After the lines are drawn: The importance of protected areas governance

It’s tempting to think that once we declare a protected area protected, all the species, ecosystem services, and ecosystem functioning within the area will be conserved in perpetuity. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We cannot simply establish protected areas, draw lines on a map, and leave these areas alone. These areas, and the biodiversity within, are still subject to internal and external threats – threats like climate change, invasive species (like these flowers in Blue Mountains National Park), and poaching, to name a few. In order to ensure that protected areas will continue to function and conserve species well into the future, we need to also ensure that these areas are effectively managed. For this reason, one of the streams at the World Parks Congress was focused on the governance of protected areas.

In order to ensure that protected areas will continue to function and conserve species well into the future, we need to also ensure that these areas are effectively managed.

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Generally, governance can be thought of as the process by which decisions are made and the participants involved in this process. However, decision-making processes and the actors involved may be virtually identical across a wide variety of protected areas. If these similar decision-making processes are not addressing threats, meeting overarching goals for these protected areas, and/or adequately including all stakeholders in this process, we might say that these areas are lacking effective governance.

In order to address this issue, one of the main messages of this stream focused on enhancing the diversity of governance for protected areas and their management. Governance diversity can be thought of as encouraging different approaches to decision-making, along with different actors, across the global network of protected areas. For example, we could recognize and support protected areas that are managed by indigenous peoples and local communities, protected areas that are privately managed, and transboundary approaches to conservation that involve a wide range of governmental and nongovernmental participants (e.g., the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative), to name a few.

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Why is governance diversity important? Governance diversity may help extend the coverage of protected areas, increase management effectiveness, and help address the challenges of conservation-imposed “power imbalances” that may arise in situations where governments charged with governance of protected areas are not adequately including or representing local communities and all involved stakeholders, especially indigenous people. Diversifying the governance of protected areas can also serve as policy experimentation that allows us to test our assumptions about what best works to address certain challenges and meet particular goals.

Ultimately, governance diversity’s main strength is that it allows governance arrangements to emerge out of the specific ecological and social contexts of a protected area. This approach allows us to avoid the tendency to “copy and paste” certain governance structures aimed at increasing management effectiveness from one area to another under the assumption that the effects will be the same. Just as we wouldn’t manage a tropical rainforest the same way we would manage a temperate coastal wetland, we should also make sure that we don’t transplant governance structures from a protected area void of people to a protected area that may contain villages, for example.

Governance diversity’s main strength is that it allows governance arrangements to emerge out of the specific ecological and social contexts of a protected area.

Of course, recognizing and supporting diverse governance structures may not be easy. It will involve thinking outside of conventional constructs about governance. However, proper recognition and support of these diverse approaches is vital to ensure that protected areas will be effectively managed in the face of emerging challenges, like climate change and wildlife crime. Given the emerging focus on governance in conversations about protected areas, I am optimistic that governance diversity will become an important focus of the actions undertaken by the conservation community now and into the future.