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How sustainable are protected areas?

One in every four square metres of ground in Europe is now in a protected area. But what do these areas actually contribute to sustainability?

Some 25 percent of the surface area of Europe – and 12 percent of the world as a whole – is now made up of protected areas. But what do protected areas actually contribute to sustainability? Do they really do what they are supposed to do? Or are they merely about politicians paying lip service to grand but essentially meaningless projects?

JungmeierEver since completing his doctoral thesis on the subject, Michael Jungmeier has spent his time gathering experience of protected areas. As the founder of several companies, he has been advising protected areas on their planning and management issues for many years now – initially just in Austria, but then internationally. The range of his activity now extends around the world, from the Caucasus to the Philippines and Ethiopia. In addition to this, he has been teaching an international degree course, “Management of Protected Areas” at Alpen-Adria University in Klagenfurt since 2004. When asked what protected areas contribute to sustainability, Michael Jungmeier’s reply is a complex one.

“There are several different responses to that question,” the expert explains. “One is the formal-definitive, according to which many protected areas claim to be institutions promoting sustainability. Nature parks say their concept of sustainable regional development is part of the protective idea.” Something similar could be said of many national parks, which – even though they may have a core mission to protect nature – actually view themselves as promoting sustainability. According to UNESCO, biosphere parks are even model regions of sustainability by definition.

“The second reply is based on the fact that such large areas of land have to be looked after,” Michael Jungmeier continues. Take the Wienerwald biosphere park as an example: when you’re planning an area covering over 1,000 square kilometres, which is home to 750,000 people and countless communities, that creates a pressure to find sustainable solutions in its own right, the doctor in human geography explains. “It means I have to develop entire systems and areas of landscape in such a way that the farmer can make a living, the mayor’s happy, and economic development is possible in the area. On that large area, I can only fail if I don’t make it span the sustainability triangle between the economic, the ecological and the social.”

The third aspect, Jungmeier continues, is a result of the ecological emphasis, “which is not represented in any other institution in quite the same way. If elephants are trampling all over beet fields or sugar cane somewhere in the world, and a conflict arises as a result, the normal solution would be to get rid of the elephants. If I’ve got a protected area there, though, then I say to the outraged farmer: OK, I understand the elephant mustn’t be allowed to trample all over your field, but we can’t just shoot it. We have to find another solution. That forces you to adopt this ecological approach to finding solutions which wouldn’t even be necessary elsewhere.”

In this way, protected areas enable a systemic approach which can also be transferred to other regions. “In the 1990s – and this was viewed as revolutionary back then – we started a project at the smallest possible level called the Cultural Landscape Programme, in the parish of Mallnitz in Carinthia,” the expert in protected areas says. “The farmers there got a bit of money for only mowing certain meadows. It caused a huge commotion at the time.” The year after, a ‘Carinthian Cultural Landscape Programme’ was founded. “The idea had spread right across Carinthia in less than a year. It might not have totally worked at that stage, but the kernel of the idea was there.”

Although the Cultural Landscape Programmes were closed down when Austria joined the EU in 1995, the Austrian Agricultural Environment Programme was brought to life in their place, Jungmeier explains: “Some of the core ideas were taken straight from the Carinthian programme.” The Cultural Landscape Programme also left its mark thanks to the appointment of Franz Fischler as EU Agricultural Commissioner: “To this day, you can still make out homeopathic trace elements of Mallnitz at EU level.” That’s exactly how the value of protected areas manifests itself: in trying out ideas and setting trends. “That’s also how many protected areas understand their function.”

There is another point that makes protected areas so valuable, however, Michael Jungmeier explains. “We’re organising a very large project for the Science Ministry at the moment about how knowledge of sustainability can be transferred between cultures. If I view something as sustainable today – what does that mean for someone in Nepal? Will he or she understand it or not? In the project, we determined what information was available about these protected areas, in the form of knowledge balances. And after carrying out this knowledge check, we can now say that relative to the area they cover, these protected areas do contain the greatest volume of knowledge about sustainability anywhere in the world. No other institution gives me so much knowledge about sustainability. Keeping that systematically available in the future will be a major challenge.”