At the same time that WWF was identifying the Global 200, a sister organisation - TNC - was also examining how to work at a large geographical scale. Between the two of us they invented a new approach which we called Ecoregion-based Conservation.
This was quite an exciting period as conservationists had not developed a new tool for their problems for some years, and here was a new and ambitious approach in the run-up to the new millennium. Ecoregion conservation basically involves standing back, as if from space, and asking "what needs to change to secure the long-term conservation of this ecoregion?"
The approach is based upon 4 fundamental principles of biodiversity conservation:
- representation of all native habitats;
- maintenance of viable populations of all native species;
- maintenance of essential ecological processes;
- maintaining resilience to ecological change.
By viewing these needs from a distance the observer is forced into thinking about the fundamental changes that are required to achieve them and the challenge creates questions that begin to give the clues as to the work which is required:
- What are the current trends of environmental change within the ecoregion and who is affected by them, both positively and negatively?
- What current processes are taking place within the ecoregion, especially related to development, and how might they be impinging upon the environment? This usually entails a host of issues such as landscape change for agriculture, industrial development, city expansion, port construction, change in drainage patterns through dams, irrigation channels or other hydrological change. What can be done to mitigate the impact of these?
- What are the fundamental forces driving those changes which may be damaging? This may be economic pressures from inside the ecoregion or outside the ecoregion (e.g. structural adjustment loans, or perverse subsidies driving change),demographic issues, internal political issues.
- Who are the players concerned with the environment and what are their capacities to deal with the challenges? This involves looking at both government and non-government institutions and their strengths and weaknesses.
- What are the key landscapes and habitats in the ecoregion and do they have adequate protection currently? If not, what should be added to a protected areas system?
By standing back and answering far-reaching questions like these, ecoregion conservation forces the questioner to think broadly and creatively, to look at the wider picture,to examine fundamental drivers rather than immediate symptoms.
It requires that not only the systems for protecting nature (national parks and protected areas) be adequately addressed, but that policies influencing them and the land area which connects them are also sound. These policies may be those of governments inside the ecoregion (e.g. land-use policies, water-quality policies, transport plans, inter-ministerial relationships, etc.), or they may be policies stemming from institutions outside the ecoregion - the impact of World Bank structural adjustment loans, EU agricultural subsidies and how they influence agriculture in developing countries, foreign direct investment and how it impacts poverty-alleviation programmes and trade in various commodities.
All these may be of fundamental importance to environmental security within an ecoregion, but may require work in centres well away from the specific ecoregion.
By asking who is involved, who are the environmental stakeholders, an ecoregion approach also encourages the formation of partnerships to work together on a conservation programme.
This latter point is critical as normally a single organisation on its own cannot cover the whole range of activities which are needed; it is usually essential to reach out to others with different skills, interests and needs.
Some of the most important conservation breakthroughs of recent years have resulted from the joint activities of non-traditional partners, both of which may have had an interest in a sound environment but perhaps for different reasons.