OECMs: Another tool in our global biodiversity toolbox

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Other effective area-based conservation measures, or OECMs, are an important tool in the world’s biodiversity toolbox and have many benefits for not only biodiversity, but for social and cultural sustainability as well.

According to Derek Armitage, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, OECMs are “a geographically or spatially defined area that falls outside the normal ideas of what we know as a protected area like a national park or provincial park, and yet is still meant to provide some kind of biodiversity benefits or outcomes, while providing benefits to people as well.” He added that they “tend to be places where people are utilizing resources, but also sustaining biodiversity.”

Armitage contributed to a recently published paper on OECMs as a global biodiversity conservation strategy. The article was a collaboration between James Cook University’s Georgina Gurney and Emily Darling, director of coral reef conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS), in consultation with the Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) Coastal Outcomes working group. SNAPP working groups are funded by the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Conservation Society, brought together to work on conservation issues. Armitage has been part of this group in an advisory capacity for the past few years.

OECMs cover a diverse array of activities. For instance, sacred groves, or forested areas which are protected for cultural and sustainability reasons, are OECMs as they protect both spiritual and cultural value, as well as biodiversity. Customary, informal marine set-asides are also under the OECM designation as they involve informal rules on harvesting from coral reef areas, as organized by local communities rather than government.

“If we take a step back a lot of our conventional approaches to biodiversity protection follow a fences and fines approach. Setting aside territory and excluding people from it, sometimes makes sense, but in many places around the world it has had a very damaging impact in terms of culture, access to resources and livelihoods, and so on,” Armitage said on the value of OECMs. “We are in a space where we are thinking about what our biodiversity targets should be through the CBD, which is creating the 30 by 30 plan, or how much land or ocean space to set aside for biodiversity. How do we achieve these targets in ways that are more equitable and more environmentally just?”

OECMs are noted in the journal article to increase the effectiveness of the global conservation system in four key ways, alongside protected areas, by ways of supporting management tailored to its context, ensuring a well-connected conservation network, increasing the diversity of tools in the conservation system, and bringing conservation outcomes into focus.

Armitage mentioned that all of these are equally important in that you cannot have one without the other, but said the shift away from targets to outcomes is fundamental, as well as consideration of context. This brings into focus the importance of local governance systems.. “Many Indigenous communities are stewarding large areas of land and have done so sustainably for quite some time. If we can draw on this, and recognize that they have rules in place on access and rights, protection and use, that are complex, we may ultimately have a better outcome on biodiversity and protection,” Armitage said.

When it comes to designating OECMs, there are some challenges. For one, OECMs are a global designation, but are not the same in every country. What is right for Canada may not be right for another country. Even within Canada, there are different expectations on what exactly constitutes an OECM.

“There is also the threat that they may be misused,” noted Armitage. For instance, regulatory agencies will say fisheries closures count as an OECM, but it is temporary in status, while authentic OECMs are usually connected to a longer time frame such as 10 to 25 years rather than six months.

Privatization is another concern, as agencies fall into the trap of who benefits, often creating equity and justice issues. “Ultimately the idea with biodiversity is that it’s a global issue and we need global benefits but we have to be careful that these don’t come at the cost of local people who are at the frontlines of where this conservation takes place. They must benefit as well,” Armitage said.

Federally in Canada, Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are having those conversations to make OECM’s more governable and decide how to implement OECMs in a systematic way across jurisdictions.

“The idea is that OECMs are meant to complement other biodiversity strategies,” said Armitage, because “when it comes to the climate crisis and other challenges we’re facing, we need to think carefully about biodiversity in that context. There will be many strategies, many tools are necessary and OECMs are one part of a tool in that kit.”