Blog: IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 Opening Ceremony

By Heath Synnott

There was a sense of anticipation in the air as delegates gathered for the Opening Ceremony of the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014. I could see faces from many different places – over 160 countries are represented. Many delegates sat quietly with familiar clusters, undoubtedly battling jetlag… and perhaps also suffering some nervousness at testing their non-preferred language skills. I was sure that wouldn’t last long.

The thrum of a didgeridoo hushed the audience, and clapping sticks and chanting marked the start of proceedings. The distinctive smell of burning eucalyptus filled the chamber as the traditional owners provided a ‘welcome to country’ smoking ceremony. Uncle Allen, a Gadigal elder, welcomed delegates to Burramattagal country, upon which Sydney Olympic Park was built, and had the audience in raptures with his deadpan humour.

A montage of some of the host country’s most stunning natural places brought a tinge of homesickness to this self-exiled Aussie’s heart. Wilpena Pound, MacDonnell Ranges, Great Australia Bight, Blue Mountains, Great Barrier Reef, Cape York, and the Tasmanian Wilderness all featured - plus, of course, the must-have inclusion of the cuddly <ahem> half of our coat-of-arms – a kangaroo.

 IUCN President, Mr Zhang Xinsheng, said our world needs protected areas that are ecologically representative and durable to threats such as climate change. He identified three key components needed to do this – integration between people and protected areas; creativity in different ways to manage protected areas; and resilience of protected areas to outside shocks such as climate change. His call for protected areas to be the cornerstone of ‘eco-civilizations’ received a resounding response from the crowd.

Australian Environment Minister, Greg Hunt announced the Australian Government  was banning the disposal of capital dredge spoil within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

He also shared the news that Australia has reached its Aichi target of 17% for the terrestrial part of protected areas with the establishment of the latest Indigenous Protected Area. Later, President of Gabon, His Excellency Ali Bongo Ondimba, announced the establishment of a network of marine parks covering 23% of Gabon’s exclusive economic zone, with commercial fishing excluded from these areas.

New South Wales Environment Minister, Rob Stokes announced the newest national park in the world, Everlasting Swamp National Park in the state’s north.

Some themes kept reappearing across different speeches. There has been a clear shift to highlight the ecosystem services that protected areas provide - clean water, food, carbon storage, an income source, and acting as a buffer from extreme weather, and that many of these ecosystem services occur outside the boundaries of the reserve.

The legacy of Nelson Mandela was omnipresent. His recorded speech from the 2003 Congress in Durban showed that he strongly believed youth hold the key to the future. His quick wit was never far away. “You may be wondering why an old grey man without a job is talking to you about plans for the future,” the footage showed him saying, in his truly humble style. Two young rangers who had joined Mandela on stage in Durban spoke about their journey, and handed over responsibility to the youth of Australia to continue his legacy.

Much to my happiness, the vaka canoes were mentioned several times. Four voyaging canoes had sailed into Sydney Harbour that morning, after travelling more than 6,000 nautical miles from the Pacific with a message on oceans and climate change. I have been lucky enough to be involved in planning the voyage since January, and seeing the canoes arrive in Sydney Harbour and experiencing the joy of the crowds, was fairly mind-blowing. It seemed a world away from our meetings talking about it in our small ferny office in Suva, Fiji! The acknowledgement of the voyage provided a nice afterglow to bask in for the many people involved.

The ceremony finished with an extremely imaginative multimedia interpretation of one girl’s life exploring protected areas, using lights, music, acrobats, dancers and, at one point, an owl flying across the stage!

After the ceremony, the audience headed to the outdoor area to meet other attendees. It didn’t take long for everyone to be chattering away – and jetlag and language barriers didn’t seem like a problem at all. 

Missed the Opening Ceremony? Watch the live streamed broadcast on YouTube here

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