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Sunday, 21 July 2019

Guest post by Lisa Kopsieker, Student Blogging Contest Series 2019

 Privately protected areas: Stepping into the limelight

A Whole New World

I always knew protected areas were special. Growing up in East Africa, my family would pack up on weekends and head off on camping trips to one of the nearby national parks. Falling asleep to the deep bellows of the lions, the cracks of twigs where elephants were passing through and the munching sounds of the hippos grazing around my tent, was the most natural thing in the world. It wasn’t until I moved to Europe that I truly realized how special these experiences had been. My nightly soundscape was now composed of ringing church bells and ambulance sirens cutting through the constant hum of traffic. I remember thinking that there was so little space! Buildings sandwiched so close together that it was hard to get a view without a human-built structure in the way. I missed the vast expanses of the rolling hills in Uganda and the dry grassland savannah of Kenya merging with the distant horizon. Luckily, Europe too has protected areas that I was excited to explore.

I can confirm that I have now delved into the topic of protected areas in Europe[1] thoroughly. It has even become the focus of my master’s thesis, so perhaps a slight obsession. Over the years I have gained a newfound respect for Europe and especially the European Union. I can’t imagine a more challenging problem than attempting to continually develop and expand the economy of one of the most urbanized landscapes, all while trying to prevent further environmental degradation. Western Europe has suffered tremendously from habitat fragmentation. Natural landscapes (however they may be defined) are scarce if not non-existent. While international agendas are pushing for biodiversity protection, Europe is scrambling to save the little it has left. 

Introducing: Privately Protected Areas!

One of the most effective conservation measures is protected areas. In an urbanized landscape, privately protected areas[1] (PPAs) can be vital. To ensure protected area connectedness and biodiversity representativeness, these smaller land parcels ensure that the state-owned lands are not isolated islands floating in a sea of disturbance. PPAs create a network of protection that can enable habitats to recover, flourish and persist. Nothing can prosper in isolation.

I admit, prior to my thesis, I knew little about private land conservation. I was oblivious to the fact that many of my favourite hiking trails in Germany were actually passing through PPAs. My dogs and I would wind our way through luscious forests, stumble along precariously balanced rocks on sluggishly-flowing brooks and pause in awe when the countryside stretched out in front of us. Appropriately named “Traumpfade” (literally dream paths) these hiking networks in the Rhine-Mosel-Eifel region often encompass NGO-governed land, conserved for its scenic and cultural beauty.

The general lack of knowledge regarding PPAs is a huge part of the problem! The term “privately protected area” is often misunderstood and with over 50 definitions existing worldwide, it is hardly

surprising. They are frequently not recognised as a separate entity of protection and are ignored in policy-making processes. PPAs can’t be approached in the same manner as larger state-owned national parks. They are highly complex with many stakeholders involved and various funding mechanisms, which secure their permanence. But these complexities are also their benefit. PPAs can respond quickly to environmental change, threats and opportunities and their decentralized existence makes them highly valuable in the face of uncertainty. Aichi target 11[1], emphasizing the importance of protecting land for biodiversity, cannot be reached without a significant contribution from private land conservation. I expected Europe to be taking a lead on this. Especially considering European countries’ strong involvement in policy-level decision-making and the frequent mention of the importance of ecosystem connectedness and representativeness. With small pockets of biodiversity within a highly fragmented and urbanized landscape, Europe is the ideal setting for land conservation by private owners and non-profit organisations. Although the protection is ongoing, there is little support from regional, national and even EU-level governments and incentives for private land conservation are few and far between. Furthermore, even the official acknowledgement of PPAs and their importance for biodiversity protection is lacking.

Where is the data?

For my thesis, the first step was determining the location of PPAs in the landscape. Initially, I thought the World Database of Protected Areas (WDPA) might be a good start, but I was quickly surprised. Countries are under no obligation to report governance type to the WDPA, so most protected areas are registered as federal, national or ministry, even if they are in fact PPAs. Furthermore, after contacting experts and scouring open-access databases, I discovered that few European countries collect PPA information in a centralised format. The data is scattered around various federal institutions, land-owning or conservation organisations, companies or experts. I admit, it would be a daunting task to start collating this information but how can countries begin making informed decisions on future conservation approaches, if such basic information is not coordinated? Policies need to be based on sound scientific knowledge founded in reliable data. But where is the data? The European Land Conservation Network (ELCN, funded by a LIFE grant) is making a start but I am surprised that it has taken this long to coordinate, when countries like South Africa, Namibia, Australia and the US have well-developed PPA systems with covenants (or similar agreements) in place. Their reporting to the WDPA, albeit not perfect, is much more comprehensive than that of western Europe.

Change is coming…

Private land conservation in Europe is a challenge to comprehensively encompass because each country addresses land conservation differently. Even within a country, regions may have completely contrasting approaches. Take Belgium for example. In Flanders, any entity, 

from a single landowner to a large corporation can apply for their land to be recognised as a Nature Reserve. In Wallonia on the other hand, the process is much less autonomous and based more on the functionality of areas within the overarching integrated planning process of the relevant governmental departments. Both collate information on their Nature Reserves in open-access databases, but these are incomplete and do not fully encompass areas managed or owned by NGOs. Acknowledgment of these problems is growing, and focus is shifting towards finding solutions. In the UK an initiative called Putting Nature On The Map (PNOTM) started to collate detailed protected area information, specifically on governance type and reported their updates to the WDPA. Although only around 900 of the thousands of existing PPAs in the country were captured, this is a start and raises awareness of the work to be done.

We have the opportunity to do better and to strengthen our scientific knowledge-base. PPAs are valuable, worth investment and deserve more attention. After all, they could be a vital component to conserving Europe’s remaining biodiversity. With the post-2020 global biodiversity framework under development, it is prime time to fully incorporate PPAs as an important conservation tool, to enable accurate, well-coordinated data collection and a greater focus on effective financial incentives.

[1] When I refer to Europe, I mean western Europe. I can say little about eastern European countries and their landscapes are very different than what I discuss.
[2] “A PPA is a protected area, as defined by IUCN, under private governance (i.e. individuals and groups of individuals; non-governmental organisations (NGOs); corporations-both existing commercial companies and sometimes corporations set up by groups of private owners to manage groups of PPAs; for-profit owners; research entities (e.g. universities, field stations)” (Source: Sue Stolton, Kent H. Redford and Nigel Dudley (2014). The Futures of Privately Protected Areas. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.)

[3] Target 11: By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, 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 landscape and seascape (document COP/10/INF/12/Rev.1).

About the author

Lisa Kopsieker is a German native and spent most of my childhood in southern and eastern Africa. I did a BSc in Ecological and Environmental Sciences with Management at the University of Edinburgh and continued on to do an MSc in Conservation Science at Imperial College London. I am currently working on my thesis, exploring the spread of privately protected areas in Europe.