By Charlotte Karibuhoye Said. The Central and West Africa region covers 26 countries that span a diversity of landscapes from Sahara desert areas and the Sahel in the north, through herbaceous and shrub savannahs, the equatorial forest belt around the Congo basin, to the numerous delta and estuaries, islands and islets off the Atlantic ocean. This diversity of ecosystems is also reflected in a wealth of species, with the presence of iconic, endemic and threatened species.
Today there are over 2,330 protected areas (PAs) formally recognised in 26 countries, not counting those that are being established.
The management of protected areas in Central Africa and West faces many challenges: habitat destruction and abusive exploitation of forests, large-scale poaching, but also illegal, unregulated unreported fisheries, the targeted exploitation of threatened or vulnerable species and invasive species, not to mention armed conflict and socio-political insecurity.
Protected areas are also under pressure due to human activities, particularly in connection with agriculture, urbanisation and infrastructure development, but also to industrial and mining activities. A major threat remains limited available technical, human and financial resources for the management of the sites. Moreover, due to the low involvement of local communities and the non-integration of protected areas in the sectoral planning processes, these areas have until recently been seen as islands somewhat disconnected from reality and from local and national decision-makers' priorities.
As elsewhere in the world, Central and West African protected areas are the main pillar for biodiversity conservation. More than anywhere else, PAs here play a crucial role in achieving sustainable development goals (SDG), and not just those on the protection and sustainable use of marine (SDG 14) and terrestrial (SDG 15) resources and environment.
In fact, millions of people depend on and take advantage of resources, goods and services provided by ecosystems and protected areas, which contribute to securing their livelihoods and preserving their cultural heritage. States also derive significant social and economic benefits of the existence of the PAs. In addition, by maintaining healthy and functional ecosystems, protected areas are essential to mitigating the unpredictable effects of climate change.
My vision for Central and West Africa is that the true value of protected areas as indispensable pillars for the survival of human societies, natural heritage and socio-cultural well-being, but also as essential tools for the socioeconomic development are recognised. This recognition should lead to protected areas and their management needs being effectively valued and integrated in the national and regional strategies and sectoral planning processes and to equitable and transparent governance, where different stakeholders are involved in close collaboration and local and traditional knowledge and practices are fully recognised.
All relevant actors, including State, the private sector and civil society, must resolutely and sustainably invest in PAs, if we want sustainable development goals not to remain just a slogan.