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IUCN on track to give protected status to forest genetic conservation units

Published: 22/11/2016
EUFGIS genetic conservation unit of beech in Baigorry, France. Credit: A.Ducousso/EUFORGEN
EUFGIS genetic conservation unit of beech in Baigorry, France. Credit: A.Ducousso/EUFORGEN

The World Conservation Congress, held in Hawai‘i in early September, adopted a motion calling for forest genetic conservation units to be recognised with the IUCN protected areas status of category IV - Habitat/Species management area. The motion, promoted by the French National Conservation Congress, will now be considered by national authorities and NGOs and is expected to help forest geneticists to work with conservationists to secure the long-term conservation of forest tree diversity essential for climate change adaptation.

The genetic conservation units listed in EUFGIS, the European information system on forest genetic resources, are likely to be among the first beneficiaries of this new status.

Alexis Ducousso, president of the Forest Group of the French IUCN conservation committee spent two years working with colleagues from the French Commission on Forest Genetic Resources (CRGF) to get the motion adopted.

"You had protected species and protected ecosystems," he said, "but nothing to protect genetic processes."

The IUCN motion is based on the fact that "dynamic conservation of genetic diversity favours the adaptive capacities and evolution of forests in the face of environmental changes." Its preamble includes several important statements. It recognises, for example, that "genetic diversity is not sufficiently taken into account in forest conservation programmes" and regrets that many countries conserve FGR only of "species of economic interest".

Ducousso organised meetings in France to bring conservationists and forest geneticists together to understand the importance of forest genetic resources in the long-term sustainability of ecosystems. As a result, the French IUCN conservation committee accepted the motion and put it forward for consideration by the World Conservation Congress.

Now, Ducousso says, "you have good connections between conservation at the ecosystem level and people involved in gene conservation". He hopes that the French example will encourage other European countries to build similar links between the two communities.

Countries still have to consider how to bring the motion's recommendations into their national regulations, which will involve discussions with departments of agriculture, environment and the like. In Europe, Ducousso said, the new protected area status will potentially apply to genetic conservation units as defined and registered in EUFGIS.

When the new motion finds its way into national regulations, that will add an extra layer of protection to forest conservation units and increase their visibility in the national and international biodiversity conservation programmes. Furthermore, opening the possibility to designate IUCN protected areas for the conservation of forest genetic resources will provide new opportunities to identify particular tree populations of interest in those networks that already fulfill the minimum requirements for dynamic conservation. Such links already existed with nature reserves and other protected areas in the French network of dynamic conservation units.

"Protected status will help to conserve these sources of genetic diversity," Ducousso says.

Having established the principle of conserving genetic diversity as such, rather than only species and ecosystems, might IUCN apply the same thinking outside forests? Ducousso says that political considerations originally restricted it to forests. However, he hopes that in due course the idea of genetic conservation will spread to all species.