By Simon Counsell
So-called ‘other effective area-based conservation measures’ (OECMs) are included in the proposed global target to increase protected areas to thirty per cent of the planet by 2030 (‘30×30’). They can notionally involve designations such as indigenous territories and community conserved lands in order to overcome the well-documented human rights problems caused by strictly protected areas such as national parks. As such, they are being posed as the acceptable face of conservation. Whilst OECMs certainly have the potential for better reconciliation of conservation with community rights and livelihoods, this is not a given. They are still largely an unpractised conservation designation, with little track record. They could still present challenges to the lands and cultures of indigenous and other communities, who may not necessarily wish to see their territories designated primarily in terms of western concepts of conservation. The inclusion of OECMs in the 30×30 target does not provide sufficient reassurance that the target as a whole will not rely mostly on typical, exclusive and abusive forms of ‘fortress conservation’.
What are OECMs and will they be OK for indigenous and local communities?
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 plan, a draft of which will be negotiated in Geneva in March, is known as the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF). It sets out some big-picture goals and around twenty specific targets, achievement of which would ostensibly help implement the Convention on Biological Diversity and reverse the loss of biodiversity. The third of the targets in the draft agreement is that, by 2030, 30% of the planet should be designated as areas for conservation (‘30×30’). The draft text states:
“Target 3: Ensure that at least 30 per cent globally of land areas and of sea areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and its contributions to people, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscapes and seascapes.” (emphasis added)
The concept of OECMs is not new to the CBD or other international conservation agencies. The term was included in the previous CBD action plan, agreed in 2010, to cover the decade to 2020. This included a very similar target that at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water should be conserved in protected areas as well as “other effective area-based conservation measures”. The main difference between OECMs and typical protected areas is that “unlike protected areas, OECMs do not require a primary objective of conservation”. Nevertheless “there must be a direct causal link between the area’s overall objective and management and the in-situ conservation of biodiversity over the long-term”.
Some conservation scientists believe that OECMs will be important to increase the shortfalls in the global protected-area estate and that they “should also help to make area-based conservation management more equitable”. Others have found that many key biodiversity areas could at least partly be covered with potential OECMs. There is potential for many ‘indigenous and community conserved areas’ (ICCAs, also known as “territories of life”) to be recognised as OECMs.
Whilst OECMs were starting to be recognised on the ground, it was not until 2018 that the 196 governments party to the Convention on Biodiversity agreed a definition for the term, as:
“A geographically defined area other than a Protected Area, which is governed and managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained long-term outcomes for the in situ conservation of biodiversity, with associated ecosystem functions and services and where applicable, cultural, spiritual, socio–economic, and other locally relevant values.”
The voluntary guidelines adopted along with the definition of OECMs include mention of the need for them to be “implemented legitimately, competently, inclusively, fairly . . . and while respecting rights . . . The concept of equity is one element of good governance [including] the acknowledgement of and respect for the rights and the diversity of identities, values.” ‘Rights holders’ are “actors with legal or customary rights to natural resources and land”. The Scientific and Technical Advice which also accompanies the 2018 CBD decision includes that:
“Recognition of other effective area-based conservation measures in areas within the territories of indigenous peoples and local communities should be on the basis of self-identification and with their free, prior and informed consent, as appropriate, and consistent with national policies, regulations and circumstances, and applicable international obligations;”
“Areas conserved for cultural and spiritual values, and governance and management that respect and are informed by cultural and spiritual values, often result in positive biodiversity outcomes.”
The guidance for designating OECMs also includes the important provision that “Any recognition or reporting of OECMs governed by indigenous peoples and/or local communities should be based on self-identification and requires the free, prior and informed consent of those traditional governance authority(ies).”
International proponents of the 30×30 target have thus used the inclusion of OECMs to suggest that it will not harm communities. For example, in response to a statement in October 2020 raising concerns about 30×30, signed by 179 organisations worldwide, the European Commission stated that, “the draft CBD Global Biodiversity Framework . . . include[s] other effective conservation measures under the 30% target. It should be remembered that the definition of OECM . . . covers areas managed by indigenous communities (ICCAs) or indigenous protected areas (IPAs).” The German government, one of the strongest advocates for 30×30, has made similar statements.
So what’s the problem?
Unfortunately, what appear to be clear statements of intent towards the land and rights of indigenous communities in relation to OECMs are undermined by other ‘technical’ clauses that the members of the Convention on Biodiversity have agreed to. These could potentially significantly narrow the scope and purpose of OECMs. For example:
“[OECM’s are] complementary to protected areas and contributing to the coherence and connectivity of protected area networks…[they] should, therefore, strengthen the existing protected area networks, as appropriate”.
In other words, the purpose of OECMs is very much to bolster and connect ‘normal’ protected areas – in effect, they could be ‘buffer zones’ or corridors between them, rather than significant and alternative forms of conserved areas. The ‘scientific and technical advice’, were it followed, contains other limiting requirements, including that:
- “[OECMs] may allow for sustainable human activities while offering a clear benefit to biodiversity conservation.” (emphasis added)
- “OECMs deliver biodiversity outcomes of comparable importance to and complementary with those of protected areas.”
- “Management of OECMs is consistent with the ecosystem approach and the precautionary approach, providing the ability to adapt to achieve biodiversity outcomes, including long-term outcomes, inter alia, the ability to manage a new threat.”
In fact, the CBD’s criteria for how OECMs would be identified in the first place could prove to be a significant obstacle to indigenous and local communities. These include that the area must:
- Be “managed in ways that achieve positive and sustained outcomes for the conservation of biological diversity.” – which could be hard for indigenous or other local communities to demonstrate.
- Have “a management system in place that contributes to sustaining the in situ conservation of biodiversity.” – likewise.
- Deal with “threats, existing or reasonably anticipated ones are addressed effectively by preventing, significantly reducing or eliminating them, and by restoring degraded ecosystems.” – which could be well beyond the ability of the community, and not necessarily their responsibility or priority.
- Have “a monitoring system [which] informs management on the effectiveness of measures with respect to biodiversity, including the health of ecosystems.” – which could well be culturally alien to indigenous communities and not desirable, practical or necessary for them.
In other words, OECMs must still have ‘scientific conservation’ management as a key aim, if not the main objective. Some of the requirements for identifying and designating them could be culturally alien and undesirable, or very challenging in practice for communities. It could prove next to impossible for some indigenous communities, such as hunter-gatherer ‘Pygmies’ in the Congo Basin. OECMs wouldn’t necessarily include, say, areas of indigenous land for which there is no specific management objective other than representing a tribe’s ancestral homelands – which could be unconnected geographically with any typical protected area, yet still very rich in biodiversity. The guidelines for recognising and reporting an OECM state bluntly that “An area where there is no management regime is not an OECM, even though its biodiversity may remain intact”. The same guidelines require that “OECMs are expected to achieve the conservation of nature as a whole, rather than only selected elements of biodiversity” – which raises questions about what ‘nature as a whole’ actually constitutes, and how exactly this could be demonstrated in any given case.
Even some of the strongest advocates for OECMs recognise these challenges. One paper noted that indigenous people “may be at a significant disadvantage in attempting to demonstrate achievement of the above criteria using imposed languages and externally developed methodologies”. Indigenous organisations themselves are understandably wary of the concept. A representative of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity told a meeting of the CBD last year that indigenous people do not necessarily want their lands classified as either protected areas or OECMs.
Not much of a track record
In addition to the conceptual problems, there is also the question of how OECMs have worked in practice.
The CBD called in 2018 for a registry of OECMs to be added to the World Database on Protected Areas, which is run by IUCN and UNEP. Inclusion in the database occurs at the request of respective governments. Submissions are subject to a set of guidelines on how to recognise and report OECMs, though these are quite general and it is unclear how compliance is checked. As of February 2022, there were 668 OECMs recorded in the database, out of a total 269,568 protected areas (i.e, about 0.25% by number). They are all located in five countries, Morocco, Algeria, Canada, the Philippines and South Africa. Nearly half are very small areas (apparently mostly for hunting) added by Morocco in the last year. Those in the Philippines (also mostly small areas) and Canada account for most of the rest.
As yet, there have been no evaluations of either specific OECMs, nor of the concept as a whole. There are reports that in Canada, some of the declared marine OECMs “do not meet the guidelines’ standards as they are not committed to long-term conservation”. In this case, according to researchers, the state agency responsible for marine conservation has simply “re-designated regulated fishery closures as ‘marine refuges’ under the auspices of an OECM designation” – evidently as a means of demonstrating Canada’s achievement of the 2010-2020 protected areas’ targets.
A large bet on long odds?
OECMs potentially present both a win-win, and a lose-lose, situation. On the one hand, some argue, they could possibly help re-think the ‘fortress conservation’ approach to protecting biodiversity, allowing what are basically indigenous and community lands to be recognised for their conservation value. One group of pro-OECM advocates has said the concept requires “fundamental changes in protected area planning and how the conservation community deals with human rights and social safeguards issues; it therefore challenges our understanding of what constitutes ‘conservation’”.
As yet, though, there is little evidence that OECMs are driving such changes. As some of its advocates rightly recognise, “the success of OECMs will also depend on governments and conservation actors upholding human rights and social safeguards, particularly in Indigenous and community areas.” Yet ‘fortress conservation’ remains very much the dominant paradigm, international donors continue to fund it, and government conservation institutions are still largely articulated around strictly protected areas and enforcement. In one telling example, the requests of fishing communities in Costa Rica for OECMs to be established instead of strictly protected marine reserves has been rejected by their government, which is one of the strongest advocates for ‘30×30’. If OECMs help merely to legitimise the 30×30 target, then they could serve to reinforce ‘fortress conservation’ rather than challenge it.
On the other hand, OECMs could be created for other, political, purposes, and simply inflate the apparent extent of protection, without having much real benefit either for biodiversity or local communities. As one survey of experts noted, “The concern here is that countries may aim to meet their coverage targets by designating large PA or OECMs in places with low opportunity costs and marginal conservation benefits, rather than focusing on delivering meaningful biodiversity conservation in places that could provide greater additionality to the existing area-based conservation network”. This problem can and does also occur with protected areas, though OECMs might simply escalate the problem. The designation of Canada’s marine OECMs, for example, “promises to undermine national and international conservation standards, fracture partnerships, and jeopardize the integrity of Canada’s protected areas’ network”, according to one research paper.
As has also been noted, OECMs “will only succeed if the key drivers of biodiversity and ecosystem service loss are addressed in the whole planet”. The imperative to tackle these ‘key drivers’ – such as over-consumption, subsidies for destructive agriculture, and pollution – has been emphasised in other scientific submissions to the CBD. Yet meaningful intention to actually tackle these problems is almost entirely absent from draft proposed new Global Biodiversity Framework. Instead, largely repeating but expanding the previous ten-year aim to increase protected areas and OECMs, much hope is being placed on ‘30×30’. It is surely a risky approach to include in an agreement that could shape the use of nearly a third of the planet a concept that has as yet little real evidence to either support or reject it. It is a distraction from the urgent need to tackle the damage being done to communities by fortress conservation and to ensure that this is not further worsened in years to come.
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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.