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.
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.
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.