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Protected areas, a conservation tool against the erosion of biodiversity

At a time when scientists are talking about a sixth mass extinction, the erosion of biodiversity is a major challenge on a planetary scale. Considering the essential goods that biodiversity and ecosystems provide to mankind, it is becoming urgent to strengthen the restoration, conservation, and enhancement of our natural wealth to act effectively against the environmental degradation that persists.

In this sense, protected areas represent one of the pillars of nature conservation policies. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines them as "a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated by any effective legal or other means, to ensure the long-term conservation of nature and its associated ecosystem services and cultural values. Whether considered wild or not, they contribute to slowing environmental degradation by protecting species threatened by human activities while providing ecosystem services.

To encourage the development of protected areas, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) introduced the Green List in 2012. This document, which aims to strengthen the evaluation of areas and the effectiveness of their governance in a sustainable way, embodies an international label based on a standard of 17 quality criteria broken down into 50 indicators.

To sustainably protect and make visible the added value of protection to a territory are paramount issues. The 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that approximately 1 million animal and plant species are currently threatened with extinction. If biodiversity is a capital for the future, the pressures on natural environments are constantly increasing. In this respect, climate change represents a challenge to which the management of protected areas must adapt. In this regard, scientists have developed predictive models, seeking to account for the impacts of climate change, adaptive responses, and the evolution of ecological relationships within populations. The findings have prompted some to develop new conservation strategies, including reconfiguring the protected area perimeter to match the likely evolution of the target species and to better coincide with future conservation issues, or translocating species to areas with a more favorable climate.

Governance on an international scale

While these decisions are technical in nature, they are also the result of a political will for conservation. In 2010 in Nagoya, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defined the 20 Aichi Targets within the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020. Target 11 was directly related to the protection of protected areas and aimed at a minimum coverage of 17% of terrestrial areas and 10% of international marine and coastal areas. The 2020 report published jointly by IUCN and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) attests to the increase in the extent of protected areas across the globe, covering at least 17% of land. However, the target had not been reached in marine environments, where the area covered was limited to 8%. Despite the increase in protected areas, the erosion of biodiversity persists. For this reason, only 11% of the areas have evaluated the effectiveness of their management and less than 22% of species threatened with extinction are now adequately protected, according to the report. The States are thus expected to attend the second part of the COP 15 in Kunming in the spring of 2022 to set the new global framework for biodiversity and define the strategy by 2030.

The National Strategy for Protected Areas

At the European level, the Commission adopted the Biodiversity Strategy in May 2021, setting the 30x30 target of protecting at least 30% of the land area and 30% of the marine area by 2030, with at least one third under strong protection. A goal also carried by France, and presented by President Emmanuel Macron at the announcement of the National Strategy for Protected Areas (SNAP) during the One Planet Summit in January 2021.

Benefiting from a living heritage of unprecedented wealth and home to 10% of known species and 7 million hectares of tropical forests, France has a conservation responsibility. The National Strategy for Protected Areas sets out, for the first time, a global vision by recognizing the obvious link between terrestrial and marine issues in France and overseas. With the ambition to contribute to curb the loss of biodiversity and to promote the resilience of nature in the face of global changes, the new strategy strengthens the involvement of territorial actors by 2030. To do this, the document shows the creation of new protected areas, insists on an effective management of areas that adapts to changing ecological and socio-economic issues and questions the priorities for achieving 30% of the national territory and maritime waters under protected jurisdiction.

Focus on the role of communities

The strategy advocates an ambitious framework, that of a strong and coherent territorial integration. In this respect, the local authorities have been given extended competences in the field of biodiversity and the 2021-2023 action plan identifies them as essential partners in the development of the protected area network. Among other things, they contribute to the creation and extension of twenty national nature reserves and four national parks, the protection of coral reefs, the identification of new areas to be protected, and the definition and implementation of territorial action plans, while ensuring the development and recognition of management tools that contribute to the conservation of ecosystems.

The case of the Glorieuses archipelago

The Glorieuses archipelago, administered by the French Southern and Antarctic Lands (TAAF), is one of the five territories that make up the Eparses Islands district in the Indian Ocean. Located in the heart of one of the world's 35 biodiversity "hotspots," it is characterized by a great diversity of coastal and oceanic habitats whose strong connectivity with neighboring islands and coasts contributes to the resilience of the region's ecosystems. The richness of the local biodiversity includes 2,567 species of which about 20% are listed on the appendices of regional and international conventions and/or are listed on the IUCN Red List. It is also an exceptional breeding site for green and hawksbill turtles. However, strong anthropic pressures weigh on these ecosystems: illegal fishing, poaching, the presence of invasive exotic species, and human frequentation contribute to their degradation. In addition, the effects of climate change, accentuated in insular and tropical environments, are also present.

Despite the progress made by the Glorieuses Marine Natural Park created in 2012, then the only natural heritage management tool applicable beyond the territorial waters under French jurisdiction, increasing threats continued to damage the maritime and terrestrial heritages. Thus, faced with the need to strengthen protection in an integrated, effective and sustainable manner, the TAAF and the French Office of Biodiversity identified the National Nature Reserve (RNN) tool as the best suited to the ecological challenges of the territory. Scientific work has made it possible to map the zones with high conservation stakes, including the perimeters of strong protection, and a regulation affirms two principles: the preservation and restoration of ecological functions and the supervision of human activities within the reserve. This work allowed the establishment of the national nature reserve of the Glorieuses archipelago by the decree of June 8, 2021, leading to the disappearance of the marine park. Governance, which is the responsibility of the TAAF administration, is now supported by a Scientific Committee and an Advisory Committee.

The creation of the national nature reserve embodies a concretization of SNAP and responds to France's commitments to classify 30% of its space as protected areas by 2030 and to protect 100% of coral reefs by 2025.

The 2021 scorecard of French protected areas published by the French Committee of the IUCN lists 5923 protected areas representing 34.7% of its territory, i.e. 34.9% of our oceans, seas and coasts and 32.4% of land.

A contested strategy

Nature conservation NGOs, such as FNE, Greenpeace, Oceana, and Bloom have been quick to point out their disappointment with the lack of ambition of SNAP and the limits of legal tools to ensure the conservation of ecosystems. In particular, the French Committee of the IUCN and the National Committee for Biodiversity (NCB) expressed the need to correlate the quantitative objectives with qualitative criteria - such as the ecological coherence of the network, connectivity, and contribution to the resilience of ecosystems - to ensure the main objective of conservation. To this end, the French Committee of the IUCN insists on the need for regular monitoring and a qualitative assessment based on "precise and measurable indicators".

In addition, numerous protests pointed to the vagueness of the notion of "strong protection" and the methods of counting the areas concerned. In response, a decree was adopted on April 12, 2022 by the Ministry of Ecological Transition. The strong protection, not a new category of protected areas, but a categorization responding to an environmental quality, is defined as follows in the first article: "a geographical area in which the pressures generated by human activities likely to compromise the conservation of ecological issues are absent, avoided, eliminated or strongly limited, and this in a sustainable manner, through the implementation of a land protection or an adapted regulation, associated with an effective control of the activities concerned. The other articles of the decree provide details on the implementation methods for land and sea environments.

On the other hand, the French Committee of the IUCN regrets that the objective of full naturalness favoring non-interventionist approaches does not appear in the strategy. Although this objective has already been successfully implemented in several networks, in particular in biological reserves, it cannot be assimilated to the notion of strong protection.

Finally, the lack of elements concerning the financing of the strategy, on which the effectiveness of the protection depends, is of concern to both committees. They insist on the need to significantly increase the means dedicated to protected areas to ensure their management, control and monitoring.

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