Learning to live with "Mega" parks

Posted: 7 August 2003

Author: Curtis Runyan

A growing number of countries - from Albania to Zimbabwe - are now linking up their parklands with protected areas in neighbouring nations to make "transboundary" parks. But the process is not always welcome, as Curtus Runyan reports

The number of protected areas that bridge international borders has more than doubled in the last decade, from 59 in 1988 to more than 169 in 2001. But with the growing number of "mega" parks, many local communities are calling for more of a say in how protected areas are managed - and for a larger share of the benefits.

"In a lot of places, rural people watch foreigners coming in and doing cool things in parks near their homes," said Dr Kenton Miller, vice president for conservation at the World Resources Institute. "But then those people leave with all of their bills charged on their credit cards and the local people get nothing. That needs to change."

Dr Miller is chairing the World Parks Congress - a once every decade gathering of park officials, conservation groups, scientists, and others - which will take place in Durban from September 8 to 17. The congress will focus on how protected areas can provide benefits both for plants and animals and for neighboring communities.

Protecting habitats

Parklands provide a host of ecological, economic, cultural, spiritual, and political benefits. And transboundary parks, with their greater size and political support, frequently amplify those benefits. For example, international parks often provide crucial habitat to many species by breaking down artificial barriers to migration and bringing together fragments of protected land. (Habitat loss is the largest threat to biodiversity, and creating interconnected islands of parkland may be crucial to the survival of many species.)

They also protect more of the natural watersheds that supply water to urban areas, bring jobs and money from tourism, and facilitate cooperation and good will between governments. International parks are often referred to as "peace parks" for their role in strengthening relationships between nations.

With the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the end of civil war in Angola and Mozambique, there has been a flourishing of transboundary parks in southern Africa. In 2001, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa officially linked up the Gonarezhou, Limpopo, and Kruger national parks. The result is the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which, at 35,000 square kilometers, is larger than Switzerland.

© World Resources Institute

Supporting communities

But the sometimes-disruptive history of parks in Africa functions as a lingering source of local concern. In colonial times, many people were relocated from their traditional lands - often without compensation - to make way for a number of parks and reserves. Today, local people fear that creating the wildlife corridors and connections needed to link up protected areas between countries may cause additional dislocations.

"I am not opposed to the transboundary concept, but many of these parks don't work to support local communities," said Mutuso Dhliwayo, head of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association. "The communities near the parks are the most important stakeholders - they face all of the problems of living near a park, they should get benefits as well."

Dhliwayo is planning to take his message to the World Parks Congress in September. As transboundary protected areas increase in size and number, more and more communities stand to be affected. Local communities must have a role in managing resources and gathering revenue from tourism dollars, he says.

Dhliwayo is likely to find a receptive audience at the congress, which is focusing on how to produce benefits beyond the boundaries of protected areas. "Some parks are designed with the idea of protecting biodiversity; others are managed to help benefit the communities that live near the borders - you know, with eco-tourism and the like. Both are legitimate uses. It's up to us to find the right balance," said Dr Miller.

An important way to do this is to give neighboring communities a stake in protected areas. "We need to vastly expand the number of people who will care for these parks, including indigenous folks and local residents," said Dr Miller. "If the Massai could get an equitable share of the money that comes through their parks, they would be one of the wealthiest communities in the world."

Curtis Runyan is the managing editor of WRI Features, a monthly international features service on environment and development issues, from which this article originated.