Story | 03 Jun, 2021

Protected areas: Sometimes strict is necessary 

Europe, the most fragmented continent in the world, must preserve what is left of our ecosystems by protecting 30% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030 with 10% under strict protection.

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Photo: Karim Sakhibgareev on Unsplash

When you hear the word ‘strict’ what comes to mind? For me, it brings me back to my school days, an unruly class of students, and one so-called ‘strict’ teacher.   

But that was a while ago and now the word strict has a different connotation especially when I consider the rampaging biodiversity crisis. We’ve all heard the headlines at this stage – one million species threatened with extinction [1], over half of Europe’s endemic trees are threatened with extinction [2], and only 15% of the European habitats assessed show good conservation status [3]. As our human activity continues to overexploit our natural resources, destroy habitats and accelerate climate change, the search for solutions to complex issues intensifies. One tool, amongst many, is protected areas.  

Just over a year ago, the EU Commission published its Biodiversity Strategy to 2030 which we at IUCN welcomed. The strategy acknowledges that Europe, the most fragmented continent in the world, must preserve what we have left of our ecosystems by protecting 30% of the EU’s land and sea by 2030 with 10% under ‘strict protection’. But, despite the endorsement by the Council of the EU, contentious questions still arise. What is strict protection? Why do we need it and where?   

First and foremost, we need a clear definition of strict protection and IUCN’s categories on PAs can be a good starting point. The categories consist of 6 different ways to manage PAs, which describe varying degrees of human intervention. For the purpose of this discussion, I will focus on strict protection which means that human intervention and use of natural resources are either not permitted or quite restricted.   

Although when defining strict protection, it should not be understood solely as non-interference. The most vulnerable and degraded habitats often need to be actively restored, in turn creating jobs, such as for active management of grasslands to maintain favourable conservation status.  In the EU, strict protection should be a wider term allowing an adaptive approach also considering climate change challenges, invasive species, and necessary conservation and restoration measures. EU policy-makers can and should stick to these principles as the guiding light in an often opaque debate.   

It should come as no surprise that Europe’s most vulnerable habitats need to be protected. Our continent is experiencing unprecedented biodiversity decline and already feeling the consequences of climate change. We must protect our most precious ecosystems, such as old growth and primary forests, and also conserve carbon rich areas. But even beyond climate and biodiversity, we must preserve our natural heritage which if destroyed we will never get back.  

The involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples who have customarily used the land in question is imperative. We know that PAs supported by local populations often prove to be very effective and inclusive conservation is always a positive, impactful way forward. Combining the latest scientific evidence with the traditional knowledge of local communities could be a major step forward towards effective environmental protection [4][5] .  

Next week, the European Parliament is due to have its say on the Biodiversity Strategy and the subsequent PA targets. We can only hope that MEPs will heed the warnings of biodiversity collapse, look to the science, use IUCN’s understanding of strict protection as their beacon and support the 30% PA and 10% strict protection targets.  


Author: Alberto Arroyo Schnell, Senior Policy Manager at IUCN European Regional Office and focal point for the World Commission on Protected Areas.  


[1] IPBES (2019): Global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Report.  

[2]  Rivers et al. (2019) European Red List of Trees. Cambridge, UK and Brussels, Belgium: IUCN. viii + 60pp  

[3] European Environmental Agency (2020): State of Nature in the EU report  

[4] Ogar, E., Pecl, G., & Mustonen, T. (2020). Science Must Embrace Traditional and Indigenous Knowledge to Solve Our Biodiversity Crisis. One Earth, 5–8.  

[5] ENVISION. (2020). Policy Brief: Towards an Inclusive Global Biodiversity Framework. Zenodo.