70 years of helping people to care for our ocean

Keeping our real World Wide Web intact – the IUCN World Conservation Congress 2021

By: Dr Judy Mann, SAAMBR Conservation Strategist

 “This planet is our only web. Unlike the spider, we cannot rebuild it once we have destroyed it” – Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.

Last week, together with our CEO Dr Larry Oellermann, I attended the IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC). Usually held every four years, this is the largest gathering of conservation bodies in the world.  This year, as with so many conferences, the WCC was held as a hybrid event – with an in-person component in Marseille, France and an on-line component. Together, over 9 200 people participated in the event. Larry and I attended the sessions via our computers. Not nearly as interactive or exciting as being there in person, but much better than not being able to participate at all.

The WCC is an interesting mix of IUCN business matters – the Members’ Assembly – where issues about the administration and various motions of the IUCN are debated and voted upon, and the Forum where various conservation organisations, countries, and IUCN Commissions (Working Groups) gather to discuss and present issues of mutual importance. And of course, the exhibition with presentations, posters and, the highlight of most conferences (and where connections for conservation are achieved), many social events. 

This year I noticed several differences to the last WCC, which I attended in Hawaii five years ago. The first was the sense of urgency. The recently released IPCC report revealed the dire consequences of ‘business as usual’. It is now unequivocal that the climate changes we are seeing are caused by humans and that unless we act with greater speed and ingenuity, our planet with change irrevocably, and that humans will be the greatest casualties. The IPBES report on Biodiversity Loss is equally clear that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history and the impact of these losses will be felt by humans in many ways.

As Harrison Ford said at the opening of the WCC, “We are ambitious for perfect solutions, perfect policies, nobody’s got that luxury anymore, we’ve got to get to work, we’ve got to make things happen, we’ve got to make it happen now”.

While the Climate Crisis (CC) and Biodiversity Loss have been addressed separately for a long time, a striking change at this WCC was the acknowledgement that two issues are inextricably linked.

As the President of France, Emmanuel Macron said, “There is no vaccine for a sick planet. The battle for the climate and against the deregulation of the climate is linked inextricably to preserving and restoring biodiversity”.

Another interesting point was the increased focus on agriculture and economics. How we feed the billions of people on our planet must change if we are to avoid some of the most serious impacts of the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. And how we measure wealth must change.

As Carlos Alvarado, President of the Republic of Costa Rica said, “We need to find a balance between growth, food security and environmental protection”.

The increased focus on indigenous people and the youth was also notable, as was the emphasis on rebuilding a better, more equitable and balanced world economy post COVID-19. The IUCN Congress urged governments to implement a nature-based post-pandemic recovery, investing at least 10% of global recovery funds in nature-related projects.

Only by working outside silos, and across sectors, can we achieve the targets of an ambitious framework and a life in harmony with nature’, said Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Finally, the increased focus on the ocean was especially welcome for an organisation such as SAAMBR, which has for 70 years advocated for ocean protection. With discussions on Marine Protected Areas, shark conservation, the IUCN Red List, conservation of the high seas and the deep oceans amongst others, the role of the ocean in protecting humanity was clear.

“In order to better protect our planet from climate catastrophe, we must look to the oceans” said HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco. 

I was especially excited to see the activities that were held at the Reverse The Red pavilion as we have worked with the partners of Reverse The Red for many months…but more about this in the next blog.

It is impossible in one blog to even scratch the surface of the many fascinating discussions, impactful resolutions, and inspiring presentations that I attended. Overall, I left with a feeling of hope that, for the first time, the true urgency of the need for change has been realised and the importance of local actions on the ground has been highlighted. And that makes me positive. While the task at hand is enormous, an ever-increasing number of people across the world want to change. And we in the conservation world need to embrace them, provide opportunities and lead with humility, courage, and conviction. 

For more about the outcomes of the IUCN WCC, read Marseille Manifesto | IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020 (iucncongress2020.org).