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RSPB: 'Government's vision for UK Overseas Territories mustn't follow same route as last time'

Last modified: 29 June 2012

Rockhopper penguins

The RSPB has cautiously welcomed the publication of a White Paper that sets out the Government’s positive environmental vision for the UK’s Overseas Territories (OTs), but says that the aspiration to ‘cherish the environment’ must now be backed up with resourcing and action.

The White Paper, entitled Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability, published today [Thursday 28 June 2012 at 10.30am] by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) includes a chapter on the environment. The last White Paper on OTs, produced in 1999, was called Partnership for Progress and Prosperity, Britain and the Overseas Territories and focused largely on citizenship, sustainable development, human rights, drug trafficking and financial accountability. It highlighted the environmental problems and set out the Government’s goals, but not enough action followed, according to the RSPB.

One rare species even specifically mentioned in the 1999 White Paper – the St Helena Olive Tree – subsequently went extinct.

Jonathan Hall, the RSPB’s Partner Development Officer for UK Overseas Territories, said:  “We desperately hope that this White Paper will avoid repeating the same mistakes of the last one, where excellent rhetoric on the environment was not followed by sufficient action. While we’re pleased to see the paper full of positives, there is a notable absence of solid targets and commitments. It’s more of a vision than a plan of action, and there is no new funding, which is a missed opportunity.”

Despite these concerns, the RSPB said there are a number of positive elements to take from the paper. The first is that all UK Government departments have now been given a responsibility for supporting the Overseas Territories in their policy area. This requires departments like Defra and DECC to provide proactive support to help strengthen small Territory Governments, whose capacity is often limited.

Secondly, the Government’s pledge to oversee exemplary environmental management on uninhabited Territories like South Georgia, the British Antarctic Territory, and the British Indian Ocean Territory, should help insure protection of their world-leading wildlife.

Jonathan commented:  It is great that the UK Government has recognised the importance of the natural environments to the Overseas Territories, and that it is now aiming to involve all the relevant UK Government Departments in strengthening their environmental management.” Over 85% of the globally threatened species for which the UK is responsible are found in Overseas Territories. This figure included 33 bird species that face extinction - more than on the whole of European continent.

The UK’s Overseas Territories are home to an assortment of species, from penguins to parrots and hummingbirds to seabirds and whales. Their unique environments contain hundreds of species found nowhere else, a third of the world’s albatrosses and the largest and most pristine coral atoll on earth.

Jonathan added: “All 14 territories, mostly made up of island groups, are a treasure trove of spectacular species, some of which are found nowhere else on Earth, but hundreds of them are sliding towards extinction.

“This is a once in a decade opportunity to help save the incredible biodiversity of the Overseas Territories. What’s on paper looks strong, but the real test will be whether the UK Government stands by this vision and delivers its responsibilities.”

People living on OTs rely on the natural environment for their livelihood, with fisheries and tourism playing a huge part in some of the islands’ economies.

Put together, the Overseas Territories occupy an area of land far smaller than the UK mainland, yet their wildlife value is immeasurably more significant.  Wildlife on Overseas Territories face several threats, but non-native species, fisheries, habitat degradation and climate change are the factors affecting the greatest number of species. The RSPB supports work to save, restore and protect the wildlife on all 14 UK Overseas Territories.

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