On 25 and 26 May 2023 a good representation of such projects convened together in Malaga, Spain, to a workshop on “Exchanging experiences on invasive alien species projects in Europe” organized by the LIFE INVASAQUA project. The workshop was held just a few days after this 31st anniversary of the LIFE programme and the Habitats directive. Therefore it was not only a fantastic opportunity for invasion biologists and practitioners to meet up, but also a perfect occasion to commemorate 31 years of that successful combination between LIFE and alien species. A quick journey to rediscover how biological invasions were dealt with within the EU since 1992 may be the best way to celebrate this achievement, as this may offer the opportunity to reflect on the actual role of LIFE in shaping the IAS policy within the full region, with LIFE beneficiaries playing – even though mostly unwittingly - a major collective role thanks to the results of their activities, whose impact went well beyond the actual scope designed for the single projects.
Today, IAS and their impact to the environment are one of the key topics addressed by the LIFE programme. But this was not always the case. For example, in 2004, when the first LIFE brochure on IAS was published, the European Commission (EC) realized for the very first time that more than 100 LIFE projects had either partially or exclusively addressed this threat between 1992 and 2002, mobilizing over 27 million euro. This was possible even without the LIFE programme having a specific strategy to support this threat, and in any case well before the EU Regulation No. 1143/2014 on IAS was on the EU policy agenda, showing the pioneering character of the LIFE programme. The key conclusions of that report were not that different from what we would find still relevant today:
- LIFE is the main EU source of funding for field activities aimed at IAS;
- The high number of LIFE projects dedicated to IAS shows that wildlife managers perceive IAS as a major threat to biodiversity conservation;
- LIFE demonstrated that the threats posed by IAS can be addressed successfully within the Natura 2000 network.
A new assessment of the contribution of the LIFE programme in facing the problems caused IAS was made in 2010. It was funded by the European Environment Agency (EEA), as Support for a pilot project on “Streamlining European 2010 Biodiversity Indicators”. The report including the result of this work, which also led to a Biological invasions paper, highlighted that during the years 1992-2006, the EC supported almost 200 projects dedicated to reducing or eliminating their threats, for over 44 million euro. The report confirmed that an impressive quantity of data and knowledge supported by hands-on experience had been acquired since 1992. Last, but not least, LIFE projects had been a key tool to inform and raise awareness on IAS and their impact on biodiversity and human activities. The EEA work had also the merit to show that the budget spent for such projects would provide the basis for developing an effective response indicator on IAS management (see here another relevant report and a scientific paper on the issue). Such response indicator may help measure the extent to which efforts are being made to reduce the rate of biodiversity loss due to the spread of IAS, and help laypeople and policymakers understand the relevance and the meaning of the problems linked to this issue.
In 2014, exactly 10 years after the first brochure on LIFE and IAS, a second report was published. This allowed to update the figures for the full period between 1992 and 2013, with a total of 265 LIFE projects including measures dealing with IAS, and investing a total of some 70 million euro in the problem.
In other words, the LIFE programme contributed to generate an impressive body of knowledge in terms of innovative actions, lessons learned, experience, best practices, and technical information, and had a key role in paving the way to the development and adoption of the EU Regulation No. 1143/2014 on IAS, which entered into force in 2015. This was a long expected piece of legislation, that the LIFE programme had definitely contributed to shape in many ways, thanks to the number of lessons learned on IAS policy and practices gathered through the implementation of hundreds of projects and measures. The EU Regulation on IAS seeks to address the problem in a comprehensive manner so as to protect native biodiversity and ecosystem services, as well as to minimize and mitigate the human health or economic impacts that alien species can have. For this purpose, the Regulation foresees three types of interventions: i) prevention, ii) early detection and rapid eradication, and iii) management. Basically, the typical measures financed by LIFE programme and implemented through this instrument even before the EU Regulation on IAS entered into force, thanks to the provisions set in the EU Nature Directives, but also to the policy documents developed by the IUCN, the Bern Convention/Council of Europe, the Convention of Biological Diversity etc.
As a result, starting from the LIFE programme 2014-2020, IAS were formally included as a thematic priority. Therefore, as LIFE continues to finance projects targeting these measures, the programme is considered essential for ensuring a sound implementation of the EU Regulation on IAS, including the risk assessments required to inform the evolution of the list of species of Union concern, which represents the core part of the Regulation. The adoption of the EU Regulation on IAS also led a first pan European Platform meeting on Invasive Alien Species (IAS) organized in December 2017 by the Italian LIFE Integrated Project GESTIRE 2020. Over 120 persons attended the meeting, with representatives from 51 LIFE projects. Moreover, as a key output, a 142 pages booklet describing 62 LIFE projects was published: A catalogue of LIFE projects contributing to the management of alien species in the European Union. The aim was to share the many experiences and case studies, promote the assessment of strength and weaknesses of the LIFE programme in relation to the implementation of the EU Regulation on IAS, evaluate future challenges and opportunities (including links with other nature protection legislation, along with possible synergies with other EU financial resources). At the end of the workshop a document was finalized, to provide the EC and EU Member States with recommendations for improving the performances of LIFE projects on similar issues, to facilitate networking, and to contribute ensuring a sound implementation of the IAS Regulation. The main conclusions were that LIFE has been the main financial tool to deal with the threat posed by IAS in Europe, and provided impressive results in terms of successful case studies with a high replicability potential, hence a dedicated network of LIFE projects focusing on IAS should be promoted at the EU level. This should ensure appropriate information flow and replicability of project results and experiences on IAS management, including ways to involve stakeholders at all scales.
All these publications and events, supported by a few other technical papers and reports, stressed the importance of the LIFE instrument in relation to the development and further implementation of EU policy and legislation on IAS. Additionally, several conferences and workshops were organized within the LIFE programme, with a focus on specific IAS related themes and/or regions, along with a number of other media products. Such communication and information activities are an essential component of each single LIFE project thanks to the strong element of outreach that characterizes the programme itself. Their effect has been twofold: from one side it was pivotal to raise awareness on IAS so to change people attitude towards the problem, whereas from the other side it gave the necessary visibility to the LIFE instrument itself, confirming its role as the key financial tool to fight IAS in Europe. At any event, it appeared evident that a dedicated EU network of authorities, scientists, researchers, stakeholders, wildlife managers etc should be promoted. This is key to ensure appropriate circulation of information about results and experiences from projects dealing with IAS management and prevention.
LIFE has been so far the main and only tool supporting measures to prevent and manage biological invasions, and supported the organization of regular meetings between all actors involved in the topic, in the EU and beyond. A new call for LIFE projects has been launched. Nearly 150 million euro are available for the nature and biodiversity strand alone, plus 6.5 million euro for technical assistance replication projects. This may provide key actors and stakeholders the opportunity to get the financial resources necessary to promptly respond to new challenges, contribute to the sound implementation of the EU Regulation on IAS, and eventually play a synergic role in shaping the current and future policy and legislation on IAS, including in relation to the LIFE programme.