Why you should care about the World Conservation Congress

A malachite sunbird rests on a flower in South Africa

A malachite sunbird rests on a flower in South Africa. (© Scotch Macaskill)

Editor’s note: Call it the “World Cup of conservation.”

On September 1, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress will kick off in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. Held every four years, the congress brings together thousands of leaders and decision-makers from government, civil society, indigenous groups, business and academia from around the globe to discuss the most pressing environmental issues of our time. Kristen Walker Painemilla, senior vice president of Conservation International’s (CI) Policy Center for Environment and Peace, sat down with Human Nature to explain why this event matters.

Question: What is the World Conservation Congress?

Answer: CI is a member of IUCN, a membership union uniquely composed of government and civil society organizations whose members work collectively to leverage knowledge and tools that set a broad agenda for the environment.

Every four years, the IUCN World Conservation Congress allows all of the members to come together and take the pulse of what has been done and figure out what we still need to do to conserve the environment and harness the solutions nature offers to global challenges.

The first week is the congress itself, where the community has the opportunity to showcase experiences and tackle issues. It is a hub of public debate, bringing together people from all walks of life to discuss the world’s most pressing conservation and sustainability challenges.

The second week is the members’ assembly, which is IUCN’s highest decision-making body and is unique in that it involves governments and NGOs making joint decisions on conservation and sustainability. The assembly evaluates the past program of work, proposes a new one and puts forth motions for debate and adoption. During the assembly, the IUCN Council is elected.

It is not a legally binding meeting, but it does influence the agendas of many countries, as well as major international U.N. meetings.

Q: Why should the general public care about the outcomes of this meeting?

A: The theme for this WCC is “planet at the crossroads,” asking participants to evaluate how the world as a whole is managing issues from climate change to development to increased demand on food sources. These are issues that touch the lives of everyone on Earth, so we all have a stake in the global community finding solutions as quickly as possible.

This event brings together the world’s expertise on environmental issues. So for people who want to find out what’s going on in the environment, the WCC is where the heart of the environmental movement is. It’s an area not only to share and showcase one’s work, but to learn. I think we see the best of the conservation community at the WCC — the challenging conversations, the building of partnerships across various sectors.

Also, this meeting’s Hawai‘i locale marks the first time the U.S. government has agreed to host a World Conservation Congress — and this decision, combined with President Obama’s recent expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, sends a strong message.

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Q: Do you think any major decisions will be made at this WCC?

A: Even though decisions made here are not legally binding per se, they’re still very important. For example, many major decisions and resolutions on indigenous peoples’ issues and conservation were first introduced through discussions at IUCN congresses. As a result, CI, working in tandem with what’s going on inside IUCN, has adopted a rights-based approach for working with indigenous peoples.

Over time, IUCN congresses have transformed the conservation movement and how we’re approaching things. The downside is that there are more motions put forth at the congresses than can possibly be implemented across all the institutions, so it is the responsibility of the IUCN secretariat and its members to work across the union to prioritize and implement resolutions for action.

Q: What are CI’s objectives for this meeting?

A: We want to show how investing in both conservation and people is important. To achieve the long-term sustainability of the planet, you just can’t invest in one protected area alone. You need to invest in the people in and around that protected area. CI does this through endowments that fund protected areas — helping to relieve countries of their debts in exchange for investments in important ecosystems — and through microfinancing conservation through organizations like the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), which has leveraged over half a billion dollars toward local conservation work in developing countries.

I think we also need to stress the issue of sustainable financing. After all, if we can’t secure reliable sources of funding for the conservation efforts the world needs, then the conversation will go nowhere.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature. Kristen Walker Painemilla is the senior vice president of Conservation International’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace.

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