Mongabay Series: Evolving Conservation

Can privatization save parks?

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Managing national parks and conservation areas is expensive. Traditionally governments have carried the tab, but when funds dwindle, protected areas pay a heavy price. Governments rich and poor are increasingly turning to the private sector to help fill this chronic funding gap. Some critics argue, however, that this comes at a cost.

Can privatization save parks?
  • Governments are turning to the private sector to help fund management of protected areas in so-called “public-private partnerships” (PPPs).
  • Proponents argue that PPPs not only offer much-needed funds to protected areas, but can improve management and conservation outcomes.
  • However, critics contend that they can cede too much control to private interests and put sensitive tasks, such as security and anti-poaching efforts, on the line.

Managing national parks and conservation areas is expensive. Paying staff salaries, maintaining buildings, managing land, and conserving wildlife: these things don’t come cheap. Traditionally governments have carried the tab, but when economies tank and funds dwindle, protected areas often pay a heavy price. Governments rich and poor are increasingly turning to the private sector to help fill this chronic funding gap. Some critics argue, however, that this comes at a cost.

Current spending on conservation and management of protected areas is far less than what experts think is needed, particularly in the developing world. At the moment, around 14 percent of land is designated as some form of protected area, and by 2020 this figure is expected to grow to 17 percent, as agreed at the latest Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2014.

“But even with the current 14 percent protected, a lot of the areas aren’t managed and are severely underfunded, and are therefore being degraded,” said Tom Dillon, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-US’s Senior Vice President of Forests and Freshwater. Dillion has been heavily involved with a WWF project to broker a partnership between a coalition of private organizations and the Brazilian government to protect vast tracts of the Amazon rainforest.

The Uatumã Biological Reserve in the state of Amazonas, Brazil. The reserve is part of WWF’s Amazon Region Protected Areas program, which brings together private financers and the Brazilian government to establish and manage protected areas. Photo by WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa.
The Uatumã Biological Reserve in the state of Amazonas, Brazil. The reserve is part of WWF’s Amazon Region Protected Areas program, which brings together private financers and the Brazilian government to establish and manage protected areas. Photo by WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa.

“Sometimes protected areas are being de-gazetted because of these kinds of resource problems,” Dillon told Mongabay. “They’re also being intruded upon by mining interests — particularly gold mining — or by industrial and local agriculture, among other things.”

In light of these issues, there is an increasing trend within the management of parks to form relationships with the private sector. Often called public-private partnerships (PPPs), the basic idea is to use private money to fund national parks and other protected areas. Some arrangements go so far as to involve commercializing these areas to pay for the vital services needed to protect the biodiversity within them.

That biodiversity is not insignificant, either. “It’s a pretty urgent issue to get the basic management into these areas …because most of the world’s most important biodiversity is inside of them, including on land, about 80 percent of the terrestrial species,” Dillon said.

But mention the privatization of parks and protected areas, and you often get a visceral reaction. People are incredibly passionate about parks and worry that profit will be put before conservation. But is this really the case, or is there a way to balance PPPs so that everyone, and ultimately the environment, benefits?

Financing and Expertise

Public-private partnerships come in various forms that differ in the degree to which management and control is handed over to the private sector. On the “more government, less business” end of the scale are organizations like SANParks, South Africa’s national parks agency, which manages parks but leases out lodges and restaurants within them to private companies.

At the opposite end of the scale are organizations like the Johannesburg, South Africa-based NGO African Parks, which takes control of entire parks in several African nations and runs them from top to bottom.

A zebra in Akagera National Park, Rwanda. Photo by John Dickens/African Parks.
A zebra in Akagera National Park, Rwanda, which is managed by the NGO African Parks. Photo by John Dickens/African Parks.

Proponents of PPPs maintain that the private sector can offer the funding needed to pay for effective management of the parks. They also say it can provide expertise often missing from government agencies. When it comes to the operational side of things, for example, proponents often claim that governments can be vastly inefficient. So says Warren Meyer, president of Recreation Resource Management (RRM), an Arizona-based for-profit private company that works closely with the U.S. Forest Service, among other public agencies, to manage many public parks in the country.

According to Meyer, a vocal advocate for PPPs in the U.S., many people join the Forest Service to work with the environment and wildlife, not to clean bathrooms and collect ticket money, and are thus often dissatisfied with the maintenance work they can be landed with. Moreover, Meyer told Mongabay he has found that civil servants can be less flexible than non-governmental employees, declining to work weekends or seasonal jobs. This makes them a poor match for the operational side of parks management, and an expensive one at that, he said.

Meyer said RRM can run parks at around half the cost that the government can. “We have enough examples of side by side parks that are identical — one which we operate and one which the government operates — to know pretty confidently that we operate a lot less expensively for at least the same quality,” said Meyer. RRM then pays a portion of its profits back to the government agencies.

Some proponents argue that PPPs can achieve conservation goals that can be elusive under government management. For example, last year saw the return of lions to Rwanda after a 15-year absence, when they were reintroduced to Akagera National Park.

“It wouldn’t have happened without us,” Peter Fearnhead, CEO of African Parks, which manages Akagera, told Mongabay.

Five lionesses transported from South Africa and reintroduced to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. Lions had been absent from the country for 15 years. African Parks, the NGO managing the park, claims credit for bringing them back. Photo by Dave Toohey/African Parks.
Five lionesses transported from South Africa and reintroduced to Rwanda’s Akagera National Park. Lions had been absent from the country for 15 years. African Parks, the NGO managing the park, claims credit for bringing them back. Photo by Dave Toohey/African Parks.

“When it comes to things like the reintroduction of species that have gone locally extinct, they went locally extinct because of the lack of management and money,” said Fearnhead. “Therefore in order to bring them back again, and make sure they don’t go locally extinct a second time round, you need to make sure you have adequate management expertise and systems in place, as well as the adequate funding to do that, and that’s what African Parks offers.”

Yet for the government, this comes at a price. When African Parks (AP) takes over a park the NGO requires a total mandate to manage it, including all money made from it. Rather than giving a slice back to the government, as RRM does, AP puts the money back into the park it came from. Fearnhead maintains, however, that governments do still benefit financially to a certain extent, from taxes on salaries, import duties on equipment, fuel levees, and the like.

Fearnhead argues that reinvesting park revenue is necessary so that the park can become self-sustaining. The reason these areas are under threat in the first place is that they house value — be it $60,000 for a kilo of rhino horn or $2,000 for a kilo of ivory. By monetizing the ecosystem through ecotourism rather than illegal trade in wildlife products, AP claims it can share this wealth with the local community in the form of jobs while protecting the environment at the same time.

Despite this, AP as a whole isn’t currently self-sustaining. Last year the company lost half a million dollars.

Devil in the details

However, many people remain uneasy with the notion of handing the management and control of national assets over wholesale to the private sector. One concern is that it can give preferential treatment to the opinions and voices of a very narrow set of people, as articulated in an article published by the George Wright Society, a Michigan-based association of protected areas professionals. This could lead to situations where parks are run for the benefit of a few, rather than the many, according to the article.

“A lot of people get really worked up about it, because they love the parks,” said RRM’s Meyer. “You will never hear a discussion about this in the United States without the first question asked being: Won’t somebody just build a McDonald’s in front of Old Faithful?”

When an organization has complete control over management of a park, just what, exactly, is stopping them from doing what they like? While government agencies cede some — or all — responsibilities to these private groups, in most cases they still retain overall authority.

Tayrona National Natural Park on Columbia’s Caribbean coast, where the company operating tourist concessions been accused of land grabbing and controversial development. Photo by Carlos Andrés Reyes.
Tayrona National Natural Park on Columbia’s Caribbean coast, where the company operating tourist concessions been accused of land grabbing and controversial development. Photo by Carlos Andrés Reyes.

But this doesn’t always hold true, especially in nations where the government’s authority is weak. For example, in one of Colombia’s most pristine reserves, Tayrona National Natural Park on the Caribbean coast, not only is 90 percent of the land held by private individuals, often in dubious legal status, but the company operating tourist concessions has been accused of land grabbing and controversial development within the national park.

Countries entering PPPs need “very clear governance, very clear legislation regarding these partnerships,” Arturo Mora, the IUCN’s Senior Program Officer for South America, told Mongabay.

“In Peruvian legislation, for example, this is possible, but in other countries like Ecuador, this legislation is more complicated,” said Mora, who helped assess the outcome of the private sector’s role in two South American projects: the Agua Somos Fund in Colombia and Cordillera Azul National Park in Peru.

Determining how much control the private sector should have over a protected area is critical, as Mora saw during the early days of the PPP in Peru’s Cordillera Azul National Park.

“The government at one point felt that they were losing control on the protected area,” he explained, “in particular losing control of rangers and of security.” In the end, the government and private sector had to draw more explicit lines over exactly which roles each party maintained.

Hiawatha National Forest near Manistique, Michigan, where Recreation Resource Management, a private company, manages campgrounds on federal land. Photo by Recreation Resource Management.
Hiawatha National Forest near Manistique, Michigan, where Recreation Resource Management, a private company, manages campgrounds on federal land. Photo by Recreation Resource Management.

This question of which party is responsible for law enforcement is one of the most pressing issues in PPPs, especially when dangerous fights against poachers are involved, writes the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Matthew Hatchwell in Animal Conservation. Agreements between governments and private entities have to be incredibly clear on all aspects, from reporting hierarchies to disciplinary procedures.

The upshot is that as long as solid agreements are in place, private organizations are generally limited in what they are allowed to do, though the degree to which this is true obviously depends on the specifics of the partnership arrangement. RRM, for example, has to seek approval before it builds anything, whereas if AP mismanages or fails to protect a park it has taken over, it is accountable to the government, which can kick the NGO out.

But governments entering PPPs are also accountable.

With WWF, Dillon helped broker one of the largest-scale PPPs ever achieved, the Amazon Region Protected Areas Program (ARPA). He said WWF brought together private corporations, philanthropic individuals, and the Brazilian government to create a $1 billion fund to preserve over 100 protected areas in the Amazon Basin. The private sector contributes capital to the fund, but the money is only released if the government upholds its end of the bargain, matching it with public funds and management. WWF acts on behalf of the private sector in brokering the deal with the government, while also offering expertise on which areas to protect and how best to manage the newly created reserves.

Two macaws in the Uatumã Biological Reserve in the state of Amazonas, Brazil, part of WWF’s. Amazon Region Protected Areas program. Photo by WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa.
Two macaws in the Uatumã Biological Reserve in the state of Amazonas, Brazil, part of WWF’s Amazon Region Protected Areas program. Photo by WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa.

“We had to write very clear rules of how the funds would be governed,” said Dillon, “So there are a bunch of criteria that [the government must] meet and it has to, in a step-wise way, improve over time. If it doesn’t then the funding stops, at least until improvement is seen again.”

Additionally, the government signed an agreement to increase the amount of public funding every year for the next 25 years. Since 2003, the ARPA has managed to put 128 million acres under protection, fast approaching its goal of protecting 150 million acres of the Amazon.

The reality is that many governments simply don’t have the cash to go it alone, which leads many to believe that in order for preserves to survive, they need private backers. Only time will tell whether PPPs really can help preserve the critically important biodiversity living within the world’s parks — and it could take years, possibly decades to understand how well they work.

For his part, the IUCN’s Mora believes that while PPPs can be beneficial, they aren’t the only answer. “There is not only one way to do this. There are many, many ways to collaborate and protect these areas,” he said.

 

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