Making conservation everybody’s business through Verified Conservation Areas

05/22/2016 09:12 AM

To mark International Day for Biological Diversity, Global Footprint Network is proud to support its partner Earthmind’s innovative program to boost ecosystems’ restoration and biodiversity conservation around the world, mitigating the Ecological Footprint.

What if conserving biodiversity wasn’t just the prerogative of national parks and protected areas? What if conserving biodiversity and restoring ecosystems could also be the responsibility of every local government, every business, every community and every individual with stewardship over a productive piece of land? And what if we could recognize and encourage communities, companies and others who conserve nature?

This vision is no pie in the sky. It has been guiding the Verified Conservation Areas (VCA) Approach launched two years ago by Francis Vorhies, the former CEO of Earthwatch Institute Europe and Chief Economist of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

“To protect our planet, we need to conserve through management, not just legislation. The VCA approach is about supporting and promoting the sustainable management of productive landscapes, including farms, forests, and even golf courses—not just national parks,” explains Dr. Vorhies, a conservation veteran.

Global Footprint Network and Earthmind, the organization founded by Dr. Vorhies, are partnering in order to implement and promote the VCA approach as an inclusive measure for area-based conservation.

How the VCA idea works

The VCA approach is a voluntary program for recognizing area-based conservation. It offers transparency and accountability to area managers thoroughly listing VCAs on a public registry. Access to the VCA Registry is set out in the VCA Standard, which details what needs to be done to get and remain listed. 

To register an area, a VCA-compliant conservation management plan and associated third-party audit are required. To remain listed, an annual conservation performance report and associated audit is required. VCA plans, reports and audits are all publicly available on the Registry to inform stakeholders, including funders of the area’s conservation efforts and outcomes.

“It is very hard today to recognize sustainable land management efforts in the private sector or by local communities. Yet a recognition label can go a long way toward building up conservation as an asset,” Dr. Vorhies explains.

In fact, the VCA Registry is designed to make it easier to “buy conservation.” Environmentally minded consumers (individuals or organizations) can discover what suppliers of goods and services deserve their business because of their conservation efforts. Or they can identify VCA projects they wish to donate to or invest in.

“Our goal is to create a supply of conservation projects around the world that people anywhere can support,” says Dr. Vorhies. “We hope to turn conservation into an area for beneficial transaction opportunities to mitigate ecological overshoot.”

Vorhies is careful to stress that the definition of “conservation” used in the concept of a Verified Conservation Area is the one presented in the path-breaking 1980 IUCN World Conservation Strategy document. It includes not only restoration but also the “sustainable utilization” of land as a “positive” action “embracing preservation” for the sake of future generations.

As an example, a recent VCA project proposal was issued by the Dutch water company Vitens and five other landowners. The area is a narrow, 15-hectare strip of land called Lizards Lane in the Netherlands to be developed and managed as an ecological heathland corridor to enhance the viability of local populations of amphibians and reptiles. A detailed plan will have to be submitted within two years for the project to be listed as “registered.”

Other registered VCAs include a marine area in Yemen (fish pictured at top), a 250,000 restored wilderness conservancy in Mozambique.

Seeking critical mass

Boosting conservation efforts on the global scale is nothing short of a pressing priority. Growing human population and increasing levels of prosperity keep intensifying the pressures on biodiversity. Current conservation efforts are insufficient to address the ever-increasing global Ecological Footprint.

On the bright side, the global community has committed to conserving 17 percent of terrestrial areas and to restoring 15 percent of degraded ecosystems by 2020 under the international Strategic Plan for Biodiversity. This commitment was reconfirmed in the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the UN in September 2015.

Furthermore, the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group that finances and provides advice for private sector ventures and projects in developing countries, has included eight environmental performance standards in its lending policy. Performance Standard 6 addresses biodiversity conservation and sustainable management of living natural resources.

“The current international policy framework is technically sufficient to allow for the acceleration of conservation efforts everywhere. What we mainly need at this stage is transparency, accountability and scaling up of best practice,” points out Sebastian Winkler, Vice President Programme and Outreach at Global Footprint Network. He also helps with VCA development efforts.

The challenge ahead is as daunting as the opportunity. Since launching the VCA initiative about two years ago, Dr. Vohries and his team have attracted a dozen of projects on four continents to its registry. The initiative has been relying solely on the support of the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, and is seeking a wider funding base to grow its clout and expand its reach.

Fortunately, the tipping point may be at hand. Conversations with financial institutions including Credit Suisse are picking up momentum. Investment facility Althelia Ecosphere recently expressed interest in piloting VCA projects in its portfolio. And if the team’s development efforts follow their due course, the two-year experiment may blossom as early as the end of this month into a full-fledged global initiative backed by governments and international agencies.

All eyes on the second session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly

Less than a month ago, Dr. Vorhies hosted a side event at the 20th meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-20) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an international body created in 1993 in the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil. The 40 participants in attendance, who were comprised of government and international NGO representatives, showed keen interest in VCA’s conservation solution.

Dr. Vorhies and his team are intent on capitalizing on that surge of interest quickly. Eight months after the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in New York, the United Nations is reconvening this week in Nairobi (UNEA-2) to discuss budgets and priorities with regard especially to further sustainable production and consumption. The goal is to have VCA taken in consideration as an official UN-approved tool to protect biodiversity, with a view to have it introduced at the 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP13) to the CBD this December in Cancun, Mexico.

UNEA-2, we hope, will prove pivotal for VCA, thanks to the official endorsement by a non-European—yet to be announced—government, and the public launch of the VCA Coalition by a multi-stakeholder group.

Stay tuned.


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