COMMONS

Government must do more to protect biodiversity in Overseas Territories

16 January 2014

The UK Government is failing adequately to protect the globally significant biodiversity of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), despite its international treaty commitments to protect those unique species and habitats.

Environmental Audit Committee Chair, Joan Walley MP:

“The natural environment in the Overseas Territories is incredibly diverse, but it is currently under-protected. That is ultimately a UK Government responsibility. The UK Government doesn’t even know precisely what it is responsible for, because it has failed accurately to assess and catalogue those species and habitats.”

The UKOTs encompass vast tracts of ocean, thousands of coral atolls, tropical forests and a polar wilderness six times the size of the United Kingdom, containing:

  • 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK is responsible;
  • at least 517 globally threatened species;
  • many unique endemic species;
  • undisturbed habitats of international significance;

Biodiversity in the UKOTs is subject to immediate and significant threats, including invasive species, under-regulated development and climate change.

Joan Walley MP added:

“The UK Government has constitutionally subcontracted environmental management to the Governments of the inhabited UKOTs, but such constitutional arrangements cannot devolve away the UK’s ultimate responsibility under international law.”

Sustainable development in the UKOTs is contingent on their Governments implementing effective development controls, such as statutory environmental impact assessments for major developments and strategic infrastructure plans. Defra must work with UKOTs Governments on developing planning regimes which value and protect natural capital, and promote sustainable tourism.

Joan Walley MP:

“During our inquiry, the UK Government expressed vague aspirations to ‘cherish' the environment in the Overseas Territories, but it was unwilling to acknowledge or to address its responsibilities under United Nations treaties. Although it is prepared to exercise hard and soft power in relation to financial matters in the UKOTs, the UK Government is apparently not prepared to exercise those powers to protect biodiversity and to promote environmental sustainability.”

Investing to prevent biodiversity loss in the UKOTs is a direct and cost-effective contribution to meeting the UK’s international commitments under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the report concludes. Without enhanced monitoring, however, Defra cannot accurately report on the full extent of biodiversity in the UKOTs and measure progress towards the UN 2020 target to halt biodiversity loss.

Defra must work with UKOTs Governments, NGOs such as the RSPB, and research institutions to agree a comprehensive research programme to catalogue the full extent of biodiversity in the UKOTs.

Joan Walley MP pointed out:

“When the UK submitted its Fourth Report to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, only four-and-a-half pages out of 136 were devoted to biodiversity in the UKOTS, despite them containing 90% of the biodiversity the UK is responsible for.”

Defra and the FCO must respond positively to the Pitcairn Islanders' request to establish a fully protected Marine Protected Area around the Pitcairn Islands. This would make a significant contribution to achieving the UN target to protect 10% of the world's oceans by 2020.

Background

The 14 United Kingdom Overseas Territories (UKOTs) comprise Anguilla; Bermuda; British Antarctic Territory; British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT); Cayman Islands; Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus; Falkland Islands; Gibraltar; Montserrat; Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands (known as Pitcairn Islands); St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha; South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; Turks and Caicos Islands; and British Virgin Islands.

Eleven of the UKOTs have permanent populations, ranging from the 63,000 residents of Bermuda to the 50 or so inhabitants of the Pitcairn Islands.The total population of the UKOTs amounts to some 250,000 people, loosely equivalent to that of Nottingham.

In June 2012, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) published The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability. It was the first White Paper specifically to address the UK's relationship with the Overseas Territories since Partnership for Progress and Prosperity: Britain and the Overseas Territories, published in 1999.

The UK signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The treaty comprises a comprehensive list of actions that parties must take to protect species and ecosystems. CBD engagement in the UKOTs would provide an overarching framework under which to address the threats to biodiversity identified in Part 3 of this Report.

The UKOTs have no international legal personality or treaty-making capacity. The UK concludes treaties on the UKOTs’ behalf and is ultimately responsible if a UKOT violates a treaty obligation.

Further information

Image: Jonathan Hall (Cayman Blue Iguana)

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