The Importance of Protected Areas to Climate Change

By Carolina Figueroa, Parques Nacionales de Colombia

Tuparro National Parks has a unique ecosystem that is shared by Colombia and all the Guyana Shield countries (Venezuela and the Guyanas). © Carolina Figueroa

Tuparro National Parks has a unique ecosystem that is shared by Colombia and all the Guyana Shield countries (Venezuela and the Guyanas). © Carolina Figueroa

In Colombia, recent extreme weather events have led to damaging floods in the Andean and the Caribbean region. Thousands of people have lost their houses and livelihoods. Roads and bridges have been flooded, impeding transportation of food to the main cities. Both local and national economies are under pressure as food prices have spiked and additional health care provisions have become a necessity to battle the impacts of changing environmental conditions on public health.

Climate change and increasing climate variability are certainly a contributing factor to this destructive trend. However, as in many places around the world, our changing climate is not the sole perpetrator. There is an enormous problem related to the development of vulnerable territory in Colombia. We have built houses and roads where historically there is a high probability of flooding, and wetlands and humid ecosystems have been transformed and inhabited. As a result, these degraded ecosystems cannot absorb the disturbances and buffer our developments from damage caused by extreme weather events. Some local environmentalists sayit is the swamps’ “revenge,” as we should respect the flow of water.

Ecosystem-based Adaptation through sustainable land use or through the development and management of protected areas is an effective strategy for reducing the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem services and for improving communities’ resilience. Let’s remember that Ecosystem-based Adaptation refers to the use of biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy to help peopleadapt to the adverse effects of climate change (CBD 2009).

In this regard, protected areas can be an effective natural means to reduce vulnerability to climate change. In terms of adaptation, protected areas conserve and protect ecosystem services that are needed by society such as water and food provision. In terms of mitigation, ecosystems in protected areas act as a carbon sink as they store carbon in their vegetation and soil. At an international level, protected areas provide food to 1.1 billion people, they provide one third of the water supply to the main cities in the world and store over 15% of atmospheric carbon (CBD 2009). Comprehensive adaptation solutions must include protected areas and their management as strategies to tackle climate change impacts in biodiversity and society.

Parques Nacionales (National Natural Parks) of Colombia, where I lead the work on climate change adaptation, is a government institution in charge of managing the system of national parks and coordinating the system of national protected areas. The national parks in Colombia represent 12% of the continental territory. Today, the national parks provide water to 50% of the national population, roughly 20 million people. In addition, the national parks offer other ecosystem services such as hydropower, ecotourism, carbon capture and storage, food provision, and disaster risk reduction. However, like many places around the world, climate change in combination with other anthropogenic hazards is altering ecosystems that make up the national parks and the provision of ecosystem services for millions of people.

In this regard, Parques Nacionales recognizes that they must mainstream climate adaptation into the management plans for each of the national parks in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of our conservation efforts. Throughout 2012 we are going through a complete review and update of the individual management plans for each park, which is supposed to be done every five years. For the first time, as part of this effort climate change considerations are going to be explicitly incorporated. The first step in this process is to assess and understand climate vulnerability and risk. To assist in this effort Parques Nacionales has partnered with national and international partners such as WWF Colombia and WWF US to pilot a vulnerability assessment methodology. Based on the assessment we will develop adaptation options that will then be integrated into the management plans of the appropriate parks.This first pilot is significant for two reasons. First, it represents the very first vulnerability assessment, at the park scale, that Parques Nacionales has ever done. Going forward we can begin to build on our own experiences as we replicate the process throughout our network. Second, integrating vulnerability assessments, their findings, and actions identified through them into the process of updating the management plans of the parks represents true mainstreaming of adaptation.

We have only started of course, and I am sure it will be difficult at points, but I am excited we have taken the initial steps to ensure that our organization as a whole is thinking about how climate change will impact our parks and ultimately the species and people that depend on them. Globally, the importance of protected areas is increasing as the future of our climate becomes increasingly uncertain. Luckily there is a window of opportunity for protected areas and for ecosystem-based adaptation measures to be promoted around the world, in negotiations and national policies in the context of climate change.

Carolina Figueroa is the Climate Change Officer for National Parks of Colombia. Carolina is a Colombian Political Scientist and she has been working in climate change, conservation and development for the last 4 years.