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Protected areas

Perhaps the first appearance of some sort of protected area dates back to approximately 2,500 to 3,000 years ago, when monarchs identified areas for royal hunts in some parts of Asia, including China. Later, during medieval times, hunting domains were established in European empires and kingdoms, in countries such as England, Spain, France and Germany. Later, in the nineteenth century, in the United States of America, an environmentalist and naturalist movement was born, with visionary leaders such as John Muir. Thanks to him and to other pioneers, the first national parks in history, Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park were created between 1871 and 1872.

From there, and particularly in the postwar era of the twentieth century, efforts were made in many countries in order to establish protected areas of all kinds, with a view to preserve natural areas for the purpose of conservation and controlled use. At present, more than 100,000 protected areas worldwide - the cornerstone of in situ conservation - cover approximately 12% of the earth's surface. The largest ones are found in Greenland, Saudi Arabia, Hawaii, Australia and China. Some of the reasons for the protection of these areas are the conservation of wild biodiversity and genetic resources; the preservation of water sources; the maintenance of landscapes of extraordinary beauty; and the protection of endangered species.

During the last decades, the number and size of protected areas in Latin America has increased exponentially. In this sense, South America stands out significantly. The number of protected areas in the Caribbean region also increased, particularly since 1950, with its largest growth peak between 1980 and 1985, when large numbers of protected areas in several islands in the Caribbean basin were created.

Protected areas for conservation and sustainable use
Tourism development in protected areas
Management of protected areas
National System of Protected Areas in the Dominican Republic
Management of Protected Areas: Parque Nacional del Este

Protected areas for conservation and sustainable use

As clearly stated by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), during the last 40 years, there has been a paradigm shift regarding the role of protected areas. The simple paradigm of "national parks and reserves," which prevailed between the nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century, has been left behind and a broader conceptual and practical approach, that of areas of sustainable use, has been adopted.

Within this framework, the need to protect certain natural areas is increasingly recognized as a means to ensure the maintenance of ecological processes and environmental services necessary for the development and welfare of human beings. In this regard, the multiple roles that protected areas carry out are increasingly valued, and are, among others: climate regulation through carbon sequestration; oxygen production; soil conservation; water supply from rivers and lakes; prevention of landslides and mudslides; and mitigation of floods in low areas. The important value of native pollinators in the production of many agricultural crops has also started to be recognized. Coffee bushes, for example, are pollinated by wild insects living in protected areas close to the crop fields and are essential for a successful harvest. In short, there are many reasons for protecting certain wild and marine natural areas: reasons that are environmental, economic, geological, ethical, aesthetic, spiritual, educational, cultural, and historical, among others. To create more awareness around this issue, August 24 has been declared as the Day of National Parks, worldwide.

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Tourism development in protected areas

Protected areas are also more and more important for tourism development. When visiting a public protected area, tourists, whether domestic or foreign, spend money on lodging, transportation and meals. This generates income for local people who own tourism companies, offer hotel services, own restaurants, or work in tourism-related jobs. These earnings are reinvested in the local economy, thereby stimulating human development and welfare.

As pointed out by the Academy of Sciences of the Dominican Republic, the country has, at least, two conservation units that are making substantial contributions to the country’s economy: The Parque Nacional del Este, whose number of visitors approaches half a million people a year, and the Santuario de Mamíferos Marinos, which is quickly becoming one of the most important humpback whale observation spots in the world. According to a report by the Academy, these two sites represent an invaluable economic potential in the immediate future, for Samaná as well as for the Eastern Region, and for the entire country. The Academy adds that in the same order of ideas, the Los Haitises, Lake Enriquillo, Jaragua and Armando Bermúdez National Parks, among others, are also worthy of mentioning.

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Management of protected areas

At present, worldwide, there is a wide range of Biosphere Reserves, Ramsar Sites (wetlands of international importance), World Heritage Sites, National Parks, International Parks (which are shared between two or more countries), National Monuments, Absolute Reserves, Forest Reserves, Protected Zones, Flora and Fauna Protected Areas, Urban Parks, among other. All of these protected areas have different purposes, ranging from the strict conservation of relevant and representative biogeographic areas, to public areas with multiple uses geared towards reaching and preserving the balance of urban ecosystems.

In view of this mosaic of diverse areas present in the world, over 25 years ago, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) acknowledged the need to develop a category system for the management of said protected areas. The fact that the world's protected areas cover a wide range of objectives and are managed by a large number of very different actors, fully justifies such categorization. To date, these categories have been accepted and recognized by international organizations - such as the United Nations and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and national governments -, as a reference for defining, remembering and classifying protected areas. These categories range from sites where access is prohibited due to their enormous importance and fragility, to protected areas that include marine territories and areas traditionally inhabited, where human activity has shaped a cultural landscape with high biodiversity. The six categories which are currently recognized are:

I: Strict protection: Strict natural reserve and natural wilderness area.
II: Conservation and protection of the ecosystem: National park.
III: Conservation of natural features: Natural monument.
IV Conservation through active management: Habitat/species management area.
V: Conservation of terrestrial and marine scenery and recreation: Protected terrestrial and marine scenery.
VI: Sustainable use of natural resources: Protected managed area.

Some of the most basic guidelines that users of protected areas, such as national parks, must obey in many countries, are: 1) respect general and specific regulations, 2) comply with established schedules; 3) park vehicles in areas designated for that purpose; 4 ) remove trash from the area or place it in containers used for this purpose; 5) maintain the hygiene and order of the complex or facilities which they are allowed to use; 6) report to competent authorities, any action by any person that goes against the values of the area, as well as any infraction against current dispositions for the use and enjoyment of the areas of the complex or facility; 7) not smoke in areas of high fire risk; 8) travel only along the authorized routes and trails; 9) respect the location of signs, notices, and barriers; 10) pay the daily entrance fee and any others, according to the services that are received; 11) not remove firewood from the forest and its surroundings nor make campfires for any kind of purposes, and 12) not hunt or fish within the area, or collect any specimens of plants or fungi. In 2004, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) stressed that the existing global system of protected areas is inadequate for several reasons, including: many already established protected areas do not meet their goals of conserving biological diversity; the current system of protected areas is incomplete, and the participation of native populations and local communities in the creation and management of protected areas is insufficient. For these reasons, the seventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention (COP 7), inspired by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Durban Agreement and Plan of Action (South Africa) of the V World Parks Congress (WPC5 ), adopted a work program on protected areas (PoW-PA) as a result of an intense negotiation process. The overall objective of this program is to support the creation and maintenance of complete national and regional systems, which are effectively managed and represent the protected areas from an ecological stand point, and which, collectively, contribute to achieving the three objectives of the Convention and the goal of significantly reducing the current rate of loss of biodiversity.

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National System of Protected Areas in the Dominican Republic

In response to these national and global needs, the Dominican Republic has created an extensive national network of protected areas, called the National System of Protected Areas (SINAP for its initials in Spanish). It comprises a group of natural areas, coordinated within their own management categories, and which possess very precise and specialized characteristics, objectives and handling. It is based on the Sectorial Legislation on Protected Areas (No. 202-2004) and its objective is to achieve an administration system that functions as if it were a single unit, while at the same time respecting the particularities of each specific area. The Vice Ministry of Protected Areas and Biodiversity is the body responsible for coordinating the SINAP. Its mission is to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity all over the country as a basis for sustainable development and the improvement of the quality of life through the administration of a national system of protected areas, as well as the implementation of rules and regulations in the Dominican Republic. Currently, the SINAP comprises 119 protected areas, which together occupy 25,472 square kilometers, located in both the terrestrial portion of the country, as well as in the marine portion, which is the equivalent of approximately 52% of the national territory. These areas are identified and distributed nationwide in 10 categories: 10 scientific reserves; 30 national parks; 4 marine mammal sanctuaries; 28 natural monuments; 18 wildlife refuges; one biological reserve; 9 panoramic routes; 3 national recreation areas; one special ecological reserve, and 15 forest reserves. Some of the most important protected areas are: the Marine Mammal Sanctuary (humpback whales) of Samaná, the Natural Science Reserves Villa Elisa, Isabel de Torres, Cabral or Rincón Lagoon, Redonda and Limón Lagoons, Valle Nuevo, Loma Quita Espuela and Ébano Verde, and the National Parks Armando Bermúdez, Nalga de Maco, Del Este, José del Carmen Ramírez, Montecristi, Los Haitises, Jaragua, Sierra de Bahoruco (Donald Dod), Cabritos Island (Lake Enriquillo), Sierra de Martín García (Julio Cicero), Sierra de Neyba (Juan Ulises García Bonnelly), Cabo Francés Viejo, Litoral Norte de Puerto Plata, Submarino La Caleta, and Litoral Sur of Santo Domingo.

In order to manage SINAP and operate the network of protected areas, the Vice Ministry of Protected Areas and Biodiversity, through its Office of Protected Areas: 1) coordinates the design and implementation of the national development policy of protected areas and the country’s biodiversity conservation; 2) develops and implements rules, regulations and procedures which are necessary for the sustainable management of the protected areas and their biodiversity; 3) regulates the use and transfer of biodiversity resources; 4) promotes the development, conservation and management of flora and fauna resources; 5) manages the national system of protected areas so as to ensure their integrity, the provision of environmental services and the healthy and environmentally friendly interaction with users; and 6) promotes the participation of rural communities in plans, programs and projects for the conservation of biodiversity and the protected areas.

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Management of Protected Areas: Parque Nacional del Este

To carry out its activities, the Office of Protected Areas has the support of many international non-profit organizations. In this regard, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) financed a major project within the framework of its Parks in Peril (PiP) program, which is administered by the non-governmental organization The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The project consisted of supporting the management of protection of the Parque Nacional del Este, which retains a wealth of natural and human history in the Dominican Republic and attracts more visitors than all the other national parks in the Dominican Republic together. Located on the southeastern end of The Hispaniola Island, the park includes the coastal Saona Island, which makes up 30% of the park’s total area.

When the Parks in Peril (PiP) program began supporting the Parque del Este in 1993, it was already one of the best known parks in the Dominican Republic due to the high number of visitors and the income generated from entrance fees. In 1984, a management plan for the park had been drafted; however, due to the absence of a financial plan to go along with it, it could not be implemented. With the exception of the national government personnel, there was no established group to support the Parque del Este, the infrastructure was minimal and in many cases, completely non-existent. Therefore, the PiP project focused on the development of partnerships with governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Later on, these partnerships focused their efforts on improving the park’s infrastructure; expanding the basic information on the natural resources of Parque del Este; developing a support base for the park at the local and national levels; and developing financial and park management plans.

During the years of the PiP implementation, local Dominican organizations that supported the Park were strengthened, including a local organization and two non-governmental, non-profit organizations. Through these organizations, it was possible to increase the involvement of the local communities surrounding the park in its management and in matters relating to the use of natural resources. In addition, significant progress was made in improving critical infrastructure in order to welcome, in a sustainable manner, the thousands of tourists who visit the park each month.

It is expected that the successful example of the project in the Parque del Este will be replicated in other protected areas of the Caribbean country, as it can be used as a model to leverage the integrated management process of the areas, based on the financial sustainability, at both national and local levels.

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