INTERVIEW: IUCN’s efforts to protect Europe overseas

10 December 2012 | Article

Carole Martinez joined IUCN Europe in October 2012 after working previously on protected areas and ecosystem management issues with IUCN's National Committee in France and on regional cooperation challenges at the French Marine Protected Areas Agency. Carole is Coordinator of the IUCN EU Outermost Regions (ORs) and Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) Programme.

Q: Carole, Europe overseas are too often forgotten when we talk about European biodiversity. Yet, 70% of biodiversity in the European Union is actually hosted by the overseas entities. Why is it so important to conserve biodiversity in Europe overseas?

Protecting Europe’s overseas means protecting an important part of the world’s biodiversity. In the Pacific, the Caribbean region, the Indian Ocean, Europe overseas are part of the internationally recognized “biodiversity hotspots”. Their richness is extraordinary: for instance, New Caledonia hosts as many species as the entire Europe and French Guyana belongs to a major area of wilderness in the Guyana Shield. Also, the marine heritage is immense: including overseas Exclusive Economic Zones, the EU has the first marine domain of the world, nested in all world oceans; the Exclusive Economic Zone of French Polynesia is as wide as the mainland EU territory and hosts 20% of the coral reefs and lagoons of the world. Degradation of both marine and terrestrial overseas ecosystems and loss of overseas biodiversity are big hurdles on global biodiversity and on future generations.

The European Union has therefore a double responsibility for overseas territories: to preserve these wonders of nature as part of the EU’s nature and to protect them as key internationally recognized biodiversity areas. Their very diverse locations offer incredible opportunities to better understand ecological processes and current global changes, and to find innovative solutions. In addition, protecting these territories is necessary for the EU to achieve its international commitments, and in particular the Aichi Targets, and the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2020 Target “Stepping up the EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss”.

Q: Regarding the European Union Biodiversity Strategy to 2020, released last year, what are the main provisions for overseas and how does the EU intend to achieve its biodiversity targets?

The implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy can’t be fully achieved without a real European and shared vision for Europe overseas’ biodiversity. The Strategy provision directly targeting overseas is the following: “The Commission and Member States will work with outermost regions and overseas countries and territories, which host more endemic species than the entire European continent, through the BEST initiative (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Territories of European Overseas) to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use.”

This is the only mentioning of overseas in the Strategy, despite the enormous importance of these territories, which may seem underestimating the importance of overseas biodiversity. Yet, the fact that this provision is placed in the section on “Partnerships for Biodiversity” is, in my view, very positive. It underlines the necessary collaboration between the EU, Members States and local governments and actors in addressing biodiversity issues in the territories. In opposition to a top-down approach, this provision lays the foundations for an innovative way of designing common actions as recently recognized by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity particularly in the last decision related to the Island Biodiversity Programme of Work.

The BEST initiative, in which IUCN and partners are involved, therefore opens the way to fruitful exchanges and collaboration on the role of overseas in the implementation of the EU Biodiversity Strategy and its priorities. A strategic seminar is planned as a follow-up to the La Reunion Conference of 2008 later next year which will be a great opportunity to reinforce cooperation among all the relevant actors.

Q: One of the recommendations from the La Reunion Conference in 2008 stressed the importance of increasing the “quality and the overall area of protected areas in the ORs and OCTs and to create a voluntary scheme for the conservation of habitats and species”. Five years later, where are we standing?

We have still to work for better awareness and ownership of the overseas’ natural heritage. Overseas protected areas are cornerstones of conservation efforts. They contribute to national efforts and are part of regional networks. They need to be taken into account at the European level and be part of the EU Strategy for Biodiversity. Thanks to the efforts of national and local governments, there is a large network of protected areas all over the world which contributes to protecting these jewels of global biodiversity, as well contributing to local sustainable development.

This is more than an asset for the EU and we would like to work on a special publication on overseas protected areas as a complementary assessment of the latest publication by the European Environment Agency on European protected areas. A vision for this network could be built in close partnership with Members States, local governments and actors. This would be a powerful complementary component of the BIOPAMA project recently launched by the EU. Synergies with this project would enhance cooperation and catalyze EU actions in the Pacific, the Caribbean and African regions and strengthen the EU as a key actor for the protection of global biodiversity and the promotion of ecosystem-based solutions. 

This leads to another important point : European policies have to be designed with inclusion of Europe overseas. The different administrative structure and political status, geography and locations of the territories require extra efforts to create synergies and consistency among policies and funds. The BEST voluntary scheme is a great opportunity to develop and implement this approach.

Q: IUCN has been advocating for biodiversity policy in Europe overseas for a number of years. The conference in La Reunion in 2008 organized by IUCN under the French Presidency to the European Council was a landmark in this work. What are the main priorities for IUCN’s action in the near future?

Despite some progress in acknowledging the importance of Europe overseas and their biodiversity – overseas referred to as “assets” in official EU communications, there are a number of critical steps still to be taken. To this end, IUCN will continue its work in close collaboration with the European Institutions, the Members States, NGOs, IUCN National Committees to implement the La Reunion Message and contribute to strengthening current European initiatives, such as the BEST Preparatory Action.

IUCN will support the long-term implementation of BEST since this is not only a short-term financial mechanism, but a fundamental tool to enable the implementation of the La Reunion Message and the development of concrete projects and actions. In close partnership with the Europe Overseas Roundtable on Biodiversity and Climate Change, which IUCN has been leading in recent years, we are supporting the development of a long-term plan for BEST.

IUCN has also recently co-organized an event with the European Parliament Intergroup on Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development to contribute to a better understanding of Europe overseas’ marine issues and the development of a comprehensive and coherent European framework for 60% of the European marine domain.

In addition, next year we will be involved in the follow-up event to the La Reunion conference.

Q: Carole, you have been engaged in overseas’ biodiversity conservation for quite some time. What, in your opinion, needs to be done to really protect the immense natural wealth of these territories?

Preserving overseas’ natural jewels requires a multiscalar approach which combines all relevant levels and fosters synergies. In this regards, the EU, through its internal and external policies and funds is a key player at the local as well regional and international level.

Five years after the momentum of the La Reunion Conference, a dedicated EU strategy underpinning a comprehensive programme for European overseas biodiversity is very much needed. This requires some fundamental steps. First, an assessment of current European policies and funds to complete and improve the existing legal and financial frameworks. This work is already on the way thanks to the valuable collaboration of the Europe Overseas Roundtable members and some NGOs. Then, a political statement with priorities for action should be adopted by the EU, the Member States and the overseas entities. La Reunion follow-up seminar planned for next year, suggested by the French Government, would provide the space for this. And finally, a workplan needs to be set up in a coherent framework.

In short, we need political ambition and a vision followed by tangible actions. As I once read “Le droit est l’école de l’imagination!” which I would translate as “laws and policies should be an imagination training”. So let’s perform it for Europe overseas to continue developing innovative policies for nature-based solutions!