5th IUCN Asia Regional Conservation Forum: some highlights

18 October 2011 | News story

Together with a delegation drawn from IUCN’s five Vietnamese State and NGO members led by MONRE Vice-Minister Tran Hong Ha, I attended IUCN’s Regional Conservation Forum (RCF) in Incheon, Korea on September 27-29, 2011. This RCF, which was attended by over 600 participants, was the ninth of the 11 regional forums that IUCN will organize in the run up to the World Conservation Congress (WCC) that will take place in Jeju, Korea in September 2012. Here are some of the presentations and interventions that caught my attention.

Korea is positioning itself as a global leader in green growth and low carbon development. President Lee Myung-bak made green growth a priority upon taking office in February 2008. He established a presidential committee in February 2009 and a law was passed on green growth in December 2009. Korea has therefore gone beyond the “happy talk” (which is what you tend to hear in Vietnam) and has put in place the laws and institutions to make green growth a reality. The message from Korea is that it is perfectly possible to maintain a dynamic economy while maintaining a high quality environment.

Progress in reducing Korea’s carbon emissions, however, has depended heavily on the good performance of a few large export-oriented companies such as POSCO, Samsung, and LG. Unsurprisingly, there has been much less progress with small and medium enterprises. Another issue is what constitutes “green growth”. Speakers cited Korea’s $17 billion four rivers restoration project. But some participants said that it was primarily aimed at improved navigation through dredging and channelization.

The ADB representative said as environment minister are increasingly financially literate and finance ministers are increasingly environmentally literate, there is an opportunity to mainstream green accounting. First developed in the 1980s, green accounting factors environmental costs into the financial results of companies and countries. While the methods are well established, barriers remain. A World Bank funded green accounting project in China was stopped at the request of provincial authorities after the results showed that several provinces were actually experiencing negative growth. This shows the need to align the incentives that govern decision making at local levels with national priorities, a far-reaching reform that China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has advocated. Otherwise green accounting will remain an academic exercise.

Although not discussed at RCF, it is worth pointing out that just because you put the right “price” on biodiversity doesn’t mean that you get the outcome you want. In Vietnam, REDD projects that offer financial incentives to conserve forests have run into the problem that the project payments can’t compete with the returns from coffee or cassava. In other words, a more market-based approach to conservation can work against you. Another issue is the fact that while, say, a dam project may have a positive net present value, the gains will typically accrue to a (typically vocal) few and the losses will be borne by the silent majority. In other words, the distribution of gains and losses needs to be taken into account.

There is broad acceptance among IUCN members of the need to engage business. Following the first WCC in Montreal in 1996, IUCN expanded its relationships with the private sector. At the WCC in Bangkok in 2004, members passed several more resolutions providing further guidance for IUCN’s private sector work. At RCF, the CEO session highlighted the leadership role that many companies are playing in reducing carbon emissions and in adhering to social and environmental standards that are far higher than national norms. This is certainly the experience in Vietnam where multinational companies, for example in the tourism or mining sectors, typically demonstrate more stringent social and environmental performance standards than the domestic sector.

There was a special session on communications. After 20 years of public education, there is a high degree of public awareness of the benefits of clean air, clean water, etc. But securing public support for the conservation of ecosystems and species is a harder sell. Indeed, our doom and gloom messages may be turning the public off. IUCN needs to do a better job of highlighting conservation success stories. Examples from RCF include the rapid recovery of India’s mangroves after the 2004 tsunami, a self-financing co-management agreement for Tanguar Haor, a high-elevation wetland and Ramsar site in Bangladesh, and the tripling in the number of marine protected areas in Korea. IUCN also needs to be much more creative in terms of messages, audiences, and allies. Several participants emphasized the need for IUCN to do a better job of engaging students and young professionals.

IUCN President Ashok Khosla observed that global experience shows that a precondition for effective nature conservation is a “vigilant” NGO sector with the capacity (and political space) to cooperate with government and demand a higher quality environment. An example is the work of Aaranyak, an Indian NGO that supports management of Kaziranga National Park, which is home on a mere 43,000 hectares to more rhinos, tigers, and elephants than in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos combined. In Vietnam, MCD has played a similar role in Xuan Thuy National Park. And in Bangladesh, Tanguar Haor has been overseen by national scientific bodies, the Ramsar network, and local NGOs. Governments are sometimes reluctant to cooperate with NGOs, however. As a member from Pakistan said, why should a government fund legal aid groups that will try and hold government to account? But in Ashok’s words: “Governments must nurture this action no matter how inconvenient.”

Several participants argued for a greater IUCN focus on the urban environment. This is important because more than half the global population is now urbanized and cities are where innovations take place.

Finally, judging by the very active question and answer sessions, the participation of senior Korean government officials, and a record number of organizations applying for membership (20 from Korea alone), IUCN’s brand remains a strong one. In Vietnam, we need to add to IUCN’s brand equity by both providing better support to existing members and by bringing in new ones.

Jake Brunner - IUCN Vietnam