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January 5, 2016

John DeFries, Chair of IUCN WCC’s Neighboring Islands and Counties subcommittee.
John DeFries, Wrigley Institute Board Member and Chair of IUCN WCC’s Neighboring Islands and Counties subcommittee.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature Council (IUCN) has hosted the World Conservation Conference (WCC) for 68 years in all corners of the world. The conference provides a forum for all to debate major sustainable development issues, propose solutions, and facilitate the sharing of information and experiences.

For the first time ever, the conference will be held on U.S. soil. John DeFries, Wrigley Institute Board Member and Chair of the IUCN WCC subcommittee on Neighbor Islands and Counties, provides an inside look at how the State of Hawai'i is preparing for the congress and a preview of what to expect in September 2016.

How did Hawai'i secure the bid for the 2016 World Conservation Congress and what does this mean for Hawai'i?

When IUCN WCC 2012 adjourned in Jeju, Korea, I first became aware that the State of Hawai'i - on behalf of the United States of America - was committed to submitting a bid to IUCN and competing in the site selection process for WCC 2016. In January 2014, I was informed by state organizers that IUCN had selected two finalists in the site competition for WCC 2016 - Istanbul, Turkey and Honolulu, Hawai'i.

In an effort to strengthen Hawai'i's final bid proposal to IUCN, I turned to Julie Ann Wrigley and Dr. Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, for supportive testimonies that proved to be both timely and helpful as Hawai'i was subsequently selected as the site for WCC 2016.

What compelled you to pursue this endeavor?

What inspires me is the premise that 8,000 to 10,000 people will attend WCC 2016 from more than 100 countries, giving the State of Hawai'i a rare opportunity in front of a global audience to feature statewide sustainability goals for 2030, island biodiversity and cultural diversity, a full range of the world's climactic zones and two World Heritage Sites - Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

Additionally, Hawai'i's community leaders, institutions and conservation/sustainability advocates will have opportunities to share their knowledge and learn from visiting experts and authorities.

What committee are you leading and what are your goals and aspirations for this committee?

Within the WCC National Host Committee, I chair the "Neighbor Islands and Counties" sub-committee. While WCC 2016 will be convened in Honolulu (on the island of Oahu), my responsibility is to ensure that the neighbor island counties of Maui, Kauai and Hawai'i are prepared to host IUCN delegates during pre- and post-congress visitations. In addition, the neighbor island counties will be showcased at an exhibition pavilion at the congress.

How has IUCN and its many partners and supporters made a difference in conservation? Can you share one or two examples that are most meaningful for you?

For me, IUCN's vital impact and immense contributions as a difference-maker in conservation are exemplified by The IUCN Red List, which is described by IUCN as follows:

"The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species is widely recognized as the most comprehensive, objective global approach for evaluating the conservation status of plant and animal species. From its small beginning, The IUCN Red List has grown in size and complexity and now plays an increasingly prominent role in guiding conservation activities of governments, NGOs and scientific institutions. The introduction in 1994 of a scientifically rigorous approach to determine risks of extinction that is applicable to all species has become a world standard.

In order to produce The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the IUCN Global Species Programme - working with the IUCN Survival Commission and with members of IUCN - draws on and mobilizes a network of scientists and partner organizations working in almost every country in the world, who collectively hold what is likely the most complete scientific knowledge base on the biology and the conservation status of species."

From your perspective, what are the top conservation priorities for Hawai’i? What are the barriers and opportunities?

Start with the premise that Planet Earth is an island and one can begin to appreciate the Hawaiian Islands as a frontier of new opportunities for refinement in the management and stewardship practices of our ocean coastal zones, forests, watersheds, water sources, and in dealing with invasive species and the impacts of population growth. Hawai'i is a place where modern science and technological advances can be informed by the native culture, which is imbued with traditional knowledge about these regions, conditions and the cycles of nature, as well as human behavioral changes that were once mandated for conservation purposes.

Going forward, the business and government sectors of Hawai'i will drive much of the state's sustainability agenda and thus, the high cost of electrical power will continue to present a significant barrier of entry for new business startups and business growth in general. In December 2014, the Florida-based utility giant, NextEra Energy, announced its intention to acquire the State of Hawai'i's largest electrical utility, which has spurred the intense oversight of government regulators and peaked the interests of the business sector and the community-at-large.

Pivotal questions are being raised in the current public and regulatory review process. Will this pending transaction result in lower electrical costs to all rate-payers; financing for a system's upgrade and improvements to the existing (and aging) utility grid; increased deployment of Hawai'i's renewable energy sources; and less reliance on imported fossil fuels? Throughout the State of Hawai'i, this proposed utility acquisition is causing a deep and timely review of its energy future.

What conservation words of wisdom or advice do you have for current and future generations?

My advice reflects the wisdom of my own Hawaiian ancestors who came to understand that the health of our natural environment is the health of my community, my family and me. Essentially, there is no separation between nature and the human experience.

What other IUCN-related organizations or programs would you like to showcase?

The most dynamic demonstration of environmental conservation and sustainability emanating from Hawai'i at this time can be found at www.hokulea.com. There you will find the stories of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Malama Honua - The Worldwide Voyage - all of which epitomize the mission of IUCN and the significance of WCC 2016 being convened in Hawai'i. Aloha!