“We have distributed 75,000 pounds (34,000 kilograms) of food to communities around the park,” said Gregory Carr, president of the Gorongosa National Park in the southeastern African nation of Mozambique. More than two weeks ago Cyclone Idai devastated the central part of the country, as well as neighboring Malawi and Zimbabwe, killing more than 700 people and leaving an estimated 1.8 million in need of life-saving assistance, according to the latest UN report.
The cyclone destroyed entire towns and villages, and it wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland on the eve of the next harvest. Floodwaters still cover more than 1,000 square miles.
Less than 48 hours after Cyclone Idai struck, hundreds of Gorongosapark rangers and other staff fanned out to rescue local villagers, bring food and medical aid. “We were the first responders, helping remote communities few others even know about,” said Carr in an interview from Gorongosa.
The park works with thousands of farmers in the region, has warehouses of food, and was able to deliver this food without outside assistance. However, flood waters remain high. “The park viewing platform we call Hippo House is 12 feet above ground and it’s still underwater,” he said. With most roads washed out, food has been delivered by canoe and helicopter.
National parks and protected areas should be the best friends of the local communities, said Carr. “Farms near Gorongosa get more pollinators, more moisture, less heat, and are more productive,” he said.
And with climate change hitting Africa hard, parks can be there to help. For example, the government of Mozambique is considering establishing a wetland conservancy south of the park to moderate the impacts of the next cyclone by soaking up and retaining more water. “The people living in that area now will retain exclusive rights to fishing and other sustainable activities, but will be given land rights on higher ground for their safety,” said Carr, who is working with the government on the project.
While Gorongosa National Park has an explicit goal of making life better for its neighbors and invests much of its resources to that end, many other parks bring real benefits to communities living within six miles (10 kilometers), according to a comprehensive new study published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. Researchers analyzed data from 603 protected areas in 34 developing countries and found that children who live near protected areas or allowed sustainable use of their lands by locals lived in wealthier and healthier households than those who live farther away from conservation zones.
Parks that kept people out—so called “Fortress Parks”—did not provide the same benefits. However, there was no evidence of specific negative impacts on those children, the study found.
There’s long been debate about whether protected areas benefit indigenous and local peoples,says study co-author Drew Gerkey, an anthropologist at Oregon State University. “I was pleasantly surprised to see the positive outcomes in the study,” Gerkey said.
Children near protected areas with associated tourism had 17 percent higher wealth levels and a 16 percent lower likelihood of poverty than those living in similar households farther away. Children under five years old living near multiple-use protected areas with tourism had higher height-for-age scores by 10 percent and were 13 percent less likely to be stunted in their growth as well.
These findings suggest that setting aside protected zones for wildlife and cultural conservation could also be used to tackle problems like global poverty and poor health, the study concluded.
The next step is to examine the specific circumstances in these protected areas to learn what works for local people and biodiversity, said Gerkey.
The Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya is doing exactly that with a new model of community conservancies. These are community-based organizations created to support the management of community-owned land to benefit local livelihoods.
The Trust currently has 39 member conservancies covering 16,200 square miles (42,000 square kilometers) of northern and coastal Kenya, home to around 320,000 people belonging to 18 different ethnic groups.
Thisregion was once infamous for conflict and poaching and is now focused on community-led development linked to the protection of its wildlife and landscapes.
With growing warnings about accelerating declines in biodiversity—the loss of plants, animals, birds, insects and other species—more land and ocean areas will need to be protected. “There is no question the continued loss of biodiversity undermines human well-being. Everyone will suffer, but especially the poor,” Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) told National Geographic last year.
Governments around the world plan to increase the size and number of protected areas to meet targets set in 2010 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. At the same time, they also have a Sustainable Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2030.
Increasing protected areas, and managing them the right way, has the potential to reduce poverty, improve human health, and buffer communities from the impacts of climate change, said Gerkey.