European initiative helps local communities preserve biodiversity
When you think of species conservation, the first thing that probably enters your mind is big projects like animal breeding programmes and nature reserves. But how often do you consider the species in your garden, in your city park, or on your farm? These environments are also crucial places for preserving biodiversity according to a recent €1.8 million EU-funded research project, which examined ways to better coordinate conservation efforts between local and national governments.
The TESS (Transactional Environmental Support System) project involved researchers from 14 organisations in 10 European countries, and it started with the premise that European citizens make countless local environmental decisions every day which do not require planning permissions. These range from tidying up gardens, to planting a new crop, or paving a gravel road. These land managers lack access to the kind of computer models that government scientists use to predict the effects of such developments on plants and animals. Yet all these local decisions can amount to a large overall landscape change. TESS has determined that local land managers make 100,000 times as many environmental decisions per hectare as do national authorities.
Local planners could better decide how to develop their land if they had access to these computer models. Conversely, national officials could use the help of local people in return – hundreds of species are in decline across Europe, and keeping track of them all and the state of their habitats is an impossible task for the centralised Environment Agency. Remote sensing, for instance via satellite, is becoming more sophisticated but still isn’t as reliable as human observation. Therefore, both governments and citizens could benefit from a two-way partnership using an online data-exchange.
To map out how such an exchange could work, TESS researchers surveyed members of local and central governments across Europe to first understand which data on land and species were being shared and which were not. They then compiled a list of all the scientific models for forecasting nature locally, and which pieces of data were needed to populate these models.
The next stage was a crucial one. TESS researchers conducted case studies in nine countries to gauge whether a two-way data-exchange was both desirable and technically possible. One such site was Sfantu Gheorghe, a fishing community in Romania, where ecotourism could help support local livelihoods after fish stocks collapsed in 2006. Another site, in Kerkini, Greece, is bolstering bird-watching and hunting as sustainable natural industries; hotel owners, tour operators and hunters all contributed to the case study.
Overall, residents responded very favourably to the idea of TESS. Schools, NGOs, local community groups and others expressed a desire to contribute to mapping species and habitats, both because of their passion for nature and their desire to earn a sustainable income from the land. In turn, residents were eager to have access to more information about managing the riches of nature locally.
Based on these case studies, TESS then initiated the web portal www.naturalliance.eu, now available in 24 languages. The portal offers tools including free mapping software developed by TESS, which allows anyone to map landscapes and species in their local environment. In exchange for the software, users will soon be asked to record data on the website. For example, users may count numbers of a particular plant in their gardens, fields or forests. Adding all these data together could then help inform local, regional and national authorities who are making environmental decisions.
Since the project formally concluded in June 2011 various European governments have expressed interest in building a fully functional TESS exchange. The research team have also written a book summarising the project and distilling best practices for future endeavours, available for the wider public to buy and read.
“If biodiversity exists and is well monitored, people consider it as their own wealth,” says Stratos Arampatzis, TESS’s Dissemination Manager. “They can manage it and they don’t let it perish.”