Dispatch from Sydney: The World Parks Congress

"Whose gonna stand up to the big machine?"

Stand up to fossil fuels.

End fracking now!

Who's gonna stand up and save the earth?”

This was the final refrain of the youth delegation at the World Parks Congress. It was sung in front of several thousand odd people, to by and large a strong ovation. Youth, primarily from northern/western countries, played somewhat of an outsized role at the Congress’ large plenary presentations, which supported the strong theme of IUCN in its organization of the Congress – the future is in the hands of the youth.

Point well taken.

Prior to the final singing, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times together with figures from National Geographic, Kenyan television, and a famous photographer discussed issues around uptake – what will it take for transformational change to save the planet to occur? The common denominator answer – a conveyed and uptaken sense of self-preservation. This was distinct from enjoying protected areas as zoos but rather, conservation of nature needs to happen for self preservational purposes. And to succeed in uptake, a good story must be told. Click here for a media review of the proceedings and commitments made under the “Promise of Sydney”, and here to see a glimpse of the Congress.

But back to the main events prior to the final ceremonies…

The question many of us were left with in Sydney was simple: could the brainpower and energy at this event possibly be transformed into an action plan for moving forward on the VERY broad array of people and parks issues addressed at the World Parks Congress?

Of course everyone in attendance wanted to be optimistic. Without starting by answering the question with a, "yes, but...," here are a number of issues I've culled from conversations and my own observations over the Congress. I'll try to offer them in some descending logical order:

1. Can there be transformational change from "The Promise of Sydney"?

Answer: I doubt it. To have transformational change in my view necessitates what was called here "a new social compact," also known as a social contract. Yet, oddly, I failed in participating in one single social compact session because apparently, only a small core group of self-selected people were discussing/negotiating over the new social compact. In my view this isn't a great way to do this kind of business; if you’re going to advertise that a new social compact is a major “stream” event, then it cannot be open to a select few. This seems to be a contradiction in terms. Multiple stakeholders need to be able to negotiate views by getting space at the table and ultimately, the right to participate in decision making for it to work. If we’re going to demand that for indigenous peoples and local communities in conservation, than at least delegates to the WPC should have a similar chance analogously as well.

Instead, we had an array of interesting sessions that inevitably became "siloed" and didn’t have any clear sense of integration. Nor was a pet peeve of mine that I repeatedly raised to a large degree of agreement – the need for feasibility and threshold metrics for measuring its establishment – a concern by and large at the proceedings.

Much was, as is often the case, aspirational. That said, there were in fact many sessions reporting back on projects which were informative and provocative at the scale they operated at. Particularly valuable was USAID’s panel on biodiversity projects, which featured the Cordillera Azul, Coral Triangle, and a group ranch implemented by the African Wildlife Foundation in Kenya. So too, was Chemonics’ own SAREP and RESILIM projects, along with the star of the show to me – the Namibia multi-stakeholder group of communities, government, and ecotourism companies who in essence have negotiated a social contract that is producing impressive measurable results in terms of increased wildlife numbers and enhanced livelihood security for communities. For me, this was the sole operationalization of a seemingly sustainable social compact I heard at the Congress.

 2. Is there anything innovative to come out of Sydney?

Yes, for sure there were reports on interesting technologies ranging from UMD’s Global Forest Watch to our own SAREP’s chili pepper spray to keep problem elephants at bay and out of farmers’ fields. There were umpteen reports on projects that are doing well. There was a newfound focus and energy on indigenous peoples’ rights and the centrality of communities in conservation in protected areas. So yes, on a tree level, lots of interesting innovations were shared with congress delegates. But in terms of new processes and a roadmap for moving forward – not much.

3. Did clear development trends emerge?

I believe that there are a number of development trends that—at least from the perspective of our environment and natural resource practice—clearly emerged from presentations at the Congress. So too, we made potential new relationships and strengthened existing ones. Here perhaps most constructively, a series of dialogues with the SAREP and RESILIM delegates has led us to agree to building a model for how the our practice group and SAREP/RESILIM can develop an ongoing dialogue and set of activities  to model interactions between the practice and projects in the field. Maybe this was the most meaningful part of the Congress from my perspective, as I really got to know my own colleagues in the field, including Steve Johnson, Kule Chitepo, and Steve Collins, as well as home-office Manager Ross Lowry.

4. What about the next World Parks Congress?

Fortunately, this only happens once every ten years! Without significant subsidies for the event, travel and means to sustain 4,000 people in an expensive destination like Sydney, many of us hope that the state of affairs ten years from now will be justified by good deeds coming out of Sydney. My sense is that these will need to be more in the form of bottom-up groundswell than any grand top-down plan that the organizers may hope to have emerge from this particular Congress. But to be clear – this particular congress is an event well worth attending, warts and all.

Michael Brown is a director in Chemonics’ environment and natural resources practice and serves as manager of the Restoring the Environment through Prosperity, Livelihoods And Conserving Ecosystems (REPLACE) IDIQ.



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