Friday, April 23, 2021

Process, Procedures, and Proposals:
Establishing a UNESCO International Geodiversity Day

by Jack Matthews*

Jack J. Matthews is an Honorary Associate at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. His work to support International Geodiversity Day is funded by Research England, through the Strategic Priorities Fund allocation to the University of Oxford.

Jack Matthews
Good news for abiotic nature: it now seems highly likely that an International Geodiversity Day will be established by UNESCO. Geodiversity is the variety of the non-living parts of nature, including rocks and soils, and has long been overlooked in the role it plays in our lives, society, and the environment as a whole. This Day will help promote global education and awareness in geodiversity and the geosciences. The journey began a year ago at the Oxford Geoheritage Virtual Conference in May 2020, where a number of delegates came together to begin the campaign to establish the Day – led by Profs Brilha, Gray, Zwolinski, and myself.
The process began by soliciting the support of more than 100 national and international geoscience and conservation organisations. This built a strong foundation on which we could approach UNESCO to investigate driving the proposal forward. The magnitude and geographic diversity of the supporting organisations was a key reason the proposal has advanced, and has been mentioned by decision-makers at each stage. We are therefore truly grateful to all those who have helped support this proposal along the way. 
Throughout late 2020 and early 2021 we began to draft what is called an Explanatory Note, which outlines the thinking behind a draft decision to be taken by the UNESCO Executive Board. Support also needed to be found from UNESCO Member States themselves as someone needed to formally propose the idea. We are indebted to the Governments of Portugal and the United Kingdom for being early supporters of International Geodiversity Day, and for using your diplomatic skill to bring the proposal to a point where it was eventually co-sponsored by more than 70 countries. As more countries joined the proposal, the text evolved: one Member State was keen to ensure the issue of geohazard awareness was made more prominent, which we happily amended for them.
With the International Geodiversity Day proposal being a totally new concept to UNESCO, it was sent to the Preparatory Group of the Executive Board in March. The response of Member States was resoundingly positive; so much so that it was recommended for acceptance at the Executive Board itself.

The UNESCO Executive Board met in April of 2021, holding their meeting online because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The Board opens with several days of plenary debate where Member States make 5-6 minute speeches on topics important to them, often highlighting how their country has been contributing to UNESCO’s work, or noting a critical issue that should be focused on. It was heartwarming to see so many use their short time to comment of the importance of geodiversity, and mention their support for the upcoming proposal.

The first formal hearing of the proposal within the Executive Board was several days later at what is called the Programme and External Relations Commission – a kind of sub-committee of the Board. Several Member States spoke of their support for the proposal, as did the UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, Shamila Nair-Bedouelle. Unusually a video was allowed to be played, narrated by Prof Iain Stewart, which outlined the importance of geodiversity:

With the support of the Commission, where the majority of the debate and discussion at the Executive Board occurs, the proposal advanced to its final stage within this body. Each Commission sends a set of ‘Draft Decisions’ to the final Plenary Meeting. On Wednesday 21st April 2021 the Executive Board formally adopted this draft decision, and has therefore endorsed establishing an International Geodiversity Day. 
The decision, as well as calling upon the UNESCO Director-General to promote the day, also adds the proposal to the agenda for the 41st session of the UNESCO General Conference. As the sovereign body within UNESCO, it is here where the final decision will be made – though it seems unlikely to be rejected now having been endorsed by the Executive Board and so many Member States. With the next General Conference being in November 2021, we therefore expect the first International Geodiversity Day to be on October 6th, 2022. Get planning, and join the international celebration! 
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