Biodiversity conservation within a given area depends not only on the presence of suitable habitats for the survival and reproduction of species, but also on ecological corridors between these areas, which allows genetic exchange between populations. In 2009 the “Biodiversity Network” project was launched in the province of Varese, with the aim of developing two ecological corridors between Parco dei Fiori and Parco del Ticino. Defragmentation interventions were subsequently carried out, also thanks to EU resources coming from the LIFE program.
Biodiversity is menaced by several problems, mostly due to a high population density, the dense road network, and the reduction of natural habitats. These situations cause evident difficulties for wildlife, with frequent traffic casualties, especially amphibians, ungulates, mustelids, and carnivores.
The conservation of biodiversity within a given area depends not only on the presence of suitable habitats for the survival and reproduction of the species, but also on ecological corridors between these areas, which allows genetic exchange between populations. Guaranteeing ecological connections through corridors means creating routes for safe wildlife crossing but at the same time preserving soil from increasing urbanization.
Fondazione Cariplo, that has always considered natural capital and its protection as a fundamental strategic issue, for the territory, population’s health and wellness and a sustainable economic system, started a wide consultation process with relevant internal and external stakeholders, aiming to define its own strategy for biodiversity protection and financial resources (grants) earmarked for ecological connectivity. Specific hearings and meetings with environmental associations and regional, provincial and local authorities were organized in order to address the issue in a suitable way, not only to cope with a specific local situation and necessity but also to define a good practice replicable elsewhere. The presence of a Regional planning framework (Lombardy Region) for ecological connectivity in the form of already designed Regional Ecological Networks (REN) - even though not yet mandatory in local planning tools – has been extremely important both to properly contextualize the strategy and the subsequent projects and to ensure a proper and targeted resources allocation.
After considering several candidate areas, the province of Varese – located in the northwestern part of Italy - was chosen, mainly due to the presence of previous punctual territorial studies. Therefore, in 2009 the “Biodiversity Network” project was launched, with the aim of developing two ecological corridors between Parco dei Fiori and Parco del Ticino, both of which recognized as particularly rich in biodiversity. Corridors have the potential to ensure ecological links between the two selected areas, both through infrastructure barriers interventions and by increasing the extent of specific habitats for several species strictly depending on them. In the analyzed case, they are 60 km long, cover around 15,000 ha and lay on the territory of 35 different municipalities.
The project, developed thanks to a wide and sound partnership between Fondazione Cariplo - environmental sector - and the Province of Varese, LIPU-Birdlife and Lombardy Region, started with an inclusive feasibility study including ecological, technical, administrative, economic, urbanistic aspects at a very detailed scale. Moreover, a communication plan was implemented in order to inform and increase the awareness of stakeholders and participatory planning activities with local administrations and land owners of all interested territories was launched. This phase accounted for a grant of around 0.4 M€ from Fondazione Cariplo and was fundamental for the subsequent implementation phase.
On this basis, in 2010, a proposal called “TIB – Trans Insubria Bionet” was submitted to the LIFE program call for proposal and awarded in 2011 by the European Commission. The Province of Varese was the main beneficiary, Lombardy Region and LIPU-Birdlife were partners while Fondazione Cariplo was co-funder of the initiative. The total amount of project costs accounted for around 3 M€ were divided as follow: 1.5 M€ coming from EU resources, another 0.5 M€ from Fondazione Cariplo and the rest from the proponents. This “leverage” effect was also a very important drive for Fondazione Cariplo to actively participate, strongly supporting the initiative. Additionally, the presence of a private partner such as Fondazione Cariplo was highly considered in the Commission decision.
Thanks to the project 13 new underpasses for amphibians and small/medium-sized animals were developed and 6 existing ones were improved; 8 new small wetlands were created and 2 existing ones were restored; various techniques to remove invasive exotic water plants were also successfully experimented.
Not only the concrete advantages have been relevant from the connectivity and naturalistic point of view, but eventually the proponents also gained a lot of experience for the participation of subsequent successful projects and activities in the same field. Furthermore, another successive project, related to Natura 2000 sites management in Lombardy, was presented by Lombardy Region together with some of the previous partners and with support of Fondazione Cariplo and was awarded by the European Commission.
From the point of view of Fondazione Cariplo, the experience brought many advantages such as the recognized know-how in the biodiversity and ecosystem services domain and the qualification as an accountable partner. It has also been particularly useful in the Foundation process of strategy definition on the issue: a specific call for proposals on ecological connectivity was launched by Fondazione Cariplo in 2011 and is still operating, supporting feasibility studies first and implementation interventions afterward.
Further strategic developments were defined in 2014. Besides going on with the call on ecological connectivity with reference to naturalistic interventions only - leaving off feasibility studies - and co-financing several other LIFE projects, a new GIS data base called ubiGreen was launched in order to ensure geo-referenced representation to all naturalistic projects funded by the Foundation (around 300 projects for an amount of 50 M€ in the period 2004-2014). In this way a contribution was made not only financially and physically but also by increasing knowledge and proposing measurement tools of local natural capital conditions.