Environmental Concerns III: Protected areas and beyond

Anyone concerned with short- and long-term environmental plans and strategies, as well as sustainable development in Egypt, must consider protected areas as priorities because of their value as a resource for scientific research, biodiversity and ecotourism.

A protected area, often referred to as a “natural park,” is a protected territory organized according to a plan that will ensure the conservation of its natural heritage, its management and its sustainable economic development.

Egypt boasts 29 protected areas, which fall into various categories according to their level of protection. They are a valuable asset and could be a great resource if well protected and soundly managed. Unfortunately, many of Egypt’s protected areas remain what are called “paper parks," meaning their protection and management does not go beyond their official declaration.

In order to make the most of such natural resources, it is necessary to carry out an assessment of each protected area's natural heritage. However, collaborative efforts at surveying and studying biodiversity-rich sites, especially in remote areas, are sadly lacking.

The Gebel Elba Protected Area is a stark example of the lack of such studies, with the last extensive survey dating back to the 1960s. Gebel Elba, located in southeast Egypt, is a unique natural site containing more than 400 plant species and many very rare mammals, such as the leopard, the striped polecat, the wild ass, the Nubian ibex and the Barbary sheep.

Furthermore, there is a dire need for the enforcement of environmental protection laws within protected areas, safeguarding the habitats against destruction caused by urbanization and tourism and protecting land and water from pollution caused by industry and agriculture.

When it comes to ecotourism in protected areas, I believe there is a place for low-impact and ecologically friendly projects, locally run for the benefit of the community. There are several success stories and many potential projects.

However, there must be an immediate halt to tourism projects that only further harm the natural environment and are redundant in the tourism picture.

I also believe it is time we expanded some of the protected areas to create transboundary protected areas. These are protected areas that extend across the borders of multiple countries or sub-national entities; within such areas, the political borders are abolished.

This includes removal of all forms of physical boundaries, such as fences, and allowing free migration of animals and humans within the area. A boundary around the area may, however, be maintained to prevent unauthorized border crossing. Such areas are also known as “transfrontier conservation areas” or “peace parks."

Transboundary parks ensure optimal conservation measures for common resources, ecosystems and rare species because they allow the uninterrupted protection of their range, while also contributing to the control of illicit damage and unsustainable misuse of resources.

Peace parks also promote eco-tourism, awareness-raising and environmental education in the region, and they serve as a striking example of how nature conservation can bring countries together through a shared green vision that builds on and reinforces economic development and goodwill between neighboring countries.

The first peace park was established by the Swedish and the Norwegian peace movements in 1914, to celebrate 100 years of peace between Sweden and Norway. Nowadays, there are many successful examples of peace parks all over the world.

The European Green Belt, running along the former Iron Curtain, is considered a peace park. A recent trans-boundary biosphere reserve was created between five countries in Europe, namely Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia, to protect their shared nature and wildlife along the Mura, Drava and Danube rivers, referred to as “Europe’s Amazon."

In Africa, the Peace Parks Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, was founded in 1997 to facilitate the establishment of transfrontier conservation areas. As s a result, there were several treaties and memoranda of agreements signed between African countries for the establishment of peace parks.

Peace parks joining Egypt with neighboring countries, established in the regions of Oweinat (in southwest Egypt) and in Gebel Elba, would ensure the best protection of both people and biodiversity, as well as protecting Egypt's national borders.

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