In pursuit of its mission of connecting research, policy and practice to promote learning on approaches to land and natural resource governance, Equitable Earth Initiative is engaging in community protected areas, sustainable landscapes, and what have become known as “other effective area-based conservation measures” or OECMs.  This is the first in a series of posts in which we will share some of our thoughts on what these kinds of initiatives can contribute to sustainability and conservation.

How can we as a global community protect biodiversity?  The default answer to this question seems to be “by creating protected areas”.  In the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 196 countries have agreed, among other things, that “conservation will be achieved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.”

In operationalizing this target, parks, game reserves, and other kinds of protected areas are understood as designated areas of land or sea where the primary objective is conservation.  And in developing a system to track progress toward achieving the CBD targets, it is protected areas that have been the focus of attention.  However, in recognition that protected areas have had a mixed record and that ecosystems and biodiversity need to be cared for everywhere including where human beings live and create their livelihoods, increasing attention is now being directed toward the second part of that target:  “other effective area-based conservation measures”, known by the acronym OECMs.

An OECM is defined 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.

(CBD/COP/DEC/14/8).

These can potentially include initiatives such as watershed management areas, territories managed and used sustainably by indigenous and local communities, and the rangelands of ranchers and pastoralists.  To qualify as OECMs and be counted toward the CBD target, such initiatives need not have conservation as their primary objective but they must produce positive outcomes for conservation.

 

The potential of OECMs

In operationalizing the OECM part of the CBD target, the definitions, criteria and procedures developed to date have, of necessity, been written in dry, uninspiring UNese.  But that shell of dense, bureaucratic language hides an important set of ideas.  The global effort toward including OECMs in our collective biodiversity targets is an acknowledgement that humans and nature can coexist.  It is a recognition of the need to extend the values of conservation, stewardship of nature, and sustainability beyond the enclaves that we have created where we attempt to protect nature from us (the so-called protected areas)—to extend those values into our economies, cultures and lives everywhere.  OECMs imply that walling off nature to shield it from us is not the only way to protect biodiversity.  The collective effort to develop a framework for properly including OECMs in the global biodiversity targets is a call to the world community to move environmental values out of protected areas and to reincorporate them into sustainable landscapes everywhere.

So how do we realize the lofty aims of what OECMs are meant to be?  To make this a transformative moment, we need to go beyond the dry language of bureaucratic definitions and cumbersome criteria for determining whether or not an initiative counts toward the targets.  We need to ensure that OECMs have an animating spirit that addresses the human heart.

 

An animating spirit

We would like to propose that the principle of interconnectedness speaks to the way that humans relate to nature and can be part of this animating spirit.

The metaphor of the human race as a body and the individual people of the world as the cells of that body helps to convey what interconnectedness means.  The well-being of each one us depends ultimately on the well-being of everyone else, and the potential of the individual can never be fully realized if the body as a whole does not thrive.  Recently, the COVID pandemic has been a dramatic demonstration of the interconnectedness of individual and collective well-being.

Interconnectedness also refers to the integral interconnections between human beings and nature. Obviously we depend on nature for resources, for the air we breathe and the water we drink.  And we, in turn, affect nature—all too often, negatively.  But the interconnectedness of humanity and nature runs far deeper than this.  To put it simply, opportunities to interact with nature are good for the soul.  Philosophical disputes over whether we are distinct from nature or are merely a different kind of animal create a false dichotomy.  The human race is unique and it is embedded within nature.  It sustains us and we are inextricably connected to it.  Embracing our interconnectedness with the natural world leads logically to an ethic of stewardship, steering us toward appreciating nature and caring for it.

In creating and operating OECMs, and in developing systems to count and track them so that they become part of countries’ contributions toward the global CBD targets, let us keep interconnectedness at the front of our minds.  Let us deliberate not only on political questions such as how do we reconcile different stakeholders’ interests, and on technical questions such as how to measure our ecological footprint to know whether our conservation measures are in fact effective; let us also deliberate on what we can do to ensure that our actions and relationships manifest this interconnectedness.