Goodbye national parks: when 'eternal' protected areas come under attack

Jeremy Hance
March 17, 2011

Outline of Yellowstone National Park, the world's first modern protected are, as seen by Google Earth. Yellowstone was opposed by many when it was first created including logging and mining industries.
Outline of Yellowstone National Park, the world's first modern protected are, as seen by Google Earth. Yellowstone was opposed by many when it was first created including logging and mining industries.

One of the major tenets behind the creation of a national park, or other protected area, is that it will not fade, but remain in essence beyond the pressures of human society, enjoyed by current generations while being preserved for future ones. The protected area is a gift, in a way, handed from one wise generation to the next. However, in the real world, dominated by short-term thinking, government protected areas are not 'inalienable', as Abraham Lincoln dubbed one of the first; but face being shrunk, losing legal protection, or in some cases abolished altogether. A first of its kind study, published in Conservation Letters, recorded 89 instances in 27 countries of protected areas being downsized (shrunk), downgraded (decrease in legal protections), and degazetted (abolished) since 1900. Referred to by the authors as PADDD (protected areas downgraded, downsized, or degazetted), the trend has been little studied despite its large impact on conservation efforts.

"People have been aware of these events since the dawn of the international conservation movement. Because most conservation research and action is at the local or regional level, however, those of us in the conservation community recognized—and addressed—individual PADDD events but not the larger phenomenon of downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement," co-author Mike Mascia. a senior social scientist at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), told mongabay.com.

The researchers found three primary reasons behind incidents of PADDD: development of infrastructure such as road building and dams; industrial exploitation, often for mining, oil and gas, plantations, or logging; and finally land issues. The last of these is perhaps the most complex as it involves the struggle between community rights, often of indigenous groups, and environmental protection. Over the past few decades, conservationists have become more sensitive to indigenous and local people's land claims, as well as their position as stewards of the ecosystems they inhabit. Still, Mascia says more research needs to be done on how this is impacting parks worldwide.

 Indigenous park guard of the Trio tribe in Suriname. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Indigenous park guard of the Trio tribe in Suriname. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
"The conservation community has certainly become increasingly cognizant of indigenous peoples' rights, but our research is in such early stages that we cannot speculate on the implications of this awareness with respect to the likelihood of protected areas having their status removed or downgraded," Mascia says.

In a few cases, downgrading protected areas by handing over management to local communities has actually benefited protection.

"Arun Agrawal’s research in India suggests that, in some cases, transitioning from strict protected areas to community-based systems that permit subsistence use of natural resources may foster local resource stewardship and enhance conservation outcomes," explains Sharon Pailler, another social scientist with WWF.

However community demands over protected areas do not always result in equal or better protection. For example, Ruvu Game Reserve in Tanzania was officially abolished after local people encroached with cattle and agriculture, while Uganda's Mgahinga Forest Reserve was cut down by a third due to local demands for farmland. This tension between human demands and the importance of protected areas typifies the occurrences of PADDD due to land issues.

Loss of protected areas to infrastructure or industrial exploitation is less complex: conservation is the loser in these incidents. Past incidents bear this out: in the late 1970s a third of the original extent of Indonesia's Kutai protected area was opened to logging; during 1990s the oil industry pressured changes in the status and size of a number of parks in Ecuador with the oil industry's presence becoming common place in some protected areas; in the 1980s Malaysia changed Kilas National Park's status to allow plantation forestry; and in the 1960s an unnamed reserve in Madagascar was abolished to allow the timber industry free reign.

However, PADDD is as much an issue of the present as it was in the past, perhaps even more so. According to the study, 12 countries have recently weakened, or are debating weakening, their protected areas. It is also likely, though not yet certain, that incidents of PADDD will increase as the world's natural resources continue to shrink.

"Demand for oil, timber, and minerals is associated with many instances of PADDD, but whether future demand for these commodities will lead to future such occurrences is an open question," Mascia explains, adding that "one would certainly expect that growing global commodity demands, alongside increasing local land pressures and land claims, will increasingly place protected areas […] at the center of public policy debates in developed and developing countries alike. "

From 1985 to 1997, nine nations (Botswana, Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Luxembourg, Pakistan, Somalia, and Togo) actually saw their protected area coverage decline, implying that PADDD is a far more common occurrence than conservationists have generally recognized.

"Indeed," the authors of the paper write, "conservation strategies must be resilient not only in the face of biophysical perturbations like climate change, but also when confronted by sociopolitical shocks like food shortages, political crises, and spikes in global demand for commodities."

Case studies today

 A portion of Virunga National Park swaddled in clouds as seen by Google Earth.
A portion of Virunga National Park swaddled in clouds as seen by Google Earth.

Currently, the status of protected areas is vigorously under debate in nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cambodia, and the US, while other countries, such as New Zealand, have only recently fought back an attempt to weaken their parks.

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is currently considering opening up portions of Africa's oldest National Park, Virunga, to oil exploration and exploitation. Home to some of Africa's most iconic wildlife, including no small number of endangered species such as mountain gorillas, the decision has proven controversial enough for even the UN to voice its disapproval.

"Altering or downgrading the park’s protected status in the name of oil drilling would be against the law not only in DRC, but internationally as well, since the park is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site which makes drilling there explicitly illegal. WWF stands strongly against any oil exploration or exploitation in Virunga, or the altering of Virunga’s protected status for any reason," Allard Blom, managing director for WWF’s Congo Basin Program, told mongabay.com

 The outline (in pink) of the Arctic National Wildlife in Alaska, bordering Canada as seen by Google Earth. Protection of America's largest park is constantly under attack to allow drilling.
The outline (in pink) of the Arctic National Wildlife in Alaska, bordering Canada as seen by Google Earth. Protection of America's largest park is constantly under attack to allow drilling.
While any decision has yet to be made, the debate has already produced tensions in the park itself. The DRC's national park authority, ICCN, has recently charged one of the oil companies with illegally forcing entrance into the park.

"There is currently an internal struggle within the government of DRC over the fate of Virunga. The environmental ministry and park service have expressed opposition to protected area in Virunga, but other government interests are intent on oil exploration. At the moment we really don’t know how this is going to end," adds Blom.

The oil companies have argued that they could vastly improve security in the park, which is currently inhabited by deadly rebel forces. However, Matthew Lewis, senior program officer for WWF's Species Conservation Program, doesn't see oil in the park as a victory for rangers caught in the fire.

"An astonishing fact is that more than 130 rangers have died in the line of duty since 1996 protecting Virunga National Park. Regardless of the millions of dollars spent on conservation in the park over the decades, the most tragic aspect of losing it to oil exploration in my opinion would be that these brave men will have died in vain, fighting for a lost cause."

Some PADDD incidents have received less coverage in the media and less attention from conservation organizations, but could still widely damage regional conservation efforts. For example, Cambodia is handing over around 50,000 hectares of remote and little-studied Viracehy National Park to rubber plantations and other development projects, essentially shrinking the protected area by 16%.

Cambodia's Secretary of State at the Environment Ministry, Thuk Kroeun Vutha, told the Cambodian Daily, "It is not against the law when the government approves it."

Weakening parks is not only a debate in developing countries. American politicians have been debating opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)—the nation's biggest protected area—to oil drilling since the 1970s. During the past decade opening up the protected area to drilling was voted on numerous times, but never made it all the way through the US political system. Current US President, Barack Obama, has stated he is not in favor of opening ANWR to oil exploitation.

One of the more remarkable examples of a debate on downgrading protected areas occurred last year in New Zealand. After announcing a plan to open 7,000 hectares of protected areas to mining, the New Zealand government faced a brutal backlash. 40,000 protesters marched in what the New Zealand Herald called 'the biggest [march] in a generation. This was followed by 37,000 comments on the government plans most of which were critical. Following the uproar, the government canceled any plans to downgrade its parks.

While many protected areas remain in jeopardy worldwide from weakening, shrinking, or abolishment, New Zealand proves that whether a protected area remains for posterity is ultimately up to us.

CITATION: Michael B. Mascia & Sharon Pailler. Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) and its conservation implications. Conservation Letters 4 (2011) 9–20. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2010.00147.x.

 A portion of Virachey National Park as seen by Google Earth.
A portion of Cambodia's Virachey National Park as seen by Google Earth.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (March 17, 2011).

Goodbye national parks: when 'eternal' protected areas come under attack.