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OECMs: An opportunity to turn ‘coercive conservation’ upside down

2022 WWF Fuller Symposium calls on new conservation approach to follow Indigenous People’s lead
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Photo by Marlon del Aguila Guerrero/CIFOR

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People blindness is a long-standing critique leveled at conservation initiatives that historically valued plants and animals more than human rights. Other Effective Area-based Conservation Measures (OECMs) are one possible solution ‘for people and the planet.’ These sites promise an alternative to traditional protected areas — such as national parks — that will deliver long-term benefits for biodiversity and people through innovative and inclusive governance structures.

But are OECMs designed to deliver on their promises or do they risk the same conservation pitfalls? Speakers addressed this question at the 2022 World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Fuller Symposium — appropriately titled “Challenging OECMs.”

“There’s no question that conservation with people is better than without,” began Anne Larson, Principal Scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF). “OECMs may be better than the Yellowstone model for biodiversity conservation, but we still need to address the coercive history of conservation initiatives being imposed on Indigenous Peoples [IPs] and local communities [LCs].”

Support for OECMs

The need to conserve biodiversity has never been more urgent. Twenty five percent of all species are currently at risk of extinction, and monitored vertebrate population sizes have dropped 60% on average, according to the WWF Living Planet Report.

In response, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD’s) post-2020 framework (Target 3) aims to conserve 30% of terrestrial areas and 30% of marine areas in protected areas or OECMs by 2030. Additionally, the Land Gap Report (2022), which was released on Nov. 3, found that total pledges for carbon dioxide removal and conservation would require 1.2 billion hectares of land, noted Larson.

While traditional protected areas remain central to these targets, they have often failed to safeguard biodiversity due to lack of support or effective monitoring systems. Even when they work for biodiversity, the symposium speakers highlighted the legacy of displacement and impoverishment for IPs and LCs who have had conservation thrust on them. Communities have been asked to sacrifice their customs, traditional governance structures, livelihoods, and even their lands in service of biodiversity. The result is often chronic distrust in external biodiversity initiatives.

Supporters of OECMs say they will have a higher chance of success than protected areas because OECMs under Target 3 explicitly advocate foreffectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected” systems that benefit people and their environment.

   Panelists discuss OECM framework at the 2022 WWF Fuller Symposium, session 2.

Untested framework

However, Indigenous advocates like Joji Cariño, senior policy advisor of Forest Peoples Programme, are concerned that promises will ring hollow in implementation. Although the terminology for OECMs has been around for a few years, Target 3 of the post-2020 framework is still in negotiations. In addition, most countries have not started mapping OECMs, which could encompass anything from military zones to Indigenous partnerships, noted Heather Bingham, senior programme officer at the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

An untested framework comes with risks.

“The current definition of OECMs focuses on the geography of conservation areas and not on societies’ embeddedness with nature, said Cariño. “…The risk is an enlargement of the conservation estate and more disenfranchisement of local communities.”

Instead of first imposing a new OECM framework and then seeking consent from IPs and LCs, a better approach could involve following the community’s lead on biodiversity conservation and enshrining Indigenous rights in Target 3, argued both Cariño and Larson.

Evidence has already highlighted that Indigenous lands have positive and sustained outcomes for biodiversity. Around 80% of all land-based biodiversity lives in Indigenous territories, and that biodiversity is declining more slowly than elsewhere, according to World Resources Institute estimates.

“Are we not in danger of killing biodiversity’s golden goose by creating new rules that will take away from the autonomy and governance of Indigenous communities?,” questioned Cariño.

There’s also a heavy monitoring and reporting burden in OECMs. Indigenous lands under OECM management could be held to a higher reporting standard than government parklands that are currently not monitored at all, noted Ameyali Ramos, international policy coordinator of the ICCA Consortium. This is a lot of work for small communities to take on with no clear benefits.

Cautionary perspectives on OECMs should be taken seriously because purely optimistic messaging will bring about doubts and hesitations in local communities, hurting the chance for a fruitful partnership, emphasized Ramos and Cariño.

Planning for flexibility

Nevertheless, If OECMs can embrace different enabling conditions and adequately address the concerns of IPs and LCs, they could be a useful tool in the conservation toolbox, believes Larson.

“OECMs are an opportunity for co-creation, harnessing what communities are already doing successfully,” said Larson. “This is not a new concept in the conservation sphere, but perhaps with each iteration, we get closer to effective solutions.”

For more information about the research in this blog, please contact Anne Larson (A.Larson@cgiar.org).

Much of the work referred to by Anne Larson was funded by the Climate and Land Use Alliance (CLUA) and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad).

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