The future of food – why protected areas are more than just a safe haven for pandas

April 15, 2015

Villagers collect wood around Mount Halimun Salak National Park, Java, Indonesia. Photo: Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Villagers collect wood around Mount Halimun Salak National Park, Java, Indonesia. Photo: Aulia Erlangga/CIFOR

Originally published at Bioversity International

Protected areas are places where conscious efforts are made to preserve not only wild species, but also the ecosystems in which species live. With increasing amounts of land being converted to accommodate human needs, whether for industry, homes, infrastructure or agriculture, protected areas may be the only natural, or near natural, ecosystems that remain.

While the wider public perception of the value of protected areas may often be as a safe haven for poster child endangered species, the real value is much more. Danny Hunter, Bioversity International Senior Scientist and supporting author of two chapters in a new book ‘Protected Area Governance and Management‘ explains why in a recent interview:

You are a supporting author on the chapter Values and Benefits of Protected Areas – could you explain what values and benefits they offer?

Conservation is still the main reason we have protected areas. They are a vital safety net for species diversity, genetic diversity within species, habitats and ecosystems. Thinking beyond endangered species like the panda, which is often the first image that springs to mind in the wider public perception, the role of protected areas in providing habitats for vital plant species like crop wild relatives, is often overlooked. Crop wild relatives are wild species closely related to our domesticated crops which supply valuable genetic diversity for plant breeding to help us tackle challenges like drought tolerance and outbreaks of crop pests and diseases. Altogether crop wild relatives are estimated to contribute globally to improving food production by around US$115-120 billion every year, a figure that is only set to increase as we look for ways to adapt food systems to climate change. For example, three wild peanuts have provided resistance to the root knot nematode, which was costing peanut growers around the world US$100 million each year.

Protected areas are also now increasingly recognized for providing ecosystem services, which are benefits that people get from nature. Some benefit people directly, such food provision, which not only provides nutrition but also supports livelihoods. They also provide more indirect services, such as pollination and soil fertility regulation. Recent studies show that pollinators, like bees, are responsible for up to 40% of world’s supply of nutrients and that out of 107 crops traded in the world market, 43 crops depend highly on pollinators.

We also get other less tangible benefits such as the well-being many of us feel when surrounded by nature. It is hard to attribute monetary values to these types of benefits, but when you consider things like income from recreation and tourism from people wanting to connect with nature, this is considerable. But of course, this income depends on nature being there to be enjoyed.

How can all these competing demands sit well with protecting areas? Should we not simply ring-fence these areas and leave them to nature?

It is not that simple. Most protected areas are already home to people, whether they are permanent residents, seasonal visitors or nomadic peoples and it is increasingly recognized that including people in sustainable use strategies for protected land management, rather than separating people and protected areas, is the way forward. Although global figures are not available, data from a few regions or countries suggest that the number of people who currently use resources within protected areas is at least several tens of millions. Activities include hunting, fishing, harvesting and the collection of non-timber forest products for food, fuel, medicine and building materials. Protected area management is as much a matter of managing human use and recognizing people’s links with nature as it is about the nature itself.

Why does the Protected Area Governance and Management book matter for agricultural biodiversity and plant genetic resources?

Bioversity International has a considerable history of working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in protected areas and with communities that reside in or near them. Yet for many reasons it has always been a challenge to highlight the important role of agricultural biodiversity and genetic resources to those involved in protected area management. By bringing attention to the importance of agricultural biodiversity and genetic resources it is hoped that the book will make that task easier. The book is one of the major legacy products of the recent World Parks Congress and according to IUCN sources, it is World Commission on Protected Area’s largest volunteer project for a single book product in its history with over 169 principal and supporting authors who contributed over a period of almost three years.