Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Let's be more strategic when selecting locations for international conservation conferences

13 November, 2014 - 18:01 -- John Burton

Yesterday the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) opened its World Parks Conference in Sydney, Australia. I have blogged before about the selection of venues for international conferences, but as it’s a topic that provokes comment I am raising it again.

Australia is a country with an abysmal environmental record at present and it is probably the most expensive place in the world to get to, in terms of airline flights. I don’t know how many people will attend, but it will be hundreds if not thousands. So the international airlines will benefit, as well as the Australian hotel industry.

Carbon emissions will be huge, both from the flights and the hot air generated by the conference. So why are big conferences held in such expensive places?

When I am organising any form of international meeting the first thing I do (and indeed have done on several occasions for World Land Trust) is work out how most of the potential attendees would get to a meeting.

That immediately narrows the field down to a venue close to a major international airline hub. And, helpfully, most airport hubs often have very good conference facilities.

The main hubs closest to World Land Trust are London and Amsterdam, which are easily accessible from Africa, Asia and the Americas. They are also convenient because we can provide the infrastructure without have to ship staff all over the world.

Having said that, we have also organised a symposium in Belize, which was relatively easy to reach for all our partners at the time, the overwhelming majority being based in Latin America. Sao Paulo is another major hub for the Americas, with cheap flights from Europe and other parts of the world. We also held a meeting in Singapore especially for our Asian partners.

In the case of the current IUCN conference, I did not think it appropriate to spend WLT’s unrestricted funds on sending a delegate to Sydney. Some of WLT’s conservation partners have been funded to go, and they should certainly take the opportunity if offered it, because they would not get that funding for other activities.

However, I do think that all conservationists, particularly members of IUCN, should speak out about the choice of venue for these international conferences. BirdLife International held its conference in Ottowa last year. We could have contributed usefully to the event, were it not for the exorbitant costs of attending. And I doubt whether the presence of the conference in Ottawa had any major impact on Canadian conservation policy.

While there is a case for meeting over the internet and via skype, face to face meetings over three or four days, can produce great results. I’m not decrying these major gatherings and I very much hope that the IUCN conference in Sydney is a great success. Nonetheless, the point I would like to make is that a conference held in Latin America, Africa or Asia would have a major impact in the host country, both economically and politically, which in turn influences conservation.

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