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Catch-22: Protected Areas and the Future of Life on Earth

Dudley, Nigel 12/20/2010

Protected areas don’t work — but they’re the only thing that does work. Anyone with more than a casual interest in conservation could be forgiven for getting confused.

Protected areas don’t work because, while they are the main tool used to protect biodiversity, biodiversity remains in crisis, with extinction rates accelerating. Species are disappearing even inside protected areas. Furthermore, well-publicised cases tell of human communities being dispossessed of land and rights to create protected areas. Critics, including some conservationists, question the whole approach and suggest instead “mainstreaming conservation” within the wider landscape.

But protected areas are the only thing that does work because, of all the environmental targets set by the Millennium Development Goals and the Convention on Biological Diversity, creation and management of protected areas stand out as atypically successful; not perfect, but a beacon of light in a depressing picture of loss. Plans for “mainstreaming” conservation remain vague and often themselves reliant on the survival of natural ecosystems to provide reservoirs of biodiversity. How to reconcile these perspectives?

To begin with, protected areas only work well if they are planned and managed well. Setting up a protected area without adequate management capacity, trained staff or equipment is a recipe for failure. Protected areas worldwide provide billions of dollars worth of ecosystem services — not to mention their biodiversity values — yet governments often invest minimal amounts in their management.

One critical element of good management is gaining public support; a park surrounded by resentful, angry people will be forever at risk. In many places, this support depends on more than just enthusiasm for nature: protected areas must show multiple benefits. Fortunately, most do. They give potable drinking water, healthy fish stocks, crop-breeding material, pharmaceuticals, protection from natural disasters and (recently noticed) vast carbon stores. They provide places to regain mental and physical health, iconic cultural treasures and sacred sites for many faith groups.

Many of these goods and services remain largely hidden, even from the people who are gaining most directly. One-third of the world’s 100 largest cities receive much of their drinking water from forest protected areas, which ensure exceptionally pure supplies. Plant-based pharmaceuticals are the basis for a multi-billiondollar- a-year industry, which is increasingly looking towards protected areas as sources of genetic material.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment estimates that 60 percent of global ecosystem services are degraded. This degradation, the report says, has “…contributed to a significant rise in the number of floods and major wildfires on all continents since the 1940s.” Natural vegetation in protected areas buffers communities against tidal surges, flooding and landslides — and these benefits are gradually becoming recognised and, through initiatives such as The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), their economic values calculated. Attitudes toward people within protected areas have also undergone a massive shift, and today many “wilderness areas” provide secure homes for otherwise threatened indigenous communities — one reason why Australian aboriginals volunteered 20 million hectares of Indigenous Protected Areas in recent years.

To be successful, protected areas also need to be integrated into wider conservation strategies. Physically isolated parks fail as often as those that are socially or politically isolated. Good protected areas function as a system rather than a series of isolated sites, buffered and interconnected by sympathetic management such as sustainable agriculture and forestry. Creating a protected area is not carte blanche for wrecking what remains outside. But neither can parks easily be replaced. While some biodiversity can be protected in plantations, farmland and urban edges, other species — and we are learning that it is often a large proportion — require natural ecosystems to survive. Recent work on links between biological complexity and resilience to climate change has increased the number of reasons for setting aside ecosystems to function as naturally as possible.

After years of working on sustainable-use issues, I switched to a focus on protected areas because I came to see them as the single most essential piece of the conservation jigsaw: often infuriating and often flawed, but at their best a demonstration of the finest in human society as well as the finest ecosystems. Given the likelihood of massive climate change and the multiple other pressures facing us, it seems certain that we will continue to lose species in the coming years. A well-functioning protectedarea system is our best chance of minimising these losses. As the Convention on Biological Diversity has just launched its renewed Programme of Work on Protected Areas, it is vital that those concerned about conservation throw their weight behind this ambitious and essential target.

Nigel Dudley is a consultant and member of the World Commission on Protected Areas. He is coeditor (with Sue Stolton) of the book Arguments for Protected Areas, bringing together a decade’s worth of research, and lead author of Natural Solutions, a report on protected areas as tools against climate change. He co-authored chapters on protected areas in two of the TEEB reports.

Image: A protected area for nesting birds at the west end of Dauphin Island, Alabama. Image credit: Catherine J. Hibbard/USFWS, via a Creative Commons license.