Views from ELC’s First International Marine Protected Area Conference

The view from the venue for IMPAC4 in La Serena- Coquimbo Chile

The view from the venue for IMPAC4 in La Serena- Coquimbo Chile

By Michelle Bender

Moves to support the oceans in 2017

What a tremendous year for international efforts to conserve the ocean! In June, the United Nations held the first Oceans Conference, drawing 6,000 government officials, stakeholders, businesses, and civil society representatives worldwide. The Conference resulted in a Call for Action committing parties to:

“halting and reversing the decline in the health and productivity of our ocean and its ecosystems and to protecting and restoring its resilience and ecological integrity.”

Also this year, the United Nations set up PrepCom meetings to negotiate moving forward with an international high seas treaty.[i] The General Assembly is now deciding on the start date for workshops to develop and negotiate the treaty. This treaty will focus on preserving biodiversity in the high seas through deployment of marine protected areas.[ii]

Further positive news is expected when international leaders meet in Malta for the“Our Ocean Conference”[iii] in early October. Then later in the month, Manila hosts the Convention on Migratory Species (October 23-28).

The Fourth International Marine Protected Area Conference (IMPAC4)

IMPAC4 met in La Serena-Coquimbo in Chile from September 4 to 8. Held every four years since 2005, IMPAC creates a knowledge-sharing space for practitioners and managers working to strengthen the use and management of marine protected areas to achieve conservation and sustainability objectives.

This year over 1000 participants from 80 countries attended, including the Prince of Monaco, President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet and renowned oceanographer, Dr. Sylvia Earle.

This year’s conference focused “on the need to highlight the intricate nature of ocean-human relationship.” Earth Law Center (ELC) attended IMPAC4 to promote an approach to governance that does just that.

The IMPAC4 conference experience

The days began at 8:30am with an opening plenary session, and continued until roughly 6:00pm, with a one-hour lunch break. At any given time, participants could choose from at least 10 workshops, seminars or presentations, making it hard to choose which one to attend. Sometimes, people opted to start at one only to end at another.

On top of the scheduled events, a pavilion of stands gave organizations from across the world an opportunity to showcase their work and start new conversations.

 And of course, let’s not forget side events, beginning at 6:30pm and 7:30pm, to learn more about the great work of organizations while networking over wine, bread and cheese.

I was lucky if I had a 10-minute breather between running to impromptu meetings and to a workshop to meet potential partners. Networking is the name of the game at conferences like IMPAC, which meant my day started at 8am and often ended well past 10pm. More than once, I received a “can you meet now” email and rushed to meet new colleagues.

The Greenlist at IMPAC4

On the first day of the conference I stopped by the stands to learn more about the work of other organizations. One such stand was the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Greenlist, which has produced a sustainability standard to help improve the performance of protected areas by ensuring marine protected areas are effectively managed.

Being ‘Greenlisted’ means that the area is recognized for effective management and meeting conservation objectives. This method of maintaining good governance standards with a rights and sites-based approach aligns well with the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas, which promotes a holistic and rights-based approach to governance in order to ensure marine protected areas are effective. ELC met with members of the IUCN Greenlist to share the commonalities of our frameworks.

It was uplifting to see established organizations such as the IUCN truly interested in Rights of Nature and wanting to follow up after the conference to discuss possible collaboration. Such collaboration is incredibly timely as IUCN members have committed to “advance rights regimes related to the rights of nature” through their 2017-2020 Action Programme, to promote “protected area governance systems that achieve the effective and equitable governance of natural resources are recognized (as best practices/ pilot testing), supported and promoted, while respecting the rights of nature.”[iv]

Meetings with remarkable ocean champions

As a result of meeting with the IUCN Greenlist, I met Sandra Valenzuela of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Colombia, who helped establish the first marine protected area in Latin America, Gorgona National Park. This is where my extroversion helped a lot. I took it upon myself to introduce myself after her presentation with the IUCN Greenlist, hoping that she may have been involved in the recent decision in Colombia which granted the Atrato River legal rights. As fate would have it, Sandra has been involved in implementing the Atrato River decision, so look for news on this front with ELC involvement soon.

Susana Claro, Fundacion Los Choros; Sylvia A. Earle, Mission Blue founder; Jennifer Sletten, Protected Seas; and Michelle Bender, ELC.

Susana Claro, Fundacion Los Choros; Sylvia A. Earle, Mission Blue founder; Jennifer Sletten, Protected Seas; and Michelle Bender, ELC.

While making new friends at the stands, I ran into Mission Blue partners, Charlotte Vick and Dr. Sylvia Earle. As a long-time fan of Dr. Earle’s work, meeting her in person was a momentous occasion for me. Her well known quotes came immediately to mind; “No Blue, No Green” and “We must protect the ocean as if our lives depend on it, because they do.”

I had created objectives for my attendance at the Conference, first and foremost which was to gain the endorsement of Mission Blue and Sylvia for the Framework I had worked tirelessly on for the past three months. Indeed, the framework received the enthusiastic support of Mission Blue, and a copy of ELC’s vision will be sent to every NGO working on ocean conservation.

The Mission Blue Alliance includes nearly 200 respected ocean conservation groups, large multinational companies, individual scientific teams and NGOs around the world who share the mission of building public support for ocean protection. ELC also connected with other Mission Blue alliance members at the conference, including Protected Seas and Fundacion Los Choros, both of which represent opportunities for collaboration and support in our like-minded visions.

Tuesday night I attended the Ocean Witness Side Event, a new collaboration between WWF, Conservation International (CI) and Rare. Yolanda Kakabadse, president of WWF, spoke about why Ocean Witnesses are so important to conserving the ocean. I was looking down, taking notes when I heard “An Ocean Witness is someone who speaks up for the rights of nature – for the Ocean.” You can imagine my delight and excitement; this is exactly why I came to this conference - to promote the Rights of the Ocean!

Yolanda then continued to elaborate on the Rights of Nature in Ecuador with two successful court cases, one won on behalf of sharks within the Galapagos Marine Reserve. I knew I had to introduce myself, and thank Yolanda for what she said. So yes, I squeezed myself to the front (which was not hard, I am tiny) and introduced myself and the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas. To my knowledge, this is the first time rights of nature has been presented at an event of this magnitude, by one of the world’s largest environmental organizations.

Earth Law Center continues to network with new partners

The next three days of the conference were jam-packed with meetings and introductions. I met with various members of global organizations including IUCN, WWF, Conservation International, the Conservation Land Trust, Greenpeace, and local groups including Fundacion Meri, Costa Humboldt, Fiscalia Del Medio Ambiente (FIMA), Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA) and the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence. All of whom were genuinely interested in the Rights-based approach to ocean governance.

Lawyers, politicians, scientists, researchers and civil society groups led events and shared their knowledge, insights and expertise on how to expand the adoption and effectiveness of marine protected areas.

Topics of discussion ranged from the Global Ocean Biodiversity Initiative to creating MPAs in Antarctica, from marine biodiversity impacts in Chilean Patagonia to impacts on the Great Barrier Reef, from understanding the effects of ocean noise on ocean ecosystems to solutions for MPA financing, and from a framework for large-scale MPAs to the use of important marine mammal areas as potential areas for conservation.

However, there was a key discussion point largely left out: what can we do better?

An IMPAC4 attendee asks “what can we do better?”

While inspired to learn of the hard work individuals and groups have put into creating marine protected areas, I wondered why we didn’t talk about: what more can we do? Don’t we need to look for gaps in the current system or discuss how to further evolve it since ocean health is by no means on the rise? The business-as-usual model took a front-row seat at the IMPAC.

In the final workshop on the last day of the conference “Antarctic Marine Protected Areas”  (MPAs) there was time for one question. Carl Gustaf Lundin, asked out loud what no one else had: “Not to trump the work of others, but shouldn’t we be doing more? Shouldn’t conservation be the number one objective rather than allowing other interests to sway management decisions?” I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Lundin, and this is exactly what I have included in Earth Law Center’s Framework for Marine Protected Areas.

The Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas

Prior to IMPAC4, Earth Law Center conducted months of research and analysis to create the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas, a ‘how-to guide’ to evolve the current framework to include the rights of the ocean.

Our Earth Law framework goes beyond the traditional methods of “resource” management to provide a clear legal mandate for managing protected areas as part of a system, and as part of the whole that also includes humans. This framework is a first draft and includes a call for inputs to gain global consensus on effective policy measures and support for an ocean-centered approach to ocean protection.

I was pleased to have Earth Law Center’s Framework met with such interest and enthusiasm at the conference. This framework intends to evolve and build upon what has already been done, to accomplish our shared objective of making marine protected areas ecosystems conserved in perpetuity.

Global awareness is building that the ocean is not a limitless resource and how much the health of humans and all other living species depends on ocean health. Addressing the root cause by transforming our relationship with the ocean and the legal system we function within holds the key to restoring ocean health.

The framework presented is intended to serve as a guideline for implementing an approach to marine protected area governance that allows humans to live within the ocean’s ecological limits. The ocean cannot take a human-centered approach any longer. The ocean needs us to transform our governance systems, to recognize that the ocean has inherent rights to live, thrive and evolve, and to acknowledge that humans have a responsibility to respect and protect those rights.

Join the movement to recognize and protect the ocean’s rights.





[iv] See In 2012, IUCN members recognized the necessity of nature’s rights by passing Resolution 100, “Incorporation of the Rights of Nature as the organizational focal point in IUCN’s decision making” which called for nature’s rights to be a “fundamental and absolute key element in all IUCN decisions.”