IUCN World Conservation Congress

As the sun rose, the arrival of the Moana Pasifika Voyaging Vaka canoe on the shores of Kahanamoku Beach in Honolulu, Hawai‘i, symbolically kicked off the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress, shedding light on discussions and motions that were the focus of the IUCN Members Assembly; a call for action on climate change and a healthy, resilient, sustainable ocean to benefit present and future generations.

The Hawaiian concept of mālama honua – caring for our island earth – is associated with voyaging traditions of indigenous peoples and conveys an important lesson: our natural world is a gift with limits and we must carefully steward this gift if we are to survive together. As we work to protect cultural and environmental resources for our future, these lessons encourage venturing beyond the horizon to connect and learn with others. The 2016 IUCN held in Hawai‘i truly ventured beyond the horizon, bringing together over 9,500 attendees representing government agencies, Non-Government Organization’s (NGOs), scientists, and the business community from over 190 nations, and more than 1,000 school students to participate in the largest, and most diverse, conservation gathering in the world.

Despite the fact that the ocean is what separates us, it is also what brings us together. Much like these voyaging traditions, the IUCN is a means by which world leaders in conservation now engage all of Island Earth, bridging indigenous and modern knowledge to take informed action on the issues we face today, while sharing, learning, creating global relationships, and discovering the wonders of this precious place we all call home.

The ecosystems that underpin the worlds economies’ well-being and survival are collapsing, species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates, and our climate is in a crisis. An ‘ōlelo no‘eau, or proverb preserved in Hawaiian culture, reads, pūpūkahi i holomua – we must unite to move forward, by working together we make progress, and embodies the action we must take as a result of the issues we currently face. It signifies the necessity of each paddler in a canoe pulling the paddles together in order to make the canoe move forward quickly. With our planet at a crossroads, world leaders have realized that this is the moment we need to paddle together in order to move forward quickly and the IUCN made it its mission in doing so. The 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress happened at a pivotal moment in time, in an iconic location most vulnerable to the issues we face today with the greatest need for action.

The IUCN recommendations and findings form the basis of legislation around the world. Its members debate and act on key issues identifying the next steps for implementing the historic United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement, which determined the new direction for the IUCN, and stresses the integration of economic development, social progress, and environmental protection. These agreements represent a historic opportunity to improve the lives of billions of people around the world and put nature at the heart of our decision-making. The success of these agreements depends on how quickly they are turned into sustainable action. Likewise, world leaders have witnessed that business as usual is no longer an option and made it their goal for this IUCN to be one of implementation of action.

As a result of U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) at the forefront of the congress, this years IUCN included further motions on increasing Marine Protected Area (MPA) coverage for effective marine biodiversity conservation and sustainability. Now PMNM is a 583,000 square mile no take zone, an area larger than all the national parks combined, and quadruple its previous size.

In response to President Obama’s executive action, Sylvia Earle remarked, “history will remember this anniversary and next century as the “blue centennial” – the time when the national park idea was brought to the ocean. It couldn’t come too soon.” 

At the opening ceremony of the IUCN, President of the Republic of Palau Tommy Remengesau shot a friendly challenge at President Obama to “join the big leagues” and protect 80 percent of the United State’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as the Palauan National Marine Sanctuary has. In retrospect, the U.S. EEZ is the largest in the world, spanning over 13,000 miles of coastline, and extending 200 nautical miles offshore, overall containing 3.4 million square nautical miles of ocean – larger than the combined land area of all fifty states. Currently, with the expansion of PMNM, the U.S. has protected 15 percent of its EEZ. The U.S. has a ways to go in reaching 80 percent protection, however, it is this type of bold thinking that we need to have in order to see the change we wish to see in the world.

Keeping ocean issues in the spotlight during high-level policy discussions, the wishful thinking of President Remengesau, the accomplishments of President Obama, and the work of other ocean leaders, have inspired a chain of new MPAs and motions relating to ocean wellness during this congress. Some highlights include French Polynesia’s commitment to increasing their marine managed area to four times that of Hawai‘i, topping Papahānaumokuākea in being the world’s largest marine protected area!

Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, and Carl Gustaf Lundin, IUCN’s Director of the Global Marine and Polar program also announced 14 new Hope Spots (marine environments especially deserving of protection). The new Hope Spots came directly from "a concerned global community calling out for more ocean protection." Mission Blue explains, "by allowing citizens to elect their own Hope Spots, thus taking responsibility and ownership of their environment, Mission Blue and IUCN hope to meet the goal of igniting broad public support for a global network of marine protected areas large enough to protect and restore the ocean’s health" – hope for the oceans and hope for mankind, as Sylvia Earle would say.

Lead conservation organizations also announced new partnerships and plans to identify more Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) over the next five years and developed a global standard for KBA’s at the congress. This includes a network of over 15 million mapped areas in need of conservation that will identify threats and conservation actions to advise national governments in expanding the protected areas network and private companies to mitigate and ensure there is minimized impact on nature.

Additionally, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) revealed they are beginning to explore the different ways their work may one day apply to the wonders of the open ocean. They announced that their mission is to ensure the 49 marine sites on their World Heritage List are conserved and sustainably managed so future generations can continue to enjoy them.

Governor Ige of Hawai‘i also realized the mauka (mountain) to makai (ocean) connection, as he announced his commitment “to protecting 30 percent of Hawai‘i’s highest priority watersheds, and effectively managing 30 percent of Hawai‘i’s near shore ocean waters by 2030, as coral reefs provide capital for spectacular marine life and the people of Hawai‘i.”

Likewise, scientists tell us at least 30 to 50 percent of the ocean must be fully protected to restore its health. Today, 13 percent of terrestrial land is protected, but only 3 percent of the ocean is strongly protected in no-take marine reserves, which are permanently set aside from direct human disturbance and all methods of fishing and extraction of natural materials, including dumping, dredging, mining, or construction activities. With inspiration from various efforts to protect our oceans, the ambitious and controversial motion 53 was passed in Honolulu at the World Conservation Congress to set aside at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans as “highly protected” areas by 2030!

Furthermore, the IUCN Members Assembly voted to create a new category of membership for Indigenous peoples' organizations. This will open the opportunity to strengthen the presence and role of Indigenous organizations in the IUCN, marking "a major step towards achieving the equitable and sustainable use of natural resources," says IUCN Director General Inger Andersen. "Indigenous peoples are key stewards of the world's biodiversity. By giving them this crucial opportunity to be heard on the international stage, we have made our Union stronger, more inclusive, and more democratic." 

Eighty-five other motions were brought forward and adopted by the IUCN congress and have become resolutions or recommendations for third parties to take action.

Following the IUCN, during the Our Oceans Summit, President Obama also announced the first ever Atlantic Marine National Monument, and Pitcairn Island protected area was additionally announced becoming the second largest marine sanctuary in the world with 99 percent of its EEZ protected, among other amazing advancements and announcements for our oceans future. Today, the coverage of MPA’s has increased by almost 300 percent within the last decade. We are definitely moving forward quickly!

E kaupē aku nō i ka hoe a kō maiput forth the paddle and draw it back. As this years IUCN World Conservation Congress came to an end, world leaders have put forth their paddles. Now we must go on with this progress and continue pulling our paddles together. One stroke at a time, one protected area at a time, all joining in together to move forward for a better future.



Prior to interning with Civic Enterprises and attending her first year of college at Duke University, Sarah held leadership roles in Maui County and Hawaii State Student Council organizations, mentored middle and elementary school students in STEM education, educated Molokai community members on environmental issues, presented at the Hawaii Conservation Conference on research, and led various projects regarding the sustainability and conservation of natural resources on her home island of Molokai, Hawaii. Sarah’s current research utilizes Geographic Information Systems to analyze the socioeconomic and ecological impact Red Mangrove is having along the southern coast of Molokai and its imminent threat to the fringing reef. This original research earned her 1st place in the world in the category of Earth and Environmental Science at the 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Her work caught the attention of Esri CEO, Jack Dangermond, who asked Sarah to be a plenary speaker before 17,000 geospatial professionals and software engineers at the 2015 Esri International User Conference in California. Growing up on the island of Molokai, Sarah has been committed to protecting Hawaii’s unique natural and cultural resources that has led her on a path to majoring in Environmental Science and Policy at Duke University.