The Africa Protected Areas Congress: a commitment to African-led conservation 

Long horns cows in a Mundari tribe camp gathering around bonfires to repel mosquitoes and flies, Central Equatoria, Terekeka, South Sudan

Nina Bhola, Jasmin Upton and Jonny Hughes of UNEP-WCMC attended the inaugural Africa Protected Areas Congress. Here they share some important takeaways from this milestone event.  

The IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress (APAC) recently took place in Kigali, Rwanda. The congress was the first ever continent-wide gathering of African leaders, citizens and interest groups to discuss the role of protected areas in conserving nature, safeguarding Africa’s iconic wildlife, delivering vital life-supporting ecosystem services, and promoting sustainable development while conserving Africa’s cultural heritage and traditions. Here we explore the outcomes from the gathering and what these might mean for protected and conserved areas in Africa in the coming decade.  

The diverse landscapes of Africa support an extraordinary range of habitats and a wealth of species diversity. Africa’s grasslands, mountains, forests, wetlands and other ecosystems are the foundation for agriculture, tourism and the wider economy. Yet, increasing human pressures, including from rapid land-use change, overexploitation and climate change are posing mounting threats to wildlife across Africa as many ecosystems are fragmented, degraded or lost.   

Currently, 19% of Africa’s land and 17% of the seas around Africa are covered by protected and conserved areas. These areas contribute to safeguarding Africa’s natural capital and cultural heritage and, when effectively governed and managed, can support economic and social development. Such effective governance and management requires the meaningful inclusion and engagement of people representing a range of interests, particularly Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLCs).  

Why APAC was important 

The inaugural APAC was a chance to convene a broad and powerful range of stakeholders, from Indigenous and community leaders, governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), citizens and protected area managers.  

Organised by the Government of Rwanda, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and the African Wildlife Foundation  as a congress by Africans for Africa, APAC brought together around 2,400 delegates, representing all sectors of society, and with participation from 53 African countries. The congress agreed a Call to Action, which calls for promoting inclusive and equitable governance, putting people at the centre of effective and equitable conservation, mobilizing the economic value of protected and conserved areas and sustainable financing, and recognizing protected and conserved areas as natural solutions to the biodiversity and climate crisis. 

Beyond the formal outcome, APAC also provided a valuable space for partnerships, advocacy, and collaboration. The main topics of discussion included: the importance of effective governance and management of protected and conserved areas; the need to recognise, elevate and uphold the rights, roles and responsibilities of Indigenous Peoples, local communities and young people; and the need to value and integrate traditional knowledge and promote the value and role of protected and conserved areas to achieve both environmental and social outcomes.   

Indigenous leaders came together and made recommendations for how IPLCs should be better represented in the Convention of Biological Diversity’s (CBD) post-2020 global biodiversity framework. This included requests for international NGOs and organisations to channel more conservation finance directly to Indigenous Peoples and communities; translate information into local languages; and reduce barriers to engagement in global processes and decision-making generally. There were strong calls to improve the security of land tenure rights of IPLCs as a key approach to achieving area-based conservation targets. These calls reflected a central ambition of APAC - to ensure that conservation in Africa is Africa-led, is based on African needs and is just, equitable, and fair.  

The congress provided a forum for open dialogue on key challenges and opportunities to improve sustainable financing mechanisms that will help deliver the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Discussion focused on achieving sustainable development for the continent and resulted in the launch of a Pan-African Conservation Trust. The Trust will help put Africa’s protected and conserved areas at the heart of the continent’s development agenda - as set out in Agenda 2063 - and seek to raise $200bn to ensure sufficient sustained financing for all of Africa’s protected and conserved areas.    

UNEP-WCMC’s key takeaways from APAC 

In representing UNEP-WCMC at the congress, we had the opportunity to learn from a diversity of African perspectives on protected and conserved areas and to share - and shape - some of our work on the Protected Planet Initiative across Africa. Our aim was to identify how best we can support the development of protected and conserved areas across the continent, particularly in relation to management effectiveness, governance, ecological representativeness, connectivity and transboundary conservation.  

The congress made it clear that there remains a need for strengthening national monitoring systems for protected and conserved area data. With this, countries across the continent will be better able to determine priorities and monitor progress on the coverage and quality of systems of protected and conserved areas, identify capacity and resource gaps, and report on contributions to international ambitions for nature. As part of our work bringing together global datasets on protected and conserved areas, UNEP-WCMC is supporting the improvement of data through our work with three African Regional Observatories, established through the Biodiversity and Protected Area Management Programme (BIOPAMA), covering the Eastern and Southern African region (RRH), the Central African region (OFAC) and the West African region (OBAPAO). These observatories work at a regional level to collate, manage and host data and tools relating to protected and conserved areas, as well as build the capacity of their regions to improve the management and governance of protected and conserved areas and promote partnerships and leadership. In addition, UNEP-WCMC is strengthening work with DRC, Republic of Congo and Gabon to support national ambitions in the context of the effective and equitable implementation of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework’s anticipated Target 3.  

There was a strong focus on inclusivity throughout the congress and, in particular, on upholding the rights and roles of IPLCs in decision-making processes, including in relation to ambitions to expand the coverage of protected areas and recognise other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs). As the host of the Protected Planet Initiative and the ICCA Registry, which provides an evidence base for the vital contributions of IPLCs to conservation, UNEP-WCMC is actively raising awareness of the central contribution of IPLCs to local, national and global conservation ambitions, and supporting increased visibility of these contributions at the global scale. We aim that this will help advance IPLCs’ efforts to secure land tenure rights and raise awareness around customary laws, traditions and governance systems to support more equitable and just governance and effective management of protected and conserved areas.   

It was also clear from discussions that expanding coverage of protected and conserved areas alone will not address the nature crisis - a very strong focus must be placed on improving the effectiveness and equitable governance of existing and future protected and conserved areas. We are working with partners to support countries as they strive towards improving effectiveness, including by developing a system for measuring and tracking progress towards effective protected and conserved areas at the national and global level. 

Connectivity and transboundary conservation are also critical. Particularly in the face of climate change, protected area networks need to be designed and developed to secure and maintain ecological connectivity and enable the movement of species and continued functioning of ecological processes. In addition to the work on protected and conserved area effectiveness, we are working to identify, document and map ecological corridors and areas important for maintaining or increasing ecological connectivity of land and seascapes, including through the identification of transboundary conservation areas that enhance and strengthen coordination and cooperation across country borders.  

Finally, we expect that the adoption of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework will result in additional resources being made available to support and improve networks of protected and conserved areas. UNEP-WCMC will be continuing to support countries to develop and manage protected and conserved areas, to help ensure positive outcomes for nature and for people across the continent of Africa. 

Read the IUCN Africa Protected Areas Congress Kigali Call to Action for People and Nature 

Read the IPLCs Kigali Declaration to Africa Protected Areas Congress 2022 

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