A comprehensive framework to tackle climate change adaptation has been developed and applied in Gorgona National Natural Park on the Colombian coast. The park's excellence and innovation has merited IUCN Green List of Protected Areas status.
Located in the Colombian Pacific, the Gorgona Island is a small paradise of diversity. It is also a prime location for terrestrial, coastal and marine scientific research, and known as the “Science Island”. One of the most striking features of Gorgona is glaringly obvious from the sea: a lush and vibrant rainforest descends directly from small clouded peaks to the deep blue of the mysterious waters of the Pacific Ocean. But the real surprises are hiding under these dazzling surfaces, both on land and at sea. In Gorgona, biodiversity is rich in native species of tropical rainforest, coral formations, a huge variety of marine species such as dolphins and humpback whales, as well as nesting colonies of seabirds and migratory shorebirds.
Aware of its responsibility and the park’s importance, Gorgona NNP administration has updated its Management Plan for the period 2015-2019, taking into account a regional context beyond its own geographical limits, and including for the first time an ecosystem services approach and climate change considerations. These climate change considerations are not only part of an analysis to set better conservation measures on conservation objects, ecosystems and species, but to maintain key resources for the communities that base their livelihoods on the legal activities outside the park, such as fishing. The process of capacity building has included the park staff, local stakeholders, WWF technical team support and other actor’s inputs and recommendations. Parks and WWF Colombia staff acquired new skills and technical capacity through this first experience.
Most of the existing frameworks to manage protected areas reflect the understanding of the different hazards and drivers of change affecting their territories. The Gorgona NP experience builds on that capacity, based on an understanding of climate risk and resilience of the conservation targets. This understanding facilitates decision-making on the most appropriate adaptation measures. It also takes into account that several activities carried out in the protected area (i.e the monitoring and relocation of marine turtles nesting sites, the long term initiative on coral reefs restoration, etc.) are already climate change adaptation measures. In addition, local solutions are often preferable cost-effective alternatives, compared to those proposed from non-tropical environments. Keeping it simple and natural should be the first thing to take into account to design climate change adaptation activities.
A closer look at Gorgona´s NNP experience in developing and integrating climate change adaptation measures
Within the protected area management framework, a process of identifying, prioritizing and mainstreaming climate adaptation actions was undertaken using the best information provided by the climate risk and resilience assessments. Maria Ximena Zorrilla, Manager of Gorgona NNP, shared some of the lessons learned during this process:
A good starting point is to clarify the purpose of the exercise and the need for participation of people from different levels, and with technical as well as non-technical profiles. It is crucial to provide practical and scientifically sound guidance to facilitate climate risk and resilience assessments in PAs.
The best way to start mainstreaming climate change into conservation planning was to select conservation targets in accordance with considerations in the climate adaptation planning. Conservation targets included habitats/species and ecosystem services from a conservation view point that are critical in the future because of their functionality and resilience in the face of increasing climate and non-climate pressures.
It is necessary to select an appropriate methodology to rapidly and cost-effectively assess climate risks and resilience of key values in the protected area (ecosystems, species, environmental services, social aspects, etc.). Rapid methodologies allow the possibility to screen all conservation targets, taking into account local developments and conditions to generate not only accurate but also useful results for decision makers, with the possibility to include local stakeholders in the analysis and next steps.
There are several methodologies, and in most cases, a good approach is to adapt and combine experiences from those methodologies, rather than applying them exactly “from the text”. To provide a flexible framework to make the best use of the outputs, clarify the conditions and situation in the area to be assessed, and gather local information to enrich the assessment and obtain useful results. Local, community and non-technical information can be useful for the diagnosis of the protected areas situation, and it provides useful data and context to increase the assessments quality.
Challenges and opportunities
To keep pace with other conservation organizations and to advise other protected areas, there is still a need to develop better skills and strengthen and expand climate smart conservation teams. In the short term, this can be through staff training on climate adaptation, biodiversity and climate science, and GIS (Geographic Information System) tools and modelling techniques. At the end, climate change adaptation measures and vulnerability assessments in Gorgona has been a team effort including different levels of knowledge, capacities and interest, but most of all, it shows the responsibility and will of Gorgona and WWF to preserve the most valuable resources of the Pacific in Colombia.
The implementation of pilot climate adaptation actions, that are also an integral part of the protected area management plan, allows incorporation of climate change into conservation action. Specifically, the integration of climate hazards, climate risks and climate resilience of conservation targets allows protected area managers to systematically test assumptions in order to adapt and learn. The commitment of the protected area team is the key factor to maintain, monitor and evaluate the success of the implemented actions.
The Gorgona NNP experience provides a framework that allows protected area managers to mainstream the necessary actions to increase the resilience of coastal & marine ecosystems within the existing planning framework, strengthening the protected areas capacity to provide environmental goods & services, and to benefit conservation objectives and communities in the face of existing & future climate conditions.
In November 2014, the IUCN Green List Committee has awarded Gorgona NNP because of its innovation and excellence in managing an outstanding natural area. As part of the IUCN Green List of Protected Areas, the park is now being more internationally recognized also because of its leadership in integrating climate change considerations into a protected area management plan. Green listed protected areas as Gorgona surely will encourage other protected areas to reach high standards and consequently contribute to the wellbeing of people and nature.