SETTING aside ecologically-important lands and marine areas within protected areas (PA) was among the more contentious issues that confronted governments at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
The issue was a central focus in negotiations of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the three UN treaties signed at the Summit by then-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and other leaders.
PAs are defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.
And the CBD has turned out to be the most important international legal instrument addressing PAs.
The CBD calls PAs the cornerstone of biodiversity conservation. They maintain key habitats, provide refuge, allow for species migration and movement, and ensure the maintenance of natural processes, helping to secure the well-being of humanity.
PAs provide livelihoods for nearly 1.1 billion people, drinking water for over a third of the world’s largest cities, and support global food security. Well-managed and connected PAs are key to both mitigation and adaptation responses to the climate change threatening the planet.
In February 2004, CBD member nations adopted one of the most comprehensive and specific PA commitments ever: the Programme of Work on Protected Areas. The PoWPA is both a “blueprint” for PAs and a commitment to develop participatory, ecologically representative and effectively managed national and regional PA systems, spanning national boundaries where necessary.
Last year’s landmark IPBES Global Assessment found that PAs represented one of the few bright spots with respect to progress against the globally agreed Aichi biodiversity targets (2010-2020).
The Aichi agreement called for at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine environments to be conserved, and effectively and equitably managed, in ecologically representative, well-connected systems.
National commitments to create new or expand existing PAs amount to more than 3.9 million square kilometres on land and over 13 million square kilometres in the oceans. If those commitments are fulfilled, coverage is expected to exceed the Aichi targets.
So, what is the current situation in Malaysia? Records show 490 PAs nationwide — 271 in the peninsula, 173 in Sabah, 46 in Sarawak, roughly 4.6 million hectares, or about 14 per cent of the country.
Thus, there are many tasks ahead for Malaysia and all her citizens. Sadly, the news in Malaysia today is far from encouraging.
The Selangor government, for example, plans to remove protection for the 931-hectare Kuala Langat North Forest Reserve and permit a mixed development project.
This PA reserve comprises a type of peat swamp forest — one of the most valuable ecosystems in Selangor — home to more than 2,000 Temuan Orang Asli and critically endangered species.
I urge all Malaysians to appreciate the social and environmental benefits of PAs, to ensure the effective participation of indigenous and local communities, and thatthrough our governments we evaluate, improve and finance effective PA management.
We need governments to see PAs as strategic long-term investments in their economies and the well-being of citizens. Indeed, a recent report estimated a yield in societal benefits valued at $100 for every $1 invested in creating and managing PAs.
PAs are fundamental to conserving biodiversity, to securing vital ecosystem services like clean water and storm protection, to local livelihoods, to climate change adaptation, and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
The writer is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and one of the original members of the Malaysian delegation negotiating the CBD