IUCN World Conservation Congress begins

At the start of the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea, IIED’s Director Camilla Toulmin, reflects on the controversies and challenges that it faces.

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6 September 2012

The rugged coastline of Jeju Island, South Korea, where the World Conservation Congress is being held.

This week I’ve been walking in the high Pyrenees. It’s a good reminder of nature's beauty, and occasional harsh dangers. A few large flocks of sheep still dot the upland pastures, getting the best of the last summer grazing before being driven down to the valley by cold winds and sleet. The rapid shrinking of the nearby Aneto glacier shows no part of the planet can hide from global warming.

Today I will be attending the IUCN World Conservation congress, referred to as "the world’s largest and most important conservation event." The doyenne of conservation organisations, it brings together people from across the globe with an interest in ecology, biodiversity and how we can all live within nature's limits. There'll be people from member governments and businesses, social movements, scientists and indigenous peoples. It makes for a lively, argumentative event.

But we’re not there just to argue and debate – we need concrete outcomes. After the disappointments of the Rio summit in June, when governments backed off making any meaningful commitments to make our economic system more compatible with planetary boundaries, we'll hope that this more focused arena will concentrate minds on what must be done.

We need to remember why we’re there. The natural world and the species we share it with face threats whose scale can only spell trouble on humanity’s own horizon. Our own wellbeing hinges on that of the planet’s – and so do our economies.

That’s why we should all be concerned by a recent report by the Zoological Society of London, in conjunction with IUCN and Wildscreen, which showed that one fifth of the world’s invertebrates could be at risk of extinction. Despite their lesser visibility and charisma in comparison with many mammals, the report highlights the huge economic importance of these creatures. Scientists reviewing the 12,000 invertebrates from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species found freshwater species – covering everything from crayfish and molluscs to insects – to be at highest risk of extinction. For example, if the current trend in coral reef degradation continues it predicts losses of $100 million to fisheries by 2015.

Food prices on the rise

This is just one of many pressing issues facing our planet. Current food prices are shooting skywards again. Due largely to a combination of drought conditions in the US and strong demand for maize to be made into biofuels, the FAO Food price index says the price of maize, or corn, rose by almost 23% in July. At the conference I will be on the panel at the World Leader's Dialogue talking about how we build a fairer, more sustainable food system that works with the grain of natural systems and assures access for all.

IIED researchers are also taking part in two other workshops at the conference – one on the links between conservation, poverty and livelihoods, and another on using traditional knowledge to help people adapt to climate change.

Controversial location

The Congress is being held on the island of Jeju, South Korea. The IUCN has come under criticism from activists because of the Korean government's programme to build a large naval base on Jeju, displacing local villagers and fisherfolk. The IUCN says in this statement that it “trusts the Korean government has complied with all relevant domestic laws in planning and developing this port”.

Is it best to boycott an event because of such controversy? There are no easy answers, but I hope that the potential outcomes from going to such a meeting, and of making the dispute visible to observers from around the world, makes it a better option than staying away.

Find out more about the workshops that we will be running at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. 

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