Great values should lead to great support

For a long time, the promotion of protected areas was calculated for a few simple uses, for instance the right to enter and visit on a purely economic basis. Current promotion focuses on new aspects such as payment for environmental services (particularly access to good quality water), heritage promotion (for instance the intrinsic value of a rare species), carbon compensation etc. The paradigm given for conservation is that anything of value should be conserved. This gives rise to the question of knowing for whom this value exists, rather than what it is… While protected areas can be promoted in many ways, there can be a conflict in time between short-term promotion, often private, with immediate return on investments, and a sustainable promotion of biodiversity, often public, in the long term. Sustainable conservation stakes still tend to carry little weight in the face of a mining or other major infrastructure project (dam, port etc.) or in the context of current population growth.

This is where the danger lies: in trying to quantify the economic value of an area, we risk showing that in fact other uses would have a better economic result, particularly for political decision-makers interested in the very short-term. Justifying the economic existence of conservation has thus pushed protected area managers and their partners to be innovative and creative in increasing the aspects that can be promoted (sometimes going so far as to promote values that cannot really be quantified or even defined). The win-win philosophy (based on the assumption that conservation would be the best option for everyone in the long run) is often highlighted in different conservation programmes.

However, this is rarely the case. Based on this fundamental assumption, a consensual and moderate approach is generally taken, which fails to assess the real issues at stake for conservation as it seeks first and foremost a consensus among all partners. However different stakeholders have differing ambitions and objectives and ignoring this will ultimately prevent constructive (and of course complex) negotiation.

Interventions in the field of conservation overlap with development actions. Synergies exist, but it is important to separate these fields of intervention to avoid confusion among beneficiaries. Stakeholders working in both fields should collaborate to carry out compatible and complementary actions while retaining their own objectives. From this point of view the past decade has seen environmental leaders (and NGOs and other lobbyists) take a backseat to economic development, placing conservation on the periphery of decision-making just when it has never been so urgent to give it priority.

What should we do?

The promotion of protected areas encourages conservation stakeholders to be innovative and creative. There are many ways to assess value and are all paths to be explored, built or consolidated in light of the current need to “count” economically.

Governance issues need to be explored and developed so that conservation becomes a veritable political choice, not just an economic one.

  • It is important to confirm the decisions taken by involving the political stakeholders whose “environmental conscience” takes time to construct.
  • It is necessary to move on from consensual approaches with a limited impact on biodiversity conservation and admit that what is a benefit for some can sometimes constitute a cost for others.

Civil society has a role to play in the decisions made by governments. The way they are organised and structured can influence the decisions on where to install infrastructure, the construction of a mine or a political strategy.

  • Supported by new media, civil society must make its voice heard in Africa, where it is still underrepresented, despite an often dense social fabric.
  • Mentalities must change. People must find it as important to promote and conserve natural heritage as architectural heritage for example. The idea that natural public goods must be defended in the long term must take hold and become a fundamental principle in Africa as well.
  • The change in mentalities among civil society must also include the recognition of multiple values of biodiversity and ecosystems (such as ecosystem services) and make it possible to promote protected areas for more than just their basic products or immediate returns.

The promotion of protected areas must include all facets of their value, beyond the obvious economic benefits. This value needs to be identified and understood.

  • This requires lobbying of decision-makers, both technicians and politicians, because they are in the best position to transmit the message to the people.
  • Strengthening civil society for environmental leadership is also important for this change.