Conservationist are set on the idea that to preserve nature is to remove humans form the equation and leave habitats alone. But is this even possible in today’s world? And has it ever been that way?
It seems that in every corner of the globe, animals not only inhabit an ecosystem, but shape it and define it in important ways, and the human animal is no exception.
With the Green Revolution and the environmental movement came an effort to create designated conservation areas as the main strategy in preserving biodiversity. As of 2010, there are 161,000 protected areas in the world, covering about 15 percent of the land. Evidence seems to suggest that these have had some success in slowing down biodiversity loss, and even bringing back some species from the brink of extinction.
For the most part these designated conservation areas limit human activity and access, which is a very logical thing to do – especially since it is mostly human activity causing the destruction and biodiversity loss.
But could it be that this very same logic is limiting our potential to thrive in nature and achieve sustainable conservation? Could our notion of conservation in fact be misguided? Maybe instead of merely trying to save nature from ourselves we should seek to understand and address why we are in this contradictory predicament in the first place.
The main challenges to protected areas give us some clues as to what questions we need to be asking. Enforcement of boundaries in vast wilderness areas is challenging and expensive requiring a dedicated force with uninterrupted training and funding. Political will must be steadfast, as well as the cooperation of the local population.
The pressure to reduce or compromise protected landscapes is often overwhelming. Urban growth and development eat away at the margins or buffer areas, as can be seen by the rapidly increasing contrast seen in aerial photos of pretty much any piece of land in conservation.
Many protected areas actually become a no-mans-land where criminal activity and unregulated pillaging of natural resources run rampant. Local communities, which have been stewards and co-creators of the landscape for generations, are often not consulted and even pushed out under some conservation policies.
It would seem that these legislated pockets of preserved nature do not fit the narrative of the society and landscape around them, and become a source of conflict. But why? Is it possible to preserve and foster natural ecosystems in a way that is congruent with human needs and activities?
Indigenous and local communities that have lived within ecosystems for generations can provide knowledge and important examples of how this can be achieved. Forward looking ideas of how to include the Value of Nature and ecosystem services in financial plans can also inform this process.
Protecting and policing vulnerable habitats is of course important, but it really is a last gasp effort in the face of rapid biodiversity loss. If we are to find our place in Nature again and live sustainability, we need to go much further that our traditional notion of conservation.