Redefining the boundaries of conservation

To achieve global biodiversity targets, a diversity of methods is essential

Aerial photo of ocean cove with boats

Fishing villages along Mexico’s Gulf of California share a motto: They want fish today, and tomorrow, too.

Yet, just over a decade ago, these communities in Baja California Sur faced plummeting commercial fish numbers. In 2012, fishers collaborated with the government, local NGOs Niparajá and COBI, and the WWF-Carlos Slim Foundation Alliance to establish a series of refuge zones that prohibit fishing and allow species to spawn and grow. It’s yielded a steady year-over-year uptick in fish volume that extended beyond the refuge zones.

“The locally led initiative, known as the San Cosme-Punta Coyote corridor, shows that collaboration among local people, nonprofits, governments, and others generates positive outcomes for nature,” notes Pilar Jacobo, nature based solutions coordinator at WWF-Mexico.

It’s also an example of the kind of projects that could be bolstered by an inclusive approach to area-based conservation called OECMs.

The OECM Framework

Short for “other effective area-based conservation measures,” the OECM framework was developed under the Convention on Biological Diversity to recognize effective and long-term biodiversity conservation in areas outside the traditional protected areas (PA) system.

“While these conserved areas are not always managed primarily for conservation, they still achieve conservation goals,” says Harry Jonas, WWF’s senior director of conservation areas and an architect of the framework.

The OECM framework supports equitable and effective conservation at many kinds of sites. These include sacred natural spaces with high biodiversity that flourish through Indigenous-led protections and grazing lands that also conserve natural habitat.

According to Jonas, conserved areas will also play a key role as nations work toward the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework’s “30x30” target—an international accord that calls for effective and inclusive conservation of 30% of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030.

“Many sites that are not protected areas are—and have long been—supporting important biodiversity,” he says. “The OECM framework is designed to generate greater support for the many people already conserving their surroundings in ways that contribute to global biodiversity goals.”

Complementary Conservation

OECMs and PAs are complementary approaches: Like a puzzle, the former can often fill in gaps between the latter.

Today, some 269,000 PAs—such as national parks or biosphere reserves with a focus on protecting nature—cover roughly 16% of the world’s terrestrial areas and 8% of marine areas. But biodiversity is still plunging at unprecedented rates.

That’s where the OECM framework provides hope. It recognizes that groups and individuals that both use and support nature—whether hunters, farmers, fishers, or herders—belong at the heart of the global effort to conserve biodiversity.

“The OECM framework won’t solve the biodiversity crisis alone. But if done well, there is strong evidence to suggest that it will help channel support to places important for biodiversity beyond protected areas—diversifying conservation leadership and contributing to sustainable livelihoods.”

Harry Jonas
WWF Senior Director Of Conservation Areas

In many such conserved areas—which can be found everywhere from public, private, and community lands to Indigenous territories—local stewards have successfully managed the landscape and its biodiversity for decades, centuries, or longer while also meeting their own communities’ needs. These peoples and communities are among the world’s most important conservation actors, but many historically have not been included in the most recognized conservation models to date.

OECMs might support any number of priorities. “For instance, Indigenous peoples or local communities might use the framework to address outside intrusion from extractive industries,” Jonas says. “Other groups might be interested in leveraging the framework to secure traditional fishing or hunting rights, increase tourism, or access new or additional funding.”

These protected area alternatives also amplify local actors’ conservation experience, wisdom, and impact. Research shows that when Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ legal forest rights are respected, their lands store carbon more efficiently. In the tropics, community-managed forests suffer less deforestation than traditional protected areas. And a 2019 study across Australia, Brazil, and Canada found amphibian, bird, mammal, and reptile numbers were highest on Indigenous-managed or comanaged lands—more so than in traditional protected areas.

Essential Leadership

It is in recognizing this long-standing conservation leadership that the OECM framework can shine. Advocacy and leadership by Indigenous peoples, local community members, regional NGOs, and others shaped the OECM framework and 30x30 goal by raising concerns over historical conservation approaches and early drafts of the plan. Those perspectives were incorporated into 30x30 and will be essential to its success.

Since 2018, nine countries have recognized over 800 OECM sites that total some 772,000 square miles. Multiplied across the 196 countries that are parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity and have signed the Kunming-Montreal agreement, “you have something very important happening,” says Jonas, noting OECMs will become a major focus of the global efforts toward the 30x30 target.

Alongside Indigenous peoples, local communities, government agencies, and funders, groups like WWF have an important partnership role to play.

“We offer thought leadership, resources, capacity development, and support for the identification, monitoring, and reporting of conserved areas like these,” says Jonas.

“It’s not a panacea,” he adds, “and the OECM framework won’t solve the biodiversity crisis alone. But if done well, there is strong evidence to suggest that it will help channel support to places important for biodiversity beyond protected areas—diversifying conservation leadership and contributing to sustainable livelihoods.”

It’s a plan—like the one the San Cosme-Punta Coyote corridor fishers created—that holds today’s needs and tomorrow’s opportunities hand in hand.

How WWF supports OECMs

The OECM framework will become increasingly popular as countries pursue the Global Biodiversity Framework’s 30x30 target. To ensure that engagement with OECMs is both equitable and effective, NGOs like WWF will play a key supporting role. To do this, WWF:


SUPPORTS the development of national OECM strategies in ways that complement protected and conserved areas within landscapes, seascapes, and river basins.


FACILITATES training and knowledge-sharing on OECMs for land-right holders and stakeholders.


WORKS ALONGSIDE national and local stakeholders, and facilitates the codesign of innovative tools for effective management, equitable governance, and long-term finance of OECMs.

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