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Wilderness Sustainability Models: A road for change?

We heard the chain saws first: a buzz from a bee on amphetamines, interspersed by the crash of falling giants, then the toiling drone of the bulldozers. We were approaching the advancing edge of the Shintuya-Boca Manu-Colorado road. Our Matsigenka guide, Feliciano, from Pankotsi Lodge in the nearby village of Shipetiari, weaved us expertly through the forest. We then emerged suddenly onto the road clearing, precisely at the spot where a Caterpillar was digging up the roots of the recently felled trees.

The foreman at the road front was at first jovial and friendly, but when he noticed we were taking pictures, he began a speech about tourism and conservation not creating enough local jobs. He went on to say that the local district council had recently secured a large cacao agroforestry project which the road would support. I asked where he was from and he replied he was from the Andean highlands region of Puno, but that he had lived for 20 years in Madre de Dios and that he was a “selvatico,” with the same rights as anyone born in the jungle. Not an unreasonable claim. It is in this way, predicted and repeated along roads the world over, that logging, agricultural, and urban frontiers are steadily expanding into wilderness. In this case, they are advancing towards the frontier town of Boca Manu at the entrance to Peru´s Manu National Park, close to the area where the Nomole indigenous people are still at the initial stages of contact with broader society. So what? I believe roads, and the traditional rural and urban development systems of which they’re a part, continue to replace wild nature because we do not have a coherent framework to counter them. We need a working model to sustain wilderness; one that addresses economic, political, and social priorities. Such a framework needs to first consider human needs, expectations, and principles. Organizations – including governments, businesses and NGOs – exist to satisfy these, recognizing that people need a steady flow of both goods and services to live well. Our agricultural, urban, and industrial landscapes have grown to provide many of these goods and services. However, many others are still provided for “free” by natural landscapes. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment does a good job of showing that agricultural landscapes are now the key providers of many provisioning services (goods), but that natural landscapes are still the key suppliers of regulatory and many cultural services. And these are in decline globally. A recent story by the BBC gives some pointers as to the real value of these regulatory services. There is still an enormous disparity in the real value and the monetary and market value of nature´s services. Reducing this disparity is key to developing incentives for achieving many of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Currently, sustaining wild nature is championed by government and civil society organizations, funded by taxes and donations raised from economic activity in agricultural, urban, and industrial landscapes. The resilience of conservation and sustainable development efforts is therefore compromised by economic downturns, political circumstances. and the inertia of the existing system. If we do not develop wilderness sustainability models, rural and urban landscapes, even ostensibly sustainable ones, will continue to grow at the expense of natural landscapes and biodiversity. If we do not develop these models, conservation and development will continue to be two opposing concepts in a unproductive dialogue. As conservationists, if we do not implement these concepts, we will be limited to building higher walls around an ever-shrinking castle.

What will wilderness sustainability models look like? They will entail low density, relatively isolated human populations, which are therefore ideal testing grounds for renewable energy solutions. They will not necessarily rely on roads. Airstrips or boat transport may be the most cost effective mobility solutions in low-population-density or fragile environments. Remote-sensing, drone, and communications technologies will play a key part in managing and evaluating how things are going. Like the rest of the world, the inhabitants of wildernesses require high-quality education, health, and security solutions, adapted to their specific environments. Public policy and finance often prioritize public services in urban and rural areas according to the number of people (or votes) that each area represents. This logic cannot apply to wilderness areas. From an economic perspective, wilderness development will rely heavily on the valuation, development, and commercialization of the regulatory and cultural services that nature provides to society. The revenue per hectare of these services will be, in many cases, low. But the costs per hectare to maintain the services will also be relatively low, and so profits will be made and increase in time as the services of nature become scarcer. Investments in these schemes will be especially attractive for institutions that invest in the long term and seek triple bottom lines, like pension, carbon, and impact funds. From a governance perspective, we will need rock-solid institutions with mandates not cast in stone, so that they are flexible to cope with the complex and dynamic nature of nature itself, and to the enormous changes in ecosystem function that climate change will bring about in the next century. Wilderness sustainability is about… For some it might seem a contradiction and for others unsurprising: Sustaining wilderness is about people. Together with frontier communities and indigenous peoples we can stabilize the frontier between advancing anthropogenic landscapes and retreating natural landscapes. Many still live the value of nature every day and their expectations and happiness are in multiple ways still aligned with healthy natural landscapes.​

“Development” of wilderness areas is about improving the quality of life of people immersed in nature and reversing the flow of their youth to cities. It is about changing values in cities and making people realize that protecting natural capital is even more important than protecting our savings in banks and other financial institutions. It is about recognizing that planet Earth provides us with many services, and that it is our moral and economic responsibility to sustain them for our grandchildren´s grandchildren. Global society needs to sustain wilderness. It is not optional. It is a reality that is slowly sinking in.

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