Unit C7


What is Conservation?

Conservation means protecting something from change or destruction while permitting its wise use. It thus involves managing our use of natural resources so that we can benefit from them now without damaging the possible benefits they can provide in the future. On islands, conservation of nature is protecting the forests, animals, birds, plants, fishes and marine life so that they will always be there for future generations to use and enjoy.

There are many reasons for conserving our natural heritage.

-- Human survival and development depend on natural processes that maintain the system within which we live, for example by making good soil, purifying water or recycling nutrients.

-- The native plants and animals of an island are genetic resources, many of which are found no where else on the planet. They have had traditional uses, and they may prove to be very useful in the future.

-- Biological resources are basically renewable; that is, if cared for, they can continue to produce indefinitely. Since future civilization will have to depend more and more on renewable resources as our oil, coal and minerals run out, it is essential that we conserve those resources so that our society can continue to grow and develop.

-- Natural areas are of great scientific interest as places where the principles of ecology and natural history can be studied.

-- The forests in the islands protect important watersheds; destroy them and we may not have enough water for development, or even to live.

-- It is nature that makes our islands beautiful places to live, so we must try to protect that beauty for ourselves and for its importance to tourism.

-- Conservation is important for education; students can learn more easily about biology, ecology, geography and natural history if they can see examples around them.

-- Traditional life and culture in the islands depend on the land and sea, forests and reefs, so conservation also means protecting the roots of our culture.

Conservation and Development

Conservation is a part of good development. Both conservation and development try to give people the best possible life that their resources permit. Sometimes a particular development may overlook some long-term costs associated with it, such as a land-clearing project that damages a water supply, or a new factory that pollutes a lagoon and kills fish used by local fishermen. A conservationist would ask if the long-term loss of the water supply or fishery might not be worth more than the short-term benefit from the development, or if the development could not be modified or relocated to reduce the damage caused. Environmentally-sound development is development that continues to produce benefits for the people indefinitely into the future. A conservation approach can thus help to choose wise development that does not steal from the future for the benefit of the present.

Conservation of Species

Islands are particularly rich in kinds of plants and animals, called endemic species, that are found nowhere else in the world. This is because islands are isolated, and were often populated long ago or by chance; the plants and animals that succeeded in reaching them have often changed and adapted to suit local conditions. These unique species are an important genetic resource for the whole world, and may well prove to be very useful in the future.

Unfortunately the populations of island species are often small, and they can easily die out or become extinct if the place where they live is changed or developed, if they are hunted or harvested too much, or if an introduced plant or animal kills them or crowds them out. Most extinctions in the last hundred years have been of island species, and many others are endangered, that is they could easily disappear if care is not taken.

Protecting this genetic heritage is a great responsibility for island people, and one that is not easy when different needs conflict on a small island. In island regions, there are many more endangered species in relation to the size of the population than anywhere else in the world. Often these species were important in legends or in traditional life. If they are lost they can never be brought back, and both ties with the past and hopes for the future will suffer.

Protected Areas for Conservation

Every country and island has some areas that need to be protected. These may be natural areas of forest or reef where rare or endangered species live, areas where the natural life is particularly rich or productive, typical examples of a local natural ecosystem, sites of historical interest or natural beauty important for tourism, areas essential to life on the island (such as by catching water or protecting against natural disasters), and sites of critical importance to the productivity of resources necessary for development (fish breeding areas, genetic resources, etc.).

While some laws may protect individual species against hunting or collecting, the best protection is to set aside the places where they live. Therefore most countries, including many island states, have created national parks and reserves to keep these important areas safe for present and future generations. National Parks (or territorial or provincial parks in some places) are generally large areas open to the public for recreation and the appreciation of their natural features. Reserves are usually smaller or narrower in their purposes; they may be nature reserves, historical reserves, marine reserves, recreation reserves, hunting or forest reserves. Protected areas can serve several purposes, like protecting a water supply and providing a safe place for native birds, or encouraging tourism while protecting a historical or cultural site.

While it is usually the government that sets aside an area as a national park or reserve, it is up to all the people to understand the importance of protecting these areas and to respect the rules for their use. Island governments do not have the resources to police these areas without public support. There have been sad cases in some islands where parks or reserves have not been respected by the people and their natural features have been destroyed. It is future generations who suffer from such a loss.

Protected areas have many uses apart from safeguarding nature. They are places for educating the public about the importance of nature to our daily life. School children can visit them to learn about their natural and cultural heritage. Scientists can use them for research on the natural processes that have made the islands what they are today, the knowledge of which is essential if we are to manage them in the future. They can be an important tourist attraction with benefits for the local economy. Creating parks and reserves is therefore a kind of development project that has its place with others in a well-balanced development programme.

There are over a hundred parks and reserves in the South Pacific Island region, including National Parks such as Varirata in Papua New Guinea and O Le Pupu-Pu'e in Western Samoa, nature reserves like Montagne des Sources in New Caledonia, Tomaniivi in Fiji, Maug in the Northern Marianas, Rose Atoll in American Samoa, and Taiaro in French Polynesia, and marine reserves such as Palolo Deep in Western Samoa, Yves Merlet in New Caledonia and Monuafe Island in Tonga. These protected areas include important examples of undisturbed natural environments, but they are still not enough to protect the great natural diversity of the Pacific Islands. Other island regions also have fewer protected areas than they need to ensure the survival of their natural heritage and the long-term productivity of their resources.

Individual Conservation Actions

Since conservation means keeping our resources productive for the future, there are things that everyone can do to contribute to conservation.

It will be very difficult for governments to set aside enough examples of different kinds of native forest, reef, and other natural or beautiful areas as national parks and nature reserves to meet the needs for conservation, education, scientific research and recreation. Local tribal groups and land owners can organize to protect their own resources, as has been done with the biodiversity Conservation Areas in the South Pacific and the wildlife management areas in Papua New Guinea. Traditional land owners can also preserve parts of their land which have natural or cultural importance by not developing them in ways that would damage their features of interest; such "family reserves" could play an important role in island conservation.

Farmers and land owners can plan the use of their land to protect the soil for gardens and to maintain their supplies of food, firewood, forest products and water. For instance, trees can be left along stream banks, in upper watersheds and on steep slopes. Trees are important, so anyone who cuts one down can plant another.

Fishermen can avoid using destructive methods like dynamite, poisons, coral breaking or small-mesh nets, and can try not to overfish any one area. They can even stop fishing for a time in some areas to allow the fish populations to recover, just as was often done under the old taboo system.

Traditional Conservation

People living traditional ways of life in the islands paid close attention to the natural environment and often managed it wisely. They knew when to use resources in moderation, or when a wrong practice would damage a resource for later use. Taboo areas in the forest or on the reef were conservation areas just like parks or reserves. Today much of the knowledge that old people have about the forests, medicinal plants, fishes, reef life, and places to protect is being forgotten. Young people are away at school, or not interested. Since there are many wise things in the traditional ways that can help in managing island resources today, conservation should include preserving such knowledge so that it can be applied to modern problems.


Why is conservation important in your country?

Why is conservation important to the whole world?

Is conservation against development?

Why can a national park be considered a development project?

What can happen if development goes ahead without conservation?

What should be done for conservation of nature in your country or island?

What can you do in your own area to help conservation?

What are some traditional types of conservation on your island?

Instructions for trainers in the use of this unit

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UN System-Wide Earthwatch Coordination, UNEP, Geneva
Updated 7 April 1998