Kabindra Shahi | Pokhara: Champions of protected areas claim that they are popular policy instruments in the global fight for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem. Conservation of biodiversity is the equally celebrated success story of the protected areas.
Some studies, however, conclude that protected areas are setting only acreage goals but without adequately safeguarding biodiversity, and its high time for the upgrading of the protected areas to conserve wild biodiversity. Let alone the actual biodiversity conservation, protected areas contribute effectively to the livelihood of residents.
High densities of impoverished populace, grossly dependent upon agriculture and forest resources, often resides around the protected areas specifically in the developing countries. There is an increasing debate on whether, or not, the protected areas are helpful in alleviating poverty.
Progress made till date
Signatory nations to the Convention on Biological Diversity work to meet their target of covering under its sway the 17 percent terrestrial and 10 percent marine protected areas by 2020. To that end, the global network of the protected areas is exponentially increasing- particularly in the last three decades, the majority in so-called “developing” countries, clearly indicating the likelihood of achievement of that target.
Nepal is already ahead in the game and in number with protected areas covering 23.39% of total land. Does this make us proud? Beyond this, however, the targets are numerical. Mere handfuls are seriously bothered with the hard work of stakeholders and resource requirements of actually protecting them- while unforeseen negative repercussion it will bring with it, seems completely neglected.
Over time, the shift in paradigm in conservation modalities have been witnessed, making many flavors of the protected areas from very strict to multiple-use ones. Concurrently, there has been an increased consensus that conservation policy, at the very least, must ‘‘do no harm” to the local populations. However, growing evidence suggests that nothing has notably changed for those poor.
Relatively fewer people receive direct financial incomes from tourism. While on the flip slide, a majority experience high restriction to forest resources and also human-wildlife conflict. In addition, there are higher proportions of the rich getting tourism drawing direct benefits from hotels, homestays, shops and nature guides among others as compared to those poor and from the middle-class.
Significantly, a higher proportion of poor reported experiencing wildlife damage than rich. This reveals one important and valid point, though not a comprehensive picture, those poor households, relying heavily on park resources, are the ones most affected by park policies and benefit least from conservation intervention.
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Most vulnerable communities around the protected areas have largely had to fend for themselves and the benefit-sharing mechanism is not at all fair. Sadly, this is not the outcome anticipated while crafting such ambitious programs.
The elite and influential sweep away the benefits. Outsiders reap the most while locals get a trivial share. Poor matter the least. Most of those marginalized believe that the park has accrued more losses than benefits on them. Understandably, anyone would support conservation sustainably only if conservation supports their livelihood. “They say that we must conserve wildlife but I am not sure if I must conserve it,” said a poor landless woman who dwells around one such Nepalese protected area. Such dilemmas can dampen the momentum of the conservation. How can ‘true’ conservation progress happen when direct benefits from the park are skewed towards the rich while the most affected population of the poor continues to pay the price of conservation?
Many paradigm shifts are being called for. And also, stress is laid on people-participation. The operational mechanism of protected areas in Nepal is more rhetorical than pragmatic. Regardless of being a model in conservation success, Nepal still remains largely unsuccessful in the debate of protected areas and poverty alleviation.
It seems like more of conservationists, park managers and planners believe that the core business of protected areas is conservation, not poverty reduction. This could lead to the same as the previous situation of the protected areas became paper-parks rather than performing parks: a consequence of the exclusion of people in management and in effective decisionmaking.
Call for a new discourse
Amidst all these shortcomings, debate-driven heated issues call for a new discourse in the protected area paradigm as a rights-based approach to conservation, which truly places people at heart of conservation, particularly those poor. This approach can deliver a greater share of the benefits of conservation to the poor, thereby strengthening popular support for protected areas in the long-run.