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Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

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Durban, South Africa, 8 September 2003 - Secretary-General's message to the World Parks Congress [delivered by Mr. Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director, UNEP]

It is fitting that this fifth World Congress on Protected Areas is being held in South Africa, just one year after this country hosted the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

For more than a century, countries throughout the world have been setting aside areas for special protection because of their natural beauty and their status as refuges for some of the world's most spectacular, valuable -- and, often, threatened -- plants and animals.

The latest statistics, compiled for this conference from data provided by governments to the United Nations, working in collaboration with the World Conservation Union (IUCN), reveal that protected areas now cover 12 per cent of the Earth's surface -- nearly 19 million square kilometres, an area the size of the United States and China combined. Furthermore, since the first UN List was published in 1962, the number of reported protected areas has multiplied 100-fold to more than 100,000.

The story of the world's protected areas would therefore seem to be an ecological success story. However, a happy ending is by no means guaranteed. While protected areas have been multiplying, biological diversity has been declining at a rate unprecedented since the last great extinction 65 million years ago. Essential ecosystem functions are being undermined, perhaps irretrievably, as forests are felled, wetlands drained, and terrestrial and marine habitats degraded by pollution. The growth of human populations, the pressure of poverty on the environment, the increasing drain on natural resources, and the inability or unwillingness of many countries to adequately fund protected areas or to enforce the protection of valuable habitats is precipitating a crisis for all humankind.

The services provided by ecosystems and by biological diversity are the foundation for society's development. This is especially true for developing countries, where proportionally more people depend directly on natural resources for fuel, income generation, nutrition and medicines. Only last month, in Durban, the government of South Africa emphasized the role of traditional medicine as a weapon in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Traditional medicines are just one example of a wide range of biodiversity products that not only provide subsistence and livelihoods for billions of people but also, if sustainably harvested and fairly traded in the global marketplace, can benefit local communities, protected areas and developing country economies.

But it is not just 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.

Thanks to scientific advances and the work of the IUCN, the UN Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre, the UN Development Programme and others, our understanding of the role played in all our lives by biodiversity and natural ecosystems is growing daily.

So too is our understanding of how quickly we are losing these irreplaceable resources.

Climate change, ozone depletion, pollution and alien species are major contributors, but by far the greatest threat is the degradation and fragmentation of habitats, especially in species-rich areas such as forests and coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs. Ecosystem-level management is therefore essential to ensure the viability of habitats that harbour biodiversity, provide ecological services, and protect the protected areas themselves. Protected areas that are merely islands in a sea of degradation are doomed to wither and die. Addressing the fragmentation of essential habitats will therefore be one of the challenges facing this congress.

Another challenge will be to identify appropriate solutions for the many other issues facing protected areas. Some protected areas are protected in name only. Many, even in the developed world, are sadly under-funded. Funding and of enforcement of protection where pressures are highest—for instance, in areas of high poverty or armed conflict—will provide a stern test for governments, international organizations and managers of protected area.

Another issue that merits attention is the rights of indigenous peoples. Too often, they are the first to suffer when habitats are degraded or appropriated for alternative land uses, or when governments decide their lands need protection. We need to ensure that the benefits of habitat protection and biodiversity exploitation are equitably shared.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the management of protected areas. Some areas demand strict protection, hard edges and an absence of human activity. Others require a recognition that people are part of the ecosystem and that excluding them can be counterproductive as well as unjust. We need an open-minded, pragmatic and flexible approach. Such an approach was one feature of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, where it was agreed that private sector partnerships are a valuable tool for providing both the resources and the innovative thinking that are needed.

In closing, I would like to mention one major issue that will bear heavily on all our efforts to eliminate poverty and achieve truly sustainable development: protecting the oceans.

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. Studies show that marine protected areas can dramatically increase fish size and quantity. When one considers that 90 per cent of the world's fishermen and women operate at the small-scale local level, produce over half the global fish catch, and provide income and food for a significant proportion of coastal dwellers—who now represent 60 per cent of the global population—the benefits of increasing the protection of the marine environment are clear.

This conference is an opportunity to highlight these and many other complex issues and provide clear direction to governments and their partners. Let us all do our utmost to ensure that the biological diversity of this planet is preserved and used for the benefit of all humanity now and for generations to come.


Statements on 8 September 2003