Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Call to Protect Nature’s Wealth: The World Parks Congress

“We are not protecting nature from people but for people,” said Yolande Kokabadse, president, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at the opening session of the September 2003 World Parks Congress.
Almost 3000 delegates from157 nations came to this meeting in Durban, South Africa where they assessed the global status and critical issues facing protected areas (PAs). The conference theme - Benefits beyond Boundaries - provided the framework within which these delegates developed an agenda for managing protected areas during the next decade and beyond.
Achim Steiner, director general, IUCN celebrated “... one of the world’s intergenerational gifts,” that 10% of the world’s land mass was in protected areas. Unfortunately, these areas were often “paper parks,” underfunded or fragmented. The park management had to be strengthened (capacity building); and protected areas had to be expanded so the worldwide loss of biodiversity (extinction of plant and animal species) could be stopped. Although 25 biological hotspots were already designated for protection, participants called for gap analysis to assess where biodiversity needed to be protected. Freshwater, coastal, and mountain ecosystems were in trouble; and, since only 1% of the oceans were in marine reserves, this was a major concern.
Biodiversity and natural ecosystems were declining due to alien species, pollution, poverty, unsustainable consumption, armed conflict and climate change. “This could precipitate a crisis for all mankind,” wrote Kofi Annan, director general, United Nations, in a message delivered to the Congress. Why? “Because all humanity depends on biodiversity for health.”
Park managers, representatives of indigenous groups and NGO environmentalists spoke of the significance of nature as a refuge, a sacred place, a beautiful place that inspired humans and sustained cultures. But they acknowledged that most of the world’s citizens lived in cities, without easy access to wild green places. Therefore, in order to persuade government leaders and the public to conserve biodiversity, they must communicate its great economic value:
- Natural areas supply natural resources (such as wood, minerals, and fuels) that are the raw materials for economic development.
- Oceans sustain fish; and the grasslands serve as grazing areas for cattle and wild animals that are consumed as food.
- Prairies and untamed environments provide livelihoods for indigenous and rural communities.

- Wild plants, animals and microbes are the source of foods, medicines and other commodities of world trade.
- Biodiversity offers genetic resources, the basis of biotechnology. That is why some
speakers referred to tropical forests, with their wealth of biodiversity, as “future pharmacies.”
Conference participants emphasized that, in addition to individual species, ecosystems- communities of plants, animals and microbes that interact- were vital. Ecosystems regulate the chemistry of the atmosphere, soil, and water, so they are the life support system of the planet.
Unfortunately, most economists, politicians, and the public thought of ecosystems services (also called nature’s services) as “free services,” so natural areas were undervalued. However, ecosystems give humans many economic benefits:
- Wetlands serve as nurseries for ocean fish so they sustain commercial fisheries.
- Wetlands also prevent flooding and clean up pollution.
- Forests serve as watersheds, protecting the water supply.
- Tropical forests, but also grasslands and oceans, act as carbon sinks, thus slowing global warming.
- Coastal wilderness prevents disasters by shielding inland areas from storm surges and flooding.
- National parks and other wilderness are favored destinations for tourism.
Delegates concluded that the monetary benefits of natural ecosystems, would be a powerful incentive for politicians and the public to conserve biodiversity and protect natural areas.
A variety of actions to conserve nature’s wealth were announced at the World Parks Congress:
- BP and Shell Oil Company agreed not drill for oil in World Heritage Sites.
- Madagascar and Brazil established huge natural reserves.
- Limpopo Transboundary Park - with corridors that connect national parks in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique - would allow elephants to migrate and promote peace between these nations.
- The World Bank, United Nations Environment Program and United Nations Development Program would partner on meeting Millennium Goals for sustainable development. - Former South African President Nelson Mandela called for much greater involvement of youth in programs for protected areas.
- Conference documents including: “Recommendations,” “The Durban Accord,” The Durban Action Plan,” “The Durban Consensus on African Protected Areas for the New Millennium,” the “Message to the Convention on Biological Diversity,” and “Emerging Issues,” would inform decision makers about crucial issues and offer strategies to conserve the world’s natural heritage.

Notable Quote:
“Nature is most important for sustainable development. More important than infrastructure or finance. What we are doing here is not marginal, but for development and peace in the world.”
Dr. Klaus Toepfer, director, United Nations Environment Program, World Parks Congress September 7-17, 2003 Durban, South Africa

By Isabel Abrams

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