What We Need from the World Parks Congress

A fishermen in Cape Range National Park, Western Australia. (© Jeff Yonover)

A fisherman in Cape Range National Park, Western Australia. (© Jeff Yonover)

I’m in Sydney, Australia, reporting from the World Parks Congress (WPC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a once-a-decade event that focuses on the global importance of protected areas. This important gathering brings scientists, government representatives and conservationists together to discuss how best to protect the Earth’s most important lands and waters.

Protected areas come in many forms — national parks, nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, etc. — and for more than 50 years, the WPC has played a critical role in their creation.

Here’s a brief history:

1962, Seattle, Washington: The first WPC meeting put protected areas on the global agenda.

1972, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: On the 100th anniversary of the creation of this first-ever national park, the congress highlighted the fact that more support was needed for protected areas in developing countries.

1982, Bali, Indonesia: This gathering — the first that I attended — was particularly momentous in that it set a target to protect 10% of the Earth’s surface in parks and reserves over the next decade, up from the previous goal of 4%. This was considered an almost unattainable goal at the time,

1992, Caracas, Venezuela: By this congress, we had reached 11%. This meeting also demonstrated that protected areas were well established in most countries, and needed more support as part of a sustainable development agenda.

2003, Durban, South Africa: The resulting Durban Declaration was instrumental in introducing the Program of Work on Protected Areas into the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the global treaty that focuses on maintaining the full range of life on Earth. Durban was also noteworthy in that one of the few heads-of-state to attend, recently elected Marc Ravalomanana of Madagascar, made a historic commitment to triple protected area coverage in his critically important country over the next five years — an ambitious goal that was sadly not met. Ravalomanana’s successor, President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, is planning to attend the Sydney WPC and will hopefully reiterate the 2003 commitment.

A forest in Madagascar. (© Conservation International/photo by Curan Bonham)

A forest in Madagascar. (© Conservation International/photo by Curan Bonham)

So where are we in 2014? We live in a time when the natural world is more under the gun than ever, yet there is also an increasing recognition of the fact that nature needs to be central to long-term sustainable development and human well-being.

Indeed, as CI’s new Nature Is Speaking campaign emphasizes, “Nature doesn’t need people.” It will continue moving forward and evolving as it always has. However, “People need nature” — and without a major portion of the natural world maintained intact, it will be increasingly difficult for people to live quality lives in a world with an additional 2 billion people and dramatically increasing levels of consumption.

As a long-term advocate for protected areas, I spent 25 years as the president of an organization that has placed great emphasis on working with a host of countries to create new protected areas in high-priority, under-represented portions of our planet. Thus far, CI has helped protect almost 3.4 million square kilometers (more than 1.3 million square miles) of land and sea.

With nearly 6,000 people attending the WPC in Sydney, there will be many agendas pushed and a large number of issues highlighted. But for me, three priorities emerge as fundamental.

1. Changing the scale of protection

When we first moved the bar from 4% to 10% in 1982, protected areas were still seen as little enclaves of nature and somewhat outside the mainstream of sustainable development. By the 2010 meeting of the CBD in Nagoya, Japan, we had begun to see them in a different light — as essential reservoirs of natural capital that conserve biodiversity and ensure the continued flow of ecosystem services essential for our own survival (fresh water, climate regulation, disaster prevention and many others).

In Nagoya, CI pushed hard for an ambitious expansion of protected areas as part of the 20 Aichi Biodiversity Targets for 2020 that emerged from this conference. Our goals were the protection of 25% of land and 15% of the oceans. Alas, given the usual political wrangling at such conferences, we only got a rather unambitious 17% on land and a somewhat more aspirational 10% of the oceans once the deal-making was done.

Parallel to this, there has been a movement known as “Nature Needs Half,” which holds that half the natural world needs to be protected to maintain biodiversity and ecological processes. This movement could just as easily be called “People Need Half,” since that’s what it ultimately comes down to.

CI has been involved in many efforts to change the scale of protected areas since its creation in 1987, and several really stand out in this regard. One is the Guiana Shield of northern South America, the most intact part of Amazonia and indeed the area of most intact tropical rainforest on Earth. There, working with the governments of Brazil, Suriname and Guyana, we have helped to protect millions of hectares of some of the most pristine rainforest on Earth, essential for climate mitigation and provision of freshwater resources that could ultimately benefit the entire planet.

Essequibo River in Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

Essequibo River in Guyana. (© Pete Oxford/iLCP)

In the ocean, we have pioneered a major change in scale in protecting the planet’s largest biome. In the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, beginning with the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador and extending up the Colombian and Panamanian coasts as far north as Costa Rica, we have worked with governments to create marine protected areas covering 170,000 square kilometers (nearly 66,000 square miles) of the 2 million-square-kilometer (770,000-square-mile) seascape, serving as a global model.

On the western side of the Pacific, we have gone even further with the Pacific Oceanscape, a multinational ocean management framework agreed to by 23 island nations and several overseas territories to work to protect nearly 40 million square kilometers (over 15 million square miles) — an area larger than the surface of the moon. Thus far, nearly 3 million square kilometers (a little over 1 million square miles) have been protected or are in the process of being protected.

These island nations — including Kiribati, the Cook Islands, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and others — have traditionally been referred to as “Small Island Developing States.” But thanks to commitments that they have been making in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs), some of which are enormous, we are starting to perceive them more accurately as “Large Ocean States.”

Staghorn coral in the Marshall Islands. (© Andre Seale/Marine Photobank)

Staghorn coral in the Marshall Islands. (© Andre Seale/Marine Photobank)

The commitments that some of these governments have made are truly amazing and historic. The country of Kiribati, with a land area of only 811 square kilometers (313 square miles — about four times the size of Washington, D.C.), created a 408,250 square-kilometer (157,626 square-mile) reserve called the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA), an area the size of California. PIPA was quickly added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, becoming the largest and deepest World Heritage Site on Earth. As if that were not impressive enough, the Government of Kiribati announced this summer that it will close the entire protected area to commercial fishing on January 1, 2015.

Not to be outdone, several other island nations and territories are following suit, most notably the Cook Islands, now in the process of creating a more than 1.1 million-square-kilometer (425,000-square-mile) marine protected area, and the French territory of New Caledonia, which created the 1.3 million-square-kilometer (more than 500,000-square-mile) Natural Park of the Coral Sea, more than three times the size of Germany. And more is yet to come.

Thanks to these amazing commitments, we have gone from less than 1% in marine protected areas in 2010 to about 3% now — still a long way from the 10% laid out in the Aichi Targets, but great progress nonetheless.

2. Indigenous and Community Owned Areas (ICCAs)

I would also like to see much greater emphasis on what have been called ICCAs, managed areas of many different kinds that have been and are being created and run by indigenous people and local communities. As indigenous peoples and other local communities become more empowered, they have begun to take on the task of protecting their traditional lands.

Where there were only a handful of examples of this a decade ago, there are now many excellent examples, including the 6,000-square-kilometer (2,300-square-mile) Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area in southern Guyana, in the hands of 300 Wai Wai people, and the Virginia-sized 115,000-square-kilometer (44,000-square-mile) Kayapó Indigenous Territory in the southern Brazilian Amazon, managed by 6,000 Kayapó people.

As indicated above, the Aichi Target for Protected Areas (Target 11) set a goal of going from 13 to 17% by 2020 (and we are now over 15%), But if we include ICCAs, which currently cover about 12-13% of the world’s land, we see that roughly 27-28% of the land is under some form of protection. This clearly indicates that the Aichi Target was very low and that we are already starting to inch toward that 50% target implied in “Nature Needs Half.”

3. Protected Areas Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD)

The third major priority that I would like to see emerge from the World Parks Congress is a focus on a new initiative entitled called PADDD, pioneered by Mike Mascia, CI’s senior director for social science.

This very important effort highlights that fact that you can’t just create a protected area and expect it to be maintained intact in perpetuity. Indeed, for decades we have been talking about the problem of “paper parks,” protected areas that exist as lines on a map but in fact are not fully implemented on the ground, or not implemented at all.

We fully believe that “paper parks” are better than nothing. They are in fact a first step. Through our Global Conservation Fund, we have not only worked with many governments to create new protected areas, we have also created major trust funds to ensure that they have the resources needed to be effectively managed. A total of 22 such funds totaling more than US $45 million help finance 92 protected areas.

However, the PADDD initiative has focused on an increasing trend for protected areas to be eliminated outright, either through downsizing or degazettement (loss of legal status) by the country that created them in the first place. We found at least 2,000 such cases in 74 countries.

Serious degradation, either through ineffective management or outright corruption, is also a huge issue. One example, highlighted in Showtime’s documentary series “Years of Living Dangerously,” is Sumatra’s Tesso Nilo National Park, which Harrison Ford and I visited as part of the award-winning television project. This park was created a little over a decade ago to protect rapidly declining populations of Sumatran tiger and Asian elephant, and it included some of the best tracts of tropical forest on the island.

Batang Gadis National Park, North Sumatra. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Batang Gadis National Park, North Sumatra. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

However, over the past couple of years, 80% of it has been destroyed to make way for oil palm plantations, all of this under the nose of the Jakarta government where then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had put in place a two-year ban on all deforestation, whether in a protected area or not.

Coming out of Sydney, we need the global community to understand the urgent need to increase the scale of protection, the essential role that indigenous and local communities must play in this process, and the importance of effective management for protected areas, as well as a long-term commitment to maintaining them once created.

Finally, I feel strongly that we also need additional research focusing on how much of the planet we need to protect to ensure long-term sustainability and well-being for both people and nature. We are creeping toward that arbitrarily selected target of half, but is that even enough in the face of a rapidly growing human population and ever-increasing resource demand? We just don’t know.

Now is the time to get a handle on this critical issue, because, as our good friend Tom Friedman often says, “Later will be too late.” Let’s hope that the Sydney World Parks Congress helps to move us quickly in that direction.

Russ Mittermeier was president of Conservation International from 1989–2014 and is now executive vice chair of the organization. He has long been involved in the creation of new parks and reserves in some of the highest priority areas on Earth. He also worked with the IUCN for more than 40 years.

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