Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Are big conservation groups like IUCN still relevant?

A big conservation jamboree is on in Hawaii over 1-10 September. Some 9,000 delegates from 190 countries, including heads of state, government officials, scientists, indigenous people and business leaders, will share, debate and act on the latest issues in conservation and sustainable development, and define a global path for nature conservation for the future.

If you were a student of conservation science like me, you would be in awe of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). With its scientific assessments, the Red List and its specialist groups, you would follow this international institution seriously. You would admire and look up to the people who work there and consider yourself to have arrived in the scientific world if you were to become co-chair of the specialist groups.

Even if you aren’t into conservation, the acronym itself represents something big. IUCN is the only environmental organization that holds a place in the United Nations General Assembly, giving it an important and unique passport to international discussions on environment and development.

Ambitious as its statement of purpose may be, the question is, has IUCN in the 60 years of its existence been able to meet conservation goals? Have its achievements, as the international body claims, helped many countries to prepare national conservation strategies, identify areas rich in biodiversity for protection and influenced policymakers?

Perhaps its single most important contribution to natural sciences is the development of the Red List—the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. For instance, just recently the giant panda has been downgraded from being “endangered" to being “near threatened" because of the action taken by Chinese authorities to save this species, considered a big conservation achievement.

But for all its grand history, is IUCN, I ask, still relevant in a globalizing world? And how relevant are the proceedings of the World Conservation Congress (WCC) taking place in Hawaii to real world conservation? While WCC this year goes through an exhaustive process like UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) for a number of motions that all member countries must vote on, the question is: will the countries be penalized if they don’t follow what they commit to in Hawaii?

For instance, if a member country says yes to a motion on “respect the rights of indigenous people in biodiversity-rich areas" but at the same time allows a thermal power plant to come up on the same piece of land, what can this international body do?

One cursory glance at the agenda for the Hawaii conference suggests that WCC is still out of touch with real world conservation issues. While there are words like “climate change" and a sprinkling of sessions related to “Sustainable Development Goals", the practice of business, as we know it, is still not admitted as being the cause of our current environment problems.

Most emerging economies of the world that are incidentally also rich in biodiversity are facing this dilemma: how to modernize while keeping habitats intact for species. Yes there are individual sessions by scientists presenting papers on them, but do they make their way into mainstream policies of member countries or the agenda of WCC? Of the 99 motions submitted this year in Hawaii by member countries, only one or two make a direct reference to the threat from mining, for instance, by proposing to “protect the world’s greatest salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska from large-scale mining".

IUCN may present itself as a knowledge-based body but its beliefs of cause and effect have not been adequately challenged. A critique by Kenneth Iain MacDonald, a professor at the University of Toronto, in a paper titled IUCN—The World Conservation Union: A History of Constraint, states: “IUCN’s history is one of adding new goals without addressing their coherence with existing ends." He critiques in this paper the IUCN goal, for instance, of advocating protected areas without examining if protected areas actually help in biodiversity protection.

In India, for instance, IUCN should be coming out with white papers on species at risk because of the rapid scale of development that is ripping our habitats apart. But because of its partnership with local governments, it often becomes difficult to question the hosts even if their activities are pushing species down the extinction vortex.

For the future, just as IUCN had to reinvent itself in the 1980s and move away from its emphasis on fences and fines, it must recognize the economic forces, the models of “dirty growth" that are threatening biodiversity hotspots around the world. These are the forces this grand body of conservation must take on.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.

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