Dr Fanny Douvere, Coordinator of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Programme Discusses the Future of the World’s Oceans

Lara Mansour   |   02-11-2020

As the Coordinator of the Marine Programme at UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre in Paris, Dr Fanny Douvere is continuing the mission to conserve and sustainably manage UNESCO’s Marine World Heritage sites.


These 50 sites are some of the most crucial, but also some of the most endangered marine sites in the world. Crucial for the future of our planet, they include key coral reefs as well as much of the ocean’s wildlife that’s in danger of becoming extinct. Over the past decade, great progress has been made in succeeding to protect these sites from environmental impacts of the world and move towards a more sustainable environment for the world’s oceans. However, this year has thrown up big challenges for the project, which relies predominately on tourism for its funding. Of course, with travel and tourism still ground to a halt this throws up big problems for the continuation of the projects and many sites could be at risk. But it’s not all bad. 2020 has seen the world shift towards creating a cleaner, more sustainable planet and it is this that fills Douvere with the hope of fulfilling her mission. We discover more about the latest developments in the project and why there is still so much hope for our planet.


© Olivier Borde – Monaco Explorations


When we last spoke you were hoping to take the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System off the endangered list how has this developed and what are the current areas of focus?


We succeeded in taking this site off the endangered list and it was a major achievement for us. The really good thing is that it managed to happen due to changes in legislation, mainly from the government introducing a legal commitment to no longer drill for oil. These kinds of changes don’t happen often so it was a really big moment for us. There are a lot of fancy things in the press about UNESCO, which does increase the awareness of what we do, but what really matters is when governments take action to change things and allow us to complete the work that we are doing on the ground. In Belize, we worked together with the NGOs and the government and as a company; we were a big factor in bringing everyone together to set the priorities for the project so everyone could move forward together. We have had other successes in the past in similar ways but this was really a big accomplishment.


Dr Fanny Douvere © HorstWagner.eu


If we look across the board we have several challenges right now. The critical challenge is of course climate change. We have 50 marine sites in the oceans in 37 countries and 29 of those are coral reef systems. Those coral reefs are suffering more and more every year. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia or example, bleached three times in the last four years and what’s happening is that when a reef bleaches it doesn’t necessarily die, it can come back to life and we do see that in places that are well protected, but if it bleaches all the time it has no time to recover and that is what we are seeing. We published an analysis two years ago in which we laid out the future of the coral reefs on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and we saw that we tend to lose them between now and the end of the century if we don’t take action. That is huge because it’s not just about the beauty of the coral reefs; there are hundreds of millions of people who are dependent on those reefs for their livelihoods and survival. There is also a tremendous economy connected to the reefs in terms of local communities. All life in the oceans is reflected in the coral reef systems, so if we lose that, we lose a great proportion of the ocean’s wildlife. That’s the very sad reality and we unfortunately, see that happening as we speak. So we have looked at future scenarios based on different increases in temperature between now and the end of the century.


Indeed, COVID-19 has highlighted the critical importance of humans living in harmony with nature. I don’t think there is anything that could have shown it better than this type of global pandemic. There are positives and negatives to this. The negative part is that we are seeing budgets being significantly cut as a large proportion of funds are reliant on tourism. Over the last decade, we have had a real positive transition to seeing local communities and industries moving away from techniques that harm the ocean and changing them into a positive income such as eco-tourism and activities that are bringing people to the sites in a positive way. There has been huge investment in that and now of course, with tourism revenues collapsing globally entirely, we see our sites no longer having the budgets to manage their parks and we see that many of them no longer able to operate in the same way. But the positive angle of the global situation and this is where I have hope, is when you look at the attention that the environment is getting right now and especially the attention that climate change is getting. A lot of hope however lies in financial investments. With the pandemic, what is critical is that we’re losing out on a moment when we should be investing to make transitions.


© Tet Lara – Oceanographic Institute, Albert Ist Foundation, Prince of Monaco


Throughout COVID-19 we have seen several institutions around the world investing positively to give back to their communities through funding, what is a message you would send to these organisations to explain why now is the moment to act? 


I think the big misconception is that an organisation like UNESCO works on the basis of government financing. That is absolutely not the case. We do have some government funding, but we are dependent on voluntary contributions. This can be from governments of course. The government of Monaco for example is a key partner of ours, but the biggest majority of our financial support comes from private donations. The entire work we did in Belize, for example, was financed by a private individual who had read about our projects in an article. He called us up and told us that he liked what we were proposing to do and he stepped up to help. But if that hadn’t happened we would not have been able to invest in the project. The investment that we want to make is in research, understanding the politics, what the socio-economics of each country are and pulling all that together and helping the government to put in place the right kind of legislation on the ground. Those are the kinds of things nobody thinks about financing, but it’s critical and it’s what makes changes happen.


Another initiative we are seeing become hugely successful is our Climate Adaptation Initiative. This is a nine million dollar investment that we used to build climate adaptation strategies in four initial coral reef sites. This is also financed by a private foundation. It’s really important and it’s changing the way we are doing business. In ten years from now, these are the kinds of things that are really going to make a change in the world. Yes, we’re doing a lot of projects in the ocean and when you look at it in certain areas there is a lot of money that’s flowing into ocean conservation, but the sum of all of this is not adding up to the kind of change we need. So the Climate Adaptation Initiative is allowing us to hire Chief Resilience Officers who are locally recruited. That person is responsible for overseeing all of the investment being made into the site and understanding what local communities need to thrive in ten or fifteen years from now. He or she is working together with UNESCO, with external experts and the government in order to be able to outline the decisions that need to be made today to build for a better future. Surprisingly, there are very little investments in this kind of work. In terms of a call out to companies, what we need is to step on that train of positive change and for that, we need to work with private investors. The bottom line is really to make commitments that are real and will really make changes on the ground.


© Olivier Borde – Monaco Explorations


What can you tell us about the work you have been doing and have planned with Monaco in relation to sustainable development?

We have had a partnership with Monaco since 2017 where the Principality of Monaco supports the programme financially. For a number of years Albert II, Prince of Monaco has been organising explorations to see the World Heritage sites himself, as well as financially supporting local scientists that are using innovation to better understand and better protect the sites. He went to one of our sites in Columbia and helped to finance local scientists that are doing shark tagging, so we can get a better idea of how the sharks are moving in and out of the sites and where they are moving to. So we’re not just protecting within the site but also the surroundings. He also went to Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines and he worked there together with the manager to understand the ecosystem, and there are more explorations to come. From this, we developed an exhibition together with the Principality of Monaco to shed light on the extraordinary work that’s being done. On 1st of January 2021, we will launch the United Nations Decade for Ocean Science, which is a decade of focusing on science for the oceans and we felt it was important to inspire other organisations to invest in the local scientific work that is being done. Women are actually doing a lot of it and they are at the forefront of truly innovative science, which is working with DNA so it’s quite exceptional work.


© Olivier Borde – Monaco Explorations


Speaking of women, what kinds of challenges do you face in your role as a woman today?

To some extent, I face the same challenges that everyone does in their jobs. When you’re working in a job related to the environment, you are not doing it for the money, you are doing it because you want to make the world a better place, so my day can start at 6 am and end at midnight. It is frustrating at times because progress can be slow, although again I do really feel that we are on a curve of change at the moment, which gives inspiration and courage, but at the same time we work with a lot of different partners from different cultures and it’s often challenging to reach agreements. Luckily I do work in an organisation that takes gender equality seriously and the head of our organisation is a woman, so that’s definitely also helping. I do see challenges for women now though, especially with COVID-19 and working from home, women are taking on a lot when schools are closed and children are home. Equality is something I feel very strongly about and UNESCO is an organisation that takes it very seriously.


© Olivier Borde – Monaco Explorations


We spoke about the importance of education and the role of each individual; in your role to what extent do you think education to the future generations is crucial?


If I was ever to change my career I would work in education because I really believe that it is everything. I might be biased because I am a living example that education is everything or at least it was in my life, but I believe it is so important in every single thing we do. I believe in traditional education; getting a university degree, but there are a lot of things that we do not learn at university and I think these things are key today. One of the things we need to learn is about our spending behaviour, as this is truly what everything comes down to. We’re not taught how to make decisions on where our spending should be and that’s fundamental to the environment. Why is there so much plastic in the ocean? It’s because of the things we buy. Why is there so much pollution? Why is climate change such a big problem? Because we are not taught to make the right decisions in our spending. Everyone is a consumer so it comes down to behaviour and where we put out money. This is where education really needs to evolve and I’m starting to see this happen.


If you could wish for something right now what would it be?  

The first wish I would have is for humans to change their behaviour and go for greener solutions. Make their voices heard on all platforms; educate themselves on what’s going to make the planet a better place to live. My equally important wish is for a programme like ours to actually live up to the expectations of what we are capable of. We can do a lot more than we are doing today, but the problem lies not in expertise but in the investment that we need. So my wish is to attract investments more quickly and more easily.


What is a life lesson you would take away from 2020? 

Live consciously, spend consciously, and think about where you are spending your time and your revenues. Really think about it and make your own choices. This is what is going to determine the way the planet is moving forward.


© Magali Boussion – Monaco Explorations


What is a message you would send to people in The Middle East? 

I would like to tell everyone that the planet is on a crossroads. We have fifty unique ocean sites across the world on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Nearly all of them have lost their revenues. I call every human being that can, to step up and join us to protect the most precious places on Earth. Help us and join us at UNESCO, we are here to make the world a better world.


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