One of the miracles of today’s Europe is that the European Union (EU) works. With 27 countries that together speak 23 languages and have a population of 495 million, the EU has faced innumerable challenges. There have been problems aplenty, not least the ongoing financial turmoil within the single-currency Eurozone of 17 countries. Though less newsworthy, the triumphs of many manageable measures have changed aspects of everyday life between and within the countries of the continent. One of the most pervasive is Natura 2000, a network in step with the EU implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a part of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
The EU implementation came about in the form of the Habitats Directive released two weeks before the Rio Earth Summit opened. Within the EU, a Directive is not a law, as lawmaking remains the province of the member countries. It’s a legal tool that the member countries use to transpose its requirements into their national laws. That nuance is essential. Laws in different countries are harmonized but nonetheless retain national characteristics.
Natura 2000 involves a uniform designation of sites called Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) that include existing areas and areas that can be restored. The SACs come about in a process designed to ensure the survival of prioritized species and habitats throughout Europe. It starts with a country listing its Sites of Community Interest (SCIs), goes through review in biogeographical seminars and ends with an SCI list issued by the European Commission (EC) from which SACs are designated. Natura 2000 also includes sites called Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for birds, established according to the Birds Directive of 1979 and consisting of two parts, habit conservation and species protection.
One of the advantages of Natura 2000 is its latitude of administration and application. It was governmental in origin but relies on external expertise and welcomes contributions from non-government organizations (NGOs). The Directives that initiated it were top-down, but much of the upkeep of the sites takes place at the grassroots level. Its prime focus is on the protection of birds and animals within specified habitats, but it also covers vast estuaries, forests, cave systems and marine environments. It is a conservation incentive, but not exclusively conservationist. It permits logging that in some cases may be beneficial, as forests may be managed to remove invasive tree species and restore woodland tracts to their original habitats. Likewise, outdoor recreation that does not degrade conservation is permitted in some areas, while other vulnerable areas may be closed to the public.
The countries that have sites bear most of the burden of financing their management and upkeep. Even so, other funding sources are available, principally through LIFE, the EU financial instrument for supporting environmental and nature conservation projects. Commercial ventures in logging and ecological tourism also may provide income.
The program that implemented Natura 2000 was relatively short. It peaked in 2004-2006 and terminated in 2007. But Natura 2000 lives on, in part sustained via Eurosite, a network of public and private organizations and non-government organizations. So the Natura 2000 network has yet to be completed. Today it consists of more than 27,000 sites, varying from 35 on Malta to more than 5,200 in Germany. Together, the sites cover 17.5%, or close to a fifth of the total area of the EU countries. Clearly, the conservation of biodiversity is a European priority.
M. Michael Brady is a translator living in a suburb of Oslo. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. This column marks the end of Dateline: Europe’s two-year-plus run in Mountain Gazette.
Further reading, More about:
Natura2000 ongoing activities at www.natura.org .
European Topic Centre on Biological Diversity at bd.eionet.europa.eu/
Eurosite network at www.eurosite.org (selectable in 5 languages)
Convention on Biological Diversity at www.cbd.net (selectable in 6 languages)
Europe on the official EU website at www.europa.eu (selectable in 23 languages).