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As we look ahead to the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 in Sydney, Australia, it is time to take stock of global efforts to conserve some of our planet’s vital landscapes and seascapes over the past 10 years. Below is a list of some of the most significant developments for protected areas that have taken place since the previous IUCN World Parks Congress, which was held in Durban, South Africa in 2003, and in many ways were inspired by this event. The decade has been marked by some notable achievements as well as serious setbacks, and urgent action is needed to secure the conservation gains of the past decades. The reflections below serve as an insight into what will be discussed at the IUCN World Parks Congress 2014 and what The Promise of Sydney, its main outcome document, may hold.

Achievements

A decade of growth: In the last 10 years alone, we have added around 14 million km2 to the global protected areas estate – an area the size of Antarctica. The total number of sites listed on the Protected Planet database, jointly produced by UNEP’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre, IUCN and its World Commission on Protected Areas, has doubled since 2003 and now stands at over 200,000 individual sites. The 2014 Protected Planet report with the latest figures will be launched at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney.

Major global agreement for protected areas: Building on the discussions in Durban, nearly 200 nations agreed at the meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2004 to the world’s first global agreement on protected areas (the Programme of Work), and then in 2010, on new global targets to achieve protection for at least 17% of terrestrial and 10% of marine environments by the year 2020. At the end of 2014, we are at the halfway mark towards the 2020 deadline.

Major boost in ocean conservation: The area of oceans under protection has seen the most dramatic growth since the Durban Congress, from under 1% to around 3% today. There have been major announcements of new large marine protected areas in the Pacific Ocean, including by the United States, New Caledonia and the Cook Islands. Despite these advances, the extent of oceans under protection still falls short of the 10% global target, and the ‘high seas’ – areas outside  national jurisdiction – are particularly under-protected. New marine conservation pledges are expected to emerge from this year’s Congress.

Greater recognition of Indigenous conserved areas: The Durban Congress ushered a ‘new paradigm’ for protected areas, based on respect of the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Since 2003, there has been a growing recognition of the diverse ways in which protected areas are governed and managed around the world, and particularly the role of Indigenous Peoples as their custodians. For example, in Mesoamerica, around 60% of the surface of protected areas has been established on indigenous territories. In Australia alone, over 20 million hectares have been declared as Indigenous Protected Areas in little more than a decade – and the movement is gathering speed worldwide.

“No-go” commitments on World Heritage: Governments and civil society have repeatedly affirmed  that World Heritage Sites – areas recognized as being of Outstanding Universal Value – must be respected as "no go areas" and protected from mining and extractive industries. At the Durban Congress, the International Council of Mining and Metals, representing 22 mining and metals companies as well as 32 mining and commodity associations, pledged to respect legally designated protected areas, and more specifically, not to explore or mine inside natural World Heritage sites. Since then, several other major companies, including Shell and Total, have followed suit in making a “no go” commitment on World Heritage sites. Still, many World Heritage sites around the world, notably Virunga National Park, Africa’s oldest and most biologically-diverse reserve, are today facing pressures from extractive industries, and many other protected areas face growing challenges from both extractive industries and other land and marine uses. 

Protected areas work! A decade since Durban, there is solid proof that well-managed and adequately resourced protected areas do achieve their conservation objectives and provide important benefits to people. Recent studies show that threatened species outside protected areas are sliding towards extinction twice as fast as those found within them. Protected areas provide drinking water to a third of the world’s 100 largest cities, store the same amount of carbon as tropical rainforests and provide jobs and livelihoods to millions of people around the world. 

In the United States, the Catskills watershed provides freshwater to nine million New Yorkers, saving billions of dollars in infrastructure costs. Mexico’s protected areas yield a return of $50 for every dollar invested through climate protection services. In the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Japan launched a green reconstruction project to protect the damaged coastline from future disasters. Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef adds over A$ 5.5 billion to the country’s economy and creates nearly 70,000 jobs.

Challenges

The escalating poaching crisis: The past decade has seen an escalation of the poaching crisis in Africa, with some 100,000 elephants illegally killed between 2010 and 2012. Since 2010, more than 3,000 rhinos have been poached in South Africa alone; its iconic Kruger National Park has recently been described as a “war zone”. Wildlife crime has become a serious threat to the stability and prosperity of some countries. More than 1,000 rangers have been killed worldwide and many more injured over the last 10 years, mainly by poachers and criminal gangs. The extent and impact of illegal wildlife trade and new approaches to combat it will be discussed at the Sydney Congress.

Are protected areas really protected? Despite formal protection, illegal logging, mining and the extraction of other resources are on the rise in many protected areas around the world. In some cases, governments have allowed the weakening of existing protected areas and, in some cases, their downsizing or degazettment (removal of legal protection). According to recent studies, only one quarter of protected areas globally have adequate management in place. For example, recent research in Latin America has found a 250% increase in forest loss in protected areas in recent years. But successful examples of managing protected areas for people and planet do exist and will be recognised through the new Green List of Protected Areas to be launched in Sydney.

Quality, not quantity: Although countries have stepped up efforts towards achieving the global targets of protecting 17% of land and 10% of the oceans by 2020, progress towards reaching the marine targets is far slower than that of terrestrial ones. At the same time, while the extent of protected area coverage is receiving most attention, other aspects, such as identification of areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecological representation, are largely being overlooked. Today, one in five threatened species is not safeguarded by any protected area, and only a third of key biodiversity areas around the world are protected. 

Climate change – addressing a major challenge: Only 10 years ago, climate change was not on the radar of most protected areas professionals and, as a result, was hardly mentioned at the previous World Parks Congress in Durban. In Sydney, responding to climate change will be a prominent topic — from stepping up investment in natural climate solutions to better managing protected areas in the face of climate change. We also know today that protected areas are amongst the world’s largest managed carbon stores, containing at least 15% of our planet’s terrestrial carbon. Protected areas also offer natural defences that help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. They reduce the impact of disasters such as hurricanes, floods and landslides by acting as buffers for communities in face of climate extremes. Without them, the climate challenge would be even greater.

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