“Ambassadors for Nature” initiative kicks off in Beijing

Last September Clare Fearnley, the New Zealand Ambassador to China, hosted a fantastic event called “Friends of the Flyway“, inviting Beijing-based ambassadors from the East Asian-Australasian Flyway countries to celebrate their shared natural heritage.  It was a wonderful way to raise the profile of the Flyway and put migratory birds on the foreign policy agenda.

At that event there was a discussion about how embassies could do more to promote migratory birds and biodiversity in general.  Recognising that diplomatic premises are important green spaces, one idea was to start an initiative to encourage embassies in Beijing to manage their green spaces in a more friendly way for nature.  Clare loved the idea and with her usual enthusiasm and drive, pulled together a few contacts and experts to develop some draft terms of reference:

Embassies and their grounds can be important refuges for urban wildlife. In recognition of the global biodiversity crisis, the Global Biodiversity Framework due to be agreed at COP15 in 2022, and the importance of contributions from all sectors of society we, as ambassadors in Beijing, intend to support nature. Our Embassies will make choices that advance biodiversity. For example, we will seek to:

– Undertake an audit of the wildlife in the grounds of the embassy and other diplomatic premises at least once in each season of the year (this can take as little as one hour per season, ideally on the same date and at the same time to enable comparisons over time);
– Keep records of wildlife sightings by staff
– When planting, choose native species of tree, shrubs and other plants. We will also assess the plant species already on the embassy grounds and, where practical, over time remove non-native species
– Take at least two of the following measures to support wildlife:
                   o Reduce and, as far as possible, eliminate the use of pesticides;
                   o Allocate an area (for example, 10% of the overall area) that can be kept ‘wild’ with minimal management and erect signage explaining this to residents and visitors;
                   o Make and erect nest boxes for birds and/or insect hotels;
                   o Help to reduce the risk of bird collisions with glass by using bird-safe glass, ultraviolet patterns or other mitigation measures.
– Promote awareness among diplomatic staff about biodiversity, including information about urban wildlife that can be found in Beijing, and the actions the embassy is taking to support nature.
– Nominate a point of contact responsible for this initiative who can report to the network on the actions of the embassy, arrange the audits and report records of wildlife.

Fast forward to Wednesday 6 July and the New Zealand embassy hosted the first meeting of the “Ambassadors for Nature” initiative.  Ambassadors and senior diplomats participated from Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Croatia, Finland, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Norway, Peru, Romania, Singapore, Slovenia, UK and the United Nations, alongside the Deputy Head of Beijing’s Forest and Parks Bureau (responsible for managing 70% of Beijing’s land), Professor Lu Zhi of Peking University and Professor Yolanda Van Heezik of Otago University and a group of young people from diplomatic families.  

The energy in the room was palpable with wholehearted support for the initiative and a raft of positive suggestions about how to take it forward.  Already sessions are being planned to provide training on how to conduct surveys of wildlife, tailored resources about the wildlife to be expected in Beijing city centre, and lists of native plant and tree species to guide diplomatic gardeners.  The Beijing Municipal government offered to host a field trip for ambassadors to showcase Beijing’s biodiversity and WeChat groups have been set up to bring together contact points from each embassy, as well as plans to outreach to more embassies to encourage them to join. 

There was even a suggestion that, once up and running, ambassadors could promote the initiative with their capitals to encourage ALL embassies and other diplomatic representations overseas to follow suit.  Just imagine, for example, if all of the UK’s 160 embassies and high commissions overseas (as well as 186 consulates) committed to do the same.  That would add up to quite a significant area of land!

It’s heartening to see this initiative getting off the ground and huge kudos must go to the New Zealand Embassy, especially Ambassador Clare Fearnley and Svar Barrington, for ensuring an idea discussed over coffee last year is coming to fruition – it is a terrific way for Ministries of Foreign Affairs to make a practical contribution towards the goals of the forthcoming Global Biodiversity Framework, due to be agreed by more than 190 countries at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity meeting (COP15) in Montreal in December.

New Zealand Ambassador to China hosts “Friends of the Flyway”

It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom that seems to be prevalent right now.  But every now and then, something happens that provides a shot in the arm.. an event or moment that inspires and provides hope.

16 September at the New Zealand Embassy in Beijing was one of those moments.  Clare Fearnley, the brilliant New Zealand Ambassador to China, hosted the inaugural ‘Friends of the Flyway’ to celebrate the migratory birds of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, bringing together ambassadors and senior diplomats from the 22 countries that make up the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, the secretariat of the EAAFP, senior Chinese government officials, including the Deputy Administrator of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Deputy Mayor of Dandong (stewards of Yalu Jiang, dubbed a “five-star” service station on the shorebird expressway), academics and ‘friends’.  

Not only did the event provide an opportunity to celebrate and raise awareness of the flyway among ambassadors and senior diplomats, elevating migratory birds as a foreign policy issue, but it also stimulated ideas and discussions, resulting in a few potential new initiatives, such as managing embassy grounds as ‘wildlife areas’ with embassies signing up to commitments to monitor birds and other wildlife, and to make changes to management practices to improve the habitat for resident and migratory birds.  A birding trip to the coast next May, for Ambassadors to experience the spring migration, is on the cards, and ‘bird-friendly’ glass, painted with ultraviolet patterns, was showcased by local artists as part of the solution to bird collisions (thought to cause the deaths of up to a billion birds in North America annually, with a new research project now starting in China to assess the scale of the issue here).

In her opening, Clare told the story of the ‘Kuaka’, the Māori name for the Bar-tailed Godwit, that has such a special place in their culture. The Kuaka is considered to be the link between the northern and southern hemispheres, a carrier of knowledge and the bringer of positive messages.  For Māoris they were birds of mystery, (‘Kua kite te kohanga kuaka?  Who has seen the nest of the kuaka?’).

Clare Fearnley, New Zealand Ambassador to China, delivering her welcome remarks to the “Friends of the Flyway” on 16 September.

Nearly all New Zealand Bar-tailed Godwits are from the baueri subspecies and breed in western Alaska. Their incredible migration forms a triangle.  Following the breeding season, these birds make an almost incomprehensible non-stop eight or nine day flight of more than 11,000km to New Zealand, only recently discovered through the tracking of “E7” in 2007. After spending the non-breeding season in New Zealand, they begin their northern migration from early March, heading for refuelling sites around the Yellow Sea, many to the Yalu Jiang in Dandong, where they fatten up at this five-star service station for the last leg of the journey to Alaska.

Professor Lei Guangchun of Beijing Forestry University tells the story of “E7”, the Bar-tailed Godwit that flew non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand revealing the incredible migration of this species for the first time.

Migratory birds do not respect international borders and, over a calendar year, many will visit multiple countries as they move from breeding grounds to non-breeding grounds via stopover sites.  It follows, therefore, that no single country can secure the future of these birds on its own.  With shared natural heritage comes a shared responsibility and, as we are in the midst of one of the greatest extinction events on Earth, and the first to be driven by humans, it is vital that the international response must go beyond national actions to protect key habitats and species, important though these actions are, to involve sustained and coordinated international cooperation.

Tan Guangming, Deputy Director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration, delivering his remarks at the “Friends of the Flyway” event on 16 September.

The East Asian-Australasian Flyway is a bird ‘superhighway’ for more than 50 million waterbirds, including 35 globally threatened species, many of which commute between breeding grounds in the far north, some inside the Arctic Circle, and non-breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere.  Many travel as far as Australia and New Zealand.  However, it is not only the ‘ends of the flyway’ – the breeding grounds in Artic Russia and the non-breeding grounds in Australia and New Zealand that are important.  The commute relies on stopover sites, particularly those in the Yellow Sea.

That is why this initiative – bringing together ambassadors from flyway countries with senior Chinese government officials – was so important.  It is now hoped (expected?) that ambassadors from other Flyway countries will host similar events, celebrating particular aspects of the Flyway or specific species and sites, whilst helping to nurture and strengthen international cooperation along this important route for migratory birds.   

Huge kudos to Clare and her team, especially Svar Barrington and Hayley Anderson, for initiating this event and for the New Zealand embassy’s ongoing leadership in putting biodiversity high up on the agenda for foreign policy and diplomacy.



Header photo: Clare Fearnley, New Zealand Ambassador to China, welcoming Tan Guangming, Deputy Director of the National Forestry and Grassland Administration.