Transboundary protected areas

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) defines the term peace park as an area “formally dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and to the promotion of peace and co-operation.” Peace Parks constitute but one type of transboundary protected area (TBPA), which in turn is defined as: “An area of land and/or sea that straddles one or more boundaries between states, sub-national units such as provinces and regions, autonomous areas and/or areas beyond the limits of national sovereignty or jurisdiction, whose constituent parts are especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed co-operatively through legal or other effective means.”

An inchoate notion of a “peace park” seems to have been initiated in Europe and not, as commonly thought, in North America. As early as 1780, a Treaty of Alliance between the King of France and the Prince-Bishop of Basel stated that nothing “is more proper for maintaining good relations and peace between two bordering states” than punishing offenses related to forests, hunting, and fishing. Designating “an equal and uniform jurisprudence” over these issues within their shared border region, this treaty was also notable for stipulating that the two parties adopt the early conservation-oriented French Forest Ordinance of 1669.

The modern concept of a peace park apparently originated in the 1924 Krakow Protocol, which aimed to resolve a boundary dispute between Poland and Czechoslovakia left over from World War I. However, it took eight years for the protocol’s call for an international “reservation of regions for culture, wildlife, plant and local scenery protection” to bear fruit.

caption Red Eagle Mountain in Glacier National park. Source: National Park Service

In the meantime on the other side of the Atlantic, a similar idea had reportedly occurred to park rangers in Glacier National Park of the United States and the adjacent Waterton National Park of Canada—as well as to individual members of the Cardston Rotary Club. About thirty miles east of Waterton, Cardston was a small Mormon town in southern Alberta, and its Rotary Club was one of hundreds scattered around the United States and Canada. At a goodwill meeting in Waterton on July 4, 1931, Rotary Clubs from Alberta and Montana formally proposed an international peace park between Glacier and Waterton. Rotarians on both sides of the border immediately turned to lobbying their respective governments. The official response was remarkably quick, as both the Canadian Parliament and the U.S. Congress were able to pass legislation in time for a dedication ceremony in Glacier Park on June 19, 1932. Since then, an annual assembly of local Rotary Clubs has alternated between the two parks, each meeting culminating in a “hands across the border” ceremony. Notably, two months after the dedication of Waterton-Glacier, Poland and Czechoslovakia formally recognized “the first International Landscape Park in Europe” between the Polish Pieniny National Park and the Slovak National Natural Reserve on August 17. Thus, 1932 can be described as the watershed year for peace parks.

Only one year later, other European colonial powers were considering the idea of transborder conservation—but interestingly enough, not in Europe. In 1933, the colonial powers signed the London Convention Relative to the Preservation of Fauna and Flora in their Natural State. Entering into force in 1936, this convention was a follow-up effort to what appears to have been the first multilateral convention on international conservation: the 1900 Convention for the Preservation of Wild Animals, Birds and Fish in Africa. Yet the 1900 convention had contained no specific transborder clauses—and in any case, it had never entered into force. In contrast, the 1933 convention called for “prior consultation” and “cooperation” where “a national park or strict natural reserve” had been or was to be established “contiguous to a park or reserve situated in another territory . . . or to the boundary of such territory” (Article 6). Although the colonial powers probably had certain areas in mind in drafting such specific language, there is no indication that it was ever directly implemented.

However, by the time the Convention was agreed to, an early form of transborder conservation had already begun in the Virunga Mountains, where Belgium had established Africa’s first national park in 1925. Originally covering the western half of the Virunga Mountains in the Belgian Congo, the park was named after the ruling King Albert who, having been inspired by several prominent conservationists on a visit to Yellowstone National Park in 1919, had been subsequently convinced by American naturalist Carl Akeley to protect the central African area for its mountain gorillas. In 1929, the Belgian authorities expanded Albert National Park to include all of the Virunga Mountains that traversed the two colonies of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi (a League of Nations territory under Belgian rule). This expansion laid the foundation for an incipient transborder park, for when the colonies gained their independence in the 1960s, the park was split into the Virunga National Park of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire 1971–1997) and Volcanos National Park of Rwanda. Although transborder conservation initiatives in the region have been stymied by civil wars on both sides of the border, in October 2005 the two countries along with Uganda signed a Tripartite Declaration that recognized the need to establish a “Central Albertine Rift Transfrontier Protected Area Network.”

Notably, while Article 6 of the 1933 London convention concerned the coordinated management of parks and reserves in Africa, it did not refer to the subject of peace. This raises an important point: although “peace” and “park” make mutually admirable goals, they are not one and the same thing. For several reasons, however, peace park will no doubt remain the most common term for site-specific transborder collaboration. First, and most obvious, the phrase is alliterative and colorful. Second, depending on the level of strife occurring in any particular border region, conservationists will recognize that the “peace” side of the equation (viz., matters of international security) will normally achieve greater visibility than the “park” side (viz., matters of biological conservation). Accordingly, few conservationists will hesitate to ride the coattails of what will almost always prove to be the issue of paramount political significance. Finally, early synthesizing scholarship on transborder conservation tended to focus on peace parks, particularly the work of Arthur Westing. Westing led a broad investigation into the relationship between war and the environment in the wake of the seminal 1972 Stockholm Conference, thereby setting an agenda that the international conservation community would follow in the decades to come.

Despite the predominance of the label, “peace park” is only one name among many used to describe transborder areas set aside at least in part for conservation. Other names include border park, transborder park, borderline park, friendship park, transnational park, transfrontier reserve, transboundary conservation area, transborder conservation area, cross-border protected natural park, and transboundary natural resource management area. Out of this titular thicket, the generic “transboundary protected area” (TBPA) has become the most widely accepted term in policy and scholarly circles.

Trying to count the global number of TBPAs has proven challenging. During the 1980s, the IUCN identified approximately 70 protected areas sharing “common international boundaries,” which translated into a total of approximately 35 transborder areas. Subsequent counts identified substantial numbers of either new TBPAs or TBPAs that had not been identified. An extensive search and analysis commenced in the late 1990s resulted in a 2005 listing of 188 “internationally adjoining protected areas.”

With so many TBPAs worldwide, conservationists have devised several ways of categorizing them. One group of conservation practitioners, for instance, has delineated five different types of TBPAs on the basis of geographic parameters:

  • two or more contiguous protected areas across a national boundary;
  • a cluster of protected areas and the intervening land;
  • a cluster of separated protected areas without intervening land;
  • a transborder area including proposed protected areas; and
  • a protected area in one country aided by sympathetic land use over the border.

Another group identified three different ways that “transboundary initiatives develop.” First, high-level initiatives involve officials within an administrative capacity above the level of direct land management. Second, locally based initiatives refer to those established at the level of direct “on-the-ground” land management. Finally, third-party initiatives occur “via a conservation non-governmental organisation (NGO) acting as a third party advocate, encouraging and supporting co-operative transboundary management.”

In 2005, researcher Dorothy Zbicz identified six “hierarchical, increasing levels of transboundary cooperation between adjoining protected areas”: no cooperation, communication, consultation, collaboration, coordination of planning, and full cooperation. A global survey of managers working in TBPAs according to this system found that at the extremes, 18 percent responded that there was no cooperation at all, while 7 percent were cooperating at the level of “full cooperation.” The largest minority, 39 percent, was at the level of “communication.” In her analysis, Zbicz drew out four “factors” correlated to the level of cooperation. In essence, higher levels of cooperation occurred (1) if the idea of transfrontier cooperation and ecosystem-based management was important to the protected area managers and personnel, (2) if there were adequate communication technologies in place, (3) if there were individuals willing to take leadership roles, and (4) if land managers were able to make personal contact across the border. Not surprisingly, it was the latter factor that correlated most strongly with the level of cooperation achieved.

Despite the myriad benefits of TBPAs (one group of conservationists drew up a list of over twenty such benefits), they have generated significant controversy on both social and biological grounds. Several critiques on social grounds have come from sub-Saharan Africa, which has become a global “hot spot” for the establishment of peace parks, yet where TBPAs often intersect with extreme poverty and significant human rights violations. The critiques range from a general accusation that peace parks represent little more than a contemporary colonialist attitude toward Africa to the more specific argument that they have the ironic effect of actually fostering animosity (e.g., disputes over revenue sharing from ecotourism).

TBPAs have also become a flashpoint in a larger debate within the conservation community over the relationship between conserving biodiversity and meeting the needs of an ever-growing human population. Running congruent to endless deliberations over what exactly constitutes sustainable development, the debate can be simplistically divided into two ideologies. On one side are the “challengers,” who argue that the traditional form of conservation—that is, putting a wall around “nature” and excluding all but the most transient of human visitors—can work only in limited conditions within the developed world. Rather than throwing barricades around biodiversity, they argue, long-term protection depends on ensuring that people can live sustainably off the habitat to be protected, or at least can find gainful livelihoods in some other fashion. Practical implementation of this approach has come under the banner of “community-based conservation” (CBC) and “integrated conservation and development projects” (ICDPs), the latter of which is generally defined as biodiversity conservation projects with rural development components that are located near protected areas. The opposite encampment, the “defenders,” has responded that the myriad attempts at CBCs and ICDPs have generally failed to protect biodiversity and that protecting all the components of biodiversity in any given ecosystem requires direct habitat protection. Furthermore, they argue, traditional efforts to protect habitat already provide many direct and indirect benefits to local people.

The literature spawned by this debate is copious and, of course, far more nuanced than the above summary suggests. TBPAs have become embroiled in the debate under the accusation that they emanate from the defenders’ encampment and thus constitute little more than a new approach to “bottling up” nature. Practitioners of transborder conservation disagree vehemently, arguing that human betterment has always been an integral component of their efforts to establish TBPAs.

To address the practical and ethical problems posed by TBPAs, numerous sets of formal and informal “best practices” have been developed. As early as 1980, the Council of Europe agreed to a European Outline Convention on Transfrontier Co-operation between Territorial Communities or Authorities, Section 1.9 of which consisted of a “Model Agreement on the Creation and Management of Transfrontier Parks.” The Model Agreement called for the parties “to harmonise their methods of management and to co-ordinate all development projects or improvements by means of a comprehensive action programme leading ultimately to joint management of the park based on a joint management plan.” The Model Agreement also called for joint committees whose membership would include “representatives of recognised private nature conservation organizations and organisations which contribute to the safeguarding of the landscape and the environment.”

A more recent set of general guidelines comes from the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), which put forth a set of “good practice guidelines” under nine primary headings:

  1. identifying and promoting common values;
  2. involving and benefiting local people;
  3. obtaining and maintaining support of decision makers;
  4. promoting coordinated and cooperative activities;
  5. achieving coordinated planning and protected area development;
  6. developing cooperative agreements;
  7. working toward funding sustainability;
  8. monitoring and assessing progress; and
  9. dealing with tension or armed conflict.

Along with these guidelines, the WCPA proposed a “Draft Code for transboundary protected areas in times of peace and armed conflict,” which essentially constitutes an annotated template for a formal bilateral agreement over a transboundary protected area. In 2003 the EUROPARC Federation established a certification system for “exemplary transboundary cooperation between protected areas” according to a set of criteria in the form of seven questions:

  1. Do the parks have a common vision for sustainable development in the region?
  2. Is an agreement in place, which is signed by the parks or at political decision-making levels and which guarantees the continuity of the cooperation?
  3. Does a joint work program exist, which defines the main areas of cooperation in the individual fields of work?
  4. Are mechanisms for direct cooperation between protected area staff, the regular exchange of experience, and the implementation of joint meetings and decisions established?
  5. Does observation of changes in parks’ natural values through joint monitoring and the holding of regular exchanges of data take place?
  6. Are steps taken to ensure that communication between the protected areas is not held back by language barriers?
  7. Are joint transboundary projects in existence and has their financing been secured?

In terms of international support for TBPAs, at least one observer has called for an international “legal regime” on transborder parks, while others have identified extensive justification for them in international law. Although the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity does not refer to TBPAs, in 2004 the countries that have ratified the convention (known as the “Conference of the Parties”) adopted the goal of establishing and strengthening “regional networks, transboundary protected areas and collaboration between neighbouring protected areas across national boundaries” under its “Protected Areas Programme of Work.” In addition, the IUCN’s 2004 draft of an International Covenant on Environment and Development states that parties to the convention would “cooperate in the conservation, management and restoration of natural resources which occur in areas under the jurisdiction of more than one State, or fully or partly in areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. To this end, (a) Parties sharing the same natural system shall make every effort to manage that system as a single ecological unit notwithstanding national boundaries.”

Overall, although there are some precedents for a legal regime on TBPAs, such a framework is unlikely to emerge out of the already crowded arena of international environmental law. Nevertheless, institutional support for TBPAs has arisen from within the international community. Two major international financial institutions, for example, have focused their efforts on TBPAs. The World Bank has financially supported a number of transborder protected area projects and investigations, and the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) has funded a minimum of seven transboundary conservation areas. Finally, and perhaps most important, a community of dedicated researchers and practitioners has materialized around TBPAs that since 1988 has held at least seven significant conferences and meetings focused on the subject. This community has manifested itself in several interrelated institutional bodies. First, in 1997 a Parks for Peace initiative was established as a joint undertaking of the South African Peace Parks Foundation and three arms of the IUCN (the WCPA, the Programme on Protected Areas, and the Commission on Environmental Law). From that collaboration arose the WCPA’s Task Force on Transboundary Protected Areas, from which in turn has arisen the Global Transboundary Protected Area Network.

A growing number of conservationists are working on transborder protected areas, transborder biosphere reserves, and transborder bioregions. With biologists continuing to improve our understanding of the threats to landscape-scale biodiversity and the corresponding importance of landscape-scale conservation, it is a trend that seems likely to continue.

Further Reading

  • Chester, Charles C. 2006. Conservation across borders: Biodiversity in an interdependent world. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. [Note: This entry in the Encyclopedia is adapted from this book; extensive parenthetical references can be found therein.] ISBN: 1559636114
  • EUROPARC Federation. 2003. Transboundary parks...following nature's design. EUROPARC Newsletter, no. 5 August, 2-3.
  • Sandwith, Trevor, Clare Shine, Lawrence Hamilton, and David Sheppard. 2001. Transboundary protected areas for peace and Cco-operation. Gland, Switzerland: World Conservation Union (IUCN).
  • Westing, Arthur H. 1998. Establishment and management of transfrontier reserves for conflict prevention and confidence building. Environmental Conservation. 25(2):91-94.
  • Zbicz, Dorothy C. 2003. Imposing Transboundary Conservation: Cooperation Between Internationally Adjoining Protected Areas. In Transboundary protected areas: The viability of regional conservation strategies, ed. Urami Manage Goodale, Marc J. Stern, Cheryl Margoluis, * Ashley G. Lanfer and Matthew Fladeland: 21-37. New York: Food Products Press (published simultaneously in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 17: 1/2). ISBN: 1560220945


Chester, C. (2008). Transboundary protected areas. Retrieved from


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