But protected areas also provide a number of direct and indirect benefits to people that are becoming more widely appreciated and valued.
- Contributing to human well-being and sustainable development
Key amongst these is their role in ensuring the continued supply of a huge range of environmental goods and services that are vital for human well-being – such as the provision of food, freshwater, and medicine; climate regulation; and protection from natural disasters, to name a few.
These goods and services are particularly important for the world’s poorest people, who rely heavily on natural resources for their livelihoods, diet, and health. Degradation of environmental services is a driver of poverty and social conflict, and a significant barrier to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for eradicating poverty and hunger, improving health, and achieving environmental sustainability.
Conversely, by maintaining environmental goods and services and providing new livelihood opportunities, protected areas can help contribute towards poverty reduction and sustainable development.
In addition, threats to biodiversity – such as habitat loss, unsustainable use of natural resources, inequity, and governance problems - also often contribute to increasing poverty. Conservation efforts addressing these problems can also enhance the livelihoods of the rural poor.
- Providing cultural and spiritual benefits
Protected areas also provide recreational opportunities, as well as cultural and spiritual benefits for people around the world.
For example, biodiversity is increasingly recognized as an important part of a nation’s unique character or value, comparable with valuable cultural sites. Protected areas like Yellowstone National Park in the US or the Masai Mara in Kenya, for example, have the same resonance in a nation’s consciousness as, say, the Taj Mahal or Notre Dame cathedral.
The protection of sacred and other spiritual sites is also important for many traditional and vulnerable societies, including many indigenous peoples.
- Future benefits?
By helping to ensure the continued existence of the wondrous array of life forms on our planet, protected areas may bring future benefits that, while impossible to foresee at the moment, could have profound implications for people around the world.
Genetic diversity, for example, is already recognized as a valuable source of as yet undiscovered medical compounds that may be useful to fight diseases such as HIV/AIDS.
And biomimicry – where scientists look to nature’s designs and processes to solve human problems – is emerging as a new source of innovative ideas and solutions.
Coral reefs are not only home to 25% of all marine life, but also provide environmental goods and services to people worth an estimated US$30 billion each year.
These include: nurseries for commericial fish species; income from fisheries and tourism; coastal protection; and medicinal compounds.
Coral reefs and their inhabitants are also intricately woven into the cultural traditions of many coastal societies around the world.
Reports describing the links between protected areas and:
Conservation and sustainable development
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) - the world’s most significant effort to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity - recognizes the links between biodiversity and sustainable development. Its Programme of Work on Protected Areas (PoWPA) aims in part to contribute to poverty reduction and the pursuit of sustainable development, and to support the objectives of the MDGs.