Biodiversity: protecting species rather than kilometers

Biodiversity: protect species rather than kilometers

Increasing protected areas is a goal that seems to be unanimous at each of the United Nations summits on biodiversity. But an increase should be based primarily on the amount of biodiversity, not the number of square kilometres.

As part of this summit, which takes place in Montreal until December 17, a figure is circulating a lot: 30%. By virtue of this figure, all governments should aim to double the number of protected areas in the world — that is, the areas that are protected from overfishing, deforestation, urban expansion , etc. — so as to reach, by 2030, a total of 30% of land and oceans.

When discussing this idea of ​​a drastic increase in land area, experts often cite the awarding of “national monument” status to the Mariana Trench region in the Pacific as an example: the US government  granted this status to this region of the ocean under its jurisdiction in 2009, adding some 250,000 square kilometers to the list of protected areas in one fell swoop.

Environmentalists praise this example as a model to follow, but the problem is that it protects a territory that was not subjected to many threats for its marine species. At the other end of the spectrum, the Mexican government had granted the same year the status of “national park” to a very small area of ​​about forty square kilometers, but which protects the coral reef Cabo Pulmo, in the Gulf of California.

Any expansion of a protected area or network of protected areas should therefore be “based on biodiversity rather than total area”, comments environmental science professor David Williams, University of Leeds , in England. “The worry is that a big target like that 30% encompasses different goals. »   

Williams is the lead author of a study published last June, which estimates that currently protected areas, even if they were all well managed, would fail to protect half of all mammal species.

< p>Questioned by the environmental magazine E360, he gives the example of Greenland : “large parts are protected, but are not threatened, so what is this protection really for? German ecologist Christian Hof adds: “ The uncoordinated expansion of protected areas can result in a waste of resources ”.

In 2019, the Australian government added huge territories to the list, to the point where 50% of the land now has “protected” status. But this list does not include the Great Barrier Reef, one of the greatest riches in the world of biodiversity.

A study of the evolution of protected areas since 2010, published in 2020, concluded that this expansion “has had limited success” in improving protection “across different elements of biodiversity”.

All observers agree that the value of a protected area should be a function, not of its size, but of factors such as the number of species found there and their rarity. The issue of connectivity between two protected areas should also be considered: if an animal can no longer get from point A to point B as it did before (because of a highway that separates the two areas, or fences), an obstacle has been created to the true protection of this species.

The first draft of the agreement which should in theory be signed in Montreal contained efforts to quantify species or genetic diversity, but many of these efforts are at risk of being replaced by more vague formulations, denounced last month the Argentinean ecologist Sandra Diaz (see previous text).

And still it is necessary to ensure that the current statutes of protected areas or protected areas fulfill their function. “ In many developing countries, summarizes the E360 report, supposedly protected areas are mostly 'parks on paper' with minimal management ”. And that is when the management of the park does not come into conflict with local communities, including indigenous people. A paradox, knowing that, with supporting research, we now realize that the best protection of biodiversity is often that which is taken in hand by local communities.

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