Will there still be national parks in another decade?

23 April 2001 In the new Ecosystems, Protected Areas and People project, UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere (MAB) programme joins with IUCN’s World Commission On Protected Areas (WCPA), the World Resources Institute (WRI) and other interested agencies to chart the future for protected areas and debate whether national parks will survive into the next decade.

To many people, calling into question the survival of national parks is absurd. How can we do without them? Yet national parks are a relatively recent phenomenon – most of the world’s protected areas are less 50 years old, many of them only half that age or even less.

Chapter 2.2 of the Science Agenda on Science, Environment and Sustainable Development identifies climate variations and change, oceans, freshwater, coastal areas, biodiversity, desertification and deforestation as ‘areas requiring special attention’. It also reiterates the need for ‘the goals of the existing international global environmental research programmes to be vigorously pursued within the framework of Agenda 21 and the action plans of the global conferences.’

The global vision of reaching sustainable human development will depend on how well Earth's ecosystems are managed and maintained. They in turn rely upon biological diversity and ecological processes that make it possible for ecosystems to produce a host of goods and services. Watersheds, wetlands, estuaries, coral reefs, forests and mountains are among the places that provide these services to people. In a world that features rapid environmental change, these places require special care as a matter of urgency.

At the close of the 20th century, there were over 33,000 protected areas to manage such places. Many of these areas lack sufficient action and investment to ensure their survival even under current pressures and threats. How then will these critical areas fare in the face of anticipated challenges over forthcoming decades? Climate change, rising sea levels, fragmentation of landscape cover, invasive alien species and increased food production are some of the major challenges to the integrity of the world’s protected areas.

The Ecosystems, Protected Areas and People project will develop strategies, propose policies and suggest field practices that can assist governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and communities to ensure their national parks and other protected areas survive in the face of global change. While guidelines are being prepared by various organizations for a variety of individual management issues, this project will be comprehensive by engaging the world's protected area leaders in a process that will draw upon their field experience and the lessons they have learned to help them develop their capacity to take up the challenges of the 21st century. UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves will place a key role in this project, as they are already ‘beyond protected areas’, featuring core areas of protected land or sea surrounded by buffer and transition zones.

Peter Bridgewater, Secretary of MAB, describes the opportunity to work with the key partners as ‘an exceptional opportunity to develop new paradigms for planning and management of protected areas’. There will be five key themes: completion of the Global System of Protected Areas; understanding and preparing for global change; ensuring management effectiveness; equitable arrangements with people; and developing the capacity to manage.

Teams will be organized to address each of the five themes listed above. Managers, scientists and field workers from around the world will be invited to join these teams according to their experience and knowledge. A first draft of a report containing strategy and policy options, and proposed practices will be provided to participants at the 5th World Congress on Protected Areas in 2003. In early 2004, the published report will be distributed to Governments and Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity as a contribution to their deliberations on in situ biodiversity conservation and protected areas later that year.

Source: p.bridgewater@unesco.org