The expansion of the Earth's area under protection and the increasing designation of World Heritage sites has been, and will continue to be, extremely important. But equally vital is that understanding of the relationship between protected areas and human society, and more particularly with local communities, is increased.
Chief Emeka Anyaoku and Claude Martin claim that protected areas will only be viable if local communities benefit from them and participate in promoting harmony between people and nature.
Protected areas now cover a larger part of the Earth's surface than India and China combined. Their number is still growing, as is that of World Heritage sites designated for their outstanding natural value. But the challenge is not simply to increase the protected area, but to ensure its viability. And this will only be achieved if those who live in and around protected areas benefit from them and, in particular, if they help alleviate poverty.
Protected areas are one of the main concerns of the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF for its acronym in English. His concern had its origin in the struggle for a particular area: the Coto Doñana in Spain, which was to be drained by the Franco regime, and which, thanks to the struggle of the new organization, became a national park.
WWF has been deeply involved in the planning, establishment and operation of many hundreds of protected areas. Traditionally, many of these areas have been forest areas. However, freshwater ecosystems and the marine environment have recently been incorporated, which remains too underrepresented in the global set of protected areas and is exposed to increasing threats from coastal degradation and overfishing.
Since the beginning of the WWF in 1961, the number of protected sites has increased tenfold, while the total protected area has increased more than sevenfold. This area has continued to grow during the last decade, as concern for the environment and the accumulation of evidence on the risks of climate change have increased interest in safeguarding habitats and special ecosystems.
The efforts of the global conservation community to protect what we have not destroyed have yet been a true success story, demonstrating a greater understanding and willingness of many governments to think about what we will leave to future generations.
A vital understanding
The expansion of the Earth's area under protection and the increasing designation of World Heritage sites has been, and will continue to be, extremely important. But it is equally vital that understanding of the relationship between protected areas and human society, and more particularly with local communities, is increased.
It is not possible to ensure the long-term viability of protected areas without local people, whether living within them or in adjacent areas, being seriously involved in the process. The experience with this type of participatory model has expanded substantially since the last Parks Congress in 1993 in Caracas. In the past, park authorities and conservationists often only appeared to agree with people's participation; in fact, in some places this is still the case.
But now we know for a fact that the participation of the communities must start from the planning of the protected area, must be maintained during the decision-making and establishment of the area, and must continue with the management and surveillance, and more importantly, with participation in the benefits that flow from it. This is an extremely demanding process, and not all governments are willing to follow it.
An authentic participation
Authentic popular participation involves a lot of responsibility and commitment. The gap between the aspirations and the reality of a protected area is often large. There is ample evidence that many fall far short of the expectations placed on them. Economic and social pressures, pollution, mismanagement and sometimes lack of political support continue to leave protected areas vulnerable to degradation; the lack of sustainable financing is now a major concern and a threat to many of them.
The impressive expansion of protected areas indicates the increasing pressure on the Earth's resources (agriculture, forestry, mining and other forms of exploitation) and increasing threats to ecosystems. Protected areas are generally set aside to ensure that unique or biodiversity-rich areas do not fall victim to commercial use, such as logging and large-scale industrial or agricultural development.
It is true that the livelihoods of local people could be affected by the establishment of a protected area, but this difficulty can be overcome through reasonable and genuine participation. Indeed, there are numerous examples throughout the world of conservation measures that, instead of worsening living conditions, improve the livelihoods and economic position of local and indigenous people.
Unfortunately, the perception is increasingly being promoted that these areas are set aside to shut out local people and deprive them of their customary rights, simply to create playgrounds for nature lovers. That perception distorts your true justification. In some countries, local politicians and businessmen have used, or even promoted this anti-people image of protected areas in pursuit of their own interests; that is, precisely the interests against which it is necessary to protect them.
How many times do we hear the word "fence" used in this context, symbolizing the notion that these areas are to be protected from intrusion by local inhabitants! In most cases, only a small part of protected areas is kept intangible with the primary purpose of keeping wildlife inside, rather than keeping people outside.
Similarly, protected areas are commonly seen as a kind of sacrifice, a financial burden on humanity rather than a good or an asset. And yet, apart from playing a crucial role in preserving biodiversity, its role goes even further. For example, protected areas make a significant contribution to maintaining freshwater fish resources and protecting against floods; Furthermore, large cities depend on them for their drinking water supply. However, such services rarely appear on the list of national assets. In contrast, destruction is often measured as accumulated value; for example, the sale of wood when a forest is cut down.
So while we can celebrate our relative success in establishing World Heritage sites and other protected areas, we cannot afford to be complacent about their survival, as such areas will be even more important in the future.
We are faced with a collective challenge: not only to increase the number of protected areas and surface, but to ensure their viability. Through objective communication, we must advance in the understanding of the value that protected areas represent and the services they provide to society, among which the contribution to the alleviation of poverty is not the least important. This will only happen if local inhabitants become true partners and beneficiaries of protected areas, rather than being seen as its victims.
* Chief Emeka Anyaoku is President and Dr Claude Martin is Director General of WWF International.
Translated from UNEP's Our Planet magazine: special issue for the World Parks Congress.
- Sent by Cinthya Flores Mora - WWF Central America / Costa Rica
- World Wide Fund for Nature
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