Though protected areas now cover 12 per cent of the earth's surface, a happy ending is by no means guaranteed, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today in a message to delegates gathered to discuss places set aside for their natural beauty or status as refuges for the world's most valuable plants and animals.
"While protected areas have been multiplying, biological diversity has been declining at a rate unprecedented since the last great extinction 65 million years ago," Mr. Annan said in a message to the fifth World Congress on Protected Areas being held in Durban, South Africa.
The World Conservation Union (WCU) organized the Congress, being held under the theme "Benefit beyond boundaries." More than 2,000 delegates from over 170 countries are attending the event, which runs from today until 17 September.
Mr. Annan's message, delivered by UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Klaus Toepfer, said while the number of reported protected areas has multiplied 100-fold to more than 100,000 since 1962, "Essential ecosystem functions are being undermined, perhaps irretrievably, as forests are felled, wetlands drained, and terrestrial and marine habitats degraded by pollution."
"The services provided by ecosystems and by biological diversity are the foundation for society's development," Mr. Annan stressed. "This is especially true for developing countries, where proportionally more people depend directly on natural resources for fuel, income generation, nutrition and medicines."
He added that it is not only the developing world that depends on biodiversity. "All humanity depends on biological diversity for health, for food security and income generation. Things we often take for granted - soil fertility, watershed management, crop pollination, new pharmaceutical products and genes that protect stock and crops from disease - all depend on the diversity of life," the Secretary-General said.
Mr. Annan said a major challenge was identifying appropriate solutions for the many issues facing protected areas. "Some protected areas are protected in name only. Many, even in the developed world, are sadly under-funded," he noted.
Another major issue that will bear heavily on all efforts to eliminate poverty and achieve truly sustainable development is the protection of oceans, Mr. Annan said. "While more than 11 per cent of the world's land is protected, less than 1 per cent of the world's oceans is under protection. Fisheries are collapsing, and coastal areas are reeling from land-based pollution."