Protected areas critical to future of the world's drylands

An IUCN study has revealed that well-designed and managed protected areas are crucial to the survival of ecosystem services in dryland regions. They can also play a significant role in preserving indigenous communities and reducing climate change and desertification.

The paper, which brought together the collective experience of scientists working in drylands in many parts of the world, is part of continuing work by the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA). It looks at the role of protected areas as natural solutions to a range of social and economic challenges.

"Drylands are amongst the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet, threatened by pressures such as desertification and climate change, which in turn undermine the health and well-being of resident human communities," said ecologist Nigel Dudley, WCPA member and author of the study.

"Our study identifies key ways in which protected areas can help reverse widespread dryland degradation and supply people with critical cultural and ecosystem services. We hope that it will help encourage governments, and international institutions such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, to factor protected areas more fully into their strategies," he added.

One of the focus areas for the paper was Australia, host country of the IUCN World Parks Congress in November, and a nation which in recent years has established over 20 million hectares of self-declared Indigenous Protected Areas. This has allowed increased protection for aboriginal populations and, crucially, given the country the means to safeguard traditional aboriginal cultures and the associated biodiversity which come with it, something which is crucial to the survival of traditional communities according to co-author Sue Stolton.

"Australia has 60 Indigenous Protected Areas found all across the continent, but by far the largest areas are in the dry interior,” said Stolton, who is keen to emphasise the importance of considering the spiritual attachment which indigenous populations have for the land and not just the physical landscape in which they survive.

"For the Indigenous Australians who have set up these protected areas, the phrase 'caring for country' means more than just protecting the biodiversity of these fragile environments. They also have a deep spiritual attachment to the land, which is linked to creation beliefs, the source of rules for living in these often harsh environments and the stories, dance, songs and art associated with their culture. Indigenous Protected Areas help Indigenous communities continue their cultural traditions while caring for country and promoting community well-being," she added.

The Convention on Biological Diversity's Programme of Work on Protected Areas sets out a comprehensive programme for governments to follow and, if these initiatives are incorporated, the future of dryland ecosystem services promises to be positive.

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