By Simon Counsell
The proposal that governments should aim to bring the entire planet – land and oceans included – under some form of spatial planning by 2030 is key to a draft new global plan to protect the world’s biodiversity. The success of many other proposals within the plan, including to designate thirty percent of Earth as protected areas, will rely heavily on such geographical planning. But the proposal makes huge and unjustified assumptions about both the capacity and willingness of governments to do such spatial planning in a way that guarantees wildlife protection. It also ignores some lessons from the past, where spatial planning led to disastrous outcomes for biodiversity. This article explores why the proposal is seriously flawed and needs fundamental reconsideration.
2. Planning the planet; a magical silver bullet for conservation?
During the coming year, governments and the conservation industry hope to agree on a new 30-year action plan for saving the world’s biodiversity. The draft of the plan, known as the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), is intended to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity. It sets out some big-picture goals and around twenty specific targets, achievement of which would ostensibly help reverse the loss of biodiversity and create a ‘nature positive future’. The very first of the targets is that, by 2030, the entire planet should be put under some form of organized geographical planning. The draft text states:
Target 1: Ensure that all land and sea areas globally are under integrated biodiversity-inclusive spatial planning addressing land- and sea-use change, retaining existing intact and wilderness areas”.
The connection between spatial or geographical planning and protecting wildlife is not immediately obvious – but there is some basis for believing it could be important. Chaotic allocation or grabbing of land for agricultural development, infrastructure or settlement, for example, can have devastating, and potentially unnecessary, impacts on biodiverse habitats. In an ideal world, these can be mitigated by locating such developments in less important areas. The most important habitats and ecosystems can be put off-limits to some kinds of economic activity and land uses. Designation of new (and often biodiverse) indigenous territories, or respect of existing ones, can have significant implications for land use and economic activities at a national level. All this requires some form of spatial planning.
Other key targets within the draft new Global Biodiversity Framework thus rest heavily on Target 1. The second target, for example, aims to nearly double to 30% the area of land and seas designated as protected areas, and ensure that these are “well connected and effective”. Target 3 seeks to “ensure active management actions to enable wild species of fauna and flora recovery and conservation, and reduce human-wildlife conflict”. None of these can be achieved without large-scale and effective spatial planning.
But anyone that’s ever studied any form of geographical or land use planning will immediately recognise the Target as being fantastically over-ambitious and implausible. Even in rich countries, relatively minor spatial planning efforts can be very protracted. Only two of the twenty-five most biodiverse countries – the USA and Australia – could be considered to be amongst such countries. Even there, such planning is almost always highly political, even when pursuing limited objectives such as where to locate new settlements or infrastructure. There are always winners and losers. And this is usually without too much consideration being taken of how to integrate biodiversity into a usually very complicated mix of ‘social and economic’ factors.
In some parts of the rich world, spatial planning has undoubtedly been successful in protecting some habitats, even if only at the margins. But what works in Switzerland, say, does not necessarily work in many countries in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Successful spatial planning relies on well-functioning bureaucratic and technical agencies, much inter-departmental openness and collaboration, and solid means of consultation, participation, and dispute resolution, including functioning judicial systems, to ensure peoples’ rights to their lands and livelihoods are upheld, or compensated. There has to be political willingness, especially as spatial planning often relies on local or regional authorities.
Many of the most biodiverse countries do not have glowing records in most of these areas. Most have highly centralized governments with little experience of, or confidence in local, regional and devolved decision-making. For them, spatial planning typically happens in a very centralized way and with national economic, territorial, military, or even tribal and demographic priorities paramount.
In places where much land tenure is customary and poorly recorded – including most of Africa – there is a serious danger that centralized spatial planning processes lead to large scale dispossession of local and indigenous communities – that is, the very people that are the best custodians of biodiversity. Key to avoiding this is very wide participation, genuine consultation, and a willingness to adopt new approaches such as participatory mapping and recognition of customary lands. But a study by the Rainforest Foundation UK showed that there has not been a single example of good participatory spatial planning anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact there were very few examples of best practice anywhere.
The knowledge base from which the pursuit of the target starts is very low. The successful integration of biodiversity values (and technical expertise) into spatial planning is almost non-existent, especially outside the richest countries. Planning for land use changes, as required by the draft target, are particularly problematic. Doing so requires a deep understanding, and detailed scenario modelling, of factors such as economic growth and changes, demographics, technological changes, political trends etc. These can be difficult even at the village level, let alone for major regions or entire nations. There is currently no international mechanism at all through which spatial planning of any kind could be carried out for the planet’s oceans.
3. Learning lessons from the past
If the prospects for achieving the Target look poor, then some lessons from the past warn that a highly cautious approach should anyway be taken. The history of large-scale spatial planning exercises is rife with examples which have had extremely negative impacts on biodiversity. Some of these are summarized in the following sections.
3.1 Spatially planning a biodiversity catastrophe; the Indonesian Transmigration Programme
With the ostensible intention of reducing population pressure in Java and Bali, the government of Indonesia embarked on a massive programme to transmigrate millions of people to the nation’s ‘outer islands’, such as Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi. The scheme started in the mid-1970s but continues to the present. As well as settling migrant families in the archipelago’s heavily forested regions, it has also encouraged large-scale palm oil plantation development. The programme was supported with hundreds of millions of dollars of funding from the World Bank and, critically, technical and financial assistance from the UK’s aid agency, then called the Overseas Development Administration (ODA).
The ODA’s Regional Physical Planning Programme for Transmigration (RePPProT) underpinned the project with a supposedly rational spatial planning base, by assessing and mapping land types and potential for different agricultural uses. The project produced eight regional land resource reviews and 775 maps at 1:250,000 scale, representing the first national land information system covering the whole of Indonesia.
In fact, by supporting and legitimizing the programme, the spatial planning project was laying the basis for an ecological catastrophe. Because of the resulting deforestation, including occupation and destruction of indigenous lands, Transmigration was dubbed by environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth as one of the ‘Fatal Five’ most damaging large-scale development projects anywhere. Indigenous rights organisation Survival International called it “the World Bank’s most irresponsible project”.
The impacts of the programme, across large parts of one of the planet’s most biodiverse countries, are still being felt today, both directly and indirectly through the now organic expansion of farming and oil palm plantations on Indonesia’s outer islands. It will probably never be known quite how many millions of hectares of highly diverse ancient rainforest were destroyed, species extinguished, indigenous people dispossessed or killed as a result of the Transmigration programme. The land planning carried out for it by the UK aid programme and the World Bank’s funding could be one of the most ecologically destructive spatial planning processes ever undertaken.
3.2 The great Amazonian planning disaster; the Polonoroeste Programme, Brazil
As with Indonesia’s Transmigration, the Polonoroeste (“Northwest Pole”) programme had roots in the 1970s, intending in this case to settle poverty-stricken and landless people from Brazil’s coastal regions in the country’s interior. As many as five million peasants were to be settled on tracts of virgin Amazon soil by 1989 “making it potentially the most ambitious colonization effort undertaken in the Americas since the opening of the American West a century before”. As with the Transmigration programme, the involvement of the World Bank was premised on the belief that the migration plans would happen anyway, and that it was better to support a more rational, and spatially planned approach.
Three separate Bank loans for the project, approved in 1981, supported a regional development plan for the north-western Amazonian state of Rondonia that would supposedly ensure successful settlement, as well as protection for the environment and the substantial (but barely understood) indigenous population. Two other key programme elements were land-use zoning, and the demarcation and gazetting of indigenous reserves. The programme also involved the upgrading of the BR364 highway, to improve access to markets.
In fact the land planning elements proved to be woefully inadequate, knowledge of local soils and agricultural potential was weak, and enforcement of zoning plans non-existent. The result of this was that as the settlement proceeded along the route of the BR364, deforestation quickly spiralled out of control. Huge amounts of unregulated timber extraction occurred, as well as mining and cattle-ranching. The World Bank’s completion report for the project noted that the planned “Indian reserves have been demarcated, but protecting the reserves against illegal invasions has been difficult” – in fact nearly half of the reserves had been invaded. The project as dubbed as another of the ‘Fatal Five’ worst development projects. World Bank funding for it was temporarily suspended in 1985, only to be resumed shortly thereafter. By its completion in 1989, the project had left a legacy of an ongoing environmental disaster in the planet’s most biodiverse country.
Writing about the history of the project in detail in 2011, development academic Robert H. Wade (a former World Bank staffer) noted that:
“In retrospect the outcome could hardly have been different, for all the innovative plans that were made about where the forest and Amerindian reserves should go…It was not just that the Bank and Brazil had little data on such fundamentals as soils… It was, more basically, that the Bank hardly engaged with the question of the ability and willingness of the government agencies on the ground to do what the plans required them to do.”
The lesson here is clear: grand-scale projects based on theoretical spatial planning, supposedly protecting important habitats and indigenous lands, are easy to conceive on paper – but much more difficult to implement in reality, especially when funders and governments may have completely different objectives for the projects in the first place.
3.3 Mapping for destruction; Cameroon’s forest zoning plan
The forest industry in Cameroon (possibly the second most biodiverse African country, after the Democratic Republic of Congo) has become synonymous with environmental destruction, unsustainability, corruption and mis-management. The basis of the country’s forest land regime and its attendant problems can be traced back to the 1995 national ‘plan de zonage’ – the forest zoning plan. As the Rainforest Foundation UK reports, “As part of a package of forest sector reforms, the then Ministry of Environment and Forestry embarked on a process of zoning the forest into permanent and non-permanent forest estates”.
The plan de zonage, the development of which was supported by the Canadian aid agency, CIDA, “was originally conceived of as an indicative framework that would serve as a basis for consultations with local communities” but ended up as a de facto land use plan for the entire high forest estate. The zoning was largely based on the interpretation of satellite imagery and aerial photos and thus largely omitted geospatial information on customary land rights, forest uses such as those of the indigenous Baka and Bagyeli peoples, and shifting cultivation patterns.
As such, the resulting plan bore “little relationship to the systems of land usage practised in Cameroon”. Hundreds of communities, and vast areas of land relied on by indigenous communities, were absorbed into the logging concessions and strictly protected areas which comprised about 9 million out of a total of 14 million hectares in the resulting plan. As well as leading to evictions and widespread loss of access to important forest resources, this also had the effect of limiting potential community forests to marginal and often degraded forest land.
Through hasty and ill-conceived spatial planning, lacking in proper consideration of customary rights and traditional forest use, or any meaningful consultation, the Cameroon forest zoning exercise set the scene for endemic conflict between local communities and loggers and conservation authorities, as well as extensive degradation and destruction of pristine forests by the logging industry.
3.4 Better-organised devastation, theft of indigenous lands and carbon offsets for climate-wreckers: ‘Reforming’ Peru’s logging concessions
In the early 2000s, a formal alliance between the World Bank and WWF set out an ambitious global plan to bring 200 million hectares of tropical forest under better management or strict protection. Among the Alliance’s numerous projects was one to reform the logging concession system in Peru (another of the top ten most biodiverse countries), using spatial and concession planning in an attempt to control rampant and predatory illegal logging in the country’s Amazonian rainforests. As a result of the project, according to the Alliance in 2002, “approximately 3.2 million hectares of permanent production forest were awarded to timber enterprises for sustainable management. In addition, the land planning process used to map the Biabo forest concession helped to identify the about 1.4 million hectares of protected forest area, which was later declared Cordillera Azul National Park.”
At the time, it was widely known that the World Bank-WWF Alliance project had primarily helped ‘launder’ a lot of illegal mahogany logging operations into the new ‘sustainably managed’ and legal concessions. However, as these were being run by the same people who had previously been behind the illegal operations, the outcome seemed inevitable.
A decade later, illegal logging had exploded out of control. At the heart of the problem were the new concessions. A comprehensive study published in Nature found that “The majority of logging concessions are enabling illegal logging outside the approved concession area”. The forest industry inspection agency OSINFOR reported that more than half of supervised concessions were extracting timber outside of the concession limits, whilst more than two-thirds were using the concession to facilitate the extraction or transport of illegal timber. The spatially planned concession-driven illegal degradation of Peru’s mega-biodiverse Andean-Amazon corridor continues to this day.
The Cordillera Azul National Park, meanwhile, has since become a source of income for the Peruvian government through the sale of millions of carbon offset credits, the purchasers of which include notorious mining giant, BHP, along with Shell, PetroChina and Gazprom. In 2021, an indigenous Kitchwa community announced that it was taking the Peruvian government and the Cordillera Azul National Park to court for failure to title their traditional lands, as well as the imposition of exclusionary conservation and a REDD carbon trading scheme on their lands – without their consent.
3.5 A warning of a future spatial planning disaster for biodiversity; ‘geographical programming’ will unlock a massive expansion of logging in DR Congo’s rainforests
Another of the mega-biodiverse countries potentially faces a biodiversity catastrophe in the future as a result of a spatial planning process.
Destruction of DRC’s biodiverse forests, historically low compared to say Brazil and Indonesia, has been steadily increasing recently. But it would likely have been a lot worse had there not, for the last nearly 20 years, been a Presidential decree in place banning the allocation of any additional areas of forest for exploitation by industrial timber companies. This moratorium was enacted when it became clear in the early 2000s that the country’s forests were being plundered in a chaotic and often illegal grab for easily extracted timber and land. The decree set out three conditions that had to be met before the moratorium could be lifted.
Of these, only one remains to be satisfied: that there has to be “geographic programming” of future concession allocations over a three year period “defined through a consultative process”. Exactly what is meant by this is a matter of debate. At the very least, it would require some forward plan of where new concessions would be, but possibly also the kind of wider spatial plan that presaged the carving up of Cameroon’s forests in the 1990s. The development of such a plan, and thus the lifting of the moratorium, could eventually open some 70 million hectares of rainforest to logging – an area roughly the size of France. In September 2021, DRC’s Minister for Environment and Sustainable Developent, Eve Bazaiba, announced the government’s intention to proceed with lifting the moratorium  – though no decree to this effect has yet been seen.
Though a geographical programming document would be relatively easy to contrive (and may already be in preparation), the potentially massive consequences of it would be almost impossible to control. Logging operations which pre-date DRC’s moratorium already cover about 10 million hectares. They are notoriously rife with corruption and illegalities, are the cause of widespread environmental damage and social conflict, and generate almost no benefits for the Congolese economy. Analysis has shown that likely new logging concessions in DRC could cause the additional release of over 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the coming years. Evidence also suggests that, as elsewhere in the Congo Basin, even supposedly planned and notionally ‘sustainable forest management’ will lead ultimately to mass deforestation in DRC.
The DRC government has shown itself unable or unwilling to crack down on even the most egregious illegalities in the sector, and its capacity for controlling logging and any zoning plans or rules is very low. Experiences from Cameroon, Brazil and Peru, described above, should strongly warn the international community, including conservationists, that spatial plans are easy enough to prepare, but their outcomes may be far from what is hoped for.
4. Be careful what you wish for: the spatially planned road to hell is paved with good intentions
In reality, there is not the faintest chance that Target 1 of the draft Global Biodiversity Framework, as it is currently written, could be achieved – the lack of political willingness and technical capacity will see to that. As the CBD itself admits, “Spatial planning is practiced variously and unevenly among countries and currently there is no global synthesis available to assess the proportion of the earth that is considered to be under spatial planning. This is partly because there is no standard definition of what constitutes a spatial plan . . .”. But there are serious dangers that even attempting to achieve the target could result in serious perverse and unforeseen consequences. Any attempt to put the entire planet under spatial planning within less than nine years could not possibly involve the kind of multi-factored analysis, with huge amounts of local and regional consultation and devolvement of decision-making, demarcation and recognition of indigenous and community lands, that would be required for any equitable plans to emerge. Political and economic expediency would likely prevail. On land, more ‘Polonoroestes’ and disastrous forest zoning plans are likely to result. For the oceans, the prospect of any kind of new international agreement seems very remote.
Instead of fueling a dangerous fantasy, the CBD needs to scale back its ambitions: look closely at what kind of planning has worked and what has failed in terms of environmental protection, assess capacities, support some limited pilot schemes at different scales, learn lessons, and repeat. Sadly, this kind of approach has not characterized the current negotiation of the Global Biodiversity Framework. Wishful thinking, creation of slogan-worthy targets, over-ambitious numbers, and a growing sense panic are unlikely to result in a target for spatial planning worthy of its importance.
 The GBF defines spatial planning as “a method or process for analyzing and allocating the spatial and temporal distribution of activities in a given environment in order to achieve various objectives, including social, ecological and economic”.
 CBD, 2021. Reflections of the Co-Chairs following the first session of the third meeting of the working group on the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, CBD/WG2020/3/6 24 November 2021. https://bit.ly/34BBSic
 Aris PONIMAN, NURWADJEDI and Pago LUMBAN-TOBING, Developing the National Land Resource Database for Supporting Spatial Land Use Planning, Indonesia 3rd FIG Regional Conference, Jakarta, Indonesia, October 3-7, 2004. https://bit.ly/3gtfOcj
 Wade, R. H, 2011. Boulevard of broken dreams: the inside story of the World Bank’s Polonoroeste Road Project in Brazil’s Amazon, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment Working Paper No. 55, August 2011.
 Wade, R. H, 2011.
 Rainforest Foundation UK, 2020.
 Rainforest Foundation UK, 2020.
 Brown, D. (1999). Principles and Practice of Forest Co-Management: Evidence from West-Central Africa. European Union Tropical Forestry Paper 2. London, ODI.
 Finer, M et al, 2014. Logging Concessions Enable Illegal Logging Crisis in the Peruvian Amazon Scientific Reports volume 4, Article number: 4719.
 Finer, M et al, 2014.
 Rainforest Foundation UK, 2018.
 CBD, 2021.
Simon Counsell is the former director of Rainforest Foundation UK. He is currently adviser to Survival International and researches and writes on nature-based solutions and colonial conservation.