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Spotlight of the Decade Focused on World's Parks

DURBAN, South Africa, September 8, 2003 (ENS) - Parks and protected areas now cover 12 percent of the Earth’s surface, an area the size of the United States and China combined, but, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned delegates at the opening of the World Parks Congress today, biological diversity has been declining at a rate unprecedented since the last great extinction 65 million years ago.

Annan's statement was delivered by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Klaus Toepfer to some 2,500 dignitaries, government officials, indigenous leaders, businessmen and conservationists from over 170 countries gathered in Durban for the once in a decade event.

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Ivvavik National Park in Canada's Yukon Territory is the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd. (Photo courtesy Parks Canada)
Organized by the IUCN-World Conservation Union, which takes in members from 140 countries, the 10 day Congress will address the role of protected areas in alleviating poverty. It will cover issues such as how protected areas adapt and anticipate global change, the place of protected areas as a part of a sustainable future, and the contribution of protected areas to security.

Since the first UN List was published in 1962, Annan said in his message, the number of reported protected areas has multiplied 100-fold to more than 100,000.

But, Annan said, "the inability or unwillingness of many countries to adequately fund protected areas or to enforce the protection of valuable habitats is precipitating a crisis for all humankind."

"Essential ecosystem functions are being undermined, perhaps irretrievably," the secretary-general said, "as forests are felled, wetlands drained, and terrestrial and marine habitats degraded by pollution. The growth of human populations, the pressure of poverty on the environment, and the increasing drain on natural resources are destroying the foundation for society's development, he said.

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Great Australian Bight Marine Park off the coast of South Australia (Photo courtesy Environment Australia)
While more than 11 percent of the world’s land is protected, less than one percent of the world’s oceans is under protection, Annan pointed out, saying that ocean protection "will bear heavily on all our efforts to eliminate poverty and achieve truly sustainable development."

"Fisheries are collapsing, and coastal areas are reeling from land based pollution," Annan said. "When one considers that 90 percent of the world’s fishermen and women operate at the small-scale local level, produce over half the global fish catch, and provide income and food for a significant proportion of coastal dwellers - who now represent 60 percent of the global population - the benefits of increasing the protection of the marine environment are clear."

With its theme of Benefits Beyond Boundaries, the Congress is the first to bring together such a large variety of groups who will focus on the big issues that will impact protected areas in the 21st century. First on the list is how to find funds for conservation of these unique places.

The delegates will debate such issues as the operation of extractive industries in protected areas, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the growing commercialization of protected areas.

Yolanda Kakabadse, president of IUCN, reflected on past achievements that have protected some of the planet's most precious natural areas and impediments that the Congress must address. “In less than 150 years," she said, "we have created an outstanding legacy of 12 percent of our terrestrial surface under protected areas."

But, said Kakabadse, “Too often protected areas have alienated people, too many exist as only a line on a map or are encroached on for resource exploitation, and too few are adequately resourced.”

The IUCN tracks the survival of threatened and endangered species through its Species Survival Commission, a network of 7,000 experts on plants, animals and conservation issues, and once every four years produces the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the most recent of which is online at: http://www.iucn.org/themes/ssc/redlist2002/redlistlaunch.htm

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Yolanda Kakabadse of Ecuador is president of IUCN-The World Conservation Union. (Photo courtesy IUCN)
Many of these threatened species depend for their survival on protected areas and parks. But these areas will only be protected if people believe in their importance. David Sheppard, secretary-general of the World Parks Congress, said, “Protected areas are essential to a sustainable future. The only way to ensure that they thrive is to ensure that local communities, business and even the military have a stake in their development."

“There is virtually no nation on Earth today that has not made a commitment to parks,” said Dr. Kenton Miller, chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. “While this is a great achievement, we call for greater support for protected areas for the myriad of benefits they provide us with.”

Coming one year after South Africa hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, this event is building the the commitment of the country and the entire continent to conservation.

South African Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Mohammed Valli Moosa, said, “This Congress could not have come at a better time for Africa, as we are looking at the economic revival of our continent across a whole range of spheres, with conservation being one of the fundamental priorities.”

Moosa believes that protection of natural areas is good for the economy of South Africa. “The old view of conservation is that it is the antithesis of socio-economic development. We in South Africa have shown that conservation can, in fact, promote job creation and contribute substantially to the economy of the country.”

“Parks and protected areas have a critical role to play in contributing to Africa’s sustainable development and poverty eradication," the minister said. "The Southern African initiative for Trans-frontier Conservation Areas is set to bring enormous economic benefits for surrounding communities and the participating countries.”

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, still in establishment phase, links the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, Kruger National Park in South Africa, Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and other protected areas in a transboundary expanse of more than 35,000 square kilometers.

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Lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa (Photo courtesy South Africa National Parks)
The World Parks Congress has inspired other events that carry the protection of natural areas forward on local and regional scales. The Zimbabwean Chibememe community living near the new Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park is on a regional bicycle ride to promote the rights of local communities in the newly protected area.

The team of cyclists includes three people from Chibememe village, two from Mozambique and two from South Africa, who aim to raise awareness of the role of local communities in the park by meeting policy makers, nongovernmental organizations and communities on the way, doing media interviews and giving out fliers, posters and T-shirts featuring the conservation area.

In another regional effort, scientists doing research in the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park on South Africa's east coast held a three day meeting this weekend aimed at bringing scientific research and traditional knowledge into line with each other. The goal was to serve needs of rural people who are using conservation and tourism to reconstruct their local economies.

Opened by Dr. Sheppard, the conference was timed to coincide with the historic release of a group of cheetah into the St. Lucia Wetland Park. The release is part of the ongoing program to restock South Africa’s first World Heritage site with wildlife.

Moosa said, “Globally the St Lucia Wetlands Park is truly unique - the world’s oldest land mammal, the rhinoceros, and the world’s biggest terrestrial mammal, the elephant, share an ecosystem with the world’s oldest fish, the coelacanth, and the world’s biggest marine mammal, the whale. These have now been joined by the world’s fastest land mammal, the cheetah."

When the World Parks Congress winds up its deliberations on September 17, the delegates are expected to produce a vision for protected areas, to be called the Durban Accord, and an action plan for its realization.

The Congress will provide input to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s 7th Conference of the Parties, which will consider protected areas during its February 2004 meeting in Malaysia.



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