Submission by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, September 2007

 

The role of the FCO in relation to the Overseas Territories

 

 

 

Introduction

 

The RSPB is the UK partner of BirdLife International, a network of over 100 grass-roots conservation organisations around the world. As part of our commitment to the conservation of biodiversity worldwide, we have for over 10 years provided financial, technical and advisory support to emerging NGO partners and local governments in the UK Overseas Territories. Much of the RSPB's work in the Overseas Territories contributes to the priorities identified in the White Paper, "Partnerships for Progress and Prosperity" (March 1999), and assists them in meeting their commitments under the international conventions, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, and under the Environment Charters agreed between each territory and the UK Government.

 

RSPB works on the Overseas Territories because of their outstanding importance for biological diversity, including 32 globally threatened breeding bird species. This richness, compared with no globally threatened breeding bird species in the UK, places a very high level of responsibility on the UK, including the Foreign Office, to protect the biodiversity of these territories. We have calculated this requires a minimum of 16 million/year.

 

We have only responded to the aspects of the inquiry that relate to the FCO's responsibilities for biodiversity conservation and environmental governance on the Overseas Territories. Our submission has common strands with evidence recently given to the Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry on Trade, Development and Environment: The Role of the FCO[1]. We strongly support the conclusions from this inquiry and that of the enquiry into the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment[2].

 

Standards of governance in the Overseas Territories

1. The Overseas Territories are mainly small islands rich in biodiversity but with small human populations. For example, Pitcairn, supports more globally threatened species than the total human population of the island. The Territories are particularly reliant on the natural environment for their livelihoods and quality of life. For example, the economies of many of the islands depend heavily on the revenue raised from fisheries and tourism, and mangroves, forests and coral reefs provide protection from severe weather events, which under current climate change projections are likely to increase in the future.

 

2. As in many regions of the world, the natural environment on the Territories is increasingly under threat, which is in part caused by a failure to implement systems of effective local governance. For example on many of the Caribbean Territories the rate of tourism development is increasing rapidly[3] and is in danger of destroying the natural assets which attract visitors to the islands. The loss of mangroves along the coastline to mainly tourism-associated development is increasing the vulnerability of the islands to hurricanes[4]. Areas that have been previously proposed for protection are still not approved by governments[5]. Protected Areas that have been approved are in the process of being degazetted[6]. Unlike the UK or Europe, the legislation on most Territories does not require that development plans and proposals undergo a Strategic Environment Assessment. Where there is provision for Environmental Impact Assessment, there is often inadequate expertise or capacity to accurately assess the Environment Impact Assessments produced by the developers. This information in turn is then often not considered by decision makers on a strategic basis[7]. Environment Impact Assessment reports are frequently difficult to access and rarely shared with the public. Planning procedures are rarely transparent and do not always engage with civil society.

 

3. The Territories' capacity to implement effective environmental governance and respond to environmental crises is strongly constrained by limited human and financial resources. Environment departments and local conservation organizations, if they exist, only have small numbers of staff that are stretched very thinly. The scale of the conservation department is often matched to the size of human and financial resources available on the Territory, not to the scale of the biodiversity, which is of great global significance. In some Territories, for example Tristan or Pitcairn, the population is so small that no significant capacity or finance is available to deal with pressing biodiversity issues[8]. On yet other Territories, for example South Georgia or BIOT, there is no local population. Many local conservation organisations rely to a significant extent on funding from Territory governments so are not able to respond objectively when consulted on development proposals because they may be threatened with budget cuts if they raise objections. Staff may not have the skills and/or sufficient time to engage effectively in planning processes.

 

4. In some Territories, tourist and/or environmental taxes are charged but all of the revenue raised returns to Central Government. Only a small proportion of the central budget goes back into an environmental fund and/or projects. There could be better reporting by governments on the expenditure of environment funds. As the natural environment continues to deteriorate and governments appear to be taking little action to remedy this, it could lead to unwillingness to pay in the future.

 

5. Overall, the current lack of capacity and finance in many Territories coupled by the lack of interest or support from the UK Government in these issues means that the deterioration of ecosystem services and species extinction continues largely unabated. It is essential that if this is to be avoided, sufficient resources need to be provided to Territories so that they can implement similar environmental standards as we have in the UK and Europe. We fully support the development of visitor/environmental tax systems on Territories where meaningful revenues can be derived from such a system. We also would like to see a greater proportion of the revenue raised going into locally established environmental funds and systems, so that expenditure is transparently linked to the purpose for which the funds were originally raised.

The role of Governors and other office-holders appointed by or on the recommendation of the United Kingdom Government

6.The RSPB appreciates the support given by Governor's offices on Territories to biodiversity conservation projects and efforts made by the FCO to brief Governors and other office-holders before they take up office on Territories. However, considering the fundamental importance of the natural environment to the economies of the Territories, we are concerned that some Governors and other office holders do not give it sufficient priority. As Governors are involved in the highest levels of decision making in the Territories, they could play a much greater role in ensuring:

i. better provision of information to Territory governments on the importance of the natural environment to the economy and quality of life

ii. the UK Government's responsibilities for international conventions such as the CBD are implemented

iii. the establishment and implementation of effective environmental governance systems on the territories (e.g. land planning, strategic environment assessment, environmental impact assessment etc.)

iv. the promotion of UK conservation expertise in the Territories and support to UK funded environmental projects

v. the provision of support to assist capacity-building in civil society within the environment sector

vi. the encouragement of all Territories to ratify and strengthen existing multilateral environmental agreements by helping to implement them through the provision of financial and technical support

vii. all development programmes, particularly those funded by the UK Government, undergo appropriate environmental assessment before they are considered for approval

 

The application of international treaties, conventions and other agreements to the Overseas Territories

7. Although the Overseas Territories are locally self-governed, the UK Government, through the FCO, retains responsibility for external affairs, including the implementation of international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention, the Cartagena Convention, the World Heritage Convention, CITES, the Convention on Migratory Species and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. The UK Government has signed up to the 2010 target to halt the loss of biodiversity, which makes the Territories a high priority for conservation action as most of the UK's threatened and endemic biodiversity resides there, rather than in the 'metropolitan UK'. However, the current lack of resources available for conservation action in the Overseas Territories mean that the 2010 target will certainly not be met by the UK.

 

8. Furthermore, the UK Government has signed an Environment Charter with most of the Territories, which is a formal agreement that lists the commitments of the respective parties to support environmental management. The FCO is currently undertaking a review of Charter implementation but based on work undertaken by the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum[9] it is unlikely that all commitments are being met!

 

9. Although the UK Government, through the FCO, has signed up to many of the above-mentioned agreements on behalf of the Territories, it is increasingly abdicating responsibility for biodiversity conservation to DEFRA at the international level. Unlike the FCO, DEFRA does not have direct contact with the Territories so it is often not in a position to represent or support their biodiversity interests. At the same time within Territories, the FCO is delegating responsibility for biodiversity conservation and environmental management to local governments. The FCO must know that many of the local Territory governments do not have the resources to implement these commitments so this can only be viewed as hypocritical. Since the well-being and quality of life of people living on the Territories is very dependent on their natural resources, how can the UK Government insist that Territory governments comply to UK/international law over issues like child protection and the death penalty but take very little interest in the application of international environmental standards?

 

10. There are two natural World Heritage Sites on the Overseas Territories, Henderson Island and Gough and Inaccessible Islands, which are arguably the most important seabird breeding islands in the world. Currently the department responsible (DCMS) is spending very little or no resources on these islands because it believes they are the responsibility of the FCO. It is only through the work of RSPB and other conservation organisations that we know the biodiversity on these islands is under the serious threat of extinction[10] and there are no resources to reverse these threats. The UK is therefore clearly failing in its duties under the World Heritage Convention.

 

11. The Territories struggle to meet the commitments of international conventions and the Environment Charter, because they are small, remote islands with small populations and little income. It is not possible for the Territories to access international sources of funding such as the Global Environment Facility because they are considered to be the responsibility of the UK Government. They also cannot access many EU (e.g. LIFE+) or UK funds (e.g. Lottery). They therefore cannot achieve conservation work in the manner of EU countries, nor can they achieve it in the manner of developing countries and Small Island Developing States.

 

12. The RSPB has calculated that a minimum of 16 million/year is required for Territories to meet their biodiversity priorities[11]. It is hard to see how the FCO can meet its international responsibilities under the conventions when currently it contributes only approximately 0.5 million per year to the Overseas Territories Environment Programme, a fund run jointly with the Department for International Development to support biodiversity conservation in the UK Overseas Territories. This fund has been successful but it only funds small projects (<50,000/year) so can only meet a fraction of the demands required of it[12] and crucially has not been able to provide the long term institutional capacity which small agencies on the Overseas Territories need to make the best use of this and other funds. There is also no long-term guarantee for the fund which means it cannot be used strategically.

 

13. In view of the responsibility the UK retains for the Overseas Territories and their people and the importance of these Territories for their natural resources, we consider it an extraordinary dereliction of the Governments' responsibilities that in the recent PSA announcements the Overseas Territories were not seemingly taken into account.

 

14. If increased funding is not identified, endemic species[13] for which the UK is responsible will certainly become extinct and ecosystem services will continue to deteriorate in these territories. The lack of attention will undoubtedly mean that UK citizens and the UK environment will suffer and the UK Government will fail to meet a number of the international obligations to which it is signed up. It is increasingly at risk of being seen as hypocritical in urging others such as nations with rainforests etc. to take conservation action while not taking it within its own jurisdiction.

 

15. We believe that the FCO should demonstrate that it takes its international obligations seriously on the Territories. First, by guaranteeing the long-term continuation of a strengthened Overseas Territories Environment Programme, and, secondly by ensuring that adequate financial and human resources are available through this programme that can support ongoing capacity in the Territories and projects, some of which will be large, to protect the natural heritage in the UK's care. This must be achieved either by obtaining increased funding through other government departments such as DEFRA, DFID and DCMS or - if this is not possible - by focusing some of the existing Global Opportunity Fund resources on the territories, for which the UK Government has undisputed responsibility.

 



[1] Report is available from www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environmental_audit_committee.cfm

[2] Report is available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk

[3] Anguillan Economist, Dr Aidan Harrigan, speaking in a personal capacity, expressed his concern about over-development and its potential impact on the social and environmental capital of the island in his address at the annual Walter G. Hodge Memorial Anguilla Day lecture on June 5th, 2007 (www.anguillian.com) as there are 10 major tourism developments awaiting approval. He warned if Anguilla, 'over-develops to the point that the physical and social capacity of the island to handle the level of development is inadequate, it would create a host of problems and cause the island to lose the very essence that made it attractive in the first place.'

[4] The cost of Hurricane Ivan to the Cayman Islands is estimated at 1 billion pounds.

[5] The Government of Anguilla has still to approve the designation of Sombrero island which was proposed in 2005. On Bermuda, Coopers Island is proposed as a national park but the process of designation is still to be completed.

[6] On TCI, Protected Areas have been degazetted to allow for built development.

[7] An airport is currently proposed for St Helena. Under local legislation there is no requirement for an Environmental Impact Assessment though the UK Government has agreed to follow good practice. Of serious concern are the associated developments that could arise because of the airport. A strategic environment assessment on the land development control plan is urgently required to ensure the cumulative impacts of development are avoided.

[8] For example the recent stranding of an oilrig off the coast of Tristan and the storm that has damaged the last couple of wild bastard gumwoods on St Helena. In these situations, the territories are forced to rely heavily on the FCO which does not always appear to treat these matters as a priority.

[9] Review of Environment Charters report is available on the UKOTCF website www.ukotcf.org

[10] For example, research undertaken by RSPB has shown the endemic Tristan Albatross population on Gough is being decimated by the House Mouse and is heading for extinction.

[11] The Costing Biodiversity Conservation Priorities in the UK Overseas Territories report is available on the RSPB website www.rspb.org

[12] The RSPB costing study has identified big projects across the Territories including the eradication of mice from Gough (minimum of 2 million pounds) and conservation of the critically endangered Blue Iguana on the Cayman Islands (3 million pounds).

[13] For example St Helena. There are 49 endemic plants, several of which are represented by only a few individuals in the wild and are at risk of imminent extinction. The St Helena Olive went extinct in 2002. The bastard gumwood could also suffer the same fate because there has been no significant increase in resources for biodiversity conservation since 2002.