genetic diversity of flora and fauna, promote soil quality and moderate the impacts of extreme weather events. Some argued that the presence of parks could work better than medication for certain illnesses, being helpful in combating depression, diabetes, obesity and other conditions of the modern world.

Despite the many weaknesses identified behind the seeming success on Target 11, through the concept of nature-based solutions, WPC in Sydney successfully positioned action on parks and protected areas as being vital to sustainable development, tying together the Congress’ cross-cutting elements of its theme, ‘People, Parks and Planet.’

The Value of Targets

In the background to discussions of progress or otherwise on protected areas, participants at WPC questioned why 17% was the chosen figure under Target 11. Some campaigned for an increase in protected areas, arguing that 17% was the outcome of political bargaining, rather than a science-based conclusion, and that the target should be revised upwards.

At the end of the day, however, it was the CBD Secretariat that reminded participants of the impracticality of gazetting ever-larger swathes of land, when world population is rising exponentially and demand for food continues to grow. On the sidelines, they noted the need to bring agriculture into the discussion as a key driver of ecosystem change and degradation, suggesting that “the best thing we can do for biodiversity is to become much more efficient in agriculture.”

As the global community moves towards adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, the story of Target 11 offers some lessons on the setting of targets and the assessment of their achievement – not least, that numerical indicators on their own are insufficient. Target 11 was innovative in its introduction of new elements to spatial protection, including the notions of “areas of particular importance for ecosystem services;” equity; “other” effective area-based conservation measures; and integration into the wider landscapes and seascapes.[4] Assessing achievements towards the Target will require clear definitions of these elements accompanying the numerical target, and a common understanding of what constitutes progress, going beyond spatial indicators. Furthermore, strong, multi-layered targets will not be enough; they must also be implemented.

IUCN, in its Protected Planet report, highlights that PA coverage has been used as one of the indicators to track progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and could also be significant in the establishment and monitoring of the forthcoming SDGs. It is the link to broad concerns over food and water security, and ultimately, human well-being that will promote action in favor of well-chosen and actively managed parks and PAs. And even where achievements can be reported, it is unlikely that we can afford to relax.

IISD RS coverage of the World Parks Congress 2014 can be found at http://enb.iisd.org/iucn/wpc/2014/


[1] Sloan, N.A.; ‘History and Application of the Wilderness Concept in Marine Conservation,’ Conservation Biology; April 2002.

[2] Jonas, H.; blog post on IIED; 17 November 2014.

[3] Matthiessen, Peter and Porter, Eliot; The Tree Where Man Was Born, Collins; London, 1972.

[4] Spalding et al; ‘Aichi Target 11 – Reshaping the global agenda for MPAs,’ The Nature Conservancy-UNEP-WCMC Policy Brief; 2012.

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