MPA Perspective: Reflections on the New Paradigm for Protected Areas

MPA News

Editor's note: Adrian Phillips, author of this perspective piece, is a senior advisor to IUCN on World Heritage. He has authored, co-authored, and edited several books and reports on protected areas, including the IUCN Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines series. Phillips's essay here was adapted by MPA News from an article he authored for The George Wright Forum (Vol. 20, No. 2), the journal of the George Wright Society, a US-based conservation NGO. The original article can be found online in PDF format at http://www.georgewright.org/202phillips.pdf.

By Adrian Phillips, IUCN

Over the past half-century, changes that have occurred in our thinking and practice toward protected areas amount to a revolution. Formerly, the climate in which protected areas were set up favored a top-down and rather exclusive view, fitting well with the prevailing approach that governments knew best. Moreover, the basis upon which areas were selected, and their boundaries drawn, often involved arbitrary judgment rather than local knowledge or scientific understanding of how natural systems worked. Parks were established mainly for scenic protection and spectacular wildlife.

In contrast, the new paradigm for protected areas turns those ideas on their heads. Spurred significantly by national and international recognition of the link between human rights and environmental protection, protected areas are now more often run with, for, and even by local people, who are increasingly seen as essential beneficiaries of protected area policy, both economically and culturally. Besides local groups, other institutions outside of central government - such as regional and local governments, NGOs, the private sector, and indigenous groups - are also playing an increasingly integral role. The processes of site selection, planning, and management are now viewed as political exercises, requiring sensitivity, consultation, and astute judgment. And unlike before, the rationales for establishing protected areas often include important economic, cultural, and scientific considerations.

The new approach is widely shared worldwide and accords well with prevailing political, economic, and scientific conditions in the 21st century. Nonetheless, it is not without challenges. Here are some:

Devolution of political power from the center has led to the break-up of some protected areas agencies with unfortunate results.
An extreme case is Indonesia, where the parks system in a country of globally important biodiversity has, to a large extent, been undermined by the breakdown of central control and widespread corruption: several vital sites face wholesale destruction from a range of threats. When central government loses the ability to defend these areas, they are doubly vulnerable in a political climate that encourages the heavy extraction of natural resources.

Stakeholder participation and community involvement may be essential but they can make great demands of resources (staff, time, and money) from over-stretched protected areas agencies.
Also, they call for fine political judgments about who stakeholders are and how conflicting interests can be determined and reconciled. Sometimes it becomes too difficult and managers complain of "analysis paralysis" and "stakeholder fatigue".

We should not be naive about the willingness or ability of all local communities to support conservation and sustainable use.
Not every community has responsible traditions in its use of natural resources. Furthermore, modern hunting and fishing technologies can change the balance between humans and wildlife. Population growth can be a factor, too: a fast-growing community has a different impact on natural resources than one with a stable population. How to build partnerships with local people in the context of such challenges poses dilemmas for many protected area managers.

In our enthusiasm for people-based conservation, we may diminish the achievements of government-managed, strictly protected areas.
Government-owned and -managed parks that are strictly protected against all kinds of exploitative use will remain the cornerstone of many countries' systems of protected areas. The new paradigm should not undermine the value of such places but instead point out new ways of managing them, as well as the contribution that other kinds of protected areas and actors can make.

We are making the manager's job more difficult.
The demands of stakeholder analysis are only one part of the protected area manager's ever-expanding set of responsibilities. He or she is expected to master - or at least employ experts in - many new and complex areas of expertise (business skills and fundraising, economics, conflict resolution, public relations, and so on) on top of natural resource and visitor management. Increasingly the manager is being urged to think even beyond the protected area's boundaries to engage in bioregional planning activities, or to address wider social problems faced by surrounding communities.

Although there are no easy solutions to these challenges, the new paradigm should be welcomed. Strictly government-owned and -managed protected areas are not enough anymore. What has emerged is a broader, more culturally respectful way of looking at protected areas, with participatory resource management and the alignment of human needs with nature. In theory, at least, we know now what needs to be done to achieve successful protected areas. The overarching challenge is to apply the theory.

For more information:
Adrian Phillips, 2 The Old Rectory, Dumbleton near Evesham, WR11 7TG, UK. E-mail: adrianp [at] wcpa.demon.co.uk