“The real question is: What do we have to protect biodiversity from?”

Negotiations on a new global biodiversity framework will resume in March in Geneva. One demand in particular ranks very high on the agenda for talks: the “30 by 30” initiative. Its aim is to put 30 per cent of Earth’s surface under protection to halt rampant species extinction. But how realistic and properly targeted is this area-based approach? Julie Zähringer, Professor for Land Systems and Sustainability Transformations at the Wyss Academy and CDE, observes with an eye on global resource use: “Isn’t it more important, and more rational, to tackle the root causes of threats to species-rich areas, instead of the symptoms on the ground?”

“It’s crucial to strengthen the land tenure and use rights of communities that have managed their areas for generations and have a deep connection to local biodiversity”: Julie Zähringer. Photo: Manu Friederich

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

Biodiversity loss has reached proportions that threaten human life. At the upcoming UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, European countries in particular – including Switzerland – seek to make progress on the protection of biodiversity. They are proposing to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s ecologically valuable areas. Many stakeholders welcome the idea. Two years ago, however, you published a study showing that this policy would primarily impact people in developing countries. In the meantime, many of these countries have joined the High Ambition Coalition, which pursues exactly this 30 per cent goal. How do you interpret that?

It’s fantastic that so many countries want to be part of the global biodiversity goals – regardless of what emerges from the actual negotiations. The proposal to place 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface under protection is backed by various renowned scientists who want to emphasize nature conservation first and foremost. Countries in the global South, in particular, hope to secure funding on a fairer basis for new conservation areas. Most of these countries have already implemented protected areas and wish to expand them. But funding is always a constraint.


“Today, there’s scarcely any land left in the world that isn’t subject to use claims”


The prevailing conservation model is area-based: specific zones designated for protection. Meanwhile, it’s increasingly evident that, on the one hand, this isn’t enough, and, on the other, it deprives affected populations in poor countries of crucial livelihood opportunities. For this reason, some scientists and conservation organizations in the global North are stressing that conservation measures must be coordinated with affected populations. How realistic is that?

Actually, it’s a necessity. But when you appreciate what it truly means, it quickly becomes quite complex. For example, the first question is: Who constitutes the affected population in the area that one wishes to place under protection? This involves land tenure rights and leads to the next question: Who owns the land? And if there are no official land titles: Who uses the land?

What are you suggesting?

Today, there’s scarcely any land left in the world that isn’t subject to use claims. Even when we’re talking about apparently unused forest, you can’t rule out that local populations have plans for their children to use it later. But how can you account for these groups, whose use rights are often traditionally recognized but not officially documented? This makes it hard to include them in discussions, unless your approach is simply to exclude them and only consider those who can show an official land title.


“If local people are to have a say, they must also have the right to say ‘No’”


Land rights are one thing – what else is there?

There’s the issue of what we mean by “inclusion”. In many cases, affected populations aren’t even informed. At some point, they’re surprised to discover that something is happening, such as when trees are marked to indicate the boundaries of a nature park. Besides, inclusion goes much further than just sharing information. If local people are to have a say, they must also have the right to say “No” to a project. But given that the “30 by 30” initiative is a global strategy that countries must implement domestically, I consider it unlikely that affected populations will be meaningfully included or have a say.


“In the case of Masoala, local people were not included in decision-making”


Do you have any concrete evidence to support this?

Well, here’s an example: In my own research around two protected areas in Madagascar – Masoala and Makira – I was able to reconstruct what had (and hadn’t) happened when the state and, to a certain extent, NGOs created these protected areas. Although resource use in these areas is now practically banned, the local population was never involved in the decision-making process. At most, they were informed about it – and pushed to the side. The compensation they were given for their loss of forest use rights didn’t make up for the sudden inaccessibility of valuable resources. Such lack of participation has been scientifically documented for cases in other countries, too. The realities in most places just aren’t like in Switzerland, where there are participatory procedures in place and such matters are also decided at the ballot box.

So, when it comes to species protection, you question the wisdom of taking a “one size fits all” approach?

Yes, because appropriate species protection always depends on the context. To start, you have to define what it is you want to protect. Then you have to ask yourself whether it makes sense to set aside such and such a percentage of land, water, or ecosystem for that purpose – or whether another solution is more appropriate. Protecting a certain portion of a given habitat is not necessarily sufficient. To sustain biodiversity in the long term, you have to view naturally interconnected ecosystems as a whole and create protected corridors between them.


“The biocultural landscape approach appears promising”


How could this be achieved?

Overall, it’s extremely important to strengthen the land tenure and use rights of communities that have managed their areas for generations and have a deep connection to their environment and local biodiversity. This sort of biocultural landscape approach holds promise of better, more effective protection of biodiversity.

Following the pandemic, efforts towards economic recovery will take centre stage. This poses big risks for biodiversity, especially in places where land is cheap. Isn’t it all the more important to protect such areas – provided they still harbour significant biodiversity – as quickly as possible?

The topic of economic growth puts us on the right track. Because the real question is: What is the biggest threat to highly biodiverse areas? What do we need to protect these areas from? It’s becoming increasingly clear that many biodiversity hotspots aren’t actually threatened by the agricultural activities that enable local communities in the global South to meet their basic needs.

But rather?

Instead, it’s the consumption of industrialized countries, which manifests in international trade flows. We rely on more and more products from the Amazon basin, Indonesia, Central Africa, etc. to satisfy our needs. This is made possible by agribusiness, which invests in massive areas of land – threatening biodiversity in faraway places.


“It’s mainly global processes and affluence which are causing species extinction”


So, the question arises: Isn’t it more important, and more rational, to tackle the root causes of threats to species-rich areas, instead of the symptoms on the ground? If we answer this question in the affirmative, then we have to reach for the right levers accordingly. In those places where global companies are headquartered and where the relevant consumption takes place, much stronger regulations are needed concerning the trade of various products – and so is targeted cooperation with producer countries.

International donors, including states, like to link development funding – intended to fight poverty – with efforts towards environmental protection. Recently, this approach has been subject to criticism. What’s your view?

What’s problematic is the underlying assumption that poverty is what’s driving loss of biodiversity. The facts just don’t bear that out – it’s mainly global processes and affluence which are causing species extinction. Even at the local level, it’s not always true that poverty fuels environmental destruction. Staying with the example of Madagascar, and looking at the local cultivation practice of slash-and-burn farming, the forests are less threatened by the poorest than by those population segments that can afford more: You need money if you want to buy the tools needed for more extensive clearing and hire others to do the hard work.


“If science wants to stay relevant in terms of needed change, it has to focus on finding solutions”


With respect to biodiversity, science has described the situation, urged action, and issued warnings – like with global warming. So far, this hasn’t been very successful. How can science help to bring about change – now?

If science wants to stay relevant in terms of supporting needed change, it has to focus much more on finding solutions instead of just analysing problems. Such research has to be both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary – that is, carried out in collaboration with those who are affected or who have a crucial role in implementing measures.

You have conducted research for years using this approach. Have you succeeded in contributing to solutions?

In north-eastern Madagascar, we tried to bring together key stakeholders in the vanilla value chain – including local producers, regional traders, government agencies, and international players – and involve them all in the research process. With vanilla, we focused on a product that was causing increased pressure on biodiversity, but also generated important income on behalf of sustainable development. The endeavour admittedly pushed us to our limits.


“Broadly dispersed networks can make it difficult to bring all stakeholders together at one table”



We first had to figure out who all was involved – a difficult task given the broadly dispersed networks that make up the vanilla value chain. Then it was a matter of designing the process so that as many stakeholders as possible could participate.

And – did you succeed?

Regarding the vanilla trade, we succeeded in getting stakeholders from the local, district, and regional level together at one table. With a documentary film, we also captured the voices of other stakeholders, such as international traders, and tried to incorporate them in talks about the potential of a more sustainable vanilla market for development in north-eastern Madagascar. In the interviews we conducted at various time points, we found that at least some of the stakeholders were trying to push for new regulations of the vanilla trade.

The 2019 study

In a 2019 study, a group of scientists – including Julie Zähringer – illustrated how many people would be impacted, and where, if half the planet were placed under protection. According to the model they developed, placing 30 per cent of Earth’s surface under protection would affect approximately 300 million people through newly established protected areas – in addition to the roughly 250 million people already impacted by existing nature reserves.

UN Biodiversity Conference

The Convention on Biological Diversity, also known as the Biodiversity Convention, is the most important international agreement regarding protection of biodiversity. In 2010, the 10th Conference of the Parties adopted the Aichi Targets. These should have been achieved by 2020 – but were clearly missed. A successor agreement to the Aichi Agreement was to be adopted at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15), originally planned for October 2020 in Kunming, China. However, the conference was postponed to October 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial negotiations were then held via videoconference, resulting in a somewhat vague declaration in which protection of 30 per cent of Earth’s surface plays a central role. Continued negotiations are scheduled for March 2022 in Geneva. The successor agreement to the Aichi Targets is planned to be adopted in a face-to-face meeting in April/May 2022 in China.

Series covering the Conference

The Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) and the Wyss Academy for Nature, University of Bern, are illuminating some of the most important aspects of the ongoing negotiations in interviews with their experts. In addition, we wish to draw attention to the presentations held at the “Swiss Forum on Conservation Biology” online conferences SWIFCOB21 and SWIFCOB22, organized by the Swiss Biodiversity Forum of the Swiss Academy of Sciences. They are available in German and French.