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A vision of African development that prioritizes people and nature

The first-ever continent-wide gathering of African leaders, citizens and interest groups with a focus on protected areas is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda, from 18 to 23 July. The overarching objective of the IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress is to foster dialogue and empower the current and the next generation of leaders to realize an African future in which biodiversity is valued as an essential component of development, with greater understanding of the role that healthy ecosystems play in delivering the services that underpin human welfare and livelihoods.

To support this vision, UNESCO is sharing the expertise of its designated sites – 1,154 World Heritage sites, 738 Biosphere Reserves and 177 Global Geoparks – where people learn to live in harmony with other living species.

UNESCO organized a training course on 19 July from its pavilion in Kigali to share practical details of how to apply to join all three networks. Another side event demonstrated how UNESCO-designated sites can serve as learning observatories and testing platforms for monitoring, mitigating and adapting to climate change. UNESCO showcased the experience of Yangambi Biosphere Reserve in the Congo Basin, for instance, which has installed a flux tower above the forest canopy to measure greenhouse gas exchanges. In all, there are now 90 biosphere reserves in 33 African countries. Chad and Zambia became the latest African countries to join the World Network of Biosphere Reserves this year.

Challenges and opportunities for protected and conserved areas

On 18 July, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences Shamila Nair-Bedouelle moderated a leadership dialogue on the theme of Challenges and Opportunities of Protected and Conserved Areas. This dialogue provided an overview of the current status of protected and conserved areas in Africa and the key challenges they face, as well as suggestions for how to seize upon available opportunities.

Based on the national reports submitted by 50 African states to the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2017, 39 countries are making progress towards their Aichi Biodiversity Target for protected areas but at an insufficiently rapid pace.

Africa hosts eight of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots. The 2018 report on Africa by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which is supported by UNESCO, UNDP, UNEP and FAO, estimates that between 2.5% and 17.5% of African biodiversity hotspots are currently integrated in protected areas.

There is obvious potential for a greater share of African biodiversity hotspots to be incorporated in protected areas. The continent accounts for 20.2% of land on Earth but hosts a quarter of the world’s mammal species. East and Southern African rangelands shelter the greatest diversity of large mammals in the world; the continent is also home to approximately one-fifth of the world’s bird species, to high levels of amphibian diversity and endemism in Central Africa and at least one-sixth of the world’s plant species, which are endemic to Africa.

However, the continent’s biodiversity also faces daunting challenges. Its current population of about 1.3 billion is likely to double by 2050. Africa is also one of the most rapidly urbanizing continents; in 2003, about 39% of Africans lived in urban areas; by 2030, this proportion will rise to 54%.

About 20% of Africa’s land surface (6.6 million km2) is degraded on account of soil erosion, salinization, pollution and loss of vegetation or soil fertility. This is a result of a combination of factors, such as deforestation, unsustainable agriculture, overgrazing, uncontrolled mining activities, invasive alien species and climate change.

‘Agricultural expansion is the dominant driver of biodiversity loss’, states the IPBES report, ‘in particular the conversion of natural habitat to cultivated land. There has been an expansion of cash crops, much of this exacerbated by the growing land-grab phenomenon where foreign investors are being allocated large pieces of land for bioenergy and food production’.

As for climate change, ‘it could result in significant losses of African plant species, over 50% of some bird and mammal species and in the decline of the productivity of Africa’s lakes by between 20% and 30% by 2100’, according to the 2018 IPBES report.

Marine and coastal resources contribute more than 35% of GDP in some African regions. This biodiversity is being lost, however, and key ecosystems such as coral reefs, estuaries and mangroves are being damaged by climate change, infrastructural development (e.g. ports), urbanization, tourism, mining and overharvesting of marine and coastal resources.

 

An unparalleled opportunity to chart a new path

The IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress offers an unparalleled opportunity to chart a path that balances economic growth with the conservation of Africa’s natural capital, built on mutually beneficial relationships between people and nature.

At the global level, the conservation of biodiversity is crucial and setting a target of protecting 30% of the land on Earth would play an important role. However, such a target would be futile, if the remaining 70% were to be destroyed: we must be more ambitious and reconcile people and nature everywhere around the globe.

UNESCO-designated sites have demonstrated that societies can become more sustainable, through community participation and management, as well as sharing knowledge and expertise while prioritizing local values. Collaborative governance arrangements developed in UNESCO biosphere reserves have ensured that decisions made on the sustainable use of biodiversity are equitable. This approach meaningfully engages institutions responsible for governance and the local community that is dependent on wild species for their livelihoods and well-being, while integrating indigenous and local knowledge with scientific knowledge (1)

UNESCO-designated sites are part of the solution and can significantly contribute to reaching the objective of protecting 30% of land on Earth by 2030. But, most importantly, biosphere reserves must serve as models of how entire societies can develop in a sustainable manner in harmony with nature; this model can then be replicated on the remaining 70% of land that is not covered by protected areas. This is the path we need to follow. We must all become responsible guardians of Mother Earth.
Shamila Nair-Bedouelle Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO

A manual for assessing ecosystem services in African biosphere reserves

At a side event in Kigali on 20 July, UNESCO presented a new manual that provides guidance on how to assess the contribution made by ecosystem services in African biosphere reserves. With a focus on sites from Benin, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda, the manual combines local and indigenous knowledge with scientific insights and innovative forms of cooperation to release the full potential of biosphere reserves. The manual is a practical handbook that can be used to promote smart investments in nature-based solutions, such as the restoration of a mangrove ecosystem to reduce coastal erosion and boost fisheries. The manual can also be used to create jobs over the longer term, such as by investing in wildlife watching and other forms of sustainable tourism.

The manual was developed at the request of the African Biosphere Reserves Network through the project for the Economic Valuation of Ecosystem Services in Biosphere Reserves, which is in turn being implemented within a programme that is developing Capacities for Biodiversity and Sustainable Development (CEBioS) which is supported by the Government of Belgium. The side event was opened jointly by Ms Nair-Bedouelle and His Excellency Bert Vermessen, Ambassador of Belgium to Rwanda.

Guidance for the assessment of ecosystem services in African biosphere reserves
UNESCO
2022
The wellbeing of populations is often directly dependent on ecosystem services. Furthermore, access to the benefits from nature contributes to poverty alleviation. Therefore, a better knowledge and integration of ecosystem services in the management of Biosphere reserves will contribute to their conservation and sustainable development. Developed in the context of the EVAMAB research project, and based on good practices from African biosphere reserves, this manual is a user-friendly ‘package’ or guidance to decision-makers, managers and stakeholders of African biosphere reserves, and beyond, in order to better harness the potential of ecosystem services for conservation and sustainable development
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Outcome of Biosphere and Heritage of Lake Chad (BIOPALT) project

UNESCO organized another side event on 20 July to present the outcome of its BIOPALT project and discuss future opportunities. Speakers included Mr Mohammed H. Abdullahi, Honourable Minister of Environment of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Mr Amit Idriss, Honourable Minister of Water, Forests, Hunting and Fishing of the Central African Republic, Ms Hajara Haman from the NGO AIWO-CAN, who implemented green incoming-generating activities for the indigenous women of Cameroon as part of the BIOPALT project, as well as Shamila Nair-Bedouelle. Mr Bamba Diop represented the African Development Bank, which had financed the project through the Lake Chad Basin Commission.

The Lake Chad Basin is an important source of freshwater for more than 45 million people. Located at the crossroads of Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, the basin has a lot to offer in terms of biodiversity and natural and cultural heritage. 

In a region that is facing interrelated security, humanitarian and ecological crises, the BIOPALT project embodies UNESCO's mission to use the levers of education, science, culture and communication to promote peace and safeguard and enhance natural and cultural resources in order to improve local communities’ sources of income and, thereby, reduce poverty. 

Since its launch in Abuja in February 2018, the BIOPALT project has built a common vision of transboundary cooperation and strengthened conflict prevention through the peaceful resolution of management issues related to natural and cultural resources. The project has also developed satellite monitoring and in situ tools to manage and monitor water quality better, essential for life in the basin. It has restored degraded ecosystems such as ponds and dune plains and developed ‘green’ jobs such as the production of spirulina throughout the basin.

Harnessing cutting-edge technologies critical for biodiversity management

On 22 July, Ms  Shamila Nair-Bedouelle was one of several dignitaries (see photos) to be received by President Kagame. She thanked the president for hosting the first congress on protected areas in Africa and welcomed Rwanda’s proposal to establish a centre of excellence in biodiversity under the auspices of UNESCO as a means of increasing inter-regional cooperation on biodiversity monitoring in the region.  She also welcomed the establishment of Rwanda’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is fostering research and innovation to facilitate the country’s dual digital and ‘green’ transitions. Harnessing cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and biotechnology would be critical to protect and manage Africa’s biodiversity better, she said. Ms Nair-Bedouelle assured the president of UNESCO’s continued support for Rwanda’s mentoring bootcamps, which engage youth in robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, and offered to facilitate the use of microscience kits to foster experimentation in Rwandan schools.

 President Kagame receives the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO for Natural Sciences, Ms Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, and other dignitaries in July 2022
On 22 July, President Kagame receives the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO for Natural Sciences, Ms Shamila Nair-Bedouelle (standing to his left), the former President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Dessalegn, African Wildlife Foundation CEO Kaddu Sebunya, IUCN Director-General Stewart Maginnis and World Wildlife Fund Director-General Marco Lambertini, who were all in Kigali for the Africa Protected Areas Congress.
President Kagame receives the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO for Natural Sciences, Ms Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, and other dignitaries in July 2022
On 22 July, President Kagame receives the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO for Natural Sciences, Ms Shamila Nair-Bedouelle (standing to his left), the former President of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Hailemariam Dessalegn, African Wildlife Foundation CEO Kaddu Sebunya, IUCN Director-General Stewart Maginnis and World Wildlife Fund Director-General Marco Lambertini, who were all in Kigali for the Africa Protected Areas Congress.

It’s about life exhibition on display all week

The exhibition entitled It’s about Life is visible at the UNESCO pavilion all week and can also be experienced online. It celebrates the 50th anniversary of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme in 2021. The exhibition is a collective work by people from over 30 biosphere reserves. With a camera or voice recorder in hand, biosphere reserve managers, local communities, researchers, artists and others have put together a series of stories of resilience and of building a sustainable future.

MAB Youth Network on hand to welcome visitors to the UNESCO pavilion

MAB Youth Network on hand to welcome visitors to the UNESCO pavilion

Members of the MAB Youth Network in Rwanda are welcoming visitors of the UNESCO pavilion during the congress and Prof. Adepoju Adeshola, Chair of the MAB International Coordinating Council, and Dr Martine Tahoux, Chair of AfriMAB, will participate in the events taking place in the UNESCO pavilion.

UNESCO pavilion , IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress, 2022
Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO, speaks during an event at the UNESCO pavilion, IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress, 2022
UNESCO pavilion , IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress, 2022
UNESCO pavilion, IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress, 2022
UNESCO pavilion , IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress, 2022
UNESCO pavilion, IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress, 2022

UNESCO events

Time/Date19 July20 July21 July
09:00-10:00Leadership Dialogue 2 - Challenges and Opportunities of protected and conserved areas (Kigali Convention Center Auditorium (08:30-10:00))Training course on UNESCO designated sites (UNESCO Pavilion)Mount Mulanje Biosphere reserve: a sustainable development case study (UNESCO Pavilion)
10:00-11:00Official opening of the UNESCO pavilion - It's About Life exhibit (UNESCO Pavilion)Training course on UNESCO designated sites (UNESCO Pavilion)Demonstrating the value of Biosphere Reserves to local communities in Kenya (UNESCO Pavilion)
11:00-11:30Networking session ( UNESCO Pavilion)Networking session (UNESCO Pavilion)Networking session (UNESCO Pavilion)
11:30-13:00Presentation of the Rwanda National Commission for UNESCO: key missions and activities (UNESCO Pavilion)Biosphere and Heritage of Lake Chad (BIOPALT project): empowering communities for a better life (UNESCO Pavilion)
13:00-14:00
14:00-15:00Contribution of Traditional Knowledge associated with genetic resources to biodiversity conservation in Rwanda (UNESCO Pavilion)Launch of publication African Biosphere Reserves: guidance to assess ecosystem services (UNESCO Pavilion)Best practices in World Heritage sites (UNESCO Pavilion)
15:00-16:00Flux Tower in a Biosphere Reserve: the Yangambi experience (UNESCO Pavilion)Launch of publication African Biosphere Reserves: guidance to assess ecosystem services (UNESCO Pavilion)Networking session (UNESCO Pavilion)

Notes

1) IPBES (2022): Summary for policymakers of the thematic assessment of the sustainable use of wild species of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.
C.2.1: “Collaborative governance arrangements that meaningfully engage these key actors, such as biosphere reserves designed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization can ensure that policy decisions on sustainable use are equitable (well established)”
https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6425599