Here we are, all 9,000 of us or thereabouts, at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s world conservation congress in Hawaii. President Obama was here the other night, celebrating his proclamation of the largest marine reserve in the world in the north west Hawaiian islands, now known as Papahanaumokuakea marine monument, where all commercial fishing will be banned. The world’s conservationists are here, including many British ones, talking about how to create space for nature in an increasingly populous world. Many governments have sent delegations. The French one is ten strong. The EU is here in various forms. But there is one strange absence. Though you will find many British people here, what you will not find is any sign of the British government or its agencies. A senior Brit, who has rubbed along at many of these things over the years, told me frankly he thought this disgraceful.
This great gathering only happens every four years, so this particular British government has lost the opportunity to explore new options and learn new techniques for protecting nature within its elected term. Some of its Overseas Territories governments, though, such as Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands, have shown it up by coming. If in the post-Brexit world, Britain is going to think internationally and not hide behind the coat-tails of the EU, then this was the place to be. But Britain is not here, at least its officials are not here. So there are many issues of the day, such as how to create and finance large marine reserves without too much local opposition, as the US and Palau have done, that they will simply not be learning about. Unfortunate, when the commitment to create “Blue Belts” around the UK overseas territories is still the government’s principal environmental commitment. For you have to be here to understand how Obama managed to extend the Papahanaumokuakea reserve created by President George Bush without terminal opposition from the fishing industry: he used heritage legislation and appealed to the Hawaiians strong sense of the spirituality of nature. Or to understand how President Tommy Remengesau has managed to declare a no-take reserve in 80 per cent of his islands’ waters. He challenged President Obama to “join the big league” and do the same in US waters last week.
Britons used to be at the heart of the IUCN. An old family friend, the late Prof Duncan Poore, was its director general for five years. There was a frequent exchange of personnel between British government bodies and the world’s nature organisation. How are the mighty fallen. In the post-Brexit world not a single national nature agency is here. It is up to non-governmental organisations, of which BLUE is but one. Yes, you could argue, this is really their gig and not a political event. But if you have a small- government agenda you still need to turn up to talk to the NGOs who are going to do all the work that used to be done by government agencies – until you took all their money away and told them to stop saying anything controversial. If a government is interested in dealing with one of the biggest issues of our time, how life is to continue on our planet, its people ought to be here taking part. Is post-Brexit Britain going to be a world leader or a parochial backwater in which its ability to protect nature is hampered by reorganisations and cuts and ministerial indifference? Teresa May says Britain will be an independent nation forging its way in the world. If so, nature conservation is one of the areas where leadership really counts and where soft power is really felt. Britain has something to boast about, its collegiate pledge to enable the creation of “blue belts” around its overseas territories. It needs to share information and develop skills among the people it employs to make these blue belts work. So not sending a single government person here was a ball dropped. One hopes that our Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom will reflect on that and do something about it.