Planet at the Crossroads: Insights From IUCN’s World Conservation Congress

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At this year’s International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, more than 10,000 scientists, activists, and leaders from around the world committed to finding “nature-based solutions” to reversing environmental declines and securing a healthy, livable planet.

The Congress, which convened in Honolulu, Hawai’i, in September, was the largest ever, and the first held in the United States. The Obama administration was eager to “showcase and highlight…some of the real achievements that our administration has been able to make,” such as the creation of the world’s largest marine reserve, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, said Judith Garber, acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, at the Wilson Center on November 9.

Frank Hawkins, director of IUCN’s DC office, noted that attendees embraced the idea of extending IUCN’s outreach to new communities like the private sector, peacebuilders, youth, and indigenous peoples. IUCN created a platform dedicated to engaging and empowering the world’s youngest generations, and the Nature Conservancy and Credit Suisse launched a coalition for increasing private investment in conservation.

Impressive strides were also taken to combat wildlife trafficking, which Hawkins identified as “one of the most pressing political and connected issues of our time.” Garber noted the U.S. government “took the lead” in advocating for domestic ivory bans around the world and was pleased to see the motion pass at the Congress. But wildlife trafficking is a “global crisis” that affects governance, security, livelihoods, development, and poverty, she said, “and we have an awful lot more work to do.”

How It Works

Held once every four years, the Congress provides a space for people from all walks of life to “set aside their differences, sit together, and have discussions about the issues that are important to the world,” said Hawkins.

The Congress begins with a forum, “a hub of public debate.” This year’s forum featured high-level dialogues on six critical issues for conservation: climate change, private-sector finance, wildlife trafficking, a sustainable ocean, empowering youth and future conservation leaders, and the connections between spirituality and conservation.

During the second half of the Congress, IUCN’s 1,300 members – which include many governments, individual agencies, international and national nonprofits, and civil society organizations – identified motions and priorities collectively and voted on a four-year program that sets priorities for the global conservation community.

This year, the members focused on aligning their program with the United Nations’ newly crafted Sustainable Development Goals, which include a stronger emphasis on environmental targets than their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals. The 121 resolutions, recommendations, and decisions that were approved at the Congress cover everything from community-based natural resource management to taking greater account of the ocean in the global climate regime.

Making the Investment Case

Although setting targets is a start, how to pay for “all the good things we want to do” is a major challenge, said Andrew Deutz, director of international government relations at the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit based in Washington, DC.

“There are a number of estimates out there right now that show that when you add up all of the good work that governments and philanthropies and the private sector and individual citizens do to support conservation activities every year, we still wind up $200 to $300 billion per year short of what we need to meet the world’s annual conservation needs,” Deutz said. If that continues to be the case, it will be very difficult to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals or any of the conservation targets set by IUCN, he said. 

“A lot of that money wants to be invested in conservation”

One solution is to find creative ways to bring in more private sector support, said Deutz. Institutional investors – banks, pension funds, insurance companies – have more than $75 trillion under management, and “a lot of that money wants to be invested in conservation, either because they think conservation can generate a return or because they have constituencies that are driving that,” he said.

But environmentalists are not making it easy. The dialogue on conservation finance at the Congress “didn’t do a great job on explaining how we can use nature as a driver of global prosperity,” Deutz said. “We need to do a better job of mainstreaming the role of nature as a solution provider for economic growth, infrastructure development, and prosperity.”

He pointed to coastal mangroves as an example of how conserving natural resources can improve the quality of people’s lives at a lower cost than artificial, man-made solutions. Mangrove forests serve as a buffer against natural disasters, reducing storm surge and erosion, so investing in their conservation is a relatively inexpensive way for communities to build lasting climate resilience compared to large infrastructure projects.

Deutz expressed hope that the next Congress will see IUCN members “creating a greater information base and a greater awareness of the types of opportunities that are out there” for green investments.

Increasing Inclusivity: Gender and Conservation

A.Tianna Scozzaro, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program, identified another missed opportunity at the Congress. “Out of all the motions that were put forward, there was no single mention of gender,” she said.

While the link between gender and conservation may not be obvious to some, there is a “compounding set of factors” that make it an important issue for IUCN members to address, said Scozzaro. Factors such as weaker land rights and poor access to healthservices and education mean that women tend to suffer disproportionately from environmental problems.

“Having women at the table can only make those solutions stronger”

Even though the IUCN Gender Office and the Gender Caucus were very active, most of the formal sessions paid little or only token attention to gender issues. Some women at the Congress, particularly indigenous women, held their presentations off-site due to lack of funding. This limited their audience to those who sought them out and created an “echo chamber” of those already interested in gender issues rather than attracting a broader audience, Scozzaro said. One of the notable exceptions was “HERstory: Telling Stories About Women and Conservation, in 15 Seconds or Less,” a workshop organized by the Wilson Center, Sierra Club, Conservation International, and IUCN, which provided training on digital storytelling and contributed clips on gender to the Congress social media stream.

“It was clear at the IUCN conference that implementation of gender policies is lacking,” the Wilson Center’s Meaghan Parker told Earth Island Journal during the conference. “Without empowering women by ensuring their reproductive health and rights, conservation gains will not be truly sustainable.”

“We need to continue to build inclusive solutions, and having women at the table can only make those solutions stronger,” Scozzaro said. The Congress is “an important opportunity to bring allies into your work,” and encourages focus on particular communities and topics. Setting aside gender issues sends the message that they are not important.

Scozzaro urged the conservation community to make the Congress more accessible for not just women, but young people and indigenous communities as well. In the end, “what’s really going to be a significant marker of success next time around is if are the people who are bringing issues to us,” said Hawkins. “They will be pushing IUCN to build the kind of relationships and networks that will enable…what I hope will be, by then, a proper way of recognizing the importance of nature in the future of humanity.”

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Written by Anam Ahmed, edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker.

Cover Photo Credit: Na Pali Coast, Hawaii, January 2016, courtesy of flickr user Dhilung Kirat.

Speakers

  • Andrew Deutz

    Director, International Government Relations, The Nature Conservancy
  • Judith Garber

    Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Oceans, Environment and Science, U.S. Department of State
  • Frank Hawkins

    Director, International Union for Conservation of Nature
  • Meaghan Parker

    Senior Writer/Editor, Environmental Change and Security Program
  • A. Tianna Scozzaro

    Population and Climate Associate, Population Action International