Parked at a panacea

Are isolated refuges the only way to protect biodiversity?

Published: Saturday 15 May 2004

-- A RESEARCH paper published in Nature (see: Ineffective) suggests the only way to improve the efficacy of the protected areas (PA) network (sanctuaries and national parks) is to increase the area under their coverage in the tropics and envelope greater biodiversity. This is so, the researchers claim because the parks have failed to give sanctuary to the immense biodiversity that cohabits with human presence. Of more than 1,400 species studied, they find almost 12 per cent not covered by the PA network.

But they forget that the creation of a protected area is not an ecological concept. It is a political process of dispossession. It is about power over and access to resources. The endangered fruit bat might just get its niche protected because the nominal wildlife pallbearers, the tiger or the elephant, also roam the area but the individual who 'threatened' the niche by its fruit collection habits (we call it NTFP extraction) will surely be booted out.

The statistical modelling may simulate the desired level of conservation but it will not help wish away the fact that creating these parks simultaneously generate new threats to biodiversity. Fencing may keep people out but it does not reduce their dependence on forests as a resource. People find their way about and usually the new 'illicit' route is more debilitating to the habitat. It may save the small patch but it ruins the adjoining landscape. Living with forests (for good or bad) is not an experiment; one should be wary of putting it to laboratory tests or of creating simulated pristine forests where none exist.

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