Guest Editorial (0410 June 2010)

Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend: CEESP Vice-Chair for Europe

15% PLUS? What do you mean? …

15% PLUS was heard among the corridor buzzwords at CBD SBSTTA in Nairobi, this last May, as a protected area conservation target to be discussed at COP 10… What does it mean? Is there any value in this new idea? A few opinions are emerging about this and you may wish to be aware of them and make up your mind…


First, the facts. Among depressing unmet biodiversity targets, a main positive indicator was flashed to the attention of SBSTTA delegates in Nairobi : worldwide coverage of protected areas. Today, the coverage of terrestrial ecosystems that enjoy legal protection is 12.2% and the coverage of legally protected territorial seas (to 12 nautical miles offshore) is 5.9%. Both values have been growing importantly in the last decades. In total, there are today about 120,000 official protected areas (PAs) in the world, most of which are government-established and run. A primary intention behind the global protected area effort has been to conserve the planet's biodiversity... a goal far from being met. Only slightly more than half of the 825 terrestrial ecological regions identified around the world actually reach 10% protection, and only 18% of the marine (both values say nothing about the quality of their management). In addition, many sites crucial for biodiversity continue to lie outside protected areas. In other words, reaching the 10% coverage— a target that floated for some time among conservationists — has not stopped the loss of biodiversity. Surely, however, it would have been naive to expect that it would. For that, many direct and indirect drivers need to be tackled, much need to change in global and local resource consumption and enormous efforts need to go towards restoring ecosystems and connectivity. Protected areas, however, are an essential part of the overall picture— a part that needs to be strengthened in quantity and quality. Can “ 15% PLUS ” help?


To find out about that, we should revisit the concepts of “governance of protected area” and “ICCAs”. Both concepts— born at the Durban World Parks Congress of 2003– have been increasingly refined since then, and are now included in IUCN and CBD policies. Distinct from management, which explicitly focuses on “what” needs to be done to reach conservation objectives, governance focuses on “who decides” about what needs to be done, and “how such decisions are taken”. Since the Durban Congress, four main types of governance are recognized for protected areas: type A: government-established and run PAs, with authority and responsibility held at national or sub-national level; type B: PAs established and run under shared governance by governments and other right holders and stakeholders ; type C: PAs established and run by private landowners (individuals, NGOs or corporations); and type D, which comprises indigenous peoples' conserved territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities. The Programme of Work on Protected Areas of the Convention on Biological Diversity recommends recognizing and supporting all governance types and evidence is accumulating that levels of protection in ICCAs may be higher than in government-run protected areas. Still, only a handful of governments formally recognise the conservation role of ICCAs and private PAs, provide them with some form of support and/or include them as part of national protected area systems. Among other impediments, recognition may be impossible under current legislation or– worryingly– powerful economic interests may be expanding and opposing conservation-oriented traditions and institutions.


On this background, what would 15% PLUS mean? Broadly, the catchphrase could be a target for protected areas to be discussed by CBD COP 10. 15% would stand for a minimum percentage of national territories to be conserved by government-established (or co-established) protected areas (types A and B noted above), while the PLUS would stand for various forms of voluntary and independent conservation, such as ICCAs and private PAs. Notice that such ICCAs and private PAs, despite their largely independent origin and governance, could well be recognised as part of national protected area systems. It has been estimated that doing so just for ICCAs could double the extension of land under official conservation status around the world, notwithstanding that many protected areas under governance type A and B have already been established on top of existing ICCAs. Together, the 15% and the appropriately recognised PLUS could form stronger, more coherent and more resilient national protected area systems. Incidentally, recognising ICCAs and private PAs for their role in biodiversity conservation could be naturally linked to recognising their role in securing essential ecosystem functions (such as water provision, pollination, fisheries and agricultural productivity and prevention of disasters) and for sequestering and storing carbon (e.g., in forests, wetlands, peatlands, sea grass beds and mangroves), important for climate change mitigation.


The idea of 15% PLUS is appealing for those who believe that it would be politically unthinkable for governments to officially set aside more than 15% of their national territories for conservation purposes. Together, government–established protected areas and voluntary/ independent forms of conservation by indigenous peoples, local communities and private landowners (and even other forms of conservation, such as areas set aside for military purposes or temporary no-take fishing zones ) could progress towards national systems of protected areas and other sustainable land uses that encompass 30%, 50%, 80% or even 100% of a country's land and territorial seas, which is the scale of objectives needed if we wish to reverse the loss of biodiversity on our planet. In this sense, the 15% PLUS could be a first step towards the best destiny we could wish to protected areas- that of merging into well conserved landscapes and seascapes and effectively disappearing as “islands” into a scorched background…


The idea of 15% PLUS , however, has many critics. Some fear it may confuse people, as some ICCAs and private PAs are already included, in fair or unfair ways, in national protected area systems and may be thus computed as part of the 15% (in Australia, for instance, 23% of accounted protected areas are governed directly by their Aboriginal landowners). In addition, the phrase does nothing to stress that the current governance of protected areas may be unfair and ineffective and that some protected areas under government control should actually be ICCAs (and should thus move to the PLUS part of the phrase). Some stress that PA systems per se should turn towards more democratic governance and decision-making, so that any target, including the 15%, should not be left to governments alone, but decided by national and sub national bodies comprising all relevant parties, and approached by taking advantage of all governance types, without any artificial split. Others fear that governments will increase their protected estates only to the loss of local actors… balanced by those who fear that incorporating ICCAs into national protected area systems will decrease pressure on governments to expand and support their own protected estates. Some critics believe that separating targets between government established and voluntary ICCAs and private PAs would be detrimental to their collaboration in national systems. And still others stress that conservation is way more than a quantitative matter of land and resources… Specifically identified and targeted biodiversity gaps and qualitative criteria- from habitat representativeness to climate change resilience- are crucial for a well functioning conservation system and risk being forgotten behind a catchphrase…


All these concerns are certainly important, but two strategic purposes remain valid behind the 15% PLUS possible target:


  • countries are urged to progress from 12.2% to 15% global coverage under formal protected estates, whatever their forms and compositions;
  • countries are urged to recognize that even 15% is not enough, and they need to do more. That “more” is represented by the PLUS, which, in most cases, means ICCAs and private PAs. This clearly implies that ICCAs and private PAs should be better recognized, nurtured and supported.


National systems should be understood to comprise not only government-established protected areas but the full range of governance types, as recommended by the CBD and the IUCN. The PLUS that “qualifies” for inclusion in a national system should fulfil the conditions set out by relevant governments but also those advanced by the relevant indigenous peoples, local communities and landowners. Within or outside such national systems, however, the PLUS— recognized as essential to reverse the loss of biodiversity—should be taken into consideration more forcefully, effectively and respectfully than it is at the moment. On a country by country basis, this may lead to evaluating and improving the extent but also the quality of the PA system, in particular in terms of governance and coverage of biodiversity gaps. Crucially, the 15% PLUS could be designed to optimise overall coherence, resilience and fitting of national protected area systems in their countries' landscapes and seascapes at large.


Grazia Borrini-Feyerabend
CEESP Vice-Chair for Europe
May 2010


I warmly thank Janis Alcorn, Charles Besancon, Nigel Dudley, M. Taghi Farvar, Tilman Jaeger, Hanna Jaireth, Ashish Kothari , Simone Lovera and Trevor Sandwith for comments to earlier versions of this editorial. Final responsibility obviously rests with me.


Notes and references

  • CBD is the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP is the Conference of its Member Parties and SBSTTA is its Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice .
  • SCBD (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity), Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 , Montreal ( Canada ), 2010.
  • The high seas are virtually unrepresented in the protected area network.
  • The 10% figure – referring to protected area coverage of each bio-geographic region—was discussed by the Third World Parks Congress (Bali, Indonesia, 1982) and established as a target for conserving biodiversity at the Fourth World Parks Congress (Caracas, Venezuela, 1992). The Caracas congress recommended that “protected areas cover at least 10 percent of each biome by the year 2000" ( McNeely JA, (ed.), Parks for Life, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, 1993 ). This target has subsequently been “vulgarized” to apply to individual countries and/or to the entire planet. When the recommendation was first discussed in Bali , protected areas covered about 3.5% of the planet's land surface and surely the 10% target has encouraged better reporting and the expansion of the worldwide protected estate.
  • See, for instance, Lovera, S., “Eating Less Meat can Save Forests”, Forest Cover , 2010.
  • Borrini-Feyerabend, G., “Governance of Protected Areas, Participation and Equity” pages 100-105 in Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Biodiversity Issues for Consideration in the Planning, Establishment and Management of Protected Areas Sites and Networks , CBD Technical Series no. 15, Montreal (Canada), 2004.
  • A work discussing this modality for both protected areas and natural resources at large is Borrini-Feyerabend, G., M. Pimbert, M. T. Farvar, A. Kothari and Y. Renard, Sharing Power. Learning by doing in co-management of natural resources throughout the world , IIED and IUCN/ CEESP/ CMWG, Cenesta, Tehran , 2004.
  • For examples and analysis, please see
  • SCBD, 2010 (op. cit.). The Global Biodiversity Outlook 3 explicitly states that “indigenous and local communities play a significant role in conserving very substantial areas of high biodiversity and cultural value.”
  • Kothari, A. (ed.), special issue on Community Conserved Areas, Parks , IUCN WCPA, vol. 16, no.1, 2006.
  • Nigel Dudley, personal communication, 2010.
  • These are not just wild guesses, as for some ecosystems, such as the Amazon or boreal forests, tipping points for the destruction of the entire ecosystem may be reached when 70 or 80% of it is still standing. Indigenous peoples and a growing movements of conservationists are also fundamentally opposed to splitting up the planet between “areas to be conserved” and “areas to be destroyed” as stressed by the recent Cochabamba declaration. For forests, for instance, land use conversion has simply and unequivocally to stop. ( Simone Lovera , personal communication, 2010).
  • And other forms of conservation that do not fit the definition of protected area but are effective for conservation purposes.
  • See Dudley, N. (ed.), Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories , IUCN Gland ( Switzerland ), 2008; and IUCN/CEESP, Recognising what works— recognising and supporting the conservation achievements of indigenous peoples and local communities, CEESP Briefing Note no.10, 2010.