Expanding the global network of transboundary conservation areas (TBCAs) should be a priority for conservationists and governments, according to a group of experts that met last month in Ubon Rachatani, Thailand.
TBCAs are designed to protect ecosystems and wildlife regardless of political borders. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly clear that TBCAs do much more than improve biodiversity conservation: they help promote reconciliation in border conflicts, re-unite families and ethnic groups divided by political boundaries, and provide social benefits - such as secure land tenure - to people living in the area.
Recognising the potential benefits of TBCAs, the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), IUCN - The World Conservation Union, and the Government of Thailand hosted a workshop to examine ways of improving the effectiveness and expanding the coverage of TBCAs. The workshop brought together about 90 transboundary conservation professionals and decision-makers from 26 countries.
The number of TBCAs has grown rapidly in the last 15 years, from 59 in 1988, concentrated mainly in Europe and North America, to 169 in 2001, distributed throughout all regions of the world. ITTO's TBCA program, for example, now covers about ten million hectares in nine tropical countries. Nevertheless, many fragile ecosystems straddling international borders remain unprotected, posing both a challenge and an opportunity to the international community.
According to IUCN's Dr William Jackson, the fact that TBCAs offer more than biodiversity conservation is crucial in their uptake and ultimate success.
"Geopolitics and national security concerns have diverted attention away from challenges like the maintenance of biological and cultural values," he said. "In this political climate, transboundary conservation deserves close attention because it has the potential to help bring peace to troubled border regions while also playing an essential role in the protection of endangered species, ecosystems and cultural groups."
Several speakers stressed the importance of political commitment to transboundary conservation, not only for the creation of new TBCAs but also for the long-term survival of the reserves.
"Without continuous political support, many transboundary conservation programs will whither and die," said Sarawak's Dr Paul Chai.
Dr Chai said Sarawak was fortunate to have high-level support for TBCAs. The Sarawak Forestry Department already manages one TBCA on the island of Borneo in collaboration with the Government on Indonesia and with financial assistance from ITTO. Moreover, The Honourable Dr James Mamit, a Member of Parliament in Malaysia, announced during the workshop that the Government of Malaysia and Sarawak's Chief Minister would submit a proposal to ITTO to establish a new TBCA on Borneo.
The new area would cover about 165,000 hectares on the Sarawakian side of the border and connect with the Kayan Mentarang National Park in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan, the establishment and management of which is also supported by ITTO. The local Kelabit communities, which have expressed support for the concept, will be key stakeholders who will determine the landscape-scale management of the TBCA in collaboration with national park managers. The establishment of this TBCA will improve protection for several endangered species including Bulwer's pheasant, the clouded leopard and the Sumartran rhinoceros while also addressing local concerns about living standards and increasing trans-border cooperation on issues such as illegal trade and immigration.
The workshop was also informed of a transboundary conservation initiative on the border between Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Transborder activities in this area were curtailed recently after a much-publicised dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.
"Such flare-ups only underscore the importance of TBCAs for improving relations in border areas, so that when political tensions rise the people living in border regions do not suffer," said Dr Jackson.
The workshop heard of transboundary conservation success stories in southern Africa, and the idea is also catching on in central Africa. H.E. Henri Djombo, Minister of Forests in the Republic of the Congo, who attended the workshop, announced the intention of his country to begin a new transboundary conservation initiative in partnership with Gabon to complement other initiatives already under way in cooperation with Cameroon and Central African Republic.