In September 2016, the world’s most unique ecology forum adopted two motions with potentially far-reaching, multiple impacts on mass participation to combat climate change.
These two motions came in the final days of the Members’ Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (www.iucn.org) held as the second part of the quadrennial World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii on September 1-10. The assembly was attended by over 9,000 delegates from about 160 countries. Ten fulsome days enabled thousands of dialogues to motivate action for a healthier planet.
One motion approved opening union membership to indigenous people’s organisations. The second called on the newly-elected council to set up a working group on how membership could also be opened to local governments. While indigenous people’s bodies are relatively easy to identify for eligibility, there are significant variations between, and even within, countries and across continents on the precise definition of eligible local governments.
When implemented, the new measures will further broaden, deepen and strengthen the worldwide movement that has emerged recent years to promote ecological stability and achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
Both motions pose formidable future challenges of sheer logistics and management capacity as potential new Members in the two new categories could number several thousands. IUCN is the only global forum in which, in Category A, states/government agencies/official, political and/or economic integration organisations, and in Category B, national and international NGOs are both voting members. In weightage terms , State votes inevitably count for more than NGO votes.
At present, there are 217 state/state-related members and 1066 NGO members. Over 16,000 scientists and specialists in virtually every aspect of nature voluntarily contribute their research outcomes through six commissions.
Established in Fontainebleau, France in 1948, IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest environment organisation. Over the past seven decades, it has evolved into a remarkable knowledge-based institution. Working collaboratively, its membership requires a consultative, consensus-building approach. The structures are exceptionally democratic yet also highly complex. They demand careful navigation of the governance processes. The current president is Zhang Xinsheng, unanimously re-elected this year for a second four-year term. Supporting the volunteer-based council and commissions, there is a full-time secretariat led by Director-General Inger Anderson of Denmark in Switzerland; there are also over 1,000 staff members in offices across eleven regions.
Indigenous peoples who are traditionally close to nature and are best placed to confirm the worst impacts of climate change on livelihoods are already represented through the existing membership categories. Organisations specifically created for indigenous peoples have proliferated in recent decades to specifically preserve historic identities and linkages with land and natural resources because the composition of state entities and even NGOs is often diluted and diffused by diverse interest-groups.
Authentic representation of indigenous peoples is generally deficient. The bulldozing aggression of urban-driven capitalism and free-market economics embraced by most states and implemented by corporations is a major reason for that. With rapid demographic shifts, transfer of controls, industrialisation and globalisation, destruction of habitat, gross reduction in species numbers, illegal wildlife trafficking and outright extinctions of species, original rights have been sharply eroded.
Electoral systems transplanted from Westminster or Washington DC have often been unable to protect the devastation of nature and ensure fair representation. Crucial Congress decisions also included new priority attention to facets of urban ecology.
The long-standing demands for union membership of local governments have a symbiotic relationship with people’s initiatives. State and elected government structures have inherently centralising tendencies. They converge power narrowly at the expense of broader participative streams. Even after devolution, there are strong differences between how central governments and provincial or local governments view important environmental issues such as mineral resource development, fishing rights, land utilisation policies, provision of basic services such as water et al. The existing membership of states and provincial governments in IUCN is deemed by many as being inadequately reflective of ground realities.
The first part of the event comprised the forum, which offered a feast of new knowledge on the status of hundreds of endangered species and eco-systems and on options for corrective action. In over 1000 interactive workshops, sessions, screenings and expositions, the first five days were like compressing five years of study into a compressed, exhilarating crash course. From noting how Hawaii hosts the highest number of endangered species in any US state – over 480 – to realising that, even with continued poaching and illegal hunting, the numbers of elephants in parts of South Africa have increased due to effective conservation measures.
From the still vastly unexplored mysteries of the oceans and the lawless high seas to observing the winged emperor of the winds, the great albatross, here was environmental education, and re-education, in vibrant action. A Business and Biodiversity segment aimed to make the corporate sector realise its enormous obligations.
With over 50 delegates representing state entities, NGOs and commissions, Pakistan rendered a reasonably prominent and purposeful role. Park conservator Ashiq Ahmed Khan became the first South Asian to receive the prestigious Kenton Miller award for services in Khunjerab National Park. Malik Amin Aslam, who completed his first term as vice president and regional councillor was re-elected for a second term 2016-2020, and ably conducted a crucial session.
Indus Earth Trust’s motion calling for the government of Pakistan to declare the Astola Island a marine protected area was endorsed. State and NGO members shared their experiences. The federal secretaries of climate change and planning and development also participated. Lt-Gen (r) Tariq Wasim Ghazi reported on how senior retired South Asian military officers strive to sensitise their respective armed forces on their conservation responsibilities, be these in Siachin or sea zones.
Aban Marker-Kabraji continues to competently serve as Asia director for the union’s largest region. This writer served on the Congress Governance Committee and hosted the workshop on the struggle to save the critically endangered vultures of Pakistan and South Asia.
Shaped by the theme ‘Planet at the crossroads’, the 2016 Congress is likely to become a landmark in the struggle to empower people and processes for environmental security.
The writer is a former senator and federal minister.