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World Parks Congress talks the talk, but future depends on action

Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Last year, more than 6,000 people gathered for the World Parks Congress 2014, an event held around every ten years by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The World Parks Congress discusses myriad issues related to protected areas, which recent research has shown are in rough shape. According to a study in last year in Nature, 50-80 percent of the world’s protected area poorly managed and underfunded, leaving them degraded and threatened.

The location of last year’s congress—Sydney, Australia—proved somewhat ironic as the current Australian government has threatened a moratorium on any new parks in the country, while also attempting—but failing—to strip a forest of Tasmania of UNESCO World Heritage Status. Still, according to Sue Lieberman, the Executive Director for Conservation Policy with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the congress was noteworthy for focusing on biodiversity, marine issues, and the booming wildlife trade. Though, progress on all these levels will really depend on local and national action on-the-ground, Lieberman said.

In a recent interview Lieberman told about the most important commitments made at the congress, the importance of convincing governments to support protected areas, and WCS’s own work with parks worldwide.


Mongabay: What is the Promise of Sydney?

Yellowstone National Park was the world's first modern protected area. Photo by: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS.
Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first modern protected area. Photo by: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS.

Sue Lieberman: The Promise of Sydney is the name given to the document that was presented at the closing session of the World Parks Congress. It was presented as a consensus, but of course it was not, since there was no real process at the Parks Congress to provide input or comment on the contents of the “Promise.”

Many participants felt that the process was flawed; most of the drafting was done in advance, or by selected individuals. I agree that the process was flawed, which detracts from other highlights of the Congress. That said, it contains many useful elements, particularly when one looks at the innovative approaches and solutions of the themes and streams of the Congress.

Mongabay: How do these new sets of pledges help move us forward on protected areas?

Susan Lierberman. Photo by: WCS.
Susan Lierberman. Photo by: WCS.

Sue Lieberman: There are some good ideas in the approaches and solutions, but they will only enable further conservation action if they are turned into action “on the ground.” There was a real move at the previous Parks Congress (Durban, 2002) away from biodiversity conservation in parks, and more towards human issues (ecosystem services, livelihoods, etc). Those are all important, of course, but the tremendous value of protected areas for wildlife conservation was getting lost—but this Congress (and parts of the “Promise”) have put back, in some places, the focus on biodiversity.

The “approaches” document for Stream one, for example, does indeed include wildlife, and wildlife crime. Nothing will happen from this unless governments, NGOs, and others work together to make something happen. There was a lot of excellent sharing of ideas and tools at the Congress—all independent of the pledges and “Promise.”

Mongabay: Are their specific pledges from the summit that you think were really important and/or ground-breaking?

Sue Lieberman: There were some significant commitments from governments (independent of the “Promise of Sydney”):

In addition, I think the significant focus at the Congress on wildlife crime (poaching, trafficking) and its relation to protected areas was important—it’s an issue that has received a lot of attention of late, but much of that focus has been on anti-trafficking (enforcement, interdiction, etc.) and demand reduction. Those are of course critical efforts, and WCS is a leader in all aspects of wildlife trafficking. But it is also vital to reduce poaching and monitor enforcement effort on the ground, at the level of the protected area—and work with rangers, ensuring they have the necessary tools, skills, and equipment.

Male panther chameleon in Ankarana Reserve, Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Male panther chameleon in Ankarana Reserve, Madagascar. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The Congress had a large number of sessions and discussions on this issue, including demonstrations of new tools and strategies (such as SMART, or “Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool,” which is open-source software for law enforcement and anti-poaching monitoring in protected areas). Many participants left with new understanding of tools they can use to address this critical issue.

There was good discussion at the Congress on the issue of World Heritage—where natural World Heritage sites are the “jewel in the crown” of parks on a global scale (the best of the best, having been agreed by UNESCO and the Parties to the World Heritage Convention, etc.). Many natural World Heritage sites are threatened by extractive industries, and other economic pressures. WCS worked closely with a coalition of conservation organizations on multiple issues at the Congress that relates to the World Heritage Convention. In particular, we issued a joint statement with these NGOs on “no go” for extractive activities in World Heritage natural and mixed sites—highlighting that oil and gas exploration and extraction, mining, and other extractive industries are not compatible with World Heritage designation. Hopefully, that will help prevent further deterioration of some of these sites. We will follow up at the 2015 meeting of the World Heritage Committee (June, in Bonn).

Mongabay: A recent study found that 50-80 percent of the world’s protected areas are poorly-managed and underfunded. How do we turn this around?

Sue Lieberman: NGOs and other stakeholders (governments, foundations, multilateral organizations, etc.) must all work together to prioritize effective management of existing protected areas. It’s good to try to create more, particularly in intact ecosystems with high biodiversity, but it is vital to work to ensure existing protected areas have sufficient funding, political will, and commitment to properly management. That’s easy to say, but harder to do. Holding a Congress like the one just held in Sydney won’t make that happen—it has to do with the hard work in country, on the ground, and work with major donors (government and private), to ensure that they continue to prioritize the conservation and management of protected areas. It’s easy for a government to issue a press release on establishing a new park—but harder to make sure that park has the resources (and political will) that it needs to be successful. I also believe that great priority needs to be put on the value of parks to wildlife—not just to people. That will help galvanize the necessary funding and political commitment.

Another strategy, of course, is to continue to publish such studies and publicize the deplorable condition of so many of the world’s protected areas, and the fact that many governments are de-prioritizing conservation (and giving in to pressures from extractive industries, unsustainable tourism development, etc.).

Mongabay: How is WCS contributing to the protected areas efforts?

Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Sue Lieberman: WCS manages, co-manages, or provides technical assistance to managers of more parks across more of the globe than any other NGO. We work in more than 60 countries, and our primary focus is wildlife and protected areas. We focus on the Best of the Wild—parks at the core of the world’s last intact landscapes and seascapes—places that have the greatest chance of preserving species and natural ecosystems in the face of global change. Building on sound scientific and cultural understanding and strong local partnerships, we help governments and communities to conserve landscapes that harbor half of all bird, mammal, and amphibian species. We leverage our local knowledge to address global conservation issues—climate change, livelihoods and natural resource governance, extractive industries, wildlife trafficking, and the relationship between wildlife, human, and livestock health. In many countries, the national government has asked us to manage or co-manage some of their national parks. We also focus on science and protected areas, and some of our work is highlighted on our World Parks Congress web pages.

Mongabay: What role should indigenous and local people play in the world’s protected areas?

Sue Lieberman: There is no one-size-fits all solution to the effective conservation and management of protected areas. Local communities, including those of indigenous peoples, have a vital role to play in the management of protected areas. In some cases, as is highly appropriate, indigenous communities are the managers of protected areas; they are the stewards of their own land. In other cases, local communities, including indigenous communities, may not be the managers themselves, but work closely with the government protected areas managers.

At the Congress, WCS presented several successful cases where indigenous and local communities are the managers or co-managers of parks. In all cases, the buy-in of local (including indigenous) communities, and the respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, is critical if protected areas are to be successful. WCS works closely with local and indigenous communities across the globe.

Mongabay: Despite a pledge to protect 10 percent of the world’s oceans by 2020, today only around three percent is protected. Did you see significant movement on meeting this goal at the summit?

Sue Lieberman: There was little focus on marine issues, and marine protected areas (MPAs) in previous World Parks Congress. There was an entire theme on marine at this Congress, and significant attention was focused on the need to increase protection in the marine environment—with good discussions both on the need for more MPAs on the high seas, as well as the idea of expanding terrestrial parks to the coast, and the sea beyond (which has significant potential in many countries). I think therefore there was good movement on marine protection.

Mongabay: The summit was held in Sydney, Australia. Yet the Australian government has recently pledged to put a moratorium on establishing any new national parks and proposed stripping forest from a World Heritage Site. How do you convince governments that protected areas are important?

Sue Lieberman: There are multiple ways to convince governments that protected areas, and biodiversity conservation in general, and critically important. Both strong science and strong advocacy are needed—to convince governments that well managed protected areas are important for biodiversity conservation, as well as for the well-being of their citizens. In addition, governments have made many political commitments to protected areas—whether at the Convention on Biological Diversity, World Heritage Convention, or the UN General Assembly; civil society needs to keep the pressure on wealthy governments to fulfill those commitments, including through the provision of funding support, both at home and in high biodiversity countries. The citizens of countries need to be motivated to push their governments, and political leaders, to truly prioritize conservation; and government leaders need to see (through advocacy, and science) that healthy, well-managed, and supported (and well enforced) protected areas are in their own interest. None of this is easy—and one of the reasons for holding such a Congress is to keep that political pressure on governments.

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