Public–private partnerships as a management option for protected areas

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In October 2012, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) hosted a joint symposium in London on protected area effectiveness. (Note: See http://www.zsl.org/science/events/protected-areas-symposium,594,EV.html for copies of symposium presentations.) There was a general consensus at the meeting that protected areas remain the most effective tool that exists for biodiversity conservation and many presentations focused on what constitutes best practice for protected area management. There was little or no discussion, however, of what to do about protected areas at the opposite end of the spectrum where management capacity is weak and, for one reason or another, the sites in question are failing in their conservation mission. As a result, there was no mention either of a trend that has re-emerged in Africa over the past 10 years for the delegation of protected area management responsibility by sovereign states to non-governmental partners, the reasons for such delegation, or of its benefits in terms of management effectiveness.

Since 2003, protected area management authorities in at least nine countries in sub-Saharan Africa have signed agreements which, in effect, delegate to international non-governmental partners the management responsibility for protected areas covering over 6 million hectares. While the details of these various agreements vary considerably from site to site, they are often referred to generically as ‘public–private partnerships’ (PPPs). The motivation behind them varies too, at least from the perspective of the protected area management authority. Some management authorities appear to be motivated to seek external support to alleviate negative factors, including weak management capacity, civil unrest and the consequent loss of management control, or simply to balance a lack of commitment to protected area management on the part of the state. Others have taken a more deliberate approach, apparently recognizing a lack of capacity on the part of government agencies, greater technical capacity on the part of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the advantage of delegating to a willing partner the financial responsibility for protected area management. In some cases, a third party is involved that contributes to improved financial sustainability of the protected area through investment in ecotourism development. A better understanding is needed of the rationale for negotiating PPP arrangements on the part of management authorities and the circumstances under which – all other factors being taken into consideration – it may be an appropriate strategy.

Among those other factors is the exact nature of the contracts negotiated between government agencies and their NGO partners. Under one arrangement, used, for example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo between the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature and the African Conservation Foundation at Virunga National Park, the protected area management authority delegates management authority directly to the NGO. Under another, the protected area management authority, the NGO and other partners agree to establish an independent, non-profit entity to which management responsibility can be delegated and which, in turn, contracts out the responsibility for day-to-day management of the protected area in question. That approach has been adopted in the Republic of Congo at Odzala-Kokoua National Park (with the African Parks Network) and Nouabalé-Ndoki NP (with the Wildlife Conservation Society). A third alternative is co-management, whereby the NGO partner is contracted to take responsibility for specific elements of protected area management, often including law enforcement, but overall management responsibility remains with the protected area management authority. Co-management agreements have been used extensively in Madagascar over the past 20 years, including most recently at Makira Natural Park in the northeast of the country (again with the Wildlife Conservation Society).

Under any PPP arrangement, one of the most critical questions to be addressed is how law enforcement is handled. Even in countries where protected area management has been delegated by government to parastatal entities such as Madagascar National Parks, the responsibility for enforcing protected area legislation normally remains with the government ministry concerned, and the same remains true in principle under PPP arrangements. With contractual responsibility for park management delegated to NGOs, however, agreement needs to be reached, for example, on the secondment of appropriately qualified law enforcement officers to the NGO partner, on salary payment arrangements, reporting hierarchies, disciplinary procedures and so on. NGOs also need to consider, on their side, how to manage the responsibility that accompanies the law enforcement component of their role under PPP agreements. Creating an appropriate legal framework for park guards seconded to an international NGO to bear arms, place themselves in harm's way in the course of their work, and conduct potentially lethal operations against poachers presents problems on several levels.

On the one hand, international norms dictate that establishing and maintaining the rule of law within individual sovereign states is the exclusive and inalienable responsibility of that country's government. On the other hand, it has become commonplace in the past 20 years or more even for governments with considerably more capacity and resources than most African protected area management authorities to delegate responsibility for security and law enforcement – even in conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan – to private agencies. Especially in situations where government lacks those means and that capacity, and in places where insecurity poses particular problems, why should the protected area sector be any different? Should conservation practitioners worry about the ethics of such a delegation of authority? In any case, if the ultimate outcome is improved protected area management, respect for the rule of law and a gain for biodiversity conservation, perhaps the end justifies the means?

In that respect, as governments, NGOs and donor agencies consider introducing PPP arrangements at more sites across Africa, more clarity is also needed on the effectiveness of PPPs in terms of short-term conservation outcomes and of the long-term implications for national management capacity. Critically, can we measure whether the rule of law is more effectively established and maintained under PPP management regimes than under those it replaces? If so, the approach may have benefits too for local human populations, which typically suffer along with wildlife from the breakdown of law and order.

Individual organizations are asking themselves these questions, but systematic and objective studies are required in order to inform decision making at all levels. Improving the management of protected areas – the ostensible purpose of PPPs – is a laudable goal which, if achieved, would have major benefits for biodiversity conservation and potentially beyond.

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