Protected Areas or Paper Parks?

Posted on June, 01 2000

The realization that our efforts to protect what we have not yet destroyed are something of a success story. Although sadly, the gap between the aspiration behind protected areas and the reality of their management is often embarrassingly wide
Gland, Switzerland: Most of the news we read about the environment is bad. Almost every day, it seems, come reports of disappearing forests, the destruction of wetlands, the death of coral reefs and so on. We hear repeatedly of threats to the tiger, the whales, the elephants, this or that plant or bird - and we know that every year species most of us might never have heard of fade into extinction.

These are serious matters, of course, and we need to be concerned about them, to try to reverse unhealthy trends and to stop the growing toll of damage we so carelessly do to the world about us. Yet when we look at our planet, the news really is not all bad. Sometimes, human endeavour and intervention in the natural world do yield positive results and - while we must never be complacent and always remain aware of our destructive power - we could perhaps once in a while allow ourselves a little pat on the back for the wonderful natural inheritance we are taking into the new millennium.

This was brought home to me a few weeks ago when I attended a conference in Bangkok. During my visit, I discovered for the first time the magical wildlife sanctuary of Huay Kha Khaeng, in western Thailand. It is a sizeable tropical moist forest close to the Myanmar border, covering 2,500 square kilometres of hilly terrain that is barely accessible by road. The sanctuary, where the conservation organization WWF runs an education project with young Buddhist monks, may well be the only hope for the Indochina tiger in Thailand. It also harbours a notable Asian elephant population and, among much other wildlife, no fewer than three different large bovine species: the gaur, the banteng and the wild buffalo.

Huay Kha Khaeng is a place we can be proud of, a rare intact sample of the former jungles of Indochina we have managed to preserve. And it is not alone. At this moment in history the world has 44,000 protected areas, covering in all a surface greater than the combined territories of India and China, or a total of almost 10 per cent of the land area on the planet. What is more, 45 per cent of this total - that is, about six million square kilometres - is classified as nature reserves and national parks, which means it is strictly protected.

Even during the past decade, alongside steady growth in environmental anxiety and accumulating evidence of the risks of climate change, the area classified under the six categories of protected areas recognized by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) has increased exponentially. This fact prompts two thoughts.

First, it is a clear indication of the increasing pressure on land from agriculture, forestry, mining and other forms of exploitation and of the multiplying threats to ecosystems. Second, though, comes the realization that our efforts to protect what we have not yet destroyed are something of a success story, because they show a willingness among many governments to think of what we will leave to future generations.

Of course, this does not mean that everything in the garden is lovely, so to speak. The gap between the aspiration behind protected areas and the reality of their management is often embarrassingly wide - there is ample evidence that many protected areas are falling far short of the expectations placed upon them. Economic and social pressures, pollution, poor management techniques and sometimes a lack of political support all continue to leave protected areas vulnerable to degradation.

So even if we can celebrate our relative success in establishing protected areas, we cannot afford to be complacent about their survival. And, such places will be of greater importance in the future than they have been in the past. Protected areas fulfil a crucial role in the preservation of biodiversity and as a pool of animal and plant species - not least those species that have medicinal properties. They also contribute greatly to the maintenance of fresh water resources and protection against flooding, with even big cities relying on them for the integrity of their water supplies.

How often do you see the practical services of protected areas listed as assets in national accounts? Destruction is often measured in terms of the value accruing when, say, a forest is cut, but protected areas are most commonly considered as a kind of sacrifice, a financial burden on humanity rather than an asset. It is true that the livelihoods of indigenous people may be affected by the establishment of a protected area - and very many of them are in inhabited regions - but this is a difficulty that can be overcome by sensible management and should not be seen, as it so often is, as an argument against protection. There are plenty of examples round the world of conservation measures that actually improve the economic position and the livelihood of native and indigenous peoples.

We may take comfort from the fact that we have made a good start, but if protected areas really are to serve the purpose for which they are intended, we must learn to understand them, promote them and care for them. In short, we need to see them positively and value them properly. Otherwise, we risk being left with nothing more than "paper parks", protected areas that we piously declare but then neglect.

(914 words)