Collaboration Agreements in Natura 2000: farmers as main actors in management

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The Natura 2000 network occupies 30% of the territory of Extremadura in Spain and is now the main driving force behind biodiversity conservation and sustainable development across the region. Landowners and farmer associations manifested their disagreement when the first Natura 2000 sites were declared (more than 78% of the Natura 2000 land is private land). Their opposition was intensified in 2015, when management instruments were approved, including a master plan and individual management plans for each Natura 2000 site, which imposed restrictions on a number of their on-going economic activities.

With the aim of reconciling interests, the regional authority - the Junta de Extremadura - decided to introduce a new initiative which would enable it to establish individual collaboration agreements with land owners who are willing to implement conservation measures, as well as other voluntary actions, that are beneficial to protected species and habitats present on their land. The funding for these agreements would come from the European Agricultural Fund Rural Development (EARDF).

Collaboration agreements were selected using a scoring system that favours farms with a greater conservation responsibility (e.g., harbouring nests, protected species or priority habitats) and that are most strongly affected by the restrictions imposed by the management plans. Such agreements with landowners are not new in Extremadura; they were used previously under a number of LIFE projects. However, this new initiative is original in its approach since it is the landowners who propose and design the interventions to be implemented on their land.

The initiative has proven to be a resounding success. Between 2014 and 2019, 295 agreements were signed in 19 Natura 2000 sites, representing a total investment of € 7 million under EARDF. Altogether, the landowners have implemented 1 460 conservation actions, and subscribed to a total of 558 voluntary commitments, which has benefitted at least 30 species and four priority habitats. Thanks to this initiative, there has also been a significant change in attitudes amongst private owners, who are now much more willing to contribute to the management and conservation of Natura 2000 land. In 2019, a survey showed that, for 80% of the beneficiaries, their collaboration agreements have changed their opinion about Natura 2000 for the better.