A short history of protected areas and thoughts on the North-South divide

Modern notions of conservation and development surfaced somewhere in the late 1800s (of course indigenous concepts of sustainability and the value of nature go back millennia). At this time there was (and largely still is) an economic divide between countries which had enjoyed/endured an industrial revolution and those that hadn’t, broadly falling across the North-South divide.

A pre-industrial society looks something like this:

Pre-industrial Society

Where as an industrial society looks more like this:

Post-industrial Society

For a few centuries, the newly industrialising countries of Europe, set out and “discovered” other (pre-indusrial) societies around the world, using their wealth and advanced technology to claim them as colonies and expand their empires. These colonial countries sought to promote capacity for international trade and manage nature for elite hunting pleasure, thus beginning both modern development and conservation agendas. Conservation, throughout this time has relied heavily on the development of protected areas as a key tool to preserve wildlife by limiting or excluding human activities in designated areas.

Protected areas are found all over the world. I grew up in the UK with National Parks that look something like this:


Which according to IUCN definitions are not actually National Parks at all but in fact “Protected Landscapes” characterised by the very interaction of people and nature. In the UK the creation of National Parks was largely motivated by access to, not exclusion from, natural areas. Now of course, in the 1950s when these parks were established, the UK was a rich industrial country with an increasing urban population, not much (or arguably, any) wilderness and no megafauna or carnivores to cause trouble for rural people. The strong land tenure rights meant the creation of protected areas had to take into account the people living inside them.

By contrast true National Parks (category II) according to the IUCN should be large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large scale ecological processes. Strict Nature Reserves and Wilderness Areas (category I) have even greater limitations on extractive human activities and sometimes even prohibit visitation and access rights altogether. These strict type of protected areas are the ones that led the way in the conservation movement in places such as the US (think Yosemite, Yellowstone) and East Africa (think Tsavo, Serengeti).

Wilderness-type protected areas look something like this:


These  wilderness-type protected areas have come under scrutiny for a variety of reasons; human rights abuses associated with forced removals of indigenous peoples, questions regarding the very validity of the wilderness concept , and the economic limitations they may impose. Attempts at prioritising conservation to maximise biodiversity almost always emphasise action in the global South where biodiversity and endemism are most rich, and thus placing the largest burden for biodiversity protection on the poorest. Some argue that by protecting large areas for biodiversity conservation in these regions unfairly impacts their ability to develop economically because the land could be used in more profitable ways such as agriculture or extraction of precious minerals.

Attempting to assess the impacts of protected areas on both human welfare and biodiversity  is complicated and results are inconclusive. Despite this, they are still the most dominant conservation tool available to us. And I can understand why; whilst other conservation initiatives come and go (few PES schemes persist beyond 6 years), protected areas can have some permanence. The designation of land through formal protection can persist even in times of crisis (Virunga NP) when I fear other initiatives would fade.

But I worry that by promoting protected areas abroad it could become too easy to export our responsibility and rely too heavily on the North-South divide constructed in colonial times (but this time along the lines of “we already lost our wilderness, so you have to protect yours”). It’s almost like the goodies of the earth have been divided up and we, the industrialised global North, get to keep our industry, our indulgent lifestyles, high consumption rates and hot baths whilst the global South gets the biodiversity – which doesn’t seem fair on either of us really.

Ultimately I think we need some sort of global revolution on what development means for all of us as I’m convinced it can’t look like industrialisation the way the North has tried it (reports like this, “Low-carbon Africa: Leapfrogging to a green future“, look exciting). I suspect the North needs to shrink to let the South grow and we all need to take responsibility for the persistence of biodiversity, sharing both the earth’s goodies and responsibilities more fairly.


Me enjoying the Lake District, one of the UK’s National Parks

I like protected areas, I am particularly fond of our National Parks here in the UK and visit them regularly to enjoy the biodiversity and traditional way of life they protect. They originated as an answer to newly emerging British values about biodiversity and cultural conservation and access to rural areas for urban people. Similarly if protected areas in biodiversity-rich regions are to be successful and morally defendable  they can’t be a Northern export but an indigenous answer motivated by indigenous values.

2 Comments on “A short history of protected areas and thoughts on the North-South divide

  1. Excellent summary, I am using your graphs for my protected areas course. They are very illustrative. I have done work with invasive species in parks and have used similar conceptual diagrams. Please email me if you want a copy of that work.

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