Will 30×30 reboot conservation or entrench old problems?

When governments meet next year to finalise a global deal to halt loss of the biodiversity on which human wellbeing depends, “30 by 30” will be one phrase on everybody’s lips. The target – to protect at least 30% of Earth’s land and sea by 2030 – is part of a package being negotiated under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for the next decade and beyond.

Absent a collapse of the talks, it will be the headline outcome of the CBD’s COP15 meeting in Kunming, China, in April–May 2022. And big news it would be. Today, just 17% of land and 8% of the sea are protected. Scientists say 30×30 could go a long way towards averting the biodiversity crisis while also helping to address climate change and the risk of future pandemics.

But 30×30 is controversial because protected areas have a chequered history. While some have saved species from extinction, others – so-called “paper parks” – are ineffectively managed. A disturbing number of protected areas have also harmed local people through forced displacement and human rights abuses inflicted by militarised park guards.

Amid fears that 30×30 could entail more “conservation by coercion”, there are also signs of hope. With adequate support, little-known alternatives to protected areas, known as OECMs and explored below, could address concerns about equity and effectiveness. And there is growing acknowledgement that communities living close to nature are its best stewards, and should be empowered to manage local areas. But there remains a big gap between rhetoric and action. Decisions made in Kunming will determine whether 30×30 repeats or corrects conservation’s past failings.

Mixed feelings

The 30X30 target already has backing from 75 nations in the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, co-chaired by Costa Rica, the United Kingdom and France, and from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The United States, while not a party to the CBD, has its own 30×30 target in President’s Biden’s America the Beautiful plan.

But for the CBD, 30×30 is not a done deal. China has reservations, particularly about applying the target to marine areas. Other highly biodiverse countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa are waiting before committing; agreement on 30×30 at COP15 will depend on progress in other areas, such as how much finance rich countries will provide to fund conservation.

Far from the negotiating tables, there are concerns about what 30×30 could mean for people living in areas rich in biodiversity. Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, calls 30×30 the “biggest land grab in history” and says it threatens to evict 300 million people by turning their ancestral lands into protected areas.

Jonathan Mazower, the organisation’s communications director, told me that the CBD should “drop the 30% target unless and until there are cast-iron safeguards for indigenous peoples and other local communities that will apply to all new and existing protected areas”.

Converging agendas

Other groups working with indigenous peoples, such as Rights and Resources International (RRI) see opportunities as well as risks. RRI points to the body of evidence showing that indigenous and other local communities are far more effective than governments at protecting ecosystems, especially when they have secure rights to those lands. A 2020 study by RRI and the Campaign for Nature showed that recognising tenure rights of communities in areas of high biodiversity would cost less than 1% of what it would cost to resettle those people when creating exclusionary protected areas.

RRI and others – such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment – see 30×30 as an opportunity to shift conservation into a new paradigm, in which rights are the foundation not an afterthought. It is a message that is increasingly being taken up by conservation biologists, who say it would be possible to exceed the 30X30 target by recognising indigenous and community-conserved areas outside of protected areas.

“The single most important thing we can do to conserve life on Earth, and to stabilise the climate, is to support the efforts of indigenous people to have ownership and management of their lands,” says wildlife scientist Eric Dinerstein, director of biodiversity and wildlife solutions at the non-governmental organisation Resolve.

This convergence of conservation and rights agendas was also reflected in the communiqué issued in May 2021 by G7 climate and environment ministers, who committed to “recognising that Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, are full partners in the implementation of this [30×30] target”. In September, nine philanthropic foundations joined the chorus when they announced the biggest ever private funding commitment for conservation – US$5 billion to fund implementation of 30×30.

“I know than many conservation efforts have failed in the past,” said Jeff Bezos, announcing his contribution of US$1 billion. “Top-down programmes failed to include communities. They failed to include Indigenous Peoples that live in the local area. They’ve systematically not worked. We won’t make those same mistakes.”

But while narratives are shifting, few governments are doing enough to recognise governance of biodiversity by indigenous people and local communities. Area-based conservation remains extremely exclusionary. In 2018, only 0.6% of protected areas were managed by indigenous peoples and local communities. Trust and transparency are in short supply, even in the case of governments that claim to be ambitious, says Oscar Soria, campaigns director of Avaaz.

“We are still not seeing concrete actions from member states of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature to set up meaningful spaces for discussion about this issue, let alone spelling out a consistent position that provides all the reassurances, safeguards and guarantees that any area-based conservation measures will be designed and implemented in accordance with UN norms and international law relevant to the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities,” he says. “This is the time for truth. There’s no space for ambiguity anymore.”

Another way

With growing concerns about strict, exclusionary protected areas, attention is turning to little-known alternatives. The Convention on Biological Diversity and its draft 30×30 target call them “other effective area-based conservation measures”, or OECMs. These are areas that conserve biodiversity even if that is not their primary purpose. Examples could include sacred groves, certain kinds of farms, community forests and other economically productive landscapes and seascapes. Crucially, many areas of land and sea that indigenous and local communities manage according to local needs and values, while also conserving nature, could qualify as OECMs.

“If done well, OECM recognition can foster support for these areas, at national and international levels, and help overcome current challenges faced by governing actors including insecure rights, insufficient funding and exclusion from decision-making,” says Georgina Gurney, a senior research fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

Parties to the CBD only agreed on how to define OECMs in 2018, which explains why, so far, less than 1% of land and freshwater areas and 0.1% of marine areas have been registered in this category. But potential OECMs are everywhere. A 2019 study of 740 unprotected “key biodiversity areas” in ten countries found that more than three-quarters of these areas were at least partly covered by one or more potential OECMs.

Gurney points out that a key criterion of OECMs is that, for countries to register them, these areas must be effective at conserving biodiversity. By contrast, protected areas only need a goal of conserving biodiversity, rather than a proven impact.

“OECMs hold considerable promise for advancing equitable and effective conservation,” she says. “But whether they deliver on this promise will depend on how the tool is implemented, including importantly, processes of demonstrating biodiversity conservation effectiveness and ensuring that OECM designation strengthens rather than displaces existing local governance.”

Improving 30×30

With so much depending on governments upholding rights and social safeguards in indigenous and community areas, Jonathan Mazower, of Survival International, is doubtful about OECMs and 30×30 more generally.

“These rights are never properly acknowledged,” he says. “No country in the world properly recognises them. In many countries, such as Brazil, the whole system of indigenous rights built up over recent decades is under concerted attack. To think that governments will suddenly make a 180 degree turn from the status quo and finally recognise these rights is naive to put it mildly. It’s far more likely that the 30×30 narrative will be used to increase protected areas, most of which exclude human activity or presence.”

With the main meeting of COP15 just six months away, civil society groups and others – including 49 philanthropic organisations – are urging CBD officials and negotiators to strengthen the draft text of the 30×30 target and its monitoring framework. They want the text to better recognise indigenous and community-conserved areas, strengthen respect for rights, and ensure that governance is truly equitable.

“We would like to see the concept of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ more often,” says Avaaz’s Oscar Soria, referring to the rights of communities to consent to decisions affecting lands they live in and manage. “We also believe the CBD should make it explicit that any protected areas that are contested as ‘land grabs’ shouldn’t be accounted as such under the Convention.”

“These issues must be understood as central and not just as a nice add-on serving to ease consciences, or as a communication feature,” says Soria. “Indigenous people and local communities are starting to be everywhere in speeches but still almost nowhere on stage. And they are certainly still not treated on an equal footing, neither by central governments, obviously, but nor still by the biggest players in conservation. We can do very much better.”

This article was first published by ChinaDialogue on 7 October 2021, and is reproduced here with permission under a Creative Commons licence. 

Photo credit: Adbar / Wikimedia Commons

Scientists warn of rising denial of extinction and biodiversity loss

Sea turtle drowned in fishing net

[Reposting my story for Mongabay.com]

Biodiversity scientists are being urged to “fight the creeping rise of extinction denial” which has spread from fringe blogs to influential media outlets and even into a US Congressional hearing. The call-to-arms came in a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution last month by Alexander Lees, senior lecturer in conservation biology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and colleagues.

“Many of the same individuals that routinely seek to downplay the impacts of climate change have written articles understating the biodiversity loss crisis,” says Lees. “Denialists have sought to obfuscate the magnitude of both extinctions and loss of bio-abundance.”

The paper describes and debunks three types of extinction denial. The first, ‘literal denial’, argues that extinction is largely a historical problem. Arguments like this, such as contained in this article claiming that “the onset of further wildlife extinctions seems far-fetched”, ignore the conservatism of biologists in declaring extinctions, as well as actual evidence of recent extinctions and of the widespread population declines that suggest many more future losses are on the way, the authors write.

They point out, for example, that denialists have long stated that the Atlantic Forest in Brazil has suffered no extinctions despite having shrunk in area by 90%. Yet two bird species were declared extinct there in 2019, and seven more are down to their last few individuals or have not been seen for a decade or longer.

“The problem is most of the losses are not the big ‘exciting’ species but smaller and less charismatic ones in areas that lost the big exciting things years ago,” says Lees. “We are now reaching critical loss of habitat for many species in the tropics in places like the Philippines and eastern Brazil. It is in these places that the next wave of extinctions is taking place.”

Lees and colleagues also discuss ‘interpretive denial’, which acknowledges the loss of biodiversity but argues that economic growth alone will fix it. One example is a 2019 Washington Examiner article ‘How capitalism will save endangered species.’

The third form of denial is ‘implicatory’, arguing for example that technological fixes and targeted conservation interventions — rather than comprehensive changes to socio-economic systems — will overcome extinction. The authors write that these two forms of denial may use evidence from temperate ecosystems to make inappropriate claims about reduced impacts in the tropics, where habitat loss is accelerating and species are far more sensitive to change.

“The land sparing and abandonment we have seen in the temperate zone has come about because we have outsourced environmental harm elsewhere,” says Lees. “These include countries lauded for their domestic environmental success. For example, Japan is still heavily forested but has plundered rainforests elsewhere for timber. Norway fuels forest loss in Amazonia for soybean to feed fish and cattle. Most people remain ignorant of these global teleconnections and their impacts on biodiversity.”

Atlantic Forest extinctions underway: Left to right — Cherry-throated tanager (critically-endangered; no more than five seen in recent years); Kinglet caplytpura (critically-endangered; last seen in 1996) and Alagoas curassow (extinct in the wild).

Dawn of denial

Extinction denial came to the fore in May last year, when the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its Global Assessment. The report said a million species were at risk of extinction, and it outlined steps for ‘transformative change’ to secure nature’s contributions to human wellbeing.

Commentators such as Toby Young in The Spectator disputed the findings or attacked the reputations and methods of the report’s authors, leading one of them, Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London, to write a lengthy rebuttal.

More attacks came at the U.S. Congress in a hearing called by the House Natural Resources Committee to discuss the IPBES findings. Republican representatives and their invited witnesses — both climate change skeptics — were vitriolic in their scorn for the report and its authors.

Anne Larigauderie, executive secretary of IPBES, says the attacks did not come as a surprise, adding that the Global Assessment had itself stated that ‘transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo.’

In an email interview, she told me, “Anyone who has followed the history of major science-policy issues, such as the smoking/tobacco/public health debates, and the more recent issues around human-induced climate change, is critically aware of the often well-funded and coordinated opposition to expert evidence that arises, especially from those who perceive that they stand to lose the most should policy be changed on the basis of such evidence.”

More denial likely

“Any attempts to take the global economy in a more sustainable direction will be undermined by some stakeholders seeking to maintain the status quo,” says Lees. “So, I would be surprised if we do not see attempts to undermine the work of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).”

On 15 September, the CBD will launch its Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5). The report is set to feed into intergovernmental negotiations towards a global biodiversity framework, to be agreed next year in China, reinforcing calls for transformative change.

Larigauderie says denialism in relation to the GBO-5 “seems likely”, as the report draws heavily on the IPBES findings. But she doubts denialists will derail ambition in the CBD negotiations towards a new global agreement.

“The actual traction of such denialism remains limited,” she says. “A much greater threat to ambition for the post-2020 biodiversity framework would be a failure to connect the loss of biodiversity to the other major global development challenges such as food security, human health, production and consumption patterns.”

Dealing with denial

Lees and his colleagues Simon Attwood, Jos Barlow and Ben Phalan say biodiversity scientists should be ready to rebut high-profile denialists. “Many scientists already respond to science denial when it appears in print or on social media from prominent individuals, and this should be encouraged,” says Lees. “We provide a roadmap in the paper that is underpinned by courteous engagement, the deconstruction of specious arguments and pseudoscience, and the presentation of cold hard scientific facts.”

“We thought the paper was an important contribution, and we agree with the concern regarding denialism,” says Thomas Brooks, chief scientist at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Responding to denialism — for any applied science — requires skills not just in the science, but also in science communication, stakeholder engagement, etc., which are perhaps less widely-taught through university courses. The paper’s recommendations on countering denialism will be particularly useful in this light.”

Sir Robert Watson, former chair of IPBES, is confident that the biodiversity community is up to the task. “While not all climate or biodiversity experts are politically savvy or able to deal with the skeptics, politicians or the media, there are more than enough who understand the science-policy interface and can counter unfounded accusations and the misuse of evidence,” he says.

“Overall, I am not worried by the deniers,” he says. “But I am worried that governments may not be able to deliver the actions that are required to conserve and restore biodiversity in a timely manner, in order for biodiversity to play its role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Unless climate change, land degradation and biodiversity are addressed together, we will fail.”

[First published by Mongabay.com on 14 September 2020]

Reference: Lees, A.C., Attwood, S., Barlow, J. & Phalan, B. 2020. Biodiversity scientists must fght the creeping rise of extinction denial. Nature Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01285-z [PDF]

Related posts:

Human wellbeing threatened by ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss

Explainer: COP15, the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade

If we keep on biting the hand that feeds us, it will slap us in the face

Picture credits:

Turtle in net (Salvatore Barbera – Flickr/Creative Commons); Cherry-throated tanager (Unknown/Wikimedia Commons); Kinglet caplytpura (William Swainson/Wikimedia Commons); Alagoas curassow (Nicolas Huet/Wikimedia Commons)

The coronavirus backlash against bats is a bad idea

Fruit bat in flight

In March 2020, hundreds of bats hung crowded in cages in a market in the Indonesian city of Surakata. They waited wide-eyed to be killed and sold as meat. But Covid-19 was spreading, and people in Indonesia and elsewhere were soon blaming bats. The city authorities decided the bats could not be sold and, rather than release them into the wild, they gassed them and threw them into a fire pit, cages and all. Continue reading

How poop could counter calls to resume commercial whaling

This post was first published by Scientific American in August. As such, it refers in the future tense to a meeting that took place back in September. You will find an update — and some good news — at the end of the story.

Before whales dive into the darkness of the deep ocean they often come to the surface and release a huge plume of faecal matter—which can be the colour of over-steeped green tea or a bright orange sunset. When Joe Roman, a conservation biologist at the University of Vermont, saw one of these spectacular dumps in the mid-1990s, he got to wondering: “Is it ecologically important? Or is it a fart in a hurricane?” Continue reading

Cocaine of the sea, ‘epic failure’ and how following the money can limit illegal wildlife trade

Vaquita6_Olson_NOAA

Two vaquitas. Only ten more remain.

It has been called the ‘cocaine of the sea’ — the dried swim bladder of the totoaba fish, when smuggled from Mexico to China, sells for US$40-60,000 per kilo thanks to its supposed medicinal qualities. While the fish is critically endangered as a result, the situation of another animal that gets caught in totoaba nets is even more dire. The illicit trade has driven the world’s smallest marine mammal — a kind of porpoise called a vaquita — to almost certain extinction. At the last count, only 12 remained alive. Continue reading