A number of management level changes took place at the LIFE Programme during 2009. These involved a merger with the Environmental Technology Action Plan (ETAP) support services and their Eco Innovation funding scheme. Closer cooperation with NGO funding was also introduced.
The changes provided an opportunity to clearer define the main functions of LIFE and led to a reshuffle of the overall team into two new dedicated units. One unit is now responsible for LIFE’s Nature & Biodiversity activities and another unit has been created to integrate LIFE Environment with ETAP and its Eco Innovation projects. The LIFE Environment unit also supervises NGO support and oversees the activities of LIFE’s Information and Communication component.
Heads of Unit were appointed in October 2009 to roll out the new LIFE management structure and both bosses have clear opinions about their units’ priorities for 2010, as well as beyond. LIFEnews went to find out more about their thoughts and plans for the future.
“I personally have a dream for LIFE Nature and biodiversity” says Angelo Salsi, the Head of Unit for LIFE Nature and Biodiversity. His dream reflects Mr Salsi’s passion for the LIFE programme which dates back to the early 1990s when he joined DG Environment as one of the original LIFE Nature desk officers and “fell in love immediately with the instrument’s power to demonstrate what people can really do when they want to do something.” LIFE’s “enormous potential for creating a positive image of the Commission, and the EU as a whole, on the ground in Member States” is another key factor driving Mr Salsi’s dream.
“My dream for LIFE Nature and Biodiversity is making sure the potential which this instrument has been expressing in the last more than 15 years is further enhanced to pave the way for ensuring that Natura 2000 reaches maturity by way of ensuring all sites are coherently managed on the ground”. The Head of Unit points to the fact that “ Natura 2000 network is now huge and covers some 17% of the total EU territory. If we add connectivity and corridors this can further increase”. He continues, “A large chunk of the network is mostly on paper. This means that whilst it is legally protected it may not actually be managed”.
Mr Salsi acknowledges that not every single Natura 2000 site needs active management but he believes that most sites do require some form of support in order to maintain their intrinsic value. “My experience from LIFE Nature missions indicates that a patchwork of different activity levels exists between Member States, and inside countries from region to region, as well as within regions from site to site. So we need to understand this reality and start to look at how LIFE can be best used to help shift the Natura 2000 network from a half paper half real network into what we always claimed it should be - our Natural heritage”.
Boosting what Mr Salsi refers to as the network’s ‘absorption capacity’ is an associated measure that he sees as necessary for realising such strategic long term targets. He explains “We know that the cost of managing the Natura network sites each year requires around six billion Euros of investments and recurring revenues, and we know that LIFE is normally the first port of call for costs incurred in managing these sites. We also know that LIFE is able to contribute to projects totalling around 100 million Euros annually, but we are usually asked for only three to four times as much as we can give each year”.
“For me this shows that the nature conservation sector is capable of absorbing only a limited amount as compared to the theoretical needs. This sector grows steadily year after year and its demand for funding follows, but this is a slow mechanism largely dependent on the capacity for Member States’ conservation bodies to carry out the required amount of work which would result in the full six billion being absorbed each year. The solution, therefore, is not only providing more money, but providing it in a way it will be really accessible, usable and effective. LIFE Nature has shown this is possible and it should continue to evolve in such a way whereby it aims to match more of the existing capacity and by doing so, at the same time, is also able to strengthen the network’s overall absorption capacity”.
Patience and stamina are noted as important factors in realising this vision by the Italian agronomist, who views his new Head of Unit post as an opportunity to build on LIFE’s strengths and take forward an ambitious capacity building agenda for the Natura 2000 network.
“LIFE Nature is the only EU instrument that has been specially design from its birth for the purpose of implementing Natura 2000. Many other complementary EU, national and local instruments are now also active in this field but LIFE Nature will continue to be an important fuel for the network’s functions. We expect increasingly good results since LIFE remains very popular with its stakeholders at ground level due to its ability to adapt and meet their many different needs in many different ways. LIFE’s flexibility has been particularly productive in helping the all important task of getting people speaking to each other”.
“By putting people together who don’t normally speak to each other, and providing a mechanism for these people to work together, LIFE has been an essential motivator for a great deal of much-needed nature conservation activity. This is one of the remarkable intangible benefits from LIFE and it represents one of the programme’s most important added value features. It is of course very difficult to actually assess in financial terms but nevertheless it remains hugely valuable in terms of the contributions that LIFE makes to core EU principles of participative governance and stakeholder inclusion”.
LIFE’s successes in helping facilitate and embed partnership approaches into EU nature conservation action has seen “something like three billion Euros being used over 15 years and more than 10% of all NATURA 2000 sites have been targeted, at least once, by a LIFE project. The small yearly funding has built a solid foundations and now LIFE Nature is considered a programme that has delivered tangible results at EU level, well beyond its limited budget. We now need to move a step ahead by making maximum use of the network’s potential and to do this, as I said, we need to invest in capacity building on the ground. This means investing in people, equipment and knowledge”.
“We are aware that we cannot do this alone and that would be a wrong approach. What we need to do is harness LIFE’s potential as a vehicle for building people’s capacity to: firstly know what conservation actions are needed to be done; secondly know how to do these and who to involve in the process; and thirdly know how to use the full range of complementary financial and advisory resources that are available on the ground. LIFE has a really important role in putting such know-how in place since once built, this conservation capacity will allow the stakeholders to take forward new and additional Natura works by simple emulation of the LIFE approach. Stakeholders can then tap into the mix of other funding sources that are also earmarked for Natura areas, thereby resulting in significant synergies.”
Keeping such a capacity building ball rolling will continue to require a lot of work by Member States but Mr Salsi notes the evidence from several country’s where LIFE’s catalytic properties have made considerable progress in establishing key Natura 2000 management capacities. Further work is predicted and more emphasis on building skills and experience at local levels is foreseen as LIFE’s Nature and Biodiversity component rolls out.
Priorities for the start of the next decade in this field will include increasing LIFE’s facilitation role. “We should not pretend that we can finance all that needs done but I see a need for these capacity building projects. Such projects could be large in terms of coverage, financial resources and time spans. They should also contain a higher degree of built-in flexibility”.
“Our goals could then start to partially shift the focus away from carrying out a certain number of actions to improve the conservation status of specific sites. We would be moving more towards carrying out heterogeneous actions with heterogeneous partners in order to reach an overall global objective of increasing the EU’s capacity for managing the full actual Natura network, to a much higher level for the long term, and to do this in a sustainable way.”
Communication and information are considered vital tools for reinforcing Mr Salsi’s conservation capacity building plans. LIFE has a dedicated component for this type of work which is being viewed as a beneficial platform for providing Natura 2000 with a positive and widespread public profile around Europe. “It would be very interesting if a country decided at national level for example to launch a big campaign on Natura 2000 and asks LIFE support in order to try and reach as many citizen as possible”. This could contribute to another of the Head of Unit’s dreams for NATURA 2000, that being that “one day when an EU citizen is asked to name an important protected area, they will not always refer to e.g. Yellowstone, but also feel proud that they know about places like Spain’s Doñana or Italian's Gran Paradiso ... I am sure that Natura 2000 has the potential to provide a real sense of common European identity that can be shared by all our citizens.”
Natura 2000 is not the only prospective beneficiary of LIFE’s awareness raising funds and the biodiversity component of Mr Salsi’s mandate is also identified as a future avenue for Information and Communication assistance. “Our biodiversity component is still relatively new and we need an effective information campaign on the ground to make sure that the right stakeholders get to hear about LIFE Biodiversity”.
“It’s true that these stakeholders have not yet been fully defined and I suspect that the LIFE Biodiversity family is different to other existing LIFE partners. For example, if we are to properly control threats from invasive species then biodiversity stakeholders also include important people such as customs officials, vets and other groups involved at different levels within national and EU control systems. Many of these people have never played with LIFE before. You might also have a lot of people involved in applied or basic research, business and industry that may see the biodiversity component as relevant to the inputs that they are making to nature conservation in its broadest terms”.
“It therefore makes sense that the Commission and Member States open up LIFE Biodiversity to a very broad audience by using the information and communication tools that we have at our disposal. In this way we can really start to explore the full extent of LIFE Biodiversity’s options”.
The LIFE Programme’s new Biodiversity component is credited for its revolutionary character but deemed as so far being rather under-exploited. “Our initial portfolio of Biodiversity projects and proposals contain a hybrid of different ideas that we will continue to nurture”.
“It deliberately includes several elements that go beyond Natura 2000 and so can touch a new set of LIFE stakeholders, like those I mentioned previously. Our job for 2010 and onwards is to properly test the boundaries of LIFE Biodiversity. We want to see where people will take it, we want to see if it is needed, and if it can deliver in the same way that LIFE Nature has done.”
Member States are seen as playing a valuable paternal role in “helping the new Biodiversity baby to walk” and this is expected to require time to find out what new varieties of nature conservation benefits can be created by the biodiversity component. “Once we have a clearer picture of its possibilities we can start to better develop the Biodiversity brand and demonstrate its own distinctive LIFE identity”.
“Challenges will no doubt emerge during this process and we are ready to assume a certain level of risk, because in this sort of new venture those involved need some freedom to think creatively and explore innovative ideas. So the year ahead provides us with a good occasion to really see what type of imagination people on the ground have for LIFE Biodiversity, and for me this will be one of things that I will be following closely during 2010”.
When asked what other aspects of his work the new Head of Unit at LIFE Nature and Biodiversity is looking forward to in the new decade, Angelo Salsi responds “simply continuing my love story with LIFE”.