The state of things
Over the past forty years, the United Nations has identified ten times more protected areas. The UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) World Conservation Monitoring Centre counted over 102 000 land and marine sites covering almost 19 million km2, that is to say 4% of the planet and more than the surface area of China and India put together. However, less than 1 % of the surface of seas and oceans is protected. (1)
The Greenland park is still the largest in the world (970 000 Km2), followed by the Ar-Rub’al Khali area in Saudi Arabia (640 000 km2) then the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in Australia (345 000 km2).
Europe is the continent with the most protected areas (43 000); Asia has 18 000; North America; Australia 9000 and Africa 6990. But, proportionally, Central America and South America are the most protected parts of the world. (2)
A long history
The first known example of protection dates back to 252 B.C. in India, when Emperor Asoka established protected areas for mammals, birds, fish and forests. The oldest national park is Yellowstone, in the Northwest of the United States created in 1872 with a surface area of 8 983 Km². It is now part of the biosphere reserves network.
The first parks were created for preservation purposes (to maintain an earlier state). Others were created as hunting reserves. Now, the conservation aspect which is in line with sustainable development is privileged: ensuring the resource’s durability for future generations. (3)
People have also become aware of the value of ecosystems. (4) This value is cultural, social and scientific as well as economic. The World Resource Institute thus also estimates that over a billion people rely on protected forests for their livelihood, amongst other examples. In Cambodia, 20 to 58% of the inhabitants’ daily resources come from protected mangroves, especially for the poorest populations. [see debate]
With Man or against Man
In the past, those who protect nature have often considered those who inhabit the regions that need to be protected (often the local populations), as obstacles. (5) The Kruger park, the largest park in Africa is a typical example. Its founder, Stevenson-Hamilton, had all the tribes living in the protected land evicted. Others were evicted when the park was extended.
Environmentalists now include Man in their projects, to be realistic both because deserted land is more vulnerable to poaching but also because they have understood that many “wild” or “virgin” landscapes have in fact been forged by man interacting with nature for thousands of years. Involving populations in protecting their environment is much more effective. UNESCO is one of the pioneers of « participative » measures and it created the Man and Biosphere program in 1970. (6)
Past mistakes must now be corrected. The Makulekes, evicted from the North of the Kruger during Apartheid managed to get part of their land back and be involved in the park’s economic exploitation, particularly by managing tourist houses. (7) In Kenya, the former Amboseli national park was retroceded to the Masais. [See debate]
As it is not possible to protect the entire planet, are there some places that are essential for biodiversity? In 1988, Norman Myers and other scientists developed the concept of biodiversity « hot spots ». He identified 34 on the whole planet. Together, they only represent 2.3 % of the globe’s surface area but they are home to over 50 % of all plants and 42 % of all vertebrates, for example. (8)
What should be protected?
Specialists are now discussing how to protect biodiversity. Overall, they agree that whole ecosystems should be protected as opposed to such and such a species, which, taken out of its environment would have very little chance of survival. However, certain species that play an important part in the ecosystem (they are called keystone species) or are media-friendly (thus allowing a lot of funds to be raised to protect a whole ecosystem) can be favoured.
Creating a protected area does not automatically ensure the survival of the species living in it. Poaching, biopiracy, illegal buildings, illegal forest exploitation etc. can always threaten them. This is particularly true in areas where the State cannot afford to provide effective control. This is obviously the case in areas of conflict, like the Virunga park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the Rwandan and Ugandan border. (9) This is also the case of large areas in the most developed countries, like French Guyana: its natural reserves and its national park are not very controlled and two guards were killed in 2006. (10)
Different types of protection
There are many different types of protection status. One can broadly identify zones protected by specific regulation which limits or forbids certain human activities (classified sites, national parks), protected areas protected by land management (land acquisition like the Conservatoire du littoral (“Coastal protection agency”) in France for example), and spaces which have to yield a certain result but can operate freely (French regional nature parks or Natura 2000 sites in Europe). (11)
There are two cases: the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage sites, 174 of which are of natural interest. The first were the Galapagos Island in 1978. Often, they are remarkable sites which were lived on, exploited and protected by local populations, like the Lapland region in Sweden, where the Saamis breed reindeer or the Uluru-Kata Tjuta park, on which the Aborigines lived. 17 sites are now considered to be in danger. (12)
As for Natura 2000, it is a European network established in 1992 by a text known as the Habitats Directive. (13) The project is running late, and the European Commission has even had to reprimand France and Poland.
(10) RFI Forêt guyanaise