A number of protected areas were established in the past without due consideration of the needs of local communities. This caused many hard feelings about nature conservation as in some cases; local people were displaced, lost their access to their hunting or fishing grounds, their cooking and building materials and sometimes their access to places of worship. This situation has changed substantially by applying the new paradigm for protected areas which considers the involvement of local communities and indigenous peoples in planning and managing protected areas. This is a requirement of modern protected areas management which is supported by the Convention on Biological Diversity's Programme of Work on Protected Areas.
Protected areas are often in remote areas and the people living near them are among the poorest and those who have the less access to development or well-being. Well-being includes economic well-being but also extends to the enjoyment of civil liberties, relative freedom from crime, enjoyment of a clean environment and individual states of mental and physical health.
By involving local people in nature conservation activities, they benefit from alternative economic options; hunters become tourist guides, local women create souvenirs for tourists, and the tourism industry offers many possibilities of employment.
An IUCN Project in Cat Tien Park in Vietnam ensures that 1% of the revenue from park entries goes to development projects. In the first few years this was used for sanitation purposes in the nearby villages and then a school was built. Overflow of fish stocks from a small marine protected area in the Philippines doubled the revenue for about 600 people with an initial input of only US$ 12, 000. A protected area in Ecuador provides clean water for all the population of Quito, the local economy then receives financial support by Quito paying for their water.
Enjoyment of civil liberties
Local communities are becoming stakeholders in protected area management. Collaboration with Non Governmental Organisations, local and national government officials, protected area managers and others have offered them the possibility of having a voice in defending their rights.
Hundreds of sacred natural sites are included in protected areas. These sites are often in pristine natural condition as traditionally indigenous peoples and local communities were custodians of the sites. Site managers are working with the local people to ensure that the spiritual values of the area are recognised and maintained. The community therefore has a spiritual connection to the protected area and is proud of ensuring the continuation of their beliefs.
Enjoyment of a clean environment
Protected areas provide ecosystem services, by protecting watersheds and ensuring clean and regular water flow, protecting forest and avoiding erosion and landslides, protecting fish nurseries thereby ensuring sustainable fishing outside the protected area and by providing natural solutions for species and ecosystems to adapt to climate change.
Individual states of mental and physical health
Protected areas also have an incidence on health. In many areas in Asia the only protein people have comes from fish. Marine Protected Areas, particularly No-Take Zones, and Freshwater Protected Areas act as effective fish nurseries contributing to replenish fish stocks and often have doubled the quantity and size of the fish, ensuring that local fishermen, not only gain in revenue by selling more fish to the market, but also health-wise as their protein intake has grown.
Traditional medicines are almost always derived from plants, and modern medicine is often plant derived. With species outside of protected areas becoming more and more scarce, protected areas could become the last refuge of Earth’s health laboratory.
The “Healthy Parks, Healthy People” initiative, launched by IUCN Member Parks Victoria in Australia, is reuniting park managers and health professionals to promote and demonstrate the importance of parks for health. Whether with sporting activities to reduce weight or cardiac diseases or with contact with nature to diminish mental illnesses such as depression; the project has demonstrated that contact with nature ameliorates the physical and mental well-being of patients and diminishes the needs for costly medicines and treatments.
Protected Areas can therefore contribute to sustainable development and the well-being of people, but to do so enabling legislation needs to be put in place to promote equitable distribution of costs and benefits, allowing economic return to be reinserted in development projects locally and ensuring that local communities are fully involved in all aspects of protected area planning and management.