‘Natura 2000 in action’ was the motivating title of the third annual conference of the European Learning Network for Regions and Biodiversity, which took place on 10 and 11 December 2014 in the stunning Sant Pau in Barcelona, Spain. I had the pleasure to be invited for both days. They were filled with presentations and workshops that aimed to make the organization of Natura 2000 areas more multidisciplinary, instead of keeping it in the realm of the ecologists.
Pictures by Frank Gorissen unless mentioned otherwise.
The conference was organised by ECNC together with the EU Committee of the Regions, Eurosite and the United Nations Environmental Programme, in cooperation with the Government of Catalunya and the Barcelona Provincial Council. The aim of the event was to bring together two separate European initiatives, the European Learning Network for Regions and Biodiversity, and the Natura 2000 Biogeographical Process. The first assists local and regional authorities with implementing biodiversity policies, whereas the later helps Member States and stakeholders with developing and managing the Natura 2000 network.
The event brought over a hundred participants from all over Europe together to discuss the Natura 2000 network. Those attending the conference represented a diverse background of NGO’s, the European Commission, universities, research institutes and different governmental layers. For those readers not familiar with the term, Natura 2000 is the centrepiece of the European nature and biodiversity policy. It is a network of protected nature areas across Europe, including both terrestrial and marine environments, that has been established to safeguard the future of species and habitats across the Union. Every member state needs to allocate and develop these protected sites.
That it would be an inspiring conference was already ensured by the venue location. Participants that walked into the main hall of the Sant Pau were as one struck with aw and fell silent. This old hospital, built in an Art Nouveau style, radiates health and inspiration. An old house of healing was briefly transformed into a house of healing for European nature, as chair Rob Wolters nicely stated. I dare say that it is an obligated stop in Barcelona for everyone interested in architecture and planning.
The scene was set on the first day by a diverse array of speakers from different countries expressing their viewpoint on the importance of Natura 2000 and what they believe is the best way forward. An often heard expression was that Natura 2000 is the backbone of European nature, the so called crown jewels. It is not just about protecting nature areas, the social and economic impact is equally important. The sites are also important to local identity, water storage, land development, and many more features. The image that protected nature should always be hidden by a fence was strongly objected. All speakers agreed that it is necessary to actively work together amongst all Member States and the European Commission to ensure that the Natura 2000 process does not falter and that the loss of biodiversity is eventually inverted. Stefan Leiner, head of the Nature Unit at the European Commission, mentioned that a minor increase in biodiversity can be seen in some places. But he also warns that we should not lose the momentum and should now strive for a full halt of biodiversity loss and an European wide increase.
A critical note that was mentioned by a few of the speakers is that, although Natura 2000 provides plenty of opportunities, there are enough issues that still need to be dealt with. The protected nature sites are often small and scattered, making it difficult to create a coherent network. Getting the job done with limited resources and dealing with administrative assignments is another task for those involved in developing and managing the sites. Although the last note might seem a bit negative, the conference, including a knowledge market, showcased a large array of successful projects all across Europe. The European Commission even launched an annual Natura 2000 Award in 2014 to better display successful projects and show that people can benefit from them.
The second day of the conference consisted of four different workshops, all held simultaneously. These workshops looked at the relation of Natura 2000 with spatial planning, promoting its multiple benefits, new ways of funding, and partnerships for effective Natura 2000 management. I was present at the ‘promoting multiple benefits workshop’. Two presentations of projects displayed the importance, and added benefits, of involving multiple societal stakeholders. One project, amongst many others, was the BurrenLIFE project in Ireland. Instead of just funding local landowners to develop or maintain nature, this project started rewarding local famers for their involvement in the realisation of Natura 2000 through a result-based payment system. This new method stimulates local farmers to cooperate because they know what is expected from them and how much they will receive to do so. This created a strong cohesion between the normal top-down work of researchers and a bottom-up farmer movement.
It seemed that most speeches and displayed projects during this conference implied that the development of nature is not just a business for ecologists, but that it demands a multi-disciplinary approach to imbed these protected sites in all levels of society and legislation. This opinion was shared by all those present, from those at a European level to those at the local management level. This approach also means an increased involvement of local stakeholders such as land owners, managers, and society in general. It is the inclusion of these local partners that makes it possible to show the benefits that society can gain from successful Natura 2000 projects. It was a fruitful conference that clearly inspired everyone and gave them new insights they could take back to their home countries.
Those interested in the outcome of the conference can find all minutes, presentations and movies on this website: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/platform/events/events-past/144_natura2000_in_action_regions_event_en.htm