Protected areas: past, present, and future

Posted: 30 July 2003

Author: Claude Martin

This month (September) some 2,500 are gathering in Durban, South Africa, for the 5th World Parks Congress. Government authorities, park directors, conservation groups, and scientists have much to celebrate - but also much to do to ensure the continued relevance and effective protection of the world's protected areas.

The last 130 years has seen the largest conscious land use change in history. Since the creation of the world's first national park in 1872 - Yellowstone, in the US - the number of protected areas has increased to over 100,000. Their combined area represents 12 per cent of the Earth's surface, an area larger than India and China put together.

Protected areas help conserve biodiversityand natural resources.© WWF-Canon / Edward ParkerOver the same time, there has been a tremendous change in the way protected areas are perceived, created, and managed. These areas were originally land set aside for recreation and local nature conservation. Now, they are the cornerstones of national and regional conservation and development strategies. They are moving from being isolated islands to being integral parts of their surrounding landscape. Once the exclusive domain of government departments, they are now often being set up and run by local communities and indigenous people. Industry - formerly seen as the enemy - is also playing a greater role. The number of marine and freshwater protected areas is increasing, as is the number of non-traditional protected areas such as corridors, buffer zones, and no-fishing zones.

Environmental services

More and more people are realizing the value of protected areas for the important functions they perform. This includes their traditional role in providing refuges for biodiversity, but extends much further. Protected areas provide essential environmental services; maintain natural resources; shelter local cultures and spiritual sites; mitigate against long-term global threats; reduce border tensions; help reduce poverty; and provide economic benefits.

Their importance to local communities and indigenous people has moved to the forefront. While the first formal protected areas were meant for public use, this public was, in most cases, visitors who enjoyed the parks as recreational, and often hunting, areas. Little thought was given to the people who lived in or adjacent to the area, who for centuries had relied on the area's natural resources for their livelihoods. In most cases, the top-down management style of government bodies excluded, and sometimes forcefully expelled, local and indigenous people - often with disastrous consequences for their culture and quality of life.

Protect areas provide environmental servicessuch as purifying water© WWF-Canon / Juan PratginestosBut now protected areas are seen as vitally important to people - all people, and in a wide variety of ways. Some are refuges for endangered indigenous tribes, such as the Uru-eu-wau-wau of Brazil. They also protect sacred areas, such as the forests of Sakoantovo and Vohimasio in southern Madagascar. Others provide sources of employment where little else is possible, through tourism, park management, and the sustainable production and harvesting of natural products. This function makes protected areas integral to poverty reduction and national development strategies.

Community involvement

Local communities are also using protected areas to provide them with solutions to their problems. Mozambique's Quirimbas National Park, for example, was set up to help address human/elephant conflicts and improve local fisheries through the establishment of a marine sanctuary.

Concurrent with this has been a recognition that for a protected area to be successful, local communities and indigenous people must be adequately involved from the earliest planning stages. Local knowledge and traditional management practices are being included in management strategies, and a growing number of protected areas are being managed by local communities and indigenous people.

But as impressive as the growth in the number of protected areas has been, and as far as we have come in improving the way protected areas are created and managed, there is still a long way to go.

Many important ecosystems remain under-protected. This includes coastal areas and open seas, wetlands, tropical moist and dry forest, lowland temperate forests, savannah and grassland. In addition, many protected areas exist on paper only.

More work needs to be done for large-scale conservation strategies. As isolated pockets, protected areas alone cannot provide effective conservation of biodiversity, maintain viable populations of species, or provide blocks of natural habitat large enough to be resilient to long-term global threats such as climate change. Protected area networks are therefore needed to preserve entire ecoregions - large areas that contain distinct species, natural communities, and environmental conditions. Such networks include buffer zones and corridors to linked protected areas. Ecoregion conservation strategies should also include transboundary protected areas, no-take zones, and sustainable land uses outside protected areas. Protection needs to be integrated into development strategies, rather than being isolated from and thus vulnerable to such strategies.

Giant Panda. Protect areas provide shelter for endangered speciesWWF-Canon / Michel GuntherPark authorities and conservationists sometimes still only pay lip service to the participation of people in protected areas. But communities must be adequately involved with all stages of a protected area, from planning to establishment to managing and monitoring. And for the continued survival of the protected area, they must share the benefits that arise from it.

Climate threat

Broader support for protected areas is also needed. As well as local communities, indigenous people, and governments - who will continue to need to fund protected areas - wider partnerships are needed to implement protected area networks. This includes private landowners and trusts, water and energy companies, tourism enterprises, timber companies, fisheries, and development groups. A protected area will only survive if all of the people who use the wider landscape are involved in the protection process and benefit from it.

And we need to take long-term global change into account. Increased temperatures and extreme weather events resulting from climate change, for example, will place natural habitats under a large amount of stress. In conjunction with efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, strategies are needed to help protected areas cope with climate change impacts. One strategy is to have flexible boundaries for when habitats start to move due to global warming, for example.

So as we celebrate the enormous conservation achievements that have been made through protected areas, we must also keep looking ahead, to ensure that these valuable areas remain both protected and relevant.

Claude Martin is Director General at WWF International.