The Australian government has launched a process to recognise so-called other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) in a bid to increase available options to meet its biodiversity targets, a move considered by many nations worldwide as they ponder how to comply with the 30×30 target in the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework.
Australia estimates it needs to protect or conserve an additional 60 million hectares of land to meet its GBF-aligned national target of protecting 30% of land by the end of the decade.
“For Australia to meet a national target, and make a strong contribution to a global 30 by 30 target, identification, recognition, recording, and reporting of OECMs will be required,” the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment, and Water (DCCEEW) said as it launched a public consultation process on the principles that should underpin a domestic OECM framework.
The paper covers OECM for land areas only, but said the process would be helpful for a potential expansion to marine areas in the future.
OECMs, first mentioned over a decade ago but only properly defined in 2018 by conservation group IUCN, are areas that provide long-term biodiversity conservation even if that isn’t their primary function, such as public parks, or that for various reasons can’t or won’t be classified as protected areas.
The concept is approved under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and if done right is not considered lower-quality conservation than areas formally classified as protected.
Uptake has been slow, however, with only nine nations worldwide having registered OECM areas, according to IUCN data, up from just three at the end of 2020.
But a number of countries, including the EU, are considering adopting OECM frameworks in order to meet challenging new nature targets, with the Norwegian minister of foreign affairs stating that such arrangements would be necessary after the signing of the global high seas treaty earlier this month.
India was among the countries registering its first OECM last year, and with biodiversity rich Australia now looking set to formally recognise them, others are likely to follow.
In the consultation paper, Australia said recognising OECMs would give greater recognition to areas important for biodiversity where formal protected area designation is not possible or supported, build ecologically representative and well-connected conservation networks, and recognise Indigenous land management in circumstances where protected area status is not appropriate or desired.
It would also help recognise conservation efforts in areas where land is managed for other purposes, such as productive landscapes, it said.
While OECM status would have to be voluntary and provide well-documented biodiversity gains, it would not necessarily require additional efforts, according to the consultation paper.
As an example, it mentioned a hypothetical water supply catchment area with high biodiversity values that already have legal protection in place for water supply purposes. In that case, the area could be defined as an OECM without imposing extra work on anyone, as long as the land managers were happy with it.
A site that is under ecological restoration could be considered as an OECM, but only once it is delivering demonstrable and significant biodiversity outcomes, the paper proposed.
A site that is severely degraded that has not yet undergone restoration work could not be classified as OECM.
It also recommended that a site would be considered for protected area status before being considered as an OECM, and that OECM status should be considered only when it is not appropriate, desirable, or possible to consider it for protected area status.
Further, the DCCEEW noted that the land management objectives and activities must not be incompatible with biodiversity conservation, and that site management plans must have clear conservation objectives laid out.
There also must be a clear long-term intention for the management to achieve biodiversity and nature restoration, however it does not provide a specific minimum time frame.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge in “Caring for Country” should be considered in OECM management arrangements, the paper added.
While governments have been slow to adopt the OECM concept, some conservationists and academics have been advocating for its use for some time.
“We call on the CBD parties and the conservation community of policymakers, scientists, practitioners, and donors to study and use OECMs more, alongside protected areas. This policy tool can advance equitable and effective conservation if CBD parties stay true to the convention’s intent to sustain biodiversity rather than ‘achieve’ area-based targets. But more groundwork must be laid to realise its potential,” a group of experts wrote in a comment in Nature magazine in 2021.
By Mark Tilly and Stian Reklev – email@example.com
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