People, poverty and parks

17 September 2003

While protected areas make very important contributions at local, national and global levels, a disproportionate amount of the costs are borne by people living in and around protected areas, especially when they are displaced and resettled, and ownership and access rights are taken away from them.

Following a strong call made by Nelson Mandela to make protected areas useful for poverty alleviation, participants at the fifth IUCN World Parks Congress in Durban recommended that protected area communities address the issue.

The topic of the linkages between poverty and protected areas has received important attention at the congress, starting with addresses by Mandela and President Thabo Mbeki at the opening of the congress on 8 September.

Mbeki, welcoming delegates to South Africa, drew attention to the UN Millennium Declaration and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, expressing the hope that globalisation would become a positive force for the equitable distribution of resources.

Identifying poverty and underdevelopment as major threats to nature conservation, Mbeki commended the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) – the socio-economic blueprint of the African Union – for combining environmental and social goals.

Mandela, in his address, stressed the need to involve young people in managing protected areas, and to consider protected areas’ contribution to poverty alleviation. Highlighting projects empowering people and plans for transboundary protected areas in southern Africa, Mandela noted that a sustainable future for protected areas lay in developing partnerships.

A special congress session on poverty and protected areas followed on 11 September, where expert Bob Fisher from Australia pointed out that incorporating poverty reduction in conservation is an ethical and human rights imperative, and that approaches such as resettlement and resource substitution are inadequate to address socioeconomic concerns.

Dylis Roe from the International Institute for Environment and Development, and Joanna Elliot of the UK department for international development, presented a study on pro-poor conservation that explored the linkages between wildlife and poverty.

Sam Gichere from the Kenyan ministry of finance and economic planning, made a presentation on protected areas and poverty, where he noted the development opportunities of tourism for local communities.

Subsequently, the “Building Broader Support for Protected Areas” stream at the congress passed a recommendation on poverty and protected areas. It advocates a number of guiding principles for protected area agencies and practitioners, including the following:

  • Protected areas should strive to contribute to poverty reduction at the local level, and at the very minimum must not contribute to or exacerbate poverty. 
  • Where negative social, cultural and economic impacts occur, affected communities should be fairly and fully compensated. 
  • Biodiversity should be conserved both for its value as a local livelihoods resource and as a national and global public good.

Some conventional protected area approaches have tended to exclude people and / or prohibit most kinds of resource use within certain categories of protected areas, without providing alternatives to meeting the livelihood needs of local people.

Many participants at the congress presented an alternative view that sees sustainable resource use and management as a realistic alternative, which would contribute to both poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation.

The debate is very much alive at the Congress, but it is encouraging to note that new alternative approaches are being considered.

In addition to better management of natural resources, there are also opportunities for developing mechanisms for payments to local communities for ecological services such as improved water and carbon sequestration.

In order to direct the benefits of any income-generating activities (such as payments for ecological services and tourism) to the poor, a key need is to develop better governance structures and policies, which incorporate fair share of benefits with emphasis in preventing and reducing poverty.

Source: World Conservation Union