Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Roles and impacts of stakeholder networks on Europe’s Natura 2000 programme

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Background information

The flag of the European Union

The European Ecological Network called Natura 2000 is the world’s largest multinational-coordinated conservation infrastructure of protected areas[1], stretching over 18% of the European Union’s (EU) land area and almost 6% of its marine territory[2] It is considered by the European Commission to be the centrepiece of the European Union’s nature, and biodiversity policy[3]. The network aims to ensure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats, listed under both the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive[2]. It comprises data for birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates and plants submitted by the 28 EU Member States [3]. It was established with the aim to conserve biodiversity while accommodating the sustainability of human activities[4]. It fully recognises that humans are an integral part of nature and that the two work best in partnership with one another[2]. The goal of these Directives is to conserve Biodiversity while taking into consideration economic, social, cultural and regional requirements at a national level[4].

National authorities - e.g. Ministry of Environment – are responsible for the designation and the management of the protected sites[5]. Natura 2000 is governed by a science-based top-down supranational legislative framework which sets similar conservation objectives across the Member States[4]. However, the social dimension of Natura 2000 is complex and multidimensional and varies among EU countries[6].

Many of these sites need appropriate management to maintain a favourable conservation status. Often, it means low-intensity agricultural practices[7] and strict regulations, which are based on the incommensurable right of natural conservation[3]. For this reason, the introduction of the programme was met with the opposition of various stakeholder groups in almost all Member States. Thus, an implementation of Natura 2000 policy may require a shift towards recognition of a wide range of social aspects relevant to the particular contexts of individual countries, among which, one of the most notable aspects identified was the question of public participation or, broadly, stakeholder involvement[1]. Following are the description of site designation processes, the legal framework shared among all the European Member States and a short discussion concerning the actors involved in Natura 2000 Network. Finally, the general aim and implementation needs found in several reviews will be investigated.

Historical traits and site designation

In the second half of the 20th century, there was a growing awareness of environmental problems, resulting in many national and international initiatives [8]. In particular, there was widespread recognition that many species were in danger of extinction with the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red-list established in 1964 and that many habitat types were disappearing[8].

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global conservation status of animal, fungi and plant species, used by government agencies, wildlife departments, conservation-related non-governmental organisations (NGOs), natural resource planners, educational organisations, students, and the business community[9].

This resulted in a marked increase in the creation of protected areas, such as nature reserves and national parks, in the second half of the 20th century[3] In Europe, the latter met the establishment of a network of designated sites, named Natura 2000, which consist of protected areas chosen on the basis of species and habitats types of Community interest, listed in the annexes to the EU Habitats Directive (EC, 1992) and the Eu Birds Directive (EC, 2009)[3][7].

How a site is chosen depends on what it aims to protect[2]. The main focus of Natura 2000 is to select as targets of conservation certain natural and semi-natural habitat types and also species of European significance which are endangered Europe-wide [10]. Member States choose sites according to precise, scientific criteria. However, the selection procedure varies depending on which of the two nature directives – Birds or Habitats – warrants the creation of a particular site[2]. The Habitats Directive’s Annexes list 231 natural habitat types (Annex I) and more than 1000 animal and plant species (Annexes II, IV and V), while Annex I of the Birds Directive lists species that are at special risk and subject to special conservation measures, and currently includes 190 species and subspecies[10]. Depending on the Directive considered, the designated sites are called in different ways.

Under the Birds Directive

The Member States designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) according to scientific criteria such as ‘1% of the population of listed vulnerable species’ or ‘wetlands of international importance for migratory waterfowl’. While the Member States may choose the most appropriate criteria, they must ensure that all the ‘most suitable territories’, both in number and surface area, are designated. Site-specific data are transmitted to the Commission using Standard Data Forms. Based on the information provided by the Member States, the European Commission determines if the designated sites are sufficient to form a coherent network for the protection of these vulnerable and migratory species. These sites then become an integral part of the Natura 2000 network[2][11].

Under the Habitats Directive

The choice of sites is based on scientific criteria specified in the directive, to ensure that the natural habitat types listed in the directive's Annex I and the habitats of the species listed in its Annex II are maintained. The Member States first carry out comprehensive assessments of each of the habitat types and species present on their territory. They then submit lists of proposed Sites of Community Importance (pSCIs). Site-specific data are transmitted to the Commission using Standard Data Forms. They must include information such as the size and location of the site as well as the types of species and/or habitat found on this site and warranting its selection. Once the lists of Sites of Community Importance (SCIs) have been adopted, Member States must designate them as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), as soon as possible and within six years at most. They should give priority to those sites that are most threatened and/or most important for conservation and take the necessary management or restoration measures to ensure the favourable conservation status of sites during this period. The Commission updates the Union SCI Lists every year to ensure that any new sites proposed by the Member States have legal status[11][2].

Site codification and managerial tools

Each Natura 2000 site is recognised by a unique code composed by nine characters, in which the two first letters indicate the belonging State, the two following numbers indicate the region, the third number tells the province code and the remaining numbers the specific area. For instance, the code IT3250032 says IT as Italy, 32 as Veneto region, 5 as Chioggia province and 0032 as the specific name of the park Bosco Nordio [11]. All the data concerning the sites are regularly updated online through three basic Instruments:

-      Access to Natura 2000 data, a website which provides access to Natura 2000 resources

-      The Natura 2000 barometer, which regularly updates the information about the number of sites and surface covered in every country and at EU level

-      The Natura 2000 viewer that is an online facility that presents all Natura 2000 sites, providing key information on species and habitats for which each site has been designated, data on their estimated population size, conservation status and allows various searches to be conducted

All the member states monitor and report on the conservation status of each site using a common document format called the Standard Data Form[11]

Political Framework

Political system of the European Union

The court system of the European Union (EU) is composed of three strands: The Court of Justice, the General Court, and the specialised courts in specific areas. These EU courts ensure that the interpretation and application of EU law are observed. The Court of Justice of the European Union (which sometimes is also referred to as the European Court of Justice), constitutes the highest judicial authority of the EU. It ensures, in cooperation with the courts and tribunals of the Member States, the application and uniform interpretation of European Union law. The Court of Justice is composed of one judge from each Member State. The law of the EU is legally binding and publicly available in all EU official languages[12].

However, the European policy is managed by the European Commission (EC) in Brussels[7]. Within the EU legal system, there are two types of legislation. Some laws (regulations) apply in the whole EU as soon as they are adopted. Others (directives) have to be converted into national laws. Directives say what the EU is aiming to achieve, but let the Member States decide how they will do it. The Commission helps the Member States by preparing checklists of points to be covered. EU law has equal force with national law. Like national law, it gives the national authorities, businesses and individuals both rights and obligations[13]. Each Member State of the European Union (EU) has its own law and legal system. Member State (MS) law can comprise both laws at the national level (or national law, which is valid anywhere in a certain Member State and laws which are only applicable in a specific area, region, or city [12]. In the same way, the human dimension of the Natura 2000 network is complex and varies among the EU Member States[6].

The national governments of European Union member countries have delegated the responsibility to manage the Natura 2000 sites at the sub-national level[5].

The policy process through which Natura 2000 is implemented comprises of three steps: designation of sites, management of those sites and evaluation of the impacts. National authorities (e.g. Ministry of the Environment) are responsible for the designation of Natura 2000 sites and the management of the protected sites and, in several cases, depending on the political structure of the country (centralised or federal system), national governments have delegated the management of Natura 2000 sites to local and regional authorities [5]. Natura 2000 network throughout the Member States shows that conservation initiatives could succeed only by combining social and ecological sustainability and by ensuring the integration of policies affecting biodiversity[4]. The establishment of protected areas, such as Natura 2000, is a common approach to curbing biodiversity loss. However, in Europe, many of these areas are owned or managed by private actors[14]. The Natura 2000 network considerably differs from previous conservation systems in Europe as it goes beyond a direct ban on damaging plants or killing animals and focuses on socially sustainable conservation, harmonising the maintenance of species and habitats with economic, social and cultural human needs.  Because of that, the meaningful involvement of affected stakeholders is seen as necessary for the network's success[6].

Social actors

The national governments of European Union member countries have delegated the responsibility to manage the Natura 2000 sites at a sub-national and regional level. The responsible entities for the Natura 2000 sites management must organise stakeholders' involvement in the decision-making process to balance the objectives of nature conservation with the social and economic interests [5]. The goal of the Directives is to conserve biodiversity while taking into consideration economic, social, cultural, and regional requirements at the national level. In this framework, ‘‘the maintenance of such biodiversity may require the maintenance or indeed the encouragement of human activities’’ [4]. However, as the network increasingly put agricultural land and managed forests under protection, the implementation of EU biodiversity policy resulted in increased land-use conflicts[15]. For this reason, the entire implementation process, starting from the selection of the protected sites till the development of management plans, met opposition from various stakeholder groups in almost all EU Member States [6].

Moreover, to date, there have been no systematic evaluations of whether local actors’ involvement in the management of protected areas does effectively contribute to the conservation of biodiversity, which is the expressed policy goal[14].

The frequency of occurrence of activities differs among countries, with more than 86 % of all sites being subjected to agriculture or forestry. Activities like hunting, fishing, urbanisation, transportation, and tourism are more frequently recorded in south European sites than in northern or eastern ones. The observed variations indicate that Natura 2000 networks are highly heterogeneous among EU Member States[4].

Despite this heterogeneity, it is possible to affirm that the implementation of Natura 2000 is a case of multi-level governance as it requires a multi-sector regulatory approach. Multi-level governance, intended as an analytical model, is characterised by a decision-making process that takes place at different territorial levels and that acknowledges the important role played by non-governmental actors, such as landowners, environmental groups and communities, in the decision-making process[5]. In a multi-level governance context, the participation of stakeholder groups is complex to arrange because of the high number of key stakeholders involved and the multiple interests at stake. An initial classification of key stakeholders distinguishes between governmental and non-governmental actors. The category of governmental actors includes both national (Ministries and national public agencies) and local authorities. The category of non-governmental actors includes several different stakeholders such as environmental NGOs, interest groups and lobbies, and citizens. Furthermore, in order to assess stakeholders' involvement in a multilevel governance context, it is important to distinguish the key stakeholders according to the different levels of jurisdiction: European level, national level and regional/local levels [5].

Overall, European, national and local authorities, NGOs and lobbies can be categorised as interested stakeholder groups with high decision-making power, while citizens, small local activities and small landowners as affected stakeholders have low decision-making power. Citizens, farmers and landowners are called local because their presence in the study area is traditional and ancestral [16].

They usually have a strong legacy and dependence on the ecosystem services and on the land use, which might be the result of a top-down policy system. On the other hand, big foreign lobbies might highly influence the decisional process of the authorities, which represent the legal – decisional power and often rely on payments and royalties. These entities are thus identified as interested stakeholders since they do not have a direct relationship with the land. Even non-governmental organisations are classified as interested stakeholders. However, their role might be ambivalent both in working closely with the governmental authorities in contributing to sites selection and in supporting local stakeholder groups and promoting cooperation between private owners, local communities and public institutions[15]. However, the national and local authorities’ role remains the key to the active, balanced and cooperative participation of multiple stakeholders in land-use planning and resource management to reduce environmental conflicts [17].

In the European contest, environmental governance, with its still visible tension between old hierarchical and new decentralised institutions, has a potential for evolving towards a more multilevel and participatory mode [15]. In general, low level and quality of public participation in the implementation of the Natura 2000 network and its management, negative public perceptions of the network, lack of flexibility of responsible authorities and insufficient consideration of the local context pose the most significant challenges to the network's functioning [6].

General aims and implementation needed

The Natura 2000 network, consisting of Special Protected Areas (SPAs) and Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), designated under the Birds and Habitats Directives respectively, covers 18% of the EU’s territory, making it the largest network of protected areas in the world[14]. It was established across the European Union’s (EU) Member States with the aim to conserve biodiversity while ensuring the sustainability of human activities [4].

Although Natura 2000 sites are designated according to ecological and bio-geographical criteria to meet specific conservation objectives that are to be achieved by appropriate conservation measures, they also provide a wide range of provisioning, regulating and socio-cultural ecosystem services. Many of these services depend on natural and semi-natural ecosystems, as well as on ecologically sound forms of land use [10]. Indeed, the majority of Natura 2000 sites involve also privately-owned lands, which use is not always primarily based on nature conservation [14]. The European Commission stated that to succeed in implementing the Natura 2000 network, the active involvement of those who live in or depend on these sites is needed and the Member States are required to ‘‘establish the necessary conservation measures’’, for example, management plans, statutory, administrative or contractual measures in accordance to their ecological requirements [14]. However, even if the most often recorded human activity in the EU’s Natura 2000 sites is agriculture[4], the current Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) does not encourage environmentally-friendly agricultural activities enough and production incentives are provided without requirements for minimum environmental standards [7]. For this reason, the network was seen by many as an impediment to economic development[1].

A plethora of human activities has been recorded in the protected sites clearly indicating that Natura 2000 networks Environmental Management include a very significant human ‘‘presence’’. This highlights the need for future conservation policies to have as a target the formulation of management plans and policy instruments regulating human activities and considering humans as an integral part of conservation [4]. Legal, financial, procedural, scientific social, and political circumstances affect the Natura 2000 implementation process[3], in which the overall low representative-ness and quality of stakeholder involvement could have significantly contributed to negative perceptions of Natura 2000, resulting in challenges in the network's implementation and functioning[6]. Another important obstacle reported in several studies was the low flexibility of the Natura 2000 regulations and their implementing authorities. The local context matters, and hence that decisions based solely on strict rules and templates may not always be appropriate. This is particularly important with regard to the development of management plans for particular sites. Again, a participatory approach to management planning, with meaningful involvement of all relevant stakeholders, is suggested as a key component [6]. Even if economic valuation can help policy-makers by shedding light on the contribution made by various ecosystem services, be it directly or indirectly, and thus serve an informational function, helping to overcome the systematic bias in decision-making by providing a common scale of valuation between human-made and natural capital, present and future benefits/ costs, and various resource types, it is not the adequate method for determining the goals or priorities of conservation policies.

Nonetheless, economic instruments can be applied as effective incentives for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management to maintain ecosystem services [10] and improve participatory governance. For this reason, in 2015, the European Commission initiated a process of fitness check on the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives. The fitness check aimed at scrutinising the effectiveness, efficiency, relevance and coherence of all stages of the network implementation, from the designation, through inventory and monitoring to the development of management plans for particular sites[6]. Nevertheless,  several studies identified the following factors that influence the ecological effectiveness of the Natura 2000 network: i) a lack of reliable data, ii) insufficient communication of scientific data to policymakers and planners, iii) insufficient participation of the public and land owners and lacking support of local authorities, iv) the conflict between economic interests and conservation goals, v) inadequate personnel, administrative and financial resources, and vi) weaknesses in policy design and low policy coherence across sectors[3].

Overall, the Natura 2000 network considerably differs from previous conservation systems in Europe as it goes beyond a direct ban on damaging plants or killing animals and focuses on socially sustainable conservation, harmonising the maintenance of species and habitats with economic, social and cultural human needs. Because of that, the meaningful involvement of affected stakeholders is seen as necessary for the network's success[6]. Going through this goal Natura 2000 has already been implemented gradually, starting in 1992 in the 12 EU countries present at that time, followed by other countries joining the EU afterwards[6]. Thus, since low-intensity agriculture is of primary importance in Europe, not only for socio-economic reasons but particularly for nature conservation issues, a major challenge for the coming decades will be at the local level, to establish appropriate management practices for semi-natural lands resulting from those rural practices that are least likely to be continued for production purposes [7]. To achieve a good functionality of the network, there is a need for knowledge, not only on the ecological conservation and management issues relevant to the Natura 2000 (e.g. status of species and habitats, ways of managing the sites) but also on key social, economic, political and managerial realities potentially influencing its effectiveness[6].

Looking at the level of participation, to analyse the intensity of stakeholders’ involvement in the decision-making process, and conflict resolution scores, usually improved by higher scores of trust, might help in understanding how these factors depend on the power of stakeholders to influence the final decisions in the participatory process [5][14]. The adoption of a well-delineated strategy by the European Council and the European Parliament, followed by the development and implementation of Action Plans, must be urged[7].

Future surveys should collect data mainly considering two variables:

(1) Level of participation of stakeholders in the participatory process;

(2) Potential opportunities and obstacles of Natura 2000 network for human activities.

The first variable assesses the inclusiveness and democracy of the decision-making process. The second variable is related to the risk of potential conflicts among stakeholders during the participatory process[5]. To what kind and to what extent Natura 2000 sites are subject to human activities and how this varies across the Member States remains unspecified to date [4].

Slovakia is one of the first countries in assessing stakeholders’ involvement taking into account obstacles and opportunities of Natura 2000 for human activities and level of participation [5]. As recently (2017) experimented by Slovakia [5], depending on the geographical level  (local, regional, national, supranational), diverse degrees of participation might be identified (e.g. Co-decision, Collaboration, Information) and addressed using tools such as public meetings, working groups and focus groups, which can help both local-affected stakeholders and decision-makers. The first ones might have a higher opportunity of feeling involved and understanding how the programme works, while the second ones have the chance to directly experience the needs and the challenges faced by the affected local stakeholders, case by case.

Building an effective communication channels among the actors, reducing the bureaucratic procedures, making information events, delineating clear targets and publishing accurate guidelines are among the initiatives that might bring the recognition of local stakeholders' rights and move the policy processes from a state-centred to a multi-level governance of protected areas, will allow the achievement of the Natura 2000 network implementation in Europe.


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