A protected area, as defined by the IUCN (2008), is “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values”.
Protected areas provide several vital ecosystem services:
In addition to their importance in conserving biodiversity, they play a key role in mitigating climate change and increasing resistance as well as resilience to its effects: keeping valuable natural areas protected reduces the ecosystem degradation that they face. This, in turn, decreases greenhouse gas emissions, since it enhances the ecosystems’ capacity to store carbon, keeping them from becoming carbon sources.
Moreover, they serve as food, water, energy, medication, raw materials, and revenue sources to local and indigenous communities (making them highly vulnerable to ecosystem disruptions). They also protect livelihoods from environmental risks and hazards such as erosion, flooding, unnatural wildfires, and more.
Another advantage of protected areas is the educational, cultural, and aesthetic value, as well as the eco-friendly recreation and tourism they globally provide.
For example, national parks and nature reserves attract a great number of visitors, which, not only contributes to economic benefits on local as well as national levels, but also allows people to enjoy activities, get educated, and connect with nature, all without harming it.
In addition, spending time in nature enhances mental and physical wellbeing: since we live in a mostly human-altered environment, we tend to forget that deep down, nature is where we belong, and humans have lived in harmony with it for most of their existence. Therefore, even though this harmony has turned into control and destruction with the advancements we have made, our wellbeing’s needs still haven’t changed.
Last but not least, natural ecosystems maintain several processes essential to the environment - and relevant to humans – including, but not limited to:
- Purification of water, air, and soil
- Waste assimilation
- Pest and disease regulation
- Water and nutrient cycles
- Seed and nutrient dispersal
- Primary production
However, protected areas only cover 13% of the Earth’s surface, with a poor focus on marine and freshwater ecosystems. Therefore, if we want to achieve a sustainable future and mitigate climate change, we have to take action, such as increasing the percentage of protected areas worldwide, especially for aquatic ecosystems. How will this be possible?