Opinion: Sustaining a Living Wales

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On 30 January 2012, the Welsh Government Environment Minister John Griffiths launched his Green Paper, Sustaining a Living Wales. The overall aim is to embed the ecosystem approach into the management of natural resources in Wales and make sure that 'Wales has increasingly resilient and diverse ecosystems that deliver environmental, economic and social benefits now and in the future'.1 It is trying to take a 'fresh approach' to the management and regulation of the environment in Wales, but one has to question whether this, in reality, is the underlying aim behind the change in policy as opposed to streamlining environmental regulation and cutting costs in the administration of environmental law and policy in Wales.

The main themes of the Green Paper are the adoption of an ecosystem approach and holistic management and integrated regulatory approaches to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of environmental law and policy in Wales.

ECOSYSTEM APPROACH

The Green Paper claims that the utilisation of an ecosystem approach will:

  • improve the resilience and diversity of our environment and its supporting biodiversity;
  • provide simpler and more cost-effective regulation;
  • offer greater certainty for decision makers.

It is proposed that the internationally agreed definition will be used:

The Green Paper goes further and refers to this as involving a balancing act between 'the relationship of protected areas to the wider landscape and seascape', but this shows that there is already priority being given and assumptions made as to the importance of certain areas as opposed to others. The international definition does not provide for such a pre-assessment or prioritisation.

Using an ecosystem approach was something that was proposed under the Living Wales consultation in 2010.4 This seeks to take a holistic approach and, in some respects, tries to embody in a working approach the principle of sustainable development (i.e. a balancing act between the various competing demands and interests in our natural resources).

Many do not understand the ecosystem approach. It is a relatively new concept in terms of implementation. Those directly involved in the implementation of the new bills and eventual enforcement when this is necessary will undoubtedly be trained in its application, but for the majority of the public, business owners, farmers, foresters and landowners this will be a completely new concept that they will have to get to grips with.

The ecosystem approach is not simple; it requires a complex and detailed assessment of the multiple issues involved in managing the environment. In Wales, the ecosystem approach has been utilised in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and also in the Glastir scheme.

The problems that have been incurred in implementing Glastir and creating a new land management scheme which delivers on multiple levels, but at the same time is accessible and achievable in practice by the majority of farmers and landowners is evidence of the difficulties that can be incurred with this approach. One could also argue that Glastir does not adequately attribute, or give credit, to farmers and landowners for the services they already provide in terms of ecosystem management.

An ecosystem approach purports to balance the competing interests and demands on our natural resources. However, one could question whether it does in fact do this as opposed to giving the environment precedence over other factors. If the ecosystem approach is implemented as intended, according to the internationally recognised definition, it may not always be the case that diversity will be protected

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