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Global agreement on ‘conserved areas’ marks new era of conservation (commentary)

  • Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity have adopted the definition of a new conservation designation: ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’ (known informally as ‘conserved areas’).
  • It represents a transformative moment in international biodiversity law and enables a greater diversity of actors — including government agencies, private entities, indigenous peoples, and local communities – to be recognized for their contributions to biodiversity outside protected areas.
  • The ‘protected and conserved areas’ paradigm offers the global community an important means through which to respect human rights and appropriately recognize and support millions of square kilometers of lands and waters that are important for biodiversity, ecosystem processes, and connectivity — including in the Global Deal for Nature (2021-2030).
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

On November 29, 2018, the 196 Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted a decision that represents a high-water mark for the governance of protected areas and marks a new era of “protected and conserved areas.”

The decision, made during the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP 14) to the CBD, builds upon more than 15 years of international-level progress on the governance aspects of protected areas and provides the CBD’s clearest elaboration of the principle of equity as it relates to conservation initiatives. The decision also defines and provides technical advice on “other effective area-based conservation measures” (referenced in Target 11 of the CBD’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 and increasingly referred to as “conserved areas”), which will have far-reaching implications for the ways in which conservation is understood and undertaken.

Tangible progress towards more effective and just forms of conservation is contingent on new relationships being forged at all levels. Unprecedented honesty, open-mindedness, and readiness to innovate on existing approaches are now required to maximize the multi-faceted potential of this new designation.

The Dusun village of Buayan and the Crocker Range Park in the background (Sabah, Malaysia). Photo: © Harry Jonas.

Conservation past

Fifteen years ago, at the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress (Durban, South Africa), delegates took a major step forward in international policy on protected areas. For too long, protected area planners and managers had either ignored indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ contributions to biodiversity or actively undermined their relationships with territories, lands, and waters. Historical and ongoing injustices suffered by indigenous peoples and local communities in the name of conservation include the high incidence of their territories being overlapped by state-sanctioned protected areas.

The World Parks Congress’s outcome documents, the Durban Accord and Action Plan (2003), heralded a “new paradigm for protected areas.” Together they helped transform global understanding of protected areas as being predominantly governed by state agencies to spaces that could be governed by other actors, including private entities, indigenous peoples, and local communities, or by shared arrangements. The Congress positively influenced the adoption of the CBD’s Programme of Work on Protected Areas (COP Decision VII/28, 2004), which enshrined the new protected areas paradigm in international law, particularly through Programme Element 2 on ‘Governance, Participation, Equity and Benefit Sharing’.

A Raika herder with his camels in Rajasthan, India, where areas of high biodiversity, such as the areas now contained in the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, have evolved through customary sustainable use of nature. Photo: © Harry Jonas.

Conservation present

The recent COP 14 Decision on “Spatial Planning, Protected Areas and Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures” contains detailed guidance on governance diversity, equity, and protected areas and represents a high-water mark in the evolution of international law on these issues. Yet, while a number of countries have developed more progressive approaches to protected areas — such as the Indigenous Protected Areas Programme in Australia and the community conservancy models in Namibia and Kenya, among others — the new paradigm for protected areas generated only a limited increase in consideration of governance and equity aspects of protected areas and in the number of protected areas reported as governed by indigenous peoples and local communities.

The 2018 Protected Planet Report states that 14.9 percent of land and 7.3 percent of the ocean are currently under protected areas. However, indigenous peoples and local communities govern only 1,377 (less than 0.6 percent) of all reported protected areas in the World Database on Protected Areas. In contrast, governments govern 194,836 (nearly 82 percent) of all reported protected areas. This gap becomes even more striking when considering that indigenous peoples’ territories are estimated to coincide with 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity and that indigenous peoples are (conservatively) estimated to manage or have tenure rights over at least 38 million square kilometers (nearly 9.4 billion acres), or more than a quarter of the world’s land surface.

A proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) in community lands within the Lower-Kinabatangan Segama Wetlands Ramsar Site (Sabah, Malaysia). Photo: © Harry Jonas.

Why is there such a stark contrast between the large extent of biodiversity under the collective control and stewardship of indigenous peoples and communities and the relatively low number of community-governed protected areas reported to the World Database on Protected Areas? At least three big-picture factors contribute to this situation.

First, over the twentieth century, many biodiverse areas within territories of indigenous peoples and local communities were unilaterally declared as state-governed protected areas.

Second, there is a time-lag between advancements in international law and policy and their adoption at (sub-)national levels. In many countries, the laws, institutions, and conservation practices have not progressed at the same speed as at the international level, and often continue to deny indigenous peoples and local communities the enabling conditions, guarantees, and safeguards that might otherwise encourage them to consider designating their territories, lands, and waters as protected areas. International law means little if it is not integrated into (sub-)national frameworks and implemented on the ground.

Third, the conceptual basis of many protected areas frameworks — especially the definitional requirement that they are specifically dedicated to conservation — in many instances does not align with indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ worldviews and governance and knowledge systems, which are often based more on sustainable use than strict protection.

The newly agreed definition and criteria of a conserved area (“other effective area-based conservation measure” in CBD terminology) is intended to enable greater recognition and support for the conservation of biodiversity by a diverse set of actors — including indigenous peoples and local communities — occurring outside protected areas. The key difference between a protected and a conserved area is that while a protected area should be dedicated for conservation, a conserved area can have a wide range of management objectives so long as the area delivers the effective in situ conservation of biodiversity (as defined by the CBD).

CBD definition of a ‘protected area’:

A geographically defined area which is designated or regulated and managed to achieve specific conservation objectives.

CBD definition of an ‘other effective area-based conservation measure’ (conserved area):

A geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio–economic, and other locally relevant values.

This innovation offers an opportunity for indigenous peoples and local communities, among others, who govern and manage biodiversity-rich areas for a range of cultural, spiritual, ecosystem, and/or other related values, to designate and report them as conserved areas and to secure state backing to protect them against threats. It also promotes synergies between human rights, diverse governance systems, and the effective conservation of biodiversity.

Tense moments as a Friends of the Chair group discusses a last-minute addition to the text of the CBD decision made by the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity. Photo: © Harry Jonas.

Conservation Futures: 2018-2020

Just as 2003 is known for ushering in the new paradigm for protected areas, 2018 marks the formal international adoption of an even more inclusive approach to conservation, with protected areas and conserved areas representing distinct yet complementary conservation designations. In the same way that it is taking time for the Vth World Parks Congress’s outcomes to be adopted and acted upon at (sub-)national levels, there is a danger that the opportunities offered by this new designation will be squandered.

This could happen in at least two ways: First, states may simply not act upon the COP14 decision and instead continue on a “conservation as usual” trajectory, which the 2018 Protected Planet Report concludes is failing biodiversity and ecosystems. Conversely, in a rush to achieve Aichi Target 11 by 2020, particularly the quantitative targets of spatial coverage of terrestrial and marine areas, government agencies may act in ways that run counter to the spirit and content of the COP14 decision, including by recognizing and reporting conserved areas without due process and the free, prior, and informed consent of custodian indigenous peoples and local communities.

However, there is a third way. Meaningful progress requires inclusive processes to identify, recognize, and secure both protected and conserved areas under the full spectrum of governance types, with the full and effective participation of all relevant governance authorities. Mindsets, laws, institutions, and approaches will need to be reconfigured, fundamentally in some cases, despite the challenges in doing so.

Where this has started to happen, such as through a process led by the Indigenous Circle of Experts in Canada, the conceptual and ethical space and ensuing dialogues are providing a potentially transformational foundation for “co-creation, collaboration and reconciliation” in the context of conservation and the appropriate recognition of and support for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. One such example is the recently declared 14,218-square-kilometer Edéhzhíe Indigenous Protected Area designated by the Dehcho First Nations Assembly and the accompanying expansion of the Dehcho K’éhodi Stewardship Program, both with the support of the federal government.

“We are failing to arrest biodiversity loss. We urgently need to address this silent catastrophe through nothing less than a shift in societal narratives.” – Cristiana Paşca Palmer (right), CBD Executive Secretary, speaking at the opening of CBD COP 14. Photo: © IISD/ENB | ENB.

Conservation Futures: 2021-2030

Looking ahead, we need to ask ourselves what the inclusion of conserved areas in international biodiversity law means for the next decade of biodiversity goals and targets from 2021-2030 — referred to by some as the Global Deal for Nature. New area-based targets are already being proposed and hotly debated, such as protecting 30 percent of the planet by 2030 or “Half Earth” by 2050. Many of these initiatives rightfully acknowledge the central importance of recognizing and supporting indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights and conservation efforts in achieving their targets. Yet the exact substance and ambition of new spatial targets will require reconsideration in light of the new designation as well as the extent of the areas that might already constitute “conserved areas” (once assessed on a case-by-case basis).

Area-based targets in the post-2020 framework should explicitly include both protected areas and conserved areas. They should include ambitious spatial coverage elements and tangible qualitative elements on governance, participation, equity, and rights and responsibilities. Perhaps they should also dis-aggregate between protected and conserved areas and/or between different governance types to better recognize the direct contributions of non-state actors. Towards that end, a wide range of actors must fully engage with the implications of the CBD decision on protected and conserved areas adopted at COP 14. Only then can we collectively take new steps of change toward living in harmony with nature.

Harry D. Jonas, LLM, is an international lawyer at Future Law, co-chair of the IUCN WCPA Task Force on Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures and an Ashoka Fellow.

Holly C. Jonas, LLM, is a founder and director of Future Law and the International Policy Coordinator of the ICCA Consortium, a global member-based association dedicated to self-strengthening and securing collective territories and areas governed, managed, and conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities.

Both authors are writing in their personal capacities and their views do not necessarily represent the views of the organizations with which they affiliated.

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