IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 - Part 2: An overview

Sylvia Earle addresses the Congress

Sylvia Earle addresses the Congress during a World Leaders' Dialogue on Feeding 9 billion people [16 Nov 14]

On Wednesday, November 19th, the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress came to a close after eight days of dialogues, presentations, lectures, workshops, capacity building sessions, and more. I plan to write in some detail about particular Congress events and sessions that I attended, and to reflect on the information and messages received as well as to unpack/critique some of the issues as I see them. In this post I will give a broad overview of my experience before getting into the details with later blog posts.


My overall impression of the Congress is that it was a fantastic and worthwhile opportunity to hear from a myriad of professionals who are working in conservation related fields, from park rangers to NASA scientists, wildlife photographers to development experts, and even business, finance and industry professionals. It was also great to see and hear many government leaders and ministers speaking about their commitments to strengthening Protected Areas (PAs), particularly the commitments of the Pacific Island leaders, Prime Minister of Cook Islands, Mr Henry Puna, President of Palau, Mr Tommy Remengesau Jr, and President of Kiribati, Mr Anote Tong. (It was also not so great to hear some leaders shirk or deflect from significant environmental commitments, but more on that in a later post). For those interested in a run-down of the week's events, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (iisd) has just released a summary of the World Parks Congress 2014 events, available here.

The eight streams in the Congress were as follows:

There were other cross-cutting themes that were incorporated into some of the stream sessions, as well as existing as stand-alone sessions. These themes were:

I was at the Congress every day, often from 8:30am to 7:30 or 9:30pm, and I managed to attend at least one session from each of the eight streams. I also attended Marine and Capacity Development theme sessions, as well as a few of the World Leaders' Dialogues.

Having never been to an event like this I had little knowledge of what to expect. I discovered on the first day that the 'pavilion' sessions were all held in the main exhibition hall at individual display booths (pavilions). It was good to be able to move around the space and find interesting things to listen to, although sometimes proximity to other pavilions meant that there were competing speakers, music, or video presentations vying for your attention.

WPC Pavilions

Pavilions in one of two, adjoining exhibition halls on the first full day [13 Nov 14]

The NASA pavilion was particularly engaging with their large, "hyperwall" display and their short but informative, 10-15 minute presentations that they gave throughout each day.

NASA 'Hyperwall' at the WPC

NASA's 'Hyperwall' at the WPC, making your power-point presentation look like a dot-matrix printout.

The number of participants was truly encouraging, with some 6,000 people from 170 countries participating throughout the week, which I believe was twice the number that was initially expected. It was also pretty neat to see and hear people from a range of organisations that I have only known through websites, reports, journals and news articles. High level representatives from [mouse-over the acronyms for the full organisation titles, or click to view their respective websites] IUCN, WCPA, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, UNCCD, WWF, CI, the World Bank, Stockholm Resilience Centre, along with many other organisations, were present and leading discussions.

As an aside, one presenter described the event as the 'Congress of Acronyms' due to the array of organisation and programme acronyms, from the organisations listed above to schemes and systems such as LMMAs, MPAs, ICCAs, NBSAPs, REDD+, WAVES, PADDD, or conventions and frameworks such as CITES, UNFCCC, and so on. I'm glad I'm almost half-way through my Masters programme because at least I have a passing understanding of most of these terms, although PADDD (Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement) and WAVES (Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services) were new ones to me. PADDD certainly seems relevant in the Australian context with national parks in Victoria and Queensland being opened for cattle grazing (Downgrading), not the mention the Coalition government's failed bid to delist 70,000 hectares of forest from the Tasmanian World Heritage Area (Downsizing).

To say the Congress was overwhelming is an understatement, as there were some 200 events scheduled for each day, often with dozens of events running concurrently. This lead to frequent consternation about which sessions to attend, especially when two, three, or four interesting looking sessions were scheduled at the same time. I ended up adding conflicting sessions to my schedule (either on the online schedule or in the mobile App) and then deciding closer to the event which one I would go to. I also discovered that many of the stream sessions were interconnected, as one would imagine in such an interdisciplinary Congress. For example, I attended a Governance session that had a strong focus on Indigenous rights, and a Development sessions that saw Biodiversity Conservation and Human Well-Being as integral starting points to direct Development discussions. Indeed, the connection and cross-over between Human Health/Well-Being and Conservation was a strong message in a number of sessions, particularly during the Health, Naturally - Managing Healthy Parks for Healthy People World Leaders' Dialogue.

WPC Dr Christopher Golden

Dr Christopher Golden speaks at the 'Health, Naturally' World Leaders' Dialogue: Conservation biologists may end up saving more lives than health professionals [16 Nov 14]

The quality of the sessions varied a lot, both in terms of content and structure of the sessions. I didn't find every session to be engaging, relevant to my interests, or well-presented, which meant it was always good to have a back-up session (or two) to attend. In general, however, I did find many of the sessions to be worthwhile.

There were some sessions that had familiar content, but hearing known concepts presented by working professionals made the familiar all the more compelling. For example, I attended a session on 'scenario planning' for climate change. I have studied similar methods that integrate uncertainty into future planning. The terminology I've heard used before is 'post-normal science' (Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1993), which decision-makers employ when uncertainty is high and, similarly, the decision-stakes, or consequences arising from the decisions made, are also high. Despite my familiarity with the material it was great to hear professionals, such as Jeff Mow (Superintendent of Glacier National Park in Montana, USA), speaking at a workshop on scenario planning and describing how he and his organisation facilitates and acts upon these concepts in their management systems.


The outcomes from the World Parks Congress are manifold. The principal outcome was the creation of The 'Promise of Sydney', a document that creates a pathway, with recommendations, guidance, aspirations, and warnings, to meet goals for protected area management over the coming decade(s).

The 'Promise of Sydney' was drafted prior to the Congress, with events and discussions during the Congress allowing participants to contribute to the text in the Promise. Facilitators and stream leaders collated and synthesised the messages devised during the stream sessions to input into the Promise. To be honest, I'm not sure how that synthesising process worked, but there were certainly some healthy discussions that I witnessed in relation to key aspects of the Promise, particularly in the Reconciling Development Challenges and Governance streams, so I hope some of those outcomes have made it into the Promise. Importantly, the Promise of Sydney exists as a 'living document', which means its messages are not set in stone and can be updated as required.

Pre-empted responses to criticisms of Protected Areas

It became very clear from the outset that criticisms of the efficacy of protected areas had been noted and addressed in both the 'Promise of Sydney' and the topics selected for the stream sessions. It is logical that the Congress does not exist in a vacuum, unaffected by progress since the last Congress in Durban, so lessons learned since Durban were readily integrated into the current Congress. Due to the breadth of issues covered in the Congress I'm not sure if all criticisms had been noted, but it certainly felt like we were hitting the ground running from the first day.

An article that I had seen circulating at the start of the Congress asks the valid question, "We have more parks than ever, so why is wildlife still vanishing?" I'd like to think that many of the authors' pertinent concerns were addressed, if not solved. At the start of the Congress it was clear that the discussions were taking the approach that protected areas are insufficient without both effective and monitored management, and clearly articulated goals. Without clear objectives it is not possible to define how an area should be managed. Congress sessions that asked, "What does success look like?" turned the discussion of Protected Areas (PAs) towards outcomes and goals, necessitating purposeful management and monitoring that would result in the desired outcomes.

It also seemed clear that the Aichi Target 11, which has provided us with the goals of protecting 17% of terrestrial habitats and 10% of marine habitats, has been perversely driving a kind of 'surface area' target, without engendering a) effective selection of areas to protect, and b) proactive management regimes to aid those protected areas. But this is also somewhat perplexing, as the full text of Aichi Target 11 does, as some speakers mentioned during the Congress, at least offer guidance for the selection and management of PAs, if not clear outcomes of such protection.

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. [emphasise mine]

Complementary to this interrogation of the efficacy of PAs was the call for landscape and seascape scale management systems (also covered in Aichi Target 11), integrating communities and industries that occupy the buffer zones around PAs to assist, and be assisted by, the PAs. This call very much challenged the isolationist or exclusivist ideas around PAs by recognising that the actions beyond park boundaries have dramatic impacts on park health and biodiversity, and that park health and biodiversity has dramatic effects on bordering communities. It is not enough to lock PAs up, leave them alone and hope for the best: we need to actively manage them.

Greater private sector inclusion also received support. Dr Anthony Hodge, of the ICMM, promoted the need to integrate industry and the private sector into planning, management, goal setting, and--importantly--financial support of PAs. He provided examples of working with farmers, rather than against farmers, to address agricultural run-off, which has devastating, cumulative effects on marine ecosystems including Australia's Great Barrier Reef. In the same session as Anthony Hodge were a couple of representatives from Shell, who were providing constructive feedback about the language in the Development stream. Hodge argued that we need to stop demonising industries, but it can be hard to bite one's tongue and refrain from  asking the Shell reps, "How are those oil leak compensation cases in Nigeria going?"

I also hope that the Congress has been of value to participants and presenters by allowing a cross-pollination of ideas, methods, warnings, and data through the collegial meeting of PA managers and workers. There were a number of sessions where a member of the audience and a panellist exchanged words to the effect of; "We need to chat and exchange details after this presentation." It was notable that members of the audience were also PA, conservation, and industry professionals, so there was a level of collegiality that was more participatory than might be found in a regular conference. But did people need to travel thousands of kilometres to be able to exchange details? Probably not, but then again, showing up at the World Parks Congress may display a level of commitment to developing practices and integrating new information that may not be evident in a cold-call/email exchange. Any thoughts?

Up next...

So that's a bit of a post-Congress primer. I want to write about some specific things that came up during the week in some follow-up blog posts (I'll add links once they're up). Particular points that stuck out for me include:

  • the political and politicised agendas and the need to read between the lines, particularly with regards to the host country's government representatives (Update [2/12/14]: my blog post is here: How to spin a reef);
  • conflicts over terminology, and whether it's just semantics or an issue that affects policy and outcomes (e.g., discussing 'triage' as a method for threatened species conservation);
  • the seemingly inevitable and universal adoption of Natural Capital Accounting without a lot of dissent or constructive criticism. (Dr Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend, IUCN Social Policy Programme, briefly raised sincerely expressed concerns about Natural Capital Accounting when accepting an IUCN Packard Award for inspiring leadership in conservation);
  • and some personal reflection on how the Congress has helped to shape and focus some of my own goals.

There will probably be some other items to add to that list, but it's a good starting point for further musings. I'd also add that there was room for fun amongst the serious topics, with several networking events and impromptu performances by the Fijian ensemble, Rako Pasefika (amongst others), bringing music, dance, song, and a whole bunch of liveliness to the Congress.

More to come soon!


Funtowicz, S.O. & Ravetz, J.R. (1993). The emergence of post normal science. In: Rene Von Schomberg (ed). Science, Politics and Morality. London, Kluwer Academic.


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