Democracy in Action

Next week, the IUCN World Conservation Congress will take place in Jeju, Korea. “So what?”, you may ask. We had Rio+20 earlier this year, there is a meeting of the Convention on Biological diversity in Hyderabad in October, so what makes an IUCN Congress so special?

I may be biased, as I work for IUCN, but in my view the IUCN General Assembly is environmental democracy in action. The Assembly is part of the Congress, with the other part of the Congress – the Forum – devoted to debates, workshops, knowledge sharing, capacity building and general networking.

The Forum may be what attracts outside participants, but the Assembly is the time when IUCN Members exercise their right to vote for candidate Presidents, Treasurers, Chairs of scientific Commissions and regional members of the IUCN Council. The strength of our democratic principles is the fact that small NGOs vote for the same issues as the largest national delegation. Members will also debate and vote on several hundred motions of scientific interests. These will become resolutions addressed to IUCN, or recommendations aimed at third parties. The resolutions are part of the priorities for IUCN in the coming years, and form part of the 2013-2016 Programme of work that will also be debated and adopted during the Assembly.

Not all Members can physically attend the Congress, and as the 2012 Congress is in Jeju, Korea, a good number of European Members have sent apologies. Where a National Committee of Members exists in a country, the input from Members is being coordinated in advance, so that votes will not be lost.

We have currently 17 National Committees in Europe, and I would like there to be more, because I believe that where National Committees of IUCN Members exist, they are an appropriate way for IUCN to implement its programme in Europe. We need to strengthen the working relationship between the Regional Office for Europe and the National Committees, and we will be talking about that in Korea, during a meeting of the European National Committees. In the years to come, I hope to work more closely with National Committee Chairs and focal points in Europe.

What else do I expect from the Assembly? I hope we will leave Jeju with a new strong President, visionary Chairs of our scientific Commissions and an adopted global programme. Most important for me is the outcome of the election of six European Councilors, from the list of 11 excellent candidates.

I will let you know of the outcome of the Assembly after the Congress has ended.

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Mining and biodiversity – strange bedfellows?

Last week, I read an article in the Guardian Weekly about rare earths in Greenland, and the impending pressure from mining and exploration. This made an impression on me for a number of reasons.

Greenland is an overseas territory of a European Union (EU) Member State – Denmark – and IUCN Europe is managing the EU Outermost Regions and Overseas Countries and Territories Programme. We have a website with lots of information about overseas territories, and you will be surprised to know how many places on the globe still fall under European jurisdiction. Did you know that Greenland is not only the largest island in the world, but is also home to the largest national park in the world?

I spoke in a session in the European Parliament last year about mining of rare earths on Greenland, and I explained that my concern is not that Greenland wishes to develop its potential in mineral resources, as that is the prerogative of the national government. Economic development is a good thing, but IUCN’s concern is that this is done in a proper manner, using nature-based solutions as well as traditional infrastructure development. My personal concern is that a country which has had little exposure (literally, as it was under the polar ice) to the pressures of large-scale mining industry may cut environmental protection corners and aim for fast returns instead of long-term sustainability. We will do all we can to help the Government of Greenland to make the right decisions.

This brings me to the other issue that came to my mind, and that is the question about biodiversity impact of mining in general. There will be at least one workshop about this during the IUCN Congress, so check out the details, if you are interested under event #Forum0006.

There is a vivid discussion going on within IUCN about No Net Loss of biodiversity and Net Positive Impact on biodiversity of industrial activities. There is a workshop during the IUCN Congress about this on Sunday 9 september (#forum0396). This includes debates about the conditions required for delivering positive outcomes to conservation through Biodiversity Offsets, if at all possible.

The independent Business and Biodiversity Programme (BBOP) has defined principles, collected case studies and created a series of resources, but IUCN’s science community is not convinced that we know enough to be able to support the concept as an effective conservation tool.  It is one of the issues that will be debated at the IUCN Congress in Jeju, Korea next month, to clarify the knowledge gaps, consensus areas and fracture points around this topic. I hope we will agree on a way forward, given the fact that some Governments and the business community are already implementing schemes around the mitigation hierarchy and biodiversity offsets.

An interesting point is that the European Commission has created a working group on No Net Loss, and we participate in the group’s discussions. Advising the European Commission is one of the key roles of IUCN in Europe, and it is in my mind the main reason for having an office in Brussels. So – I really hope that the IUCN Congress manages to come to a conclusion on this topic, so we can advise the Commission accordingly!

the beaver – a conservation success story

I was on the website of one of our members in the Netherlands, the mammal association (zoogdiervereniging), and they have very positive news about the fact that the status of beavers in the Netherlands is improving.  2012 is “the year of the beaver”, and this website gives more information.  Unfortunately for non-Dutch speakers, the website is only in the national language!

Eurasian beaver feeding, anterior view

This is a nice example of species recovery, as the Eurasian beaver was near threatened in 2002, mainly as a result of hunting for its pelts.  A number of conservation measures have contributed to the recovery of the beaver in Europe, including reintroductions and translocations, hunting restrictions, and habitat protection. 

The beaver is still a protected species, but it is a conservation success story, and we need good news about nature conservation!

I nearly saw a badger in the Jura

We went for an early morning walk in the Parc Jura Vaudois this morning.  What stunning landscape, and so close to where we live.  The bedrock is limestone, and there are karst features everywhere – dolines, karren, small shafts and more.   It feels like walking through a karst geomorphology textbook.  I made the following photo of a solution hole in the rock that is nearly two metres deep.

In the mud of puddles, we saw footprints of large and small deer, but on one site there were prints of a totally different nature : there were claw marks.  When I checked the books at home, it suggests a badger walked our path last night or earlier this morning.

I am very glad that the park provides a safe haven for such a majestic animal.  Protected area management in action!

How do cities in Europe deal with biodiversity

Last week, I had a meeting with the European secretariat of ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability in Freiburg, Germany (http://www.iclei-europe.org/) after a comfortable train ride from Gland, Switzerland, where the IUCN Europe office is located.  ICLEI is an international NGO Member of IUCN, based in Europe, and we talked about the challenges for local authorities in dealing with biodiversity, and discussed possible areas for collaboration.

Cities and regional authorities have direct responsibility for the management of natural resources, such as land, water and forests, but they typically have not considered how to deal with biodiversity and ecosystems.  Most cities have staff dealing with parks and green spaces, and water quality of local stream and lakes.  Many are also actively involved in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and promoting alternative energy and more sustainable transport options.  Yet, few cities have a biodiversity officer or city ecologist, and many have not yet worked out what the value is of the ecosystem services provided by nature in and around the city.  The photo below shows urban agriculture in Brussels, by www.eco-innovation.net;

IUCN and the Swiss Federal Agency for Environment are organising a side event during the next Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological diversity (CBD COP11) in Hyderabad, India in October this year, to present lessons learned from several European cities.  These examples are individual case studies, and we hope that by making their experiences public, other cities will follow their lead.

Significantly, the last Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP10) in Nagoya, Japan, adopted on 29 October 2010 a Plan of Action on Sub-national Governments, Cities, and other Local Authorities for Biodiversity.  As a result, there is now a political pressure for mayors to come up with biodiversity strategies and action plans for their cities, but we believe that many city governments are struggling.

IUCN Europe and ICLEI Europe are already partners in a large, EC-funded trans-disciplinary collaboration project between nine top European research institutes called Urbes (http://urbesproject.org).  Urbes aims at bridging the knowledge gap on urbanization processes and urban ecosystem services, as underpinned by biodiversity.  In our meeting last week, we discussed how we can be more strategic and come up with a joint programme of action to help cities and local authorities in Europe with biodiversity and ecosystem management.

I will keep you posted on the progress in the months to come – a lot will depend on finding financial resources to make things happen!  Any suggestions?

Ecosystem services on a small island in the Mediterranean

For a number of years, I have visited the island of Gozo in the Mediterranean, and I have become very attached to its culture, its landscape and its society.  I will try to explain what makes this little island special.

Gozo is one of the three largest islands of European Union Member state Malta, the other ones being the main island Malta and a third, smaller, island called Comino.  Malta is not yet a Member of IUCN, but the Malta Environmental Protection Agency – MEPA – is in discussions about Government Agency membership.  Gozo is, what you could call, the bread basket for Malta – this is where most of the agricultural production takes place that supports the population.  Malta is also a fishing nation, and most of the ports on Gozo are still fully operational.Image

Much of the economic development of Malta is related to foreign trade and tourism, and this has resulted in large, mass-tourism infrastructure on the main island.  Yet, Gozo is still relatively unspoilt.  The Government has realised this and has launched an initiative called Eco-Gozo (www.ecogozo.com).  The idea behind this programme is to reduce the carbon and water footprint, promote eco-tourism, protect the traditional values of the Gozitan society and maintain the landscape of the island.  In reality, it has so far focused on landscaping roundabouts, road verges and parks, but the intent is to do a lot more, as described on the Eco-Gozo website.  The opportunity to turn the island into a real ecological destination is obvious to any visitor.

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What can a small island like Gozo provide in the way of ecosystem services?  One the one hand there is the possibility to maintain and restore historical services like water storage in underground systems and wetlands.  Gozo is an outcrop of limestone in the Mediterranean Sea, and therefore there is potential for subterranean water storage.  In the past, fresh water was collected from wells and reservoirs that were recharged during the rainy season.  Rainwater harvesting was a standard practice, with channels dug into the rock, and water collected from roofs of agricultural structures.  Nowadays, more than half of the fresh water in Malta is provided by treating seawater through reverse osmosis plants – energy demanding and dependent on imports of hydro-carbons.

With high cliffs, strong winds and almost guaranteed sun every day during the summer, the potential for renewable energy on Gozo is high, but this is not yet fully explored.  Individual roofs of private dwellings start to show solar panels for power generation or water heating, but this is not yet accepted as the norm.  MEPA (www.mepa.org.mt) is promoting renewable energy, and this is also one on the components of the Eco-Gozo initiative, but not yet every citizen in Gozo has been convinced about the benefits of alternative energy options.

Historically, Gozo used to have a thriving sea-salt industry.  This activity has been revived, and tourists now buy “locally produced” sea salt, but there are still other salt pans lying idle.

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Quality control of sea salt may be an issue, but attractive packaging and improved publicity now provides a growing market.  Similarly, Gozo tourists buy liquor produced from local cactus fruits, tomato paste produced from locally grown tomatoes, jars of naturally grown capers and more recently bottles home-grown wine.  I visited a small enterprise on the way to Marsalforn – the ta’mena estate – which is producing a range of local produce grown on their land, and both Gozo Cottage and Jubilee Foods sell locally produced food with no additives.  There is great potential for upscaling these individual initiatives, to reach an international market.

Finally, a small island with stunning scenery provides opportunities for eco-tourism.  When I was on Gozo, I met the director of a new enterprise, Gozo Adventures (www.gozoadventures.com) which has discovered a niche for individual tourists who want to go hiking in the countryside, kayaking along the coast, abseiling from the cliffs or diving to see the marine biodiversity.

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In my view, Gozo should avoid becoming a mass-tourism destination, but should focus on individuals and small groups that have an interest in the landscape, nature and culture of the island.  There are a few hotels on the island, and so far, the tourism infrastructure has been well managed.  I believe that increased demands for tourist accommodation can be met with low density developments.

The biodiversity on the islands is rather special, and there are many endemic species on Gozo.  IUCN has carried out a number of studies and assessments on biodiversity in the Mediterranean through its Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation (www.iucn.org/about/union/secretariat/offices/iucnmed), and I have been told that the rich marine life around the islands makes it one of the best diving spots in the region.  Hunting of birds has always been a controversial issue on Malta, and while the membership of the EU has curtailed rampant hunting excesses, there is still a vivid discussion about the protection of migratory species and the rights of local hunters.  A clear zoning plan to define management regimes for the different parts of the island would help, but such a plan is not yet fully in place.

Similarly, there are hot debates about fishing, and the role of Maltese fishing boats in commercial fishing in the Mediterranean.  There are two individual Marine Protected Areas on Gozo, and while MEPA is working on a coastal planning strategy, there is no Integrated Coastal Zone Management plan of the island.

All-in-all, Gozo is a case study of ecosystem services and the island provides many examples of nature-based solutions for economic development.

Please let me know if you have ever visited the island and what you think