Conserving the Coral Reefs and Rainforests of “Europe”

A clownfish hides in an anemone in a coral reef in Moorea, French Polynesia.

A clownfish hides in an anemone in a coral reef in Moorea, French Polynesia. (© CI/photo by Jean-Philippe Palasi)

Seen from the urban environment of Brussels, the direct link between biodiversity and human well-being might seem like a vague concept. But for the people of French Polynesia, it is an obvious reality. If their coral reefs were to bleach and die because of climate change, they would lose the main pillars of their economy: tourism, the pearl industry and coastal fishing. Even more dramatically, their coastline and people would be left without natural protection against the effects of sea level rise and extreme weather events.

On September 18, I was invited to make a presentation in an official hearing of the European Parliament on the theme “Transforming overseas territories in an engine for the EU’s development policy.” The topic of this hearing — and the fact that CI was invited — gives me hope that the EU is finally paying attention to the ecological importance of EU overseas territories.

During the hearing, we witnessed a highly unusual scene. A man stood up from the panel and performed a spectacular song and dance to the amazement of speakers, translators and parliamentarians alike.

This man was Jacky Bryant, the minister of environment of French Polynesia, and the dance was a traditional welcome ritual from the South Pacific. This was his way of reminding the European Parliament about those 5.8 million EU citizens who live in EU overseas regions and territories and are dependent on the natural environment for their livelihoods.

The EU has an incredible network of 32 overseas territories linked to six European nations: France, the U.K., Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. They are scattered around the world (see map below), from the poles to the tropics, on all oceans — and even in the Amazon, in the case of French Guiana.

These territories may seem small, but they are ecological giants. What happens to Greenland’s ice cap matters to the whole world. The French and British subantarctic islands have the highest biomass of sea birds in the world. French Guiana has some of the planet’s most intact rainforest. New Caledonia alone has more endemic species than the entire European continent! With these territories, the EU and its member states have a presence in five biodiversity hotspots, host 7% of global coral reefs and manage 18.5% of the ocean’s exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

Until recently, the EU paid little attention to these facts. Awareness among EU institutions was low, and these issues were left to the national or local level. Apart from the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands, all territories were excluded from EU legislation and funding for ecosystems and biodiversity. In a striking paradox, those EU citizens most in need of support for their biodiversity were precisely those excluded from the relevant initiatives.

Primary forest of Réunion Island, a French territory in the Western Indian Ocean.

Primary forest of Réunion Island, a French territory in the Western Indian Ocean. (© CI/photo by Jean-Philippe Palasi)

Through the years of working on conservation policy in Europe, I have constantly raised awareness about this situation, calling for proper EU attention to the ecological challenges of these territories. Since the creation of CI-Europe in 2010, we have been working with IUCN and BirdLife International to engage authorities on these issues at local, national and EU levels.

We have made significant progress. In the last couple of years, the EU opened their LIFE biodiversity budget line to some of the territories, acknowledging for the first time the need to protect their ecosystems. Then, they launched a pilot initiative known as BEST (Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services in Territories), offering grants to local stakeholders. The objective was to test how the EU can help protect key ecosystems that provide vital services to human populations, such as fresh water, food security, coastal protection and nature-based tourism.

The response was phenomenal, with excellent projects from various territories. It came as a confirmation that EU support is needed, and can generate a fantastic mobilization of local stakeholders.

The day following last week’s hearing, the European Parliament went a step further and voted to open LIFE funding to all territories — another wonderful sign of progress.

Next, we hope that the European Commission and EU Council will confirm this decision as soon as possible, and that this funding will help transform the BEST initiative into a permanent framework for the management of biodiversity and ecosystem services in all EU territories.

Jean-Philippe Palasi

Jean-Philippe Palasi

Hopefully, these are only the first steps. My dream is to see these territories become role models of green economy, showing the way in critical parts of the world such as the Caribbean, the Guiana Shield, the Western Indian Ocean, Oceania, the polar regions and more. They have many ingredients for success: beautiful and rich ecosystems, a vast potential for green technologies and renewable energies, educated people, stable institutions, democracy — and now, growing support from the European Union.

Jean-Philippe Palasi is the director of EU policy at CI-Europe.


  1. James says

    Yey!!! Delighted to hear that LIFE funding will be available for all EU overseas territories! If SAC and SPA designations could be stretched for habitat types in the territories, there could be more fantastic progress, and no doubt a multitude of new species would be found with the associated scientific surveys and monitoring.

  2. Carol Tarrant says

    I want to trust your motives because I have long agreed that these islands are eco giants. However whenever european or western countries show an interest it is only to extract minerals. The french have a lovely town at one end of New Caledonia, whilst the indigenous banana, coffee and fish harvesting indigenous former owners of the island keep a delicate balance of rainforest whilst sitting on what is now a french owned nickle bed. I fear for our involvement in Europe because I see how Indonesia completly failed to value the people or the ecology of West Papua/Old Irian Jaya….when it occupied and colonised these Melanesian tribes people against their will just fifty years ago. There is no respect for the ancient tribes there or their customs or languages. They are becoming extinct through discrimination and military violence. I don’t like the ‘taking it over for their own good’ concept as it spelled the end of the bio diversity giant West Papua whose wonderful rainforest is being logged and mined and has become a living hell for most of its native Melanesian tribal peoples under military occupation with violent impunity existing there now whilst their resources are cyphoned out. Why does it take the planet so long to value what these places are? We should contemplate that before we cover them in airstrips and accesable roadways….in order to strip them of all they have! The indigenous people who live on these islands and have survived for millenia, have a knowledge we should value about eco balance, flora and fauna, rarely sighted animals and birds ….. medicines…sustainable lifestyles and community values…We bring disease, greed and an urgency to exploit them.
    I wonder at the motives for this initiative. Europe has known of the rising waters, known of the eco systems present and looked the other way when human rights were being transgressed by the initial colonisation of these indigenous people. Vested interests have scewed politics for the USA, UK, Australia, Netherlands, Germany and China who have all have decided to call Indonesia an emerging democracy for the outside worlds benefit, and even grant Indonesian President SBY with a state visit to UK next month. Torture is legal in his country and we all sell him Arms to use for atrocities to these exploited occupied colonised people….all in order to gain the resources. So why would our motives change? Please assure me of what is really happening here.

  3. Jean-Philippe Palasi says

    Dear James, thanks for your feedback.

    At this point LIFE is open to ORs but not yet to OCTs, so we are still half way in our efforts. But with the recent vote in the European Parliament we definitely hope OCTs too will benefit soon. We will keep up the advocacy work until we see it happen!

    Also, you are right that a system for the systematic identification and management of key habitats is also necessary. Unfortunatly Natura 2000 does not apply to most of these entities, which is why we are encouraging the European Commission to come up with an alternative framework.

    All the best,

  4. Jean-Philippe Palasi says

    Dear Carol,

    Thank you for your message and yes, you can fully trust our motives. Our sole purpose in this advocacy work at EU level is to raise awareness about the vital importance of natural ecosystems in these territories, and help mobilise new resources to support local stakeholders.

    On the specific case of New Caledonia: CI has an local office there for several years and we have good relations with authorities at all levels: EU, French governement, New Caledonia governement, Provinces, Senate, tribal authorities, as well as with local NGOs and research institutes Our focus is to help them protect their unique ecosystems and build a greener economy.

    All the best,

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