My park is greener than your park (on paper)

A new paper in Oryx by Charlie  Gardner analyses the application of IUCN’s protected area categories to Madagascar’s parks and reserves system. Apparently they’re not a very good fit, but I find myself struggling to care.

In 2008 Boitani et al called for a protected area classification system based on conservation outcomes, which in an ideal world I guess everyone would go for, but the World Commission on Protected Areas understandably think that this is not very workable. Also there is something to be said for assessing effort (in opportunities for economic development foregone in establishing more strictly protected reserves), especially since desired conservation outcomes can take a long time to materialise. The counter-argument, of course, is that if you’re not intending to monitor your conservation outcomes what the hell do you think you’re doing setting up the park in the first place (?!?), although this somewhat ignores the reality in many developing countries in which monitoring is dependent upon unreliable donor funds.

With so many protected areas now established around the world it certainly makes sense to classify them in some way, and if that were the end of the matter then we could all be happy, but it’s not. I was once privy to (but not an active participant in) a conversation based around the ‘need’ to increase the area that country A has in reserves that fall within category X of  the IUCN system. I confess to being somewhat baffled. I sincerely hope the proponents of this idea were really concerned about eventual conservation outcome, but if so they did not say so; the IUCN category seemed to matter in itself.

One plausible explanation for this is that donor money might be distributed partly based on a reserve’s IUCN classification. I do not know for certain whether this is the case, but if so it is lazy thinking, and worrying. Indubitably I have come across many examples of literature bemoaning that country B has a low % of land within protected areas, and I would expect that countries that conserve more get more donor money to support that, so it is not too far a stretch to suppose that detailed decisions are taken based on IUCN protection category.

However, I think this is a misuse of the system. In this I am reminded of the debate over the Millennium Development Goals: the creators of the MDGs only ever intended that they serve as global targets, not as indicators of progress against which individual countries can be measured. We must always be careful in how we use a system designed to measure one aspect of a complex, messy reality (and although the MDGs are plural, sectorally they are singular), especially if we then seek to use that to drive funding decisions as such measures tend to be more substitutes to more thorough analysis.

Of course the biggest criticism of the IUCN system is that it rewards ‘paper parks’ over really functioning conservation: in effect it measures only regulation. In rich countries government bureaucracies generally work well enough such that appropriate resources are assigned to support such designations, and the bureaucrats may even resist unfunded additional designations. However, in developing countries resources are that much more limited and variable standards of governance means that decision making is not necessarily nearly so rational.

The result is a dysfunctional attempt to rule by unenforceable fiat. Local communities are unlikely to be compensated properly for their lost opportunities, thus alienating them, and hence they will seek to undermine the new park. The exclusion of Maasai pastoralists from Mkomazi Game Reserve (now a National Park) in Tanzania is a classic example of how things can go wrong; the conservation outcome was actually worse than under the previous, messier system.

In surveying the sorry state of these things I have come to the conclusion that the establishment or upgrading of a protected area can actually be an anti-conservation measure. All the rules and regulations that come with such designations constrain managers from reaching workable compromises with local communities under which everyone can benefit. Better instead to work with flexibility outside protected areas than with the dubious benefit of government regulation to support you.

Conservationists often talk about the need to protect ~10% of each different habitat, but this should be a rule of thumb. There are lots of ways to protect a landscape: a national park is often not the best solution.

Update: two recent pieces of evidence in support of my argument (15/09/11).

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