World Parks at Risk

The October issue of National Geographic has a series of articles on The Future of Parks, including an interesting article by David Quammen. He writes,

“Serengeti National Park tells the world that the people of Tanzania, accepting some burden of inconvenience, find themselves privileged to embrace within their boundaries a vast grassland filled with lions – come and see.”

The truth of the matter is that many Tanzanians, especially the Masai who previously inhabited Serengeti, see parks as places where wild animals are favored over local people for the benefit of foreign tourists.

It is also true that parks and other protected areas work. We need them if we want to conserve biodiversity.

But there are huge opportunity costs associated with protected areas. The long term sustainability of protected areas in poor countries is threatened by inadequate compensations for these costs.

If more poor countries become more democratic, the problem will get worse. Parks are an elite concern. By appealing directly to governing elites, the international conservation community has been able to get the support it needs to maintain the parks. This system may not be viable in the long run in countries that are poor, democratic and where landlessness is a serious problem.

A hint of things to come can be seen in Kenya, where the government, worried about an upcoming election, a year ago downgraded the Amboseli National Park to a national reserve, and handed control over it back to the Masai through the local county council. 29 NGOs wrote an open letter to the president of Kenya complaining about this decision, and arguing that income from Amboseli should continue to be used to subsidize unprofitable parks, and not all be paid to the county council.

Since Amboseli generates substantial revenue from wildlife, it may survive as a protected area rich in wildlife. In the absence of additional payments for conservation or as compensation, other parks are more economically viable if turned into farms or ranches.

For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be any international organizations or NGOs that want to come up with the money so that people in poor countries can receive fair compensation for setting aside their land for the benefit of all of us.

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