World's Parks to Weigh Conservation, Human Needs

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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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