World's Parks to Weigh Conservation, Human Needs

Leon Marshall in Durban
for National Geographic News
September 5, 2003
The 5th World Parks Congress meeting in South Africa next week will
focus on "Benefits Beyond Boundaries"—reflecting the 21st-century
need to balance conservation of dwindling wilderness sanctuaries with
the needs of struggling human societies.

It is estimated that there are some 44,000 wilderness parks, together comprising about 10 percent of the Earth's land surface. In many parts of the world the parks are the last few remaining repositories of biodiversity, but increasingly they are being devastated by poaching, illegal logging, pollution, and other incursions by human communities struggling to survive.

This is the first time the congress is being held in Africa, perhaps the continent that is most in need of assistance to find sustainable solutions to alleviate human pressure on its hard-pressed parks. One of the most tangible benefits for Africa for discussion at the congress next week is a global trust fund to finance protected areas on the continent, which boasts some of the world's most spectacular wildlife.

Other valuable help could be in the form of management and technical advice and assistance, which are desperately needed in some resource-starved parts of the continent.

The congress is organized by World Conservation Union (IUCN), a partnership of 70 governments and more than 750 non-governmental organizations that has its headquarters in Switzerland. It is being held from September 8 to 17 in Durban, South Africa's major port.

Benefits Beyond Boundaries

"The congress, the first in Africa and the first of the new millennium, has a special significance, and the theme of 'benefits beyond boundaries' captures perfectly the essence of the debate which will occur in Durban," says IUCN President Yolanda Kakabadse.

Mavuso Msimang, head of South African National Parks and chairman of the World Parks Congress national planning committee, says: "The countries of southern Africa are fortunate to have many magnificent national parks and nature reserves, and we have made good progress towards developing meaningful partnerships between protected areas and local communities…Southern Africa is a particularly appropriate region in which to explore the World Parks Congress theme of 'benefits beyond boundaries.'"

Convened every ten years, past congresses have spurred governments to proclaim new protected areas and have helped generate additional resources for their stewardship. World Parks Congresses have also helped set the world's conservation agenda for the next decade.

The first congress, in Seattle in 1962, focused on the global significance of protected areas.

That congress set the tone for its 1972 successor in America's Yellowstone Park, where the emphasis was on establishing global standards for administering protected areas.

The 1982 congress in Bali, Indonesia, underscored the need for broader understanding of the value of parks, and the 1992 congress in Caracas, Venezuela, developed the theme by emphasizing the importance of fitting protected areas into local, regional, and international planning.

This year's congress in Durban brings together 2,500 environmentalists, scientists, and interest groups from across the globe. The delegation from the National Geographic Society includes Thomas Lovejoy, chairperson of the Society's Conservation Trust, a grant-making body established to support conservation activities around the world, Sylvia Earle, marine biologist and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and John Francis, the Society's vice president for research, conservation, and exploration.

Diversity of Interests

The IUCN says it has structured the 5th World parks Congress to accommodate a diversity of interests to examine the theme of "benefits beyond boundaries."

The theme is appropriate for Africa, where pressures from poor communities surrounding nature parks present a particularly serious problem. It is appropriate also for the attention it will draw to the part nature parks could play, notably through tourism, in the revival of regional economies.

The struggle to protect nature is by no means Africa's alone. Globally, nature is under pressure from a growing human population wanting space and resources.

The destruction of natural forests, for instance, is as devastating in South America and Asia as it is in Africa. Species are under threat worldwide, in the case of fauna most alarmingly from the trade in bush meat, as meat from wild animals is called. Pollution is a global problem.

It is a good time for the congress to be convened in Africa because many of the continent's destructive conflicts from the anti-colonial wars and post-colonial power-struggles have ended or are in the process of winding down.

This has resulted in a changed mood that has been marked by the active engagement of several African countries with the developed world in trying to restore peace to those regions where conflicts linger.

It has also been marked by the launch of the African Union to replace the largely dysfunctional Organisation for African Unity, which sprung from the anti-colonial era. One of the most positive developments at the second meeting of the new African Union in Maputo, Mozambique, this year was the adoption of the revised African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, aimed at upgrading conservation standards.

Another mark of the changing mood of Africa has been the energetic promotion by leaders such as South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) plan, which is aimed at encouraging sound government and economic policies, and, through that, at getting the developed world more involved in the continent's development.

Nelson Mandela and Queen Noor

South Africa's political icon Nelson Mandela and Queen Noor of Jordan are joint patrons of the 5thWorld Parks Congress.

In his launch message to the congress Mandela says he is grateful that South Africa will have the honor of hosting the event, and he particularly endorses the theme of benefits beyond boundaries. "We in South Africa can associate closely with this theme as we have worked to break with the boundaries and isolation of the past, and to forge new partnerships with one another and with the world," Mandela said.

"Protected areas are to be treasured. We look forward to the World Parks Congress 2003 as a valuable opportunity to make them more relevant to, and more valued by, all our people."

Queen Noor says: "The setting in Africa will orient us to consider how to address peoples' needs and reduce suffering so that we gain greater community support for protected areas and a true underpinning of conservation with sustainable development."

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