Parks for Development, Parks for Communities, Parks for Life

May 26, 2014

Travelling nomads and their yak herd criss-cross the hills of the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve on the Tibetan Plateau, China. Nomadic herders have lived in the high mountain landscapes of Central and North Asia for millennia, relying on pasture to graze their livestock for their main livelihood. UNDP Photo / Kieran Dodds


From Bhutan’s sacred mountain where flags flap in a bitter wind, to a bird’s eye view of a herd of yaks in the sprawling Tibetan Plateau, to the warm waters of a lagoon in Madagascar, to a classroom in Nepal where a young boy recites the alphabet: some images are immediately recognisable.

While others—like the aerial view of the Namib Desert— are surreal and at first glance incomprehensible.

The magical nature of this assembly of photos on its debut display at the 5th GEF Assembly in Cancun, Mexico, speak to a single abiding truth: that the future of humanity is intertwined with the fate of the wondrous biodiversity we see around us.

Look, for example at the shoal of fish in a mangrove tangle of roots and corals in South Water Caye Marine Reserve of Belize.  These coral reefs and mangroves protect coastlines from erosion and wave damage, providing an estimated USD 231 to USD 347 million worth of services in avoided damages per year                   

This exhibition is about Parks. And people. Parks and people’s wellbeing. Parks for development.

UNDP’s Parks for Development exhibit presents the multiple contributions of protected areas to human wellbeing and sustainable development, highlighting successes from conservation projects around the world, financed by the Global Environment Facility and supported by UNDP.  These projects have benefited more than 2,500 marine and terrestrial protected areas and indigenous and community conservation areas, covering 353 million hectares in 102 countries!

The photos were sourced from professional and semi-professional photographers and UNDP-GEF colleagues around the world through a call for submissions. Contributors include the National Geographic photographer Frans Lanting and Paul van Schalkwyk, the legendary flying photographer of Namibia who sadly passed away recently in the plane crash at Etosha National Park.

Clear and beautifully crafted messages linking Parks to sustainable, inclusive and equitable human development thread through the 21-panel exhibit. The introductory panel says it all:  “As humanity develops this planet rapidly, we can easily forget how completely our lives and future depend on nature’s priceless web. Protected areas not only conserve biodiversity, they also secure the wellbeing of humanity itself.”

The narratives and evidence given in the exhibit are powerful. For example, the “Parks for Water Security” panel shows China’s 15.23 million hectare Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve in Qinghai Province, which sits on the Tibetan Plateau at the end of the Himalayas and covers source areas of three major rivers – Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong; altogether, the rivers and wetlands that originate in this park supply water to more than one-third of the world’s population.

Parks also underpin food security.  It has been estimated that a global marine protected area system, accounting for the closure of 20 percent of total fishing area and resulting in a lost profit of US $270m per year, would help sustain fisheries worth US $70-80b per year while creating one million jobs.

Services provided by protected areas are often a lifeline for local and indigenous communities. An economic assessment of the contribution of Ethiopia’s protected area system to the economy found that the main values of protected areas are the environmental services they provide to poor rural communities, many of whom do not have food security. According to the assessment, parks are worth USD 432 million in hydrological services and USD 13 million in medicinal plants to these communities. 

It is not only their dollar value that make parks so important; parks possess intangible values—personal, cultural, spiritual—that touch the human soul and enrich our lives. The photos show us the scope and depth of these many values. 

These parks that underpin our wellbeing, happiness and sustainable development are under severe threats. At the same time they are defended. UNDP in close collaboration with the GEF works directly with the ‘keepers’ of parks and biodiversity to ensure that they are well managed and funded, contributing directly to the challenges humanity faces in the 21st Century.  

UNDP Parks for Development exhibit can be also viewed here. Now on display at the GEF Assembly meeting in Cancun, Mexico, from May 25-29, 2014.  It will be on display at the Convention on Biological Diversity 12th Conference of Parties in Korea in December and the World Parks Congress in Sydney in November 2014, as well as at the UNDP Headquarters in New York.