Parks and

Chief Emeka Anyaoku and Claude Martin
say that protected areas will only be viable if local communities benefit from them and participate in building harmony for people and nature

Protected areas now cover more of the Earth’s surface than the giant countries of India and China combined. Their numbers are still growing, as are those of the elite World Heritage sites designated for ‘outstanding natural value’. But the challenge is not just to increase their area – it is also to ensure that they are viable. And that will only happen if those who live in and around them benefit from them and, particularly, if they help to reduce poverty.

The very foundation of WWF originated in the concerns and fight for a particular area – the Coto Doñana in Spain, which was to have been drained by the Franco regime but became a national park under one of the new organization’s first projects. Protected areas have been at the heart of WWF’s activities ever since. It has been deeply involved in the planning, establishment and running of many hundreds of them. Traditionally many have been forest areas. More recently they have been increasingly joined by freshwater ecosystems and parts of the marine environment, which remains particularly under-represented in the world’s canon of protected areas and is exposed to rapidly increasing threats from coastal degradation and rampant overfishing.

Since 1961, when WWF began, the number of protected sites has increased more than tenfold while the total area protected has grown more than sevenfold. This area has continued to increase rapidly even over the past decade, alongside a steady growth in environmental anxiety and accumulating evidence of the risks of climate change. This shows that the efforts of the global conservation community to protect what we have not yet destroyed are something of a success story. It demonstrates a willingness and increasing understanding among many governments to think of what we will leave to future generations.

Vital understanding
The growth of the world’s area under protection and the increasing designation of World Heritage sites has been most important, and will continue to be so. But the increased understanding of the relationship of protected areas to human society – and more particularly to local communities – has been equally vital. We have come to realize that the long-term viability of protected areas cannot be assured without the serious involvement of local people, whether they live inside or adjacent to them. Experience with participatory models has grown further and substantially since the last World Parks Congress in Caracas in 1993. Park authorities and conservationists have in the past often paid lip service to ‘people participation’: sometimes they still do. But we now know that the participation of communities has to start with the planning of the protected area, be maintained during the phase when the decisions are being made and the area is being established, and be carried through to managing and monitoring it, and to sharing the benefits that arise from it. This is a demanding process which not all governments are willing to pursue.

Genuine people participation involves a great deal of responsibility and commitment. The gap between the aspirations behind protected areas and the reality of their management is often embarrassingly wide – there is ample evidence that many are falling far short of the expectations placed upon them. Economic and social pressures, pollution, poor management – and sometimes a lack of political support – all continue to leave protected areas vulnerable to degradation, while the lack of sustainable financing is now a major concern and a threat to many of them.

True participation
The impressive growth of protected areas clearly indicates the increasing pressure on land – from agriculture, forestry, mining and other forms of exploitation – and the multiplying threats to ecosystems. They are generally set aside to ensure that unique or biologically rich areas do not fall victim to commercial use, such as timber exploitation, industrial or large-scale agricultural development. The livelihoods of local people may, it is true, be affected by their establishment, but this difficulty can be overcome by sensible and true participation. Indeed there are many examples worldwide of conservation measures that actually improve the livelihoods and economic position of local and indigenous peoples.
There are many examples worldwide of conservation measures that actually improve the livelihoods and economic position of local and indigenous peoples
Unfortunately, the perception has been increasingly promoted that these areas are being set aside primarily to keep local people out or to deprive them of their traditional rights, just to create a playground for nature-lovers – distorting their real justification. In some countries, local politicians and dealers have used or even promoted this anti-people image of protected areas in pursuance of their own vested interests – the very interests that the areas have to be protected against. How often we hear the word ‘fence’ used in this context, symbolizing the notion that these areas are to be protected from intrusion by local people. In fact, only a tiny fraction of protected areas is fenced and, even then, this is normally to keep wildlife in, rather than people out.

Multiple assets
Similarly, protected areas are commonly considered a kind of sacrifice, a financial burden on humanity rather than an asset. But they do far more even than fulfil a crucial role in preserving biodiversity. They also contribute greatly, for example, to maintaining freshwater resources and protecting against flooding: big cities rely on them for the integrity of their water supplies. Yet such practical services are rarely listed as assets in national accounts. By contrast, destruction is often measured as accrued value, for example through the sale of timber when a forest is cut.

So, while we can celebrate our relative success in establishing World Heritage sites and other protected areas, we cannot afford to be complacent about their survival, even though they will be even more important in the future. We face a collective challenge not just to increase their number and area, but to ensure their viability. Through objective communication, we must further understanding of the value that protected areas represent, and the services they render to society, not least in contributing to reducing poverty. This will only succeed if local people become true partners and beneficiaries of protected areas, rather than being perceived as victims

Chief Emeka Anyaoku is President and Dr Claude Martin is Director General of WWF International.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Biological backbone | Benefits beyond boundaries | Common inheritance | Beauty or beast? | Wonders of the world | Protecting heritage | People | Parks and participation | At a glance: Protected Areas | Profile: Harrison Ford | Scorecard, catalyst, watershed | Coral Reef Fund | Coral jewels | Reef knots | Brief window for biodiversity | Books & products | Conservation amid conflict | News | Green, red or black? | Keeping faith with nature | Make parks not war

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on WSSD, 2002
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: