Ensuring equitable management of protected areas: we're still defining the issues

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5 December 2014

Last month's once-a-decade World Parks Congress didn't talk enough about 'equity' when managing protected areas — but at least it's on the agenda.

Ethiopia's Mursi tribe graze cattle, but also hunt for meat and ivory. There are frequent conflicts with government and park authorities about land rights (Photo: David Stanley via Flickr)

Past congresses have shaped, and in some cases redefined, core elements of the international conservation agenda. The 2003 Congress in Durban was notable for redirecting thinking on protected area governance – starting a process that has led to recognition for many thousands of new protected areas managed, and in many cases owned, by indigenous peoples and local communities.

That meeting also made commitments to enhance equity in conservation, powerfully endorsed by Nelson Mandela himself. And since then, we've had the 'Aichi Targets', which emerged from the Convention on Biological Diversity's 2010 Conference of the Parties, and which set strategic aims for global biodiversity from 2011-20, including Target 11 on effective and equitable management of protected areas.

So how far have we got, and will discussions at this year's congress (WPC 2014) have left a legacy of new thinking and practice on conservation's social aspects?

Perhaps not. Certainly, the congress did a good job of celebrating and reflecting on the decade's successes. But although there was a lot of talk about Aichi Target 11 and expanding protected areas with effective management, the other 'E' – equity – was barely addressed.

In truth, there has been much less progress on this in the past ten years. Promoting more equitable sharing of conservation's costs and benefits, and ensuring managers' commitments to human rights principles remain key concerns across all types of protected areas, but particularly in the tens of thousands of 'conventional' parks that are state-managed or that have weak models of shared governance.  There, managers may see local participation in decision-making more as a cost than as a way to benefit local stakeholders.  

Part of the hold up is that people are struggling with their very different understandings of 'equity', not only in conservation, but more broadly in the context of society as a whole.

What does it actually mean – are we talking about fair process or fair outcomes? And are we talking in terms of recognising rights, or balancing benefits and costs for local people, or reducing poverty – or all of the above? Why is equity important? And how do you assess progress? 

Too few events at WPC 2014 addressed these questions and even those that did, including three events co-hosted by IIED, struggled to provide clear answers because there has been so little work on this issue.

However, the good news is that the challenge is now clearly recognised, and the draft recommendations from the congress propose specific efforts to tackle this issue.

At IIED we will continue working to promote wider understanding of the key concepts (building on related work on equitable REDD+), to support the development and application of human rights standards for conservation, and to develop social assessment tools for protected area management.

The IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 was held in Sydney, Australia from 12-19 November.

Phil Franks (phil.franks@iied.org) is a senior researcher within IIED's Natural Resources Group.


These projects are funded by the German government’s International Climate Initiative, UK aid and the UK government’s Darwin Initiative, and IIED’s Framework Funders SIDA, DANIDA and Irish Aid. However the views expressed do not necessary reflect those of the funders.

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