Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

If you have a moment, and wonder about whether listing important tracts of land as World Heritage sites and putting other areas under protection is worthwhile, then flick through our latest Global Environment Outlook to page 149.

Here, satellite images of Iguazu National Park in Argentina on the border with Brazil – covering 1973 and 2000 – present a compelling argument.

On the right of a squiggly black line marking the frontier of the Park – in the protected area of this World Heritage site – much of one of the last remnants of the highly endangered Paranaense forest remains intact: it is a haven for 68 species of mammals, 38 of reptiles and 18 of amphibians, many of which are threatened or vulnerable. On the left – in the unprotected area – heavy logging and land clearance have denuded it. The modern growth of protected areas across the world is one of the environmental movement’s great success stories. From the establishment in 1872 of Yellowstone National Park in the United States, the number of protected areas has mushroomed to more than 102,000 covering over 18.8 million square kilometres, or more than 12.6 per cent of the Earth’s land surface. It is an area bigger than India and China combined. Protected areas cover an area greater than that under permanent arable crops. Meanwhile the number of specially safeguarded natural World Heritage sites has climbed to 149 worldwide.

Key targets
But the story is not over and there is still much to do. Currently less than 1 per cent of the marine environment is under protected area status. Given the importance of the coastal zone for fisheries and tourism, this is a failing we must urgently address – not least because establishing an effective system of marine protected areas by 2015 is among the key targets and timetables in the Plan of Implementation of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

Other crucial issues on the table this September at the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress in Durban, Republic of South Africa, include how to improve financing so as to improve management of protected areas, particularly in developing countries. Delegates are also focusing on Africa and the environmental component of the New Partnership for African Development. One key issue is the damage being caused by alien species such as water hyacinth, Nile cabbage and the Kariba weed: some experts estimate that the damage to Africa’s wetlands alone – in dwindling fisheries for example – may be running into billions of dollars annually.

Major contributions
UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre is making two major contributions to the Congress: the United Nations List of Protected Areas, and a draft assessment entitled the State of the World’s Protected Areas.

We are also concerned that protected areas could become islands in a sea of environmental degradation, even where – as in many regions – they are working well to conserve waterways, wildlife upon which local people depend for food and medicines, and other so called ‘ecosystem services’.

The challenge is to link them more widely into the broader thrust of sustainable development so that good management does not remain isolated but guides the management of land beyond the borders of parks and reserves. Here we will need greater awareness and bolder, stronger partnerships between local people and communities including indigenous people, local, regional and national governments, donors and organizations like UNEP and IUCN – The World Conservation Union.

Income generation
The ability of protected areas to help the fight against poverty and deliver sustainable development cannot be overestimated.

Costa Rica’s protected areas, for example, help to generate well over $300 million from tourism every year. Within three years of St Lucia’s fishing grounds being listed as ‘no take zones’ in 1995, commercially important stocks had doubled in the adjacent waters, generating valuable exports for the country and a source of important protein for its people.

Meanwhile the United Nations Foundation – whose sister body, the Better World Fund, has generously sponsored this issue of Our Planet – has become the first funding organization to designate the elite World Heritage sites as the explicit focus of its biodiversity work. The increased resources and vigour that it has brought to safeguarding them offers hope that there will be more success stories like the Iguazu National Park


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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: