Global Environmental Congress Kicks Off in South Africa

September 7, 2003 - 0:0
DURBAN, South Africa -- Thousands of environmentalists will descend on South Africa Monday to focus on the world's 44,000 protected areas in a once-a-decade global event which is being staged for the first time in Africa.

The 10-day World Parks Congress (WPA) in the eastern port city of Durban will draw some 2,500 experts from across the world, with the role that protected areas can serve in alleviating poverty at the core of their talks.

"The World Parks Congress is the premier global event where the big issues for the protected area profession will be drawn out and debated," congress spokeswoman Xenya Cherny said in a statement ahead of the opening ceremony Monday evening. "Durban will influence African decision-makers and act as a stimulus for increased support and action for the central role that protected areas can play in the livelihoods of the peoples of Africa."

The four previous congresses played an important role in assisting governments create new protected areas and direct more resources toward the conservation of local biodiversity.

This year's gathering will deliver a global "report card" flush with statistical data to analyze current issues, such as how protected areas can anticipate and adapt to global change.

"Protected areas represent some of humankind's earliest efforts to conserve the natural resources on which our survival and well-being depend," the advance statement said.

Development has devastated and diminished natural resources the past century, but the number of protected areas has nevertheless increased from only a handful in 1900 to 44,000 today.

They cover more than 10 percent of the Earth's land surface.

"Although protected areas have never been needed more, the threats to these areas continue to increase," Cherny said. "Whether as reservoirs of biological diversity, sources of clean air and water, buffers from storms, sinks for carbon or places to reconnect with nature, protected areas are vitally important to safeguarding our future."

The WWF conservation group's vice president, Bill Eichbaum, said the gathering would not only focus on the protection of biodiversity, but also its impact on local communities.

"As protected areas are developed, it must be done in ways to take into account the needs and values of the local people," Eichbaum told AFP.

He added the congress also needed to focus on marine protection, which has lagged behind in being earmarked for conservation purposes.

"We have been expanding our protection areas on land but not the marine environment and fresh water environments. We would like to see renewed and invigorated attention given to that," Eichbaum said.

The Washington-based Conservation International will present its "Global Gap Analysis" at the conference, a study on the link between protected areas and endangered species, spokesman Jim Wyss said in a statement.

Scientists mapped the ranges of more than 15,000 bird, amphibian and mammal species and overlaid the data with maps of the world's most protected areas.

They discovered that "more than 700 threatened species have no protection over any part of their ranges. These gap species point out the critical holes in the world's protected area network," he said. The financial implications of preserving nature will also come under discussion.

Conservation International is expected to "put a price tag" on the continuing loss of species and habitat, and to estimate how much it costs to keep the world's protected areas running effectively.