Connectivity is simply defined as the state of being connected, and these days we often think about it in terms of information and communication. In conservation biology, connectivity is thought of as the ability for the organic and non-organic features of an ecosystem to be linked from one location to another. Obvious examples are wildlife corridors and bird migration routes. But there are more subtle ways in which Nature connects across territories, such as the mycelium networks that develop along with tree roots in large forests, or the transfer of nutrients (and pollutants!), along food chains.
The importance of ecological connectivity for the health of our planet’s ecosystems – and by extension to our living environment and quality of life – can’t be understated. For this reason, the topic is getting a lot of attention at the upcoming World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a big meeting of many of the major conservation players that is scheduled to take place in France in 2020.
It is very likely that ambitious connectivity goals will be discussed and agreed upon at this meeting, building on existing targets for biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration. Because there are 213 Nation States in the IUCN, it is possible that these agreements will have some influence on actual law and policy. As always, the challenge will be to find effective ways to implement these goals regionally, where the conflicts between economic or political interests and Nature conservation play out.
Hopefully this focus on connectivity is taken as a Call to Action by governments, NGOs and private conservation groups, and serious steps are taken. The major impact, however, will come when private investment and industry begin to truly understand what ecological connectivity means and how it can affect the long term viability of their productive activity. When beverage companies like Coca Cola or Nestle, for example, understand that their business model relies on healthy watersheds with extensive interconnected forest cover they may realize that simply buying up the land around where springs come up is not sufficient to mitigate the real risk of running out of cheap, clean water. A coordinated regional reforestation effort including private investment form these companies, and emphasizing the connectivity of watershed ecosystems, could go a long way in mitigating risks not only for their business but for humanity at large.
If we would like to see healthy connectivity within bioregions and between conserved areas, it will be essential to coordinate with public and private sector stakeholders to agree on and fund holistic design and long term management, creating a mirror connectivity among human society that prioritizes ecosystem health as part of our productive activities.
This is the niche where the field of Integrative Eco Social Design has opportunity to grow. Whether as part of a regulatory or implementing State agency, or in the form agile private companies that offer services to industry and governments alike, the need is there for specialized meta and systems thinkers, with expertise around fostering and regenerating healthy, connected landscapes that take into account human activity and Nature, understanding that the two cannot be considered separately if either is to thrive.