Protected Is Not Conserved: The Implementation Gap in International Conservation Policy

Intercontinental Cry
July 25th, 2016
By: Elizabeth Walsh

On the northwest Iberian peninsula, in Galicia, local communities manage more than 2,800 mountains. The Spanish coastline includes 230 cofradías: ancient, locally run governance systems that provide 83 percent of the country’s fishing employment and 95 percent of all Spanish ships. Iniciativa Communales estimates that roughly 60 percent of Spain falls under what international organizations call ICCAs: Indigenous Peoples and Community Conserved Territories and Areas. In Spain, these community-managed sites include forests, pastoral lands, Sociedades de Caza (hunting associations) and marine and coastal areas.

ICCAs are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an international organization composed of civil society groups and governments with observer and consultative status at the United Nations. Founded in 1948, it is the world’s largest and most diverse environmental network and receives counsel from about 16,000 experts. In 1961, it set up the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

ICCAs must meet three criteria: Indigenous Peoples or a community share a “close and profound” relationship with the area, territory or habitat; the people or community participate meaningfully in the decisions related to the site and have de facto or de jure authority to initiate and implement such decisions; and those decisions and efforts result in “conservation of biodiversity, ecological functions and associated cultural values regardless of original or primary motives.”

Although “indigenous” may be a confusing term in the European context, community managed land areas have a rich history in Europe, despite the lack of recognition by national governments or the European Union. This lack of recognition is worldwide, regardless of the type of ICCA, and means that Indigenous and community managed areas of land or water are not fully included in national and international conversations about conservation. As a result, conservation efforts are falling far short of what they could  achieve. Many areas of the world are insufficiently protected, community and Indigenous rights and livelihoods are at risk and opportunities to combat climate change may be lost.

The reason for this gap is that there is a difference between a protected area and a conserved area. Therefore, IUCN distinguishes between ICCAs, protected areas and conserved areas. Conserved areas are sites that achieve conservation de facto, regardless of recognition and dedication, and even at times without regard to intentional management. Conserved areas are also considered likely to maintain such conservation over the long term. Conserved areas always include ICCAs but not always protected areas.

In other words: just because a site is designated as a protected area does not mean it is conserved. Yet, nationally designated protected areas are the sites that are most frequently documented and make their way into national and international policy decision-making.

In Canada, the Tla-o-qui-aht have established tribal parks throughout the country. These parks are another example of ICCAs that, although legitimately conserved areas, are not recognized by the Canadian provincial or federal governments. In these parks, the First Nation people’s interaction with the environment is based on the laws of nature and with the goal of ensuring sustainability for future generations. Their tribal parks are better known in Canada as Teechmis Okin. When viewed in the global context of other areas managed by Indigenous Peoples and communities, these parks can help to provide a better picture of what ICCAs can achieve around the world.

According to IUCN, three to four hundred million hectares around the world are under community management, the majority of which achieve some degree of conservation. However, as in Spain, many ICCAs are not nationally or internationally recognized either because Indigenous Peoples or communities do not want this recognition (to avoid an influx of tourists, for example), or because national governments choose not to recognize them. Rather,  “protected areas” receive international recognition and documentation, in many instances because international organizations defer to those areas that national governments have chosen to recognize.

Such is the case with Protected Planet, which shares data from the World Database on Protected Areas, a project managed by UN Environment Programme and IUCN. IUCN defines a protected area as a “clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” In practice, this recognition requirement almost always means an area that has been recognized by a national government.

This leaves many conserved areas, particularly ICCAs, vulnerable. As Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend of the ICCA Consortium explains, “Being an internationally recognized ICCA can provide more security. It provides an extra layer of protection against exploitation against national governments.” The ICCA Consortium is an international organization that supports and promotes recognition of ICCAs. They also help manage the ICCA Registry, an online database that tracks ICCAs around the world. Ms. Borrini-Feyerabend was the one to propose the simplified term “conserved areas” instead of OECM (other effective area-based conservation measures), a term that came out of the Convention on Biological Diversity to identify conservation targets for the current decade. She is leading an effort among conservationists and environmentalists to move away from the preoccupation with protected areas and focus instead on conserved areas. This shift would not only give ICCAs a much stronger political standing, but would also place the emphasis on the effectiveness of conservation. Currently, conservation debates center on those areas that have been dedicated to conservation regardless of whether or not conservation is successful on the ground.

According to Ms. Borrini-Feyerabend, the effort to convince international stakeholders to favor the term “conserved areas” in lieu of protected areas has been a struggle. Canada in particular has been staunchly opposed to the idea, insisting on “science-based definitions” and citing a concern that the new phrasing would create a loophole for private Canadian companies to temporarily claim that an area is conserved only to later exploit the area. But as she says, “we cannot transport a Canadian definition to Cambodia.” Conservationists must find a definition that can meet global contexts, and in recent months, some Canadian representatives are starting to see that the “protected areas” terminology is hampering conservation efforts around the world.

Recently, countries and organizations have been warming up to the shift to conserved areas. The UNFCCC is paying more attention to conserved areas, and there is a chance that a draft of the revised 2014 list of protected areas by the UN may include some reference to conserved areas. The current list, which is the basis for Protected Planet’s data, states: “Protected areas catalogued in the lists that are part of this report are protected areas officially designated by countries. The potential exclusion of conservation areas not yet recognised by national governments is in no way a judgment on the efficacy of these areas for conservation.” Thus, the current database does not necessarily include ICCAs or other conserved areas that are not yet recognized by national governments. A quick comparison of Protected Planet and the ICCA Registry reveals this gap through a lack of shared data.

Read more at the Intercontinental Cry.