For sustainable conservation

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

The Fifth World Parks Congress in Durban adopts for the management for Protected Areas an age-old principle - if they are to survive and thrive, they must bring tangible benefits to the communities that rely on them.

recently in Durban

WITH its emphasis on community management of protected areas and its theme, Benefits Beyond Boundaries, the World Parks Congress seemed to have come full circle at its fifth congress in Durban in September to a system of management that used to be accepted wisdom for centuries. That is, if protected areas (P.A.s) are to survive and thrive they must bring tangible benefits to communities that rely on them.

The cornerstone of the conservation movement, the creation of P.A.s, has often had a negative impact on the livelihoods of people. The challenge before the congress delegates was to focus attention on the relationship between P.A.s and poverty; and to attempt to find innovative ways to prevent the destruction of two extremely vulnerable groups - indigenous people and wildlife.

Mike Leach, the chief of the Tit'qet St'at'imc Nation tribe in Canada was one of the prominent speakers at the congress. As one of the affected people (his land had been acquired by the government), chief Leach expressed a deep understanding of issues, some of which unfortunately went unconsidered by the congress. "It is sad that we now have to have a term - community-oriented conservation - for something that used to come to all of us naturally. Man has many unfair advantages now over his environment. We see ourselves as separate from the environment and in our arrogance we impose on other living beings. We are changing at such a phenomenal rate that we have forgotten that other living creatures still accept the pace of nature and of gradual evolution. We believe it to be our right that we are first in the order of things. We forget our place... We forget our sacred knowledge and lands. When this sacred trust is violated, we have to create what we call protected areas."

Prioritising human needs and the needs of the larger ecology is a difficult balancing act and the congress sought to address both needs. Summing up the two impractical approaches that have been in use until now, Mohammed Valli Moosa, South Africa's Minister of Environmental Affairs, said: "On the one hand, there were those who supported the plunder of natural resources for short-term gains, while others sought to place natural refuges beyond the reach of most human beings."

With about 2,700 delegates attending, the congress is the world's biggest gathering of conservationists and is held every 10 years. More than 200 discussions were held during the congress, which was organised by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). It culminated in the Durban Accord, a 14-point Action Plan, a set of 32 specific recommendations and a message to the Seventh Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which will meet in February 2004. Although not legally binding, the Accord and Action Plan, a technical document that aims to provide policy-makers with key targets and timetables, seeks to lead the P.A. agenda through to the next decade.

A study presented to the congress say that 700 endangered species live in areas that have no protection. The IUCN and the Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science, which commissioned the study, said there was a need to set aside more land for conservation or there would be a wave of extinctions. However, the congress recognised that P.A.s cannot exist in isolation from surrounding land and seascapes or from the livelihood activities they provide.

Just as it is the case with much else in South Africa, conservation too is a deeply political issue, inextricably linked to apartheid. In the country, politics and history have been more closely woven with nature reserves than possibly anywhere else in the world. So, in the South African context, the new approach towards involving people is definitely a liberal move.

Cedric Coetzee, general manager, Coastal Development of Ezemvelo Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) Wildlife, gave a graphic description of the apartheid era of conservation. "Protected areas were seen as a white man's playground. We were seen as putting up fences, coming in fancy cars. Local residents would throw rocks at us, shoot at us. We had to travel in a convoy of at least two cars and always ensure that we arrived during daylight." Those days, says Coetzee, are long past. "Addressing the shortcomings of the past," as Moosa described it, have considerably diluted the old resentments and local people are now an integral part of nature reserves.

COMMUNITY involvement in P.A.s is not a new idea in India. Middle-of-the-road conservationists believe that community management does have a place in the Indian context and often hold up the village of Mendha-Lekha as an instance of successful community intervention in natural resources management. Situated in Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district the village of the Gond tribal group has a total area of about 1,900 hectares, of which about 1,800 ha is dense forest. The story of the residents fight for forest management and tribal self-rule began in the 1970s when they successfully opposed the construction of two dams. The Jungle Bachao, Manav Bachao Andolan (a campaign to save the jungle and its people) decided that the people would meet their domestic (but not commercial) requirements from the forest without paying any fee to the Forest Department. The Andolan set its own rules prohibiting commercial activity by any outsider unless sanctioned by the gram sabha. All extraction of forest produce, even by villagers, was strictly supervised by village patrols. Simultaneously conservation efforts were initiated. In 1992, when the State adopted the Joint Forest Management Scheme, local Van Suraksha Committees were formed, assuming that the community was responsible for the health of the forest. Mendha-Lekha's residents were keen to have a formal committee, but the scheme was tailored more for areas with degraded forest. However, their persistence paid off and Mendha-Lekha became the first village with standing forests in the State to be a part of Joint Forest Management.

Despite the positive energy that was generated by the congress, one issue remained a hurdle. For P.A.s to survive and meeting their objectives of sustaining biodiversity and livelihood requirements, financial support is crucial. Ironically, it is the countries with the highest biodiversity that face the greatest financial challenge. The managers of these P.A.s are forced to press their resources into generating more revenue, thereby starting the vicious circle of degrading the very area that they are meant to preserve. In its bid to balance commerce and conservation, the congress supported the idea of ecotourism. While ecotourism has been successful in some parts of the world, it has not had a favourable track record in India. Les Carlisle, environment manager for the Conservation Corporation Africa, one of Africa's comprehensive ecotourism companies, said, "We are presenting a model for Africa. Ecotourism is not a panacea for the rest of the world."

In many places ecotourism has contributed to the trivialisation of social and cultural systems, threatened biodiversity and caused pollution. Eugenio Yunis, who heads the Sustainable Development of Tourism of the World Tourism Organisation, said that there was tremendous potential for the industry to provide employment to the unskilled workforce, saying "poverty is the biggest threat to conservation" and poverty alleviation would greatly relieve the pressure on P.A.s. Yunis pointed out to the availability of universal guidelines such as the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism and the IUCN's Sustainable Tourism in P.A.s: Guidelines for Planning and Management.

A significant breakthrough at the congress related to bringing the hard-line extraction industry to the table to discuss the impact of mining on P.A.s. The role of governments in regulating extraction processes cannot be overstated. One government that has consciously avoided mining natural resources is that of Costa Rica. Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the Costa Rican Minister for Environment and Energy, firmly believes that "the value of biodiversity is higher than gold or oil" and the country is determined to continue its investment on tourism-oriented national growth. Costa Rica, however, is a radical exception. Most countries give precedence to resource-extraction-related revenues.

GIVEN the fact that mining is the most ecologically damaging commercial activity, that latest session of the congress was predictably the most explosive. When Adrian Loader, Director of Strategic Planning at Shell, United Kingdom, put forward Shell's newer, softer stance by saying, "We don't want to leave dust in the oceans and skin on the earth for our children. As good divers say `leave nothing but bubbles. Take nothing but memories'," he raised the hackles of more than one conservationist. Coming, as his statement did, from one of the world's largest oil extracting companies, the quote prompted a conservationist from Wilderness Australia to remind the Shell executive of the tragic case of the Nigerian activist Ken Saro Wiwa, who was executed by his government in 1986. Saro Wiwa was arrested after he protested Shell's commercial activities in Nigeria, which he said, were damaging to the country's larger interests. International activists believe that Shell could have intervened to save his life.

The conflict that is bound to arise from extraction interests was summed up by Christine Milne, IUCN councillor, when she predicted that "future allocation of land use would be the fundamental conflict between conservationists and mining companies". Since none of the agreements struck at the congress is binding on any government, it is uncertain how seriously the mining industry would take them. Sir Robert Wilson, chief executive of Rio Tinto, a mining company seemed to speak for the industry when he asserted confidently: "For better or for worse the industry is here to stay. Without economic development there will be no poverty alleviation." The challenge ahead is clearly to ensure that people's needs are met while protecting the world's environmental heritage.

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