What has been achieved at the World Parks Congress?

Lauren Baily

After eight days, the World Parks Congress (WPC) is over, but what has actually been achieved? What exactly was the outcome of bringing together more than 6,000 participants from over 170 countries?

Firstly, and probably most significantly, is the way that conferences such as this bring together the world’s conservationists, communities and governments under a common goal – to conserve our natural heritage. The opportunity to exchange knowledge, embrace new cultures and work together on common problems. This should not be underestimated, as the true impact of Sydney will be how these lessons are applied by delegates back in their own countries.

The congress also gives governments and politicians the stage on which to make big announcements. A number of significant announcements were made during the WPC: China committed to increase its protected areas territory by at least 20% and its forest area by 40 million hectares; Gabon will create a network of new marine protected areas equivalent to 23% of its marine waters; Russia pledged to create 27 new federal protected areas; and South Africa pledged to triple their ocean protection in the next 10 years.

However, the congress is not just about big announcements from politicians. All the discussions, debates and pledges at the congress are consolidated into the Promise of Sydney which “sets out an ambitious agenda to safeguard the planet’s natural assets”.  One of the headline pledges within the promise is that it outlines “a pathway for achieving the global target to protect at least 17% of land and 10% of oceans by 2020”. Much debate was had over the eight days about this target. Is it ambitious enough? Are numerical targets even a good thing? Do we know what impact our current protected areas are having? Whilst a target for 2020 is within the promise, I personally feel that a massive opportunity has been missed and that we should be aiming much higher. Most scientists agree that at least 30% of our natural world needs to be protected to safeguard our natural world and some, such as ZSL’s Space for Nature report and the #NatureNeedsHalf campaign, even call for 50% of the world to be set aside. Others argue that we simply don’t have enough data to set a numerical target and that we should continue to set aside areas until we see a halt in the decline in our biodiversity and the services that the natural world provides us. It is clear that we need to go way beyond the 2020 target and, given that the next WPC isn’t until 2024, a vision for beyond 2020 should have been integral to the Sydney promise.

Protected areas should not only be measured on coverage but also on their effectiveness.  Currently only 24% of protected areas are well managed, with many lacking simple objectives against which to measure their impact. We should therefore not get carried away with the creation of new protected areas without consolidating the ones we have already created. Thankfully the congress showcased a number of new technologies and tools that protected area managers can use to achieve just that, including ZSL’s Instant Wild, SMART and Google’s underwater streetview. In addition, a new initiative presented at the congress, the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas, looks to incentivise managers to improve their protected areas. To get on the new list, protected areas must be well managed and effective. This gives an extra incentive to governments and conservationists to strive for excellence in protected area management. It is hoped that this initiative will help to prevent the creation of “paper parks” - protected areas created on paper but without the necessary planning, enforcement and management to make them effective.  The conference saw 23 sites across the world awarded Green List status and let’s hope many more join that list soon!

As someone who works predominantly in the oceans, I was pleased to see the Promise of Sydney also call for “an urgent increase in ocean protection, including areas beyond national jurisdiction”. Our seas are being overexploited and need immediate action. The current predicament was summed up by Kristian Teleki, Global Ocean Commission, who stated that “If we ran our businesses like we manage our oceans, we would all be bankrupt”. Only 2-3% of our oceans are currently classified as protected and nearly all of these are coastal areas. The reason for this is that protected areas are designated by national and regional governments but their powers only extend out to 200 nautical miles, an area known as their Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. So not only are we woefully short of our 10% target, but we currently have no means to protect the area beyond our EEZs known as the high seas. Given that they cover ~50% of our planet, it is great to see the congress make a commitment to addressing this gap and work towards multilateral international agreements.

It is important to note that protected areas, although crucial, are only part of the solution and that on their own they cannot reverse the current biodiversity crisis we are experiencing. We should not allow the designation of protected areas to distract us from ensuring the rest of the world’s resources are being sustainably managed.  We still need to address the threats of climate change, overexploitation of natural resources and the illegal wildlife trade to name but a few.

I have only highlighted a few of the outcomes of the Promise of Sydney and the WPC but you can view all of them yourself here:

World Parks Congress outcomes

Most of the WPC delegates are now making their way home from Sydney, but I have decided to head north and explore the rainforests and coral reefs of Queensland. Fingers-crossed I will get to see some of the local residents: saltwater crocodiles, sharks, platypuses and cassowaries are top of my list.

My next blog will be in January when I return to the Indian Ocean to continue my research on the sharks and manta rays of the Chagos Archipelago. Follow me on twitter at @d_curnick for regular updates.


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