Island Conservation Issues in International Conventions and Agreements

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

In press in Environmental Conservation (2017) doi:10.1017/S0376892917000224,
will be subject to further editing


In this review, I look at governance beyond the national level, and consider how well island conservation issues are addressed in international conventions and agreements, both global and regional. I focus primarily on Small Island Developing States (SIDS), and look at conventions to which they are parties, in which their needs are specifically mentioned, and which have actions directly targeted to SIDS. I also discuss the evolution of international soft law in agreements and action plans to respond to island issues, the role of the secretariats set up by international conventions to support SIDS conservation action, and the protection and recognition provided to island protected areas listed under international conventions. The review shows that international governance has increasingly responded to island needs for biodiversity conservation, often with the active participation of SIDS themselves. However the multiplication of international agreements and their requirements has often surpassed the capacity of island countries to implement them, requiring further adaptations to address this problem. The regional organizations of SIDS help to provide an interface with global conventions and international organizations. There remain a number of gaps and challenges that still need to be addressed to halt the erosion and hopefully encourage the restoration of island biodiversity.


In a globalized world, many external pressures impact islands through trade, development, invasive species introductions, global pollutants, and now climate change. To respond to these global and regional challenges, island governments need external legal and regulatory measures that encourage and support their conservation action. A growing international legal framework and supporting institutions for biodiversity conservation and sustainability are complemented by an expanding regional dimension to governance.

Islands are natural evolutionary laboratories and refugia, with specific conservation issues which are either unique or at least more extreme than elsewhere (Dahl 1984b). Island species become less competitive and vulnerable to introduced predators or invasive species, and tiny island governments may lack the capacity necessary to manage nature conservation effectively (Jupiter et al. 2014). Island conservation has thus become increasingly reflected in international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Programme of Work on Island Biodiversity. As conservation has progressed, islanders have come to see the advantages of conservation measures (Rosabal 2004).

Diplomatically, islands were off the international agenda until 1988, apart from their interest for science, tourism, or a strategic location. With the emergence of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) from 1990, they have become a numerically large and vocal block in negotiations, demanding that their interests be reflected in international law.

It is important to distinguish two political categories of islands today: those that form island states, and those that are still dependent territories or simply geographic fragments of continental states with little or no independent governance. While all islands may share similar challenges for biodiversity conservation, their ability to respond to these challenges in unique island ways depends on their political status. Independent states participate directly in international negotiations, while the interests of dependent island territories are subordinated to the larger national interest, if not totally ignored.

Here I look specifically at international conventions and agreements from an island perspective. How well are the special interests and needs of island conservation addressed in these agreements? Where are SIDS specifically mentioned, with measures taken to respond to their needs? Have islands or islanders participated actively in their preparation and implementation? Are there agreements that were prepared by and for SIDS themselves? These questions frame the analysis that follows and are answered in the section entitled ‘Challenges and Gaps’.

Previous assessments have focused on the Pacific Islands, underlining both the success of regional intergovernmental arrangements (Giraud-Kinley 1999; Herr 2002) and the difficulties SIDS have in implementing international conventions due to lack of internal capacity (Mougeot 2003). Cooperation for ocean and coastal management in the Pacific Islands has been evaluated (Wright et al. 2006), and challenges and opportunities for biodiversity conservation have been reviewed (Jupiter et al. 2014). Chasek (2010) has also addressed some of the challenges around environmental treaty implementation in the region. By taking a global perspective, I highlight what all islands share, and document their rise as a global community of common interests and diplomatic activity, something I have encouraged for nearly 50 years.

TABLE 1. Global Agreements and Action Plans relevant for Island Conservation

SIDS = small island developing states

Name and URL
Relevance to islands
Man and Biosphere Programme
Declares eligible sites as Biosphere Reserves
Agenda 21
Rio de Janeiro
Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development, Chpt.17 Oceans, Sect.G. Sustainable development of small islands
UN recognition of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) as a specific category
Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States
First global action plan by and for SIDS
Mauritius Strategy
Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable
Development of Small Island Developing States
Update of the Barbados Programme of Action (BPOA)
SAMOA Pathway
Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA) Pathway
Third update of SIDS action plan
Agenda 2030
New York
Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
Sustainable Development Goals including biodiversity conservation for all countries including SIDS


I have not aimed for a comprehensive review, but will illustrate the different ways that island conservation benefits from and contributes to international hard and soft law. I identify the legal texts themselves, the processes that derive from the legal texts, and the secretariats set up to support the conventions and agreements (Tables 1-3). I give examples of how international and regional legal instruments and processes can support conservation regulation and aspiration, and provide channels for collaboration and assistance. I look at agreements that directly address biodiversity conservation, and consider briefly some other domains of international law that are tangentially also relevant for conservation. I explore how islands are benefitting from international conventions and agreements, consider institutional challenges, and suggest what more could be done to fill gaps and address unmet needs. I focus on oceanic islands in Small Island Developing States and on island territories far from their mother country.

My methodology reflects my role as a practitioner, combining references to legal texts and a selection of the most pertinent literature, with my direct experience as a biodiversity expert in Caribbean, Pacific and western Indian Ocean islands, organizer of inter-island collaboration including the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), Deputy Director of the UNEP Regional Seas Programme, compiler of the IUCN/UNEP Island Directory (Dahl 1991), member of the UNCED secretariat responsible for drafting the Oceans and Coastal Areas chapter of Agenda 21 including islands (UN 1992), and advisor to many island governments and programmes in all oceans since 1969.

TABLE 2. Global Conventions relevant to Island Conservation

SPREP = Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme; UN = United Nations; UNEP = United Nations Environment Programme; UNESCO = United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; UNTS = United Nations Treaty Series number

Name and URL
In Force
Relevance to islands
Rio de Janeiro

Nagoya – Kuala Lumpur

Awké Kon



United Nations Framework Convention on Biological Diversity
- Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
- Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization
- Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety

- Guidelines for the conduct of cultural, environmental and social impact assessments regarding developments proposed to take place on, or which are likely to impact on, sacred sites and on lands and waters traditionally occupied or used by indigenous and local communities
- Guidelines on Access to Genetic Resources and Fair and Equitable Sharing of the Benefits Arising out of their Utilization
- Mandate on Marine and Coastal Biological Diversity
- Programme of work on Island Biodiversity
- Biodiversity Targets to be achieved by 2020 through the implementation of National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans





Montreal, Canada
Global legal framework for biodiversity conservation
Protects access to genetic resources
Recognizes indigenous rights

Specific programme on island biodiversity
Sets targets for biodiversity conservation
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora
Geneva, Switzerland (UNEP)
Controls or prohibits trade in endangered species


Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
- Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds
- Memorandum of Understanding concerning Conservation Measures for Marine Turtles of the Atlantic Coast of Africa
- Memorandum of Understanding concerning the Conservation of the Manatee and Small Cetaceans of Western Africa and Macaronesia
- Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs (Dugong dugon) and their Habitats throughout their Range
- Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia
- Memorandum of Understanding for the Conservation of Cetaceans and their Habitats in the Pacific Islands Region
- Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks







Bonn, Germany (UNEP)





Framework to conclude specific agreements on migratory species
International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling
International Whaling Commission,
Controls and prohibits hunting of whales
Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat

Gland, Switzerland
Recognizes and protects wetlands important for migratory birds


United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
- Agreement Relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982
- Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks





UN, New York;
International Seabed Authority, Kingston, Jamaica

Legal framework for the high seas and seabed, ocean fisheries, extent of state sovereignty, and exclusive economic zones
Rio de Janeiro

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

- Paris Agreement


Bonn, Germany
Legal framework for international action on climate change

Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage

Recognizes sites as part of world heritage

TABLE 3. Regional Conventions and Agreements Relevant for Island Conservation

FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization; UNEP = United Nations Environment Programme; UNTS = United Nations Treaty Series number; rev = revised; am = amended; sus = suspended

In Force
Relevance to islands

Caribbean Environment Programme
- Action Plan
Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region
- Protocol Concerning Co-operation in Combating Oil Spills in the Wider Caribbean Region
- Protocol Concerning Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) in the Wider Caribbean Region
- Protocol Concerning Pollution from Land-Based Sources and Activities









Regional Coordinating Unit (CAR/RCU), Kingston, Jamaica
UNEP Regional Seas environmental programme for all the Caribbean islands
East Asia
Action Plan for the Protection and Development of the Marine and Coastal Areas of the East Asian Region

Coordinating Body for the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), Bangkok
UNEP Regional Seas programme for South-East Asian countries and islands

Regional Seas Mediterranean Action Plan
Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution
- Protocol on Pollution by dumping from Ships & Aircraft

- Protocol on Pollution from Land-Based Sources and Activities
- Protocol on Specially Protected Areas and biodiversity

- Protocol on Pollution from Ships and Cases of Emergency
- Protocol on Pollution from Exploration and Exploitation of Continental Shelf and Seabed
- Protocol on Pollution by Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal





Coordinating Unit (MEDU), Athens, Greece
UNEP Regional Seas programme for the Mediterranean including all islands
Pacific Islands Forum

I-12543 I-29909
Suva, Fiji
Political grouping of Pacific Island states

Pacific Community (formerly Secretariat of the Pacific Community)
Agreement establishing the South Pacific Commission (SPC)


New Caledonia
Development cooperation organization of all Pacific states and territories
Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency
South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency Convention



Honiara, Solomon Islands
Legal framework for fisheries cooperation among Pacific states
Agreement establishing the South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission (now SPC Geoscience Division)

SPC Geoscience
Division, Suva, Fiji
Technical assistance in geosciences to all Pacific states and territories



Waigani Conv.



Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP)
- Agreement Establishing the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme
- Convention on the Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific
Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific Region
- Protocol for the Prevention of Pollution of the South Pacific Region by Dumping
- Protocol Concerning Co-operation in Combating Pollution Emergencies in the South Pacific Region
Convention to Ban the Importation into Forum Island Countries of Hazardous and Radioactive Wastes and to Control the Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within the South Pacific Region













Apia, Samoa
Regional environmental programme of all Pacific states and territories, and UNEP Regional Seas programme; responsible for biodiversity conservation and climate change
South Asia
South Asian Seas Action Plan
South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme

Colombo, Sri Lanka
UNEP Regional Seas programme for South Asia and central Indian Ocean islands

West and Central Africa Region (WACAF) Action Plan
Convention for Cooperation in the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Atlantic Coast of the West, Central and Southern Africa Region
- Protocol for Pollution in Cases of Emergency





Abidjan Convention Secretariat, Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire
UNEP Regional Seas programme for West Africa including islands
Western Indian Ocean
Indian Ocean Commission
- Victoria Agreement


Intergovernmental organization of western Indian Ocean islands

Nairobi Conv.
Western Indian Ocean
East African Action Plan

- Nairobi Convention for the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Eastern African Region
- Protocol on Protected Areas and Wild Fauna & Flora
- Protocol on Marine Pollution
- Protocol on Land based sources and activities
- Amended Convention for the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Western Indian Ocean






Eastern African Regional Coordinating Unit, (EAF/RCU), Seychelles
UNEP Regional Seas programme for Eastern Africa and Western Indian Ocean islands
Central Pacific
Parties to the Nauru Agreement, under the Forum Fisheries Agency

Majuro, Marshall Is.
Fisheries agreement among island states for skipjack tuna
Western & Central Pacific
Convention for the Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPF Convention)
Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission,
Kolonia, Pohnpei, FSM
Fisheries agreement among all states fishing in the Western and Central Pacific
Wider Caribbean Western Central Atlantic Fisheries Commission

Fisheries agreement among states fishing in wider Caribbean
Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism

Fisheries agreement among Caribbean SIDS


Several functions of international conventions and agreements benefit island biodiversity conservation. First, they provide a framework for international dialogue and cooperation, such as in conferences of the parties, where governments can consider issues beyond their immediate national interest, and collaborate on common goals. This is often more important than the specific provisions of the agreement, leading to action plans and joint projects that may go far beyond what the legal text of the agreement requires. Governments can also adopt declarations and prepare common positions for international negotiations at these meetings. This has helped to build common SIDS positions where previously islands were marginalized or completely ignored. These processes work both within island regions and internationally, building collaboration, networking and a sharing of experience across all island states.

Second, such agreements set standards and objectives that governments are expected to respect or achieve. They thus become a focus for national policy-making and action, with results that will be judged by their peers. Peer pressure is an important element in international diplomacy, since enforcement mechanisms are generally lacking. Emulation of best practices can emerge, as island leaders see other country achievements, and also want to announce successes.

Third, international conventions establish a secretariat, and often subsidiary bodies for scientific advice or technical assistance, becoming elements of international governance that assist parties to follow through with their obligations. The structures of multilateral governance are built in this way, and interact and reinforce each other to achieve conservation objectives. Tables 1 and 2 summarize the global conventions and agreements and their relevance for island conservation.

United Nations

The early 1970s saw the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm 1972), the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the birth of some specialized conservation conventions. By 1974, UNEP was establishing Regional Seas Programmes including islands, starting with the Mediterranean. Their action plans and conventions have provisions and protocols on protected areas and wildlife (see below).

In the lead up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the Rio Earth Summit, in 1992, Maurice Strong, the Conference Secretary-General, asked me to join the conference secretariat to prepare a section on the sustainable development of islands in the Oceans chapter of Agenda 21. This section presented the special needs and requirements of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) including their biodiversity, stimulated their recognition as a specific entity in the UN, and called for global conferences on the sustainable development of SIDS to help them identify and express their common interests. The UN defines SIDS as low-lying coastal countries that share similar development challenges and concerns about the environment, especially their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climate change. Agenda 21 recognized that SIDS and islands supporting small communities are a special case both for environment and development due to their small size, isolation and vulnerability. Currently 39 SIDS are included in the list used by United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) (Taylor et al. 2013).

The United Nations Secretariat established a Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Unit in UN DESA, as well as an Inter-Agency Consultative Group (IACG) on SIDS. In 2001, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States to follow-up the implementation of their respective action plans. The UN has supported and hosted the Small Island Developing States Network (Table 4).

After an initiative by Malta and other islands at the UN in 1988, the island countries organized themselves in 1990 as an intergovernmental organization, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), to carry out advocacy for small island states and influence international environmental policy, including presenting common positions in international negotiations such as those on climate change. This is particularly important since individual small island states have few resources for diplomacy, and gain much from working collectively. Another important island grouping on biodiversity is the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) which organizes high-level events at international conferences, and collaborations among SIDS (Table 4).

TABLE 4. Other mechanisms supporting SIDS collaboration on conservation

United Nations Secretariat, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) Unit
United Nations Office of the High Representative for the Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Developing Countries and Small Island Developing States
Small Island Developing States Network
Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)
Global Island Partnership (GLISPA)
The Micronesia Challenge
The Caribbean Challenge Initiative
The Western Indian Ocean Coastal Challenge

SIDS Conferences

The proposal in Agenda 21 for an international conference for all SIDS led to a series of UN intergovernmental conferences (Table 1). The first Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States was held in Bridgetown, Barbados, 25 April-6 May 1994. It adopted the Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (BPOA). The Second International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States in Port Louis, Mauritius, 10-14 January 2005, adopted the Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States. The third International Conference on Small Island Developing States held in Apia, Samoa, on 1-4 September 2014, adopted the SIDS Accelerated Modalities of Action (SAMOA) Pathway. For this conference, UNEP prepared a report on Emerging Issues for Small Island Developing States (UNEP 2014a) and GEO Environment Outlook for Small Island Developing States (UNEP 2014b).

These conferences helped SIDS to recognize that their impact increases when they act together, and they have been good at creating mechanisms for sharing and collaborating in support of convention objectives. In the Micronesia Challenge, the islands have committed to conserve at least 30% of near-shore marine resources and 20% of terrestrial resources across Micronesia by 2020. In the Caribbean Challenge Initiative, nine Caribbean leaders agreed to protect 20% of their marine and coastal environment by 2020, accompanied by a Corporate Compact of business leaders and supported by a Caribbean Biodiversity Fund. The Western Indian Ocean Coastal Challenge is supported by the Indian Ocean Commission ISLANDS Project (Table 4).

The SAMOA Pathway includes three priority areas relevant to biodiversity. Under oceans and seas the target is to conserve by 2020 at least 10 per cent of SIDS coastal and marine areas, especially areas of importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services. It supports SIDS to conserve biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources. On forests, it supports implementation of the Non-Legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests, calls for a halt to deforestation and forest degradation, and for effective reforestation; and looks to financing to improve the state of biological diversity by conserving and safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity. Another priority is invasive alien species that threaten biodiversity.

Law of the Sea

While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is not directly concerned with island biodiversity conservation, it has played an important role in defining what is an island and how far its maritime jurisdiction extends, including over biological resources (Jacovides 2014). One innovation was the definition of archipelagic states, incorporating the waters between islands into their sovereign territory (Cogliati-Bantz 2015). UNCLOS has adopted an Agreement concerning islands, and the Fish Stock Agreement (FSA) which creates a framework for regional fisheries conventions and agreements.

One of the chief architects in the design and implementation of the Law of the Sea was an islander, Satya N. Nandan from Fiji, first Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority ( in Kingston, Jamaica. He was also involved in some of the important fisheries conventions involving island states (Lodge and Nordqvist 2014).

Convention on Biological Diversity

The overarching international legal text on biodiversity is the United Nations Framework Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The special conditions in small island states are mentioned in the Preamble and the article on financial resources, but not in the substantive text. A number of instruments adopted under the convention (Table 2) include issues of concern to islands, such as impacts on indigenous communities, and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to be achieved by 2020 through the implementation of National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAP). In 2006, the Convention adopted a Thematic Programme of work on Island Biodiversity ( It has also published reports on progress in island biodiversity (CBD 2014).

The funding mechanism for the CBD is the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank, UNDP and UNEP, which supports the international dimension of environmental actions. One of its early projects was the South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Programme (1993-2001), executed by SPREP to pioneer the establishment of 17 community-based Conservation Areas in 12 participating Pacific Island countries, leading to the spread of the locally-managed marine areas model (Govan et al. 2009). The GEF has also supported trust funds for island protected areas through the Micronesia Challenge. This shows how international mechanisms can pioneer solutions appropriate to island biodiversity and customary ownership.

TABLE 5. Internationally Recognized Island Protected Areas

(number of protected areas)

World Heritage
Ramsar Sites
Biosphere Reserves
- Lord Howe Island Group
- Heard and McDonald Islands
- Macquarie Island
Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System
Brazilian Atlantic Islands: Fernando de Noronha and Atol das Rocas Reserves
Chile: Rapa Nui National Park (cultural)
Costa Rica: Cocos Island National Park
- Desembarco del Granma National Park
- Alejandro de Humboldt National Park
Dominica: Morne Trois Pitons National Park
Ecuador: Galápagos Islands
Hawaii (USA)
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Papahānaumokuākea
Italy: Isole Eolie (Aeolian Islands)
Jamaica: Blue and John Crow Mountains
Japan: Ogasawara Islands
Kiribati: Phoenix Islands Protected Area
- Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve
- Rainforests of the Atsinanana
New Caledonia (France): Lagoons of New Caledonia
New Zealand Sub-Antarctic Islands
Palau: Rock Islands Southern Lagoon
Pitcairn (UK): Henderson Island
Portugal: Laurisilva of Madeira
Saint Lucia: Pitons Management Area
- Aldabra Atoll
- Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve
Solomon Islands: East Rennell
Tristan da Cunha (UK): Gough and Inaccessible Islands
Vanuatu: Chief Roi Mata’s Domain (cultural)
Yemen: Socotra Archipelago
Antigua & Barbuda (1)
Bahamas (1)
Barbados (1)
Cape Verde (4)
Comoros (3)
Cuba (6)
Dominican Republic (4)
Fiji (1)
Grenada (1)
Jamaica (4)
Kiribati (1)
Madagascar (10)
Marshall Islands (2)
Mauritius (3)
Palau (1)
Papua New Guinea (2)
Saint Lucia (2)
Samoa (1)
Sao Tome and Principe (1)
Seychelles (3)
Trinidad and Tobago (3)
Chile (Juan Fernández)
Cuba (6)
Dominican Republic (1)
Ecuador (Archipiélago de Colón – Galápagos)
France (Commune de Fakarava [Atoll deTaiaro], Archipel de la Guadeloupe)
Haiti (2)
India (Great Nicobar)
Madagascar (4)
Maldives (Baa Atoll)
Mauritius (1)
Mexico (4 islands including Cozumel)
Micronesia, Federated States of (Utwe, And Atoll)
Nicaragua (Ometepe Island)
Palau (Ngaremeduu)
Portugal (Corvo Island, Graciosa Island, Flores Island – Azores)
Saint Kitts & Nevis (1)
Sao Tome & Principe (Principe)
Spain (La Palma, Lanzarote, Menorca, Isla de El Hierro, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, La Gomera)
USA (Aleutian Islands, Channel Islands, Virgin Islands, Hawaiian Islands)
Yemen (Socotra Archipelago)

Other Conservation Conventions

There are other global conventions that address particular aspects of biodiversity conservation from which islands benefit. Several mechanisms provide international recognition for protected natural areas (Table 5) including the World Heritage Convention (WHC) of UNESCO, which adopted a World Heritage Programme for SIDS in 2005 ( There are 27 island states and territories or offshore islands with natural World Heritage sites. The Ramsar Convention lists wetlands of international importance as waterfowl habitat, including many island sites. UNESCO has established a World Network of Biosphere Reserves under its Man and Biosphere (MAB) Programme combining conservation and sustainable development, with many islands and parts of islands protected as Biosphere Reserves (Table 5).

The Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) provides the framework for specific agreements on wide ranging or migratory species that need to be protected across their range such as waterbirds, marine turtles and marine mammals. A number of these agreements cover ranges including island countries and have SIDS as parties (Table 2).

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), controls or prohibits the trade in listed species or parts of species where this trade threatens the survival of the species (Bell 2012). It is a useful tool for reducing the pressure on island species for export.

Many islands have whales in their waters and interest in whale watching, and the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and its International Whaling Commission (IWC), that formerly regulated the hunting of whales, now largely aim to protect the small remaining populations.

Another international convention of critical importance for islands and the survival of their biodiversity is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). Islands have become major players in the negotiations at the Conferences of the Parties, and succeeded through a Marshall Islands initiative leading up to the Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 to have their aspiration of global warming limited to 1.5°C accepted by all countries. The challenges for island states under the UNFCCC are similar to those under the conservation conventions (Nurse and Moore 2005).

The Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2015) are the latest framework for integrating biodiversity challenges with other environmental, social and economic objectives in national planning and action until 2030. Two of the 17 SDGs directly address biodiversity conservation: Goal 14 on oceans and marine resources, and Goal 15 on terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity loss. In addition, targets relevant to biodiversity are integrated under a number of other SDGs (Table 6).

All countries including SIDS are expected to adapt the global goals to their own situation, and to report regularly to the UN on their progress. Indicators have been identified for most of these targets (IAEG-SDGs 2016). SIDS should now be considering how they will measure their progress in biodiversity conservation within this new integrated framework for policy, action and reporting.

TABLE 6. Biodiversity Conservation in the SDG targets

Target No.
By Year
ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters, and that progressively improve land and soil quality
maintain genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants, farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at national, regional and international levels, and ensure access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge as internationally agreed
protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes
devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism which creates jobs, promotes local culture and products
strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage
achieve sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources
Goal 14

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development
sustainably manage and protect marine and coastal ecosystems to avoid significant adverse impacts, including by strengthening their resilience, and take action for their restoration, to achieve healthy and productive oceans
conserve at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, consistent with national and international law and based on best available scientific information
Goal 15

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss
ensure conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, in line with obligations under international agreements
promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests, and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally
combat desertification, and restore degraded land and soil, including land affected by desertification, drought and floods, and strive to achieve a land-degradation neutral world
ensure the conservation of mountain ecosystems, including their biodiversity, to enhance their capacity to provide benefits which are essential for sustainable development
take urgent and significant action to reduce degradation of natural habitat, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species


The second level of intergovernmental organization and action is regional, among islands sharing a common sea area. While the islands in a geographic area may share biological characteristics and physical proximity, they have often been separated by different colonial traditions with diverse legal and cultural systems and languages, retaining closer ties to the mother country than to their near neighbours. This impacts what international agreements they belong to, how they are implemented, and how much autonomy they have to adapt them to their local island situation.

The regional intergovernmental organizations and UNEP Regional Seas Conventions in the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Western Indian Ocean have played an important role in building island solidarity, and provide necessary expertise and support to very small countries. Atlantic, Asian and Mediterranean island states have grouped with adjacent continental countries (Table 3).

UNEP’s Global Environment Outlook programme of environmental assessments has produced two sets of reports for the major island regions, including a biodiversity component. Pacific Islands Environment Outlooks were prepared for UNEP by SPREP (UNEP 1999b, 2005c). Similar reports were prepared for the Caribbean (UNEP 1999a; UNEP 2005b) , and for the Western Indian Ocean (UNEP 1999c) and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (UNEP 2005a). These reports review the state of the environment and policy responses, and discuss emerging issues, allowing island countries to compare their performance with their peers, and to learn from best practices.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has long been interested in island conservation. It has supported regional reviews of island protected areas, such as in Oceania (Dahl 1986), and extended this approach jointly with UNEP to provide a global review of island conservation needs and priorities in an Island Directory and database (Dahl 1991) including 2,000 islands, with indicators of conservation importance and human threat, among others.


In the Pacific, the island countries and territories have a long tradition of regional cooperation on which biodiversity conservation action has built. The major intergovernmental organizations in the region with some impact on biodiversity and natural resources are the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), Pacific Community (SPC), Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). The Council of Regional Organizations in the Pacific (CROP) under the PIF ensures cooperation among the regional organizations, both governmental and non-governmental (Table 3).

A short history of regional conservation action in the Pacific Islands illustrates how mechanisms for international cooperation, standard setting, and implementing institutions such as convention secretariats are mutually supportive, with interested governments, NGOs and international organizations working together over decades through a combination of formal agreements, action plans, intergovernmental meetings and scientific symposia to build interest in and capacity for nature conservation in the 22 small island countries and territories of the region.

In 1947, the governments with Pacific island territories established the South Pacific Commission (SPC, now the Pacific Community) to combine their efforts to rebuild the islands after World War II. The SPC had work programmes in economic development (including fisheries), social development and public health, but did not treat political questions. As island countries became independent, they joined the Commission, and today the SPC, headquartered in Noumea, New Caledonia, includes all independent states and dependent territories in the Pacific Islands.

An SPC meeting in 1969 recommended a special project on nature conservation and the recruitment of a Regional Ecological Advisor, and in 1971, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and SPC held a Regional Symposium on Conservation of Nature (SPC 1973). I took up the post of Regional Ecological Advisor 1974-1982, and assisted island countries with ecosystem surveys, conservation legislation, training, and the establishment of some of the first terrestrial and marine protected areas.

To build political interest, the governments of New Zealand and Australia then initiated a series of South Pacific Conferences on National Parks and Reserves in 1975 and 1979, inviting ministers from the island countries to learn about and commit to the creation of protected areas. These conferences on nature conservation continue as the main forum for regional planning for conservation action. IUCN funded SPC to prepare a Regional Ecosystems Survey of the South Pacific Area (Dahl 1980) to identify the conservation needs of the region, with the initial results presented at a Second Regional Symposium on Conservation of Nature in Apia, Samoa, in 1976, followed immediately by a plenipotentiary meeting to conclude a Convention on Conservation of Nature in the South Pacific (Apia Convention) drafted by IUCN.

The Apia Convention was the first island nature conservation convention. The number of parties was never large, since a dispute at the plenipotentiary meeting over representation of autonomous but not yet independent island territories interfered with the signature and ratification process. The Convention was suspended in 2006 to avoid duplication with the Noumea Convention.

UNEP also became interested in the region after being approached by SPC in 1974, leading to financial support to SPC to prepare national and regional state of the environment reports and a regional action plan for the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) launched at the Rarotonga Conference on the Human Environment in the South Pacific in 1982 (Fuse and Iwama 1981; Dahl & Baumgart 1982). UNEP considers SPREP as one of its Regional Seas Programmes, although with a broader focus than just oceans and coastal areas. What started as a joint programme of SPC, the Pacific Forum, UNEP and UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) with a secretariat at SPC, became a separate intergovernmental organization through the 1986 Convention for the Protection of the Natural Resources and Environment of the South Pacific region (Noumea Convention) and the 1993 Agreement Establishing SPREP, with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme in Apia, Samoa, as the main regional body responsible for sustainable development, nature conservation, climate change and other environmental issues (Dahl 1984a, 1984b, 1985). IUCN continued to provide scientific support to regional conservation planning (Dahl 1984c, 1986).

SPREP is the Secretariat for three Conventions: the Apia Convention, the Noumea Convention, and the Waigani Convention on hazardous wastes. SPREP has built the capacity of countries in the region to participate in international conventions and negotiations (Herr 2002; Mougeot et al. 2003) such as through an information package on the CBD to assist governments with implementation (SPREP 2000), training on CITES, regional preparatory meetings prior to conferences of parties to international conventions, and a GEF Integrated Island Biodiversity (IIB) project. It has also explored how to rationalize the reporting requirements under the different biodiversity conventions.

As mentioned above, the regional conferences on nature conservation have continued every 5 years since 1975, with the most recent 9th Pacific Conference on Nature Conservation and Protected Areas in Suva, Fiji, 2-6 December 2013. It adopted an Action Strategy: Framework for Nature Conservation and Protected Areas in the Pacific Islands Region 2014-2020 (SPREP 2014). Part 1 is a Code of Conduct and Guiding Principles, while Part 2 serves as a bridge between the global targets for biodiversity and the implementation of the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs) under the CBD. SPREP has prepared a guide linking this framework to the CBD Aichi targets (SPREP 2016), but countries still have difficulties in using the guide in their reporting. To ensure coordination with the non-governmental organizations active in conservation in the region, SPREP established the Pacific Islands Round Table for Nature Conservation (


The Caribbean region also has intergovernmental organizations of islands, including the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) which is associated with a Climate Change Centre (, and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS).

The Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP), a UNEP Regional Seas programme, provides the legal framework for regional cooperation on biodiversity conservation, including both island and coastal states. The Caribbean Action Plan and the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (Cartagena Convention) are facilitated by a Regional Coordinating Unit (CAR/RCU) in Kingston, Jamaica. An associated protocol on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife is implemented by a Regional Activity Centre in Guadeloupe ( As with most Regional Seas programmes outside the Pacific and South Asia, the focus is marine and coastal conservation rather than terrestrial conservation.

Indian Ocean, Mediterranean, Atlantic

The Indian Ocean Commission groups Comoros, Réunion (France), Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles, with a secretariat in Mauritius. It includes sustainable development and the conservation of resources and ecosystems among its areas of focus, with projects on biodiversity, climate change and coastal zone management. Beyond this, it is the UNEP Regional Seas Programmes including the relevant island countries and territories, that provide Action Plans and often regional Conventions with a biodiversity conservation component.

The Eastern African Regional Seas Programme covers the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles as well as the coastal states, with an Action Plan and the Nairobi Convention for the Protection, Management and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the Western Indian Ocean, and a protocol concern Protected Areas and Wild Fauna & Flora. The Eastern African Regional Coordinating Unit is based in Seychelles.

In the East Asian Seas (EAS), Singapore is the only SIDS, although the region includes many islands. The Coordinating Body for the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA) in Bangkok is responsible for the Action Plan for the Protection and Development of the Marine and Coastal Areas of the East Asian Region. There is no regional convention, but instead the programme promotes compliance with existing environmental treaties. Long term strategies for the EAS Action Plan are adopted periodically.

The South Asian Seas, including the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India’s Andaman, Nicobar and Laccadive Islands, are covered by the 1995 South Asian Seas Action Plan (SASAP) but no convention, with the South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP) as secretariat. SASAP follows existing global environmental and maritime conventions with Law of the Sea as its umbrella convention. Its actions for biodiversity conservation include assistance to National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan updating, a Coral Reef Management Strategy with a list of protected areas (SACEP 2008), capacity development, and technical assistance to SACEP member countries to develop a South Asia Regional Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism.

For Mediterranean islands, Cyprus and Malta were considered SIDS until they joined the European Union. The Mediterranean became the first region to adopt a Regional Seas Action Plan in 1975, supported by the Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution (Barcelona Convention) and a protocol on Specially Protected Areas and Biodiversity, with a Coordinating Unit (MEDU) in Athens. A strategic Action Programme for the Conservation of Biological Diversity was adopted in 2003.

The Regional Seas Programme for West and Central Africa (WACAF) includes Cape Verde, and Sao Tome and Principe, with an Action Plan and the 1981 Abidjan Convention. However the programme has been under-resourced and has only recently been reactivated.

Apart from Cape Verde, the islands in the Atlantic Ocean Macaronesia Region (Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands) all belong to countries of the European Union (EU), as are the islands in the Mediterranean and the North Sea, so they are covered by biodiversity action at the national and EU levels beyond the scope of this review.

Fisheries conventions and agreements

Fish represent another biological resource with significant problems of over-exploitation and conservation, and coastal fisheries are an important conservation concern for islands within the frameworks described above. However, oceanic fisheries are not insular but in the waters between islands and require management at their own regional scales (Aqorau 2014). Numerous fisheries conventions and agreements include islands, so only a few examples are reviewed here.

In the wider Caribbean, FAO's Western Central Atlantic Fisheries Commission (WECAFC) partners with the Caribbean Environment Programme (CEP), with biodiversity related activities like species resource assessment and management plans, and training in marine protected area management. The Caribbean Regional Fisheries Mechanism (CRFM) manages island fisheries more broadly.

Unlike the successful single-species Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), the Western Pacific illustrates the challenge for conservation action when national interests differ. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) manages a tuna fishery that is multi-species, multi-jurisdictional, and multi-gear, where big-eye tuna which is seriously overfished is an incidental catch in other tuna fisheries, and its protection would have economic impact on the other fisheries. Different island countries benefit from different kinds of fisheries, producing conflicting interests, and a conservation burden with winners and losers that is not easily shared. The convention is proof that all the countries acknowledge the need for conservation action, but in fact each gives priority to its own benefit and there is little interest in compromise (Hanich 2014; Hanich and Tsamenyi 2014). Negotiations failed again in 2016. In islands as elsewhere, national sovereignty generally wins out over common interest.

Challenges and gaps

Returning to the questions asked in the introduction, the special interests and needs of island conservation are well covered in international and regional conventions and agreements, particularly in regions where SIDS have organized their own regional intergovernmental organizations. Most island governments have come to accept the importance of biodiversity conservation, and have contributed island leadership to international processes from the Law of the Sea through climate change negotiations to biodiversity conservation. Intergovernmental organizations of island states participate in international conferences and formulate and present island viewpoints. They also train island diplomats and help island countries to prepare their national positions for international negotiations. AOSIS has been the international focus, and SPREP has played an important regional role. Some island states with limited human resources bring outside experts onto their negotiating teams, magnifying their impact.

On the other hand, government action often results more from external demands rather than internal motivation and conviction. A review of national reporting on the state of the environment since 1992 which I prepared for the UNEP Governing Council in 2008 (UNEP 2008) identified c. 900 reports from the 22 Pacific Island governments, mostly prepared in response to external requirements and at the request of donors, with little evidence that they had much impact on national policy.

Island capacity

The main challenge is in the means available for implementation, since the isolation and diversity of islands require adaptation to many different local situations. For the smallest island countries and territories, there will never be sufficient technical expertise locally to respond to all conservation needs, requiring regional technical support. Conservation measures for species and ecosystems must be adapted to islands where land is too limited to create traditional parks and reserves, and indigenous tenure may be important, involving local populations in community-managed conservation areas.

Politicians, in islands as elsewhere, often have short-term priorities and change frequently, so it is civil servants who can maintain some continuity and longer term vision. When the total government staff is very small, the departure of even a single person can leave a large gap in experience and institutional memory.

If anything, there are too many biodiversity-relevant conventions and agreements, overloading the absorptive capacity of at least the smaller SIDS to make full use of them, and creating an administrative burden detracting from real action on the ground. Sometimes a regional organization can serve as an interface, helping to identify the specific conservation needs of the island and delivering only the assistance necessary, as well as assisting with reporting requirements under the conventions.

More could be done by convention secretariats and conferences of parties to adapt to the needs and capacities of SIDS. Some financial support is provided, but limited time and local human capacity, if only to assist outside consultants, is a more important obstacle. Chasek, in her review of treaty implementation in the Pacific, identified four implementation challenges linked to island capacity: capacity building, coordination, information and data collection and sharing, and prioritization and funding (Chasek 2010).

Island size and culture

A defining characteristic of island reality is small size and clear limits. Traditional island populations were limited by local subsistence. With overseas support and food imports, island populations can now grow without fear of starvation, sometimes reaching very high population densities and degrading biological resources.

One issue that is important for those islands, especially in the Pacific, with indigenous populations, is the integration of biodiversity conservation with their traditional cultures. Pacific peoples learned early out of necessity how to live sustainably within their natural resources, with traditional conservation practices that are still relevant. There was complete interdependence of nature and culture, with an understanding of their environment and indigenous species often far beyond what modern science has yet discovered (Johannes 1981, 2002; Dahl 1989). Islanders, like other indigenous peoples, have pushed to have this cultural dimension acknowledged in international legal frameworks for biodiversity conservation, including in the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Law of the Sea (Chang 2013; Guth 2013).

Today, even the most remote islanders are exposed to the world and its values, eroding traditional culture. Many emigrate for education or better opportunities, so that some SIDS have a majority of their population residing overseas. Sometimes they or their children return, bringing with them values less adapted to island life, producing a clash of cultures even within the island population itself. Biodiversity values may suffer. They may also bring positive values to address the new problems introduced with globalization.

Conflicting priorities

The development of SIDS has highlighted two opposing tendencies. On the one hand, islanders recognize how much they have in common socially, economically and environmentally, and are aware of limits and the need for sustainability and biodiversity conservation. On the other hand, island states have formed within the present paradigm of national sovereignty and economic growth, and island political leaders are just as interested in short-term gain and defensive of their national interests as in any other state. The pressures, both legitimate and sometimes corrupting, to favour development and exploitation of resources over conservation, may be even harder to resist in small governments with fewer checks and balances. This is where the support for conservation from outside can make an important difference in maintaining a priority for biodiversity over short-term gain. The role of international and regional organizations is important in defining the common interest and working for state adhesion to that common agenda.

Islands are no longer ignored on the international stage. There is now a considerable pool of island specialists and organizations looking out for island interests, including within the United Nations itself, and the international conferences on SIDS have defined an island agenda and helped to carry it forward to implementation. Islands have been laboratories not only for evolution, but also for creative approaches to biodiversity conservation, often combining traditional knowledge and modern science.

What is needed now is alternative paradigms beyond national sovereignty that would make it easier for island states to meet their needs collectively. New forms of multilevel governance could maintain the rich diversity of island nations, while allowing them to collectively become parties to international conventions and fulfil the accompanying obligations. This would be more reasonable than expecting the diplomatic corps of a tiny island to be as effective as that of a large nation. The European Union, which can become a party to conventions and negotiate on behalf of all of its state members, is a possible model.

Among the unmet needs are helping islands to adapt to accelerating environmental changes beyond their control, such as from climate change, sea level rise, and ocean acidification. The human challenges are already great, and the impacts on unique island biodiversity will probably be similar. The exception would be if the depopulation of an island eliminated human pressures on biodiversity, allowing for recovery. There is also a related gap in international legislation under the Law of the Sea, which never anticipated rapidly rising sea level. If an island state drowns and loses all its national territory, it loses both the basis for its national sovereignty and its rights over its territorial sea and exclusive economic zone, which would leave its marine biodiversity unprotected. A legal modification to freeze present limits would allow island peoples to retain rights to their marine resources even if they are forced to become climate-displaced persons (Rayfuse 2011).

Another need that is only partly met is in combating alien invasive species and preventing further introductions (Jupiter et al. 2014). Species are often transported accidentally during trade, or introduced in ships’ ballast water. International cooperation is necessary to address this beyond what islands are able to do at ports of entry. Exterminating a species once it has become established is a complex and expensive process beyond the means of island governments themselves, if it is possible at all.

Genetic diversity is often overlooked in conservation policy and action (Laikre 2010). The emerging issue of marine genetic resources will be important to islands with their extended exclusive economic zones (Kim and Lee, 2013), but the international legal framework for the conservation of marine biodiversity is still rudimentary.

All of the above is rather defensive, trying to reduce the erosion of island biodiversity and to prevent extinctions. Hopefully it will soon be possible to consider island restoration, rebuilding the natural systems within which unique island biodiversity evolved and which can support, if not ensure, long-term sustainability. The science of ecosystem restoration is still embryonic, and international cooperation will be needed to help islands that are ready to go in this direction.

More fundamental still is the challenge for each island society to define and evolve a sustainable island culture and economy in harmony with its unique island environment and biodiversity, as suggested in the GEO SIDS Outlook (UNEP 2014b). Rather than falling into the trap of the globalized consumer culture and a society fixed within the geographic limits of a nation state, islands could consider a more dynamic population spread between their islands and other countries and benefiting from both, with a choice of lifestyles adapted to the environmental limits of each location, and favouring human well-being, culture, arts and science more than material accumulation. While this is a challenge for all parts of the world set by the Sustainable Development Goals, many island societies have a head-start in their traditional island cultures and lifestyles, with the potential to define island life in harmony with biodiversity in new and creative ways.


This review has documented the extensive set of international and regional conventions and agreements that together provide a substantial framework for efforts to conserve island biodiversity, sometimes more than the islands can cope with. These international instruments should continue to be sensitive and responsive to the special challenges of SIDS. Island governments also need to learn, with the assistance of their regional organizations, how to obtain the support they need in a way that is relevant to their capacity to absorb it, including through community-based conservation that is less dependent on government.

The progress that has been made in protecting island biodiversity in recent decades can be attributed in part to these regional and international measures. The future should extend this multilevel approach to governance with both international coherence and local empowerment for the benefit of island peoples and their biodiversity heritage.


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