IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016: ambitious calls to safeguard space for nature

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The beautiful Napali coast of the island of Kaua‘I in the Hawaiian archipelago © Noelle Kumpel
The beautiful Napali coast of the island of Kaua‘I in the Hawaiian archipelago

As delegates from around the world gathered in Hawai‘i for the world’s largest meeting on nature conservation, a fresh set of alarming statistics were released. The loss of 27% of African elephants in the past 7 years, the loss of 9.6% of wilderness (29.6% in the Amazon region) in the past two decades, and the increasing human footprint causing pressure on 75% of the world’s land surface - all emphasise the scale of the challenge we face. 

But as the dust settles on the recent IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) World Conservation Congress, held 1-10 September in Hawai‘i, we have reason for hope on a number of fronts. A record-breaking 10,000 delegates from 192 countries took the long journey to this inspiring island chain in the middle of the Pacific, which itself epitomises many of the challenges and solutions raised at the Congress. We shared experiences, results, tools and lessons, agreed on priorities and defined a vision and workplan for global conservation for the next four years and beyond.

The ZSL Team at the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016
Some of the ZSL team at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawai‘i

With a theme of ‘Planet at a crossroads’, the meeting considered the central role of a healthy, intact natural environment in conserving biodiversity and delivering the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement on climate change, both agreed by governments last year. While some parts of the meeting were more contentious than others, demonstrating the passion for and relevance of discussions on topics such as ivory markets, we collectively coalesced around some key themes and nature-based solutions as set out in the Hawai‘i Commitments.

In a world becoming ever more crowded by a growing and increasingly all-consuming human population, we discussed the challenges of sustainable development. A particular focus was where and how to expand agricultural production in order to feed what will be over 9 billion people by 2050. Sessions also addressed the issue of extractives and infrastructure expansion into critical areas for biodiversity and indigenous peoples and local communities.

In response, IUCN members voted overwhelmingly to support major resolutions calling for all categories of IUCN protected areas to be ‘no-go’ to environmentally-damaging industrial activities and infrastructure development, to conserve primary forests, including intact forest landscapes, to mitigate the impacts of oil palm expansion and to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030 (tripling the current target of 10% by 2020). The latter had particularly strong political and public support, with the Congress opening with Obama declaring the world’s largest marine protected area (a record previously held by the UK) and 1 million people around the world signing a petition in support of the motion.

Plastic bottle in the ocean, Chagos
The #OneLess campaign aims to reduce the number of single-use plastic bottles thrown away each year, many of which make their way to the sea and end up as marine litter ingested by wildlife

Addressing the issue of making such calls work on the ground, we voted to provide guidance on connecting conservation areas, and case studies of successful landscape-scale projects were given. One example was the new Kelola Sendang project in South Sumatra, an innovative, public-private-people partnership developed to provide conservation, climate and livelihood benefits by reducing deforestation, wildfires and loss of peatland across a mosaic of agricultural land, forest concessions and protected areas.

Reflecting the sense of urgency, ambition and clarity that is needed, the Congress Forum opened with the renowned ecologist E.O. Wilson calling for ‘half earth’ – protecting at least 50% of the land and seas. This echoed the results of our previous global opinion survey on space for nature, which found that people around the world felt that 50% of the planet should be protected. Another key Congress resolution aims to address this with the development of a more ambitious strategy to safeguard space for nature post-2020, the date set for reaching the current Aichi targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Space for Nature infographic
Results of ZSL’s global opinion survey asking how much of the land and sea people wanted to see protected. Respondents from seven countries in six continents (Australia, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, UK, USA) said on average 50% for land and sea

Feedback from two Congress events convened on the topic suggests this is not just about targets for coverage of protected areas (which are currently 17% of the land and 10% of the sea by 2020), but defining what sort of activities can happen where, and making sure everything we do, everywhere, is as responsible and sustainable as possible and integrated into the wider strategy. This means not only better protecting flagship and intact areas, but also ensuring best practice elsewhere - in private concessions, community lands, even urban gardens. Tools like SPOTT (Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit) can help to demonstrate this. All this needs political leadership, public pressure, incentives and ultimately regulation, with the active involvement of all sectors of society – governments, the private sector, local communities and youth. 

In addition, we still need to radically change our patterns of consumption and unsustainable behaviour. The #OneLess campaign against single use plastic bottles is a great example, embodied by the paperless, plastic bottle-free ethos of the Congress. Engaging youth is also critical – as seen by the launch of the #NatureForAll campaign and the visible and vocal presence of young people at the Congress. This included a students' day welcoming 900 Hawaiian students to learn about conservation first-hand, featuring Instant Wild and United for Wildlife’s hugely popular ‘We Are The Rangers’ Minecraft game and free online conservation course. Such change starts with every one of us – we need to take collective and individual responsibility for our children’s future.

ZSL’s Louise Hartley presenting Instant Wild to some of the 900 local Hawaiian students visiting the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Students Day
ZSL’s Louise Hartley presenting Instant Wild to some of the 900 local Hawaiian students visiting the IUCN World Conservation Congress on Students Day

Key is connecting this all to ensure that we actually reduce the alarming rate of loss of biodiversity, such as the staggering 52% global decline in vertebrate populations since 1970. There was obviously much focus on species as well as space at the Congress, including calls for measures to address declines in eels and giraffids, increased protections for pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade and the closure of domestic ivory markets. Which brings me back to that mention of elephants at the start of this piece… While elephants are indisputably important for their own sake, and for our global and range states’ heritage, we mustn’t forget the critical role of such species in their ecosystems, and in securing the ecosystem services upon which we all depend. More ambitious targets for space for nature therefore need a focus on both quantity (area-based targets) and quality (maintaining wildlife populations by better managing and protecting these areas). That’s a tall order – but one that underpins our very survival. 

Elephants in Tsavo. The closure of domestic markets for elephant ivory was among the things called for at the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2016
Elephants are being pushed to the brink of extinction by poaching for the illegal ivory trade

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