Reconciling conservation and commerce in the name of sustainability

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ETurboNews spoke with Mr.

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ETurboNews spoke with Mr. Rony Renaud, the chief executive officer of the Seychelles National Park Authority, which was formed last year (2009) by merging the administrations of the terrestrial national parks with the Marine Park Authority and the Seychelles Centre for Marine Research and Technology, to create a single body dealing with conservation, protection, and enforcement. Excerpts of the interview are published here below:

eTN: Mr. Renaud, could you tell our readers about the brief of the Seychelles National Park Authority – what are your organization’s objectives and functions?

Mr. Renaud: Like you said in your introduction, the Seychelles National Park Authority succeeded the SCMR-MPA, which initially had the function to manage the marine national parks of which we presently have 14. Seven of them are under our direct responsibility, and the other seven are managed by different conservation organizations. The merger last year brought together the marine parks administration with the section responsible for the three terrestrial national parks previously under the department of environment, which includes the Morne national park on Mahe, which is also our island’s water tower. Our organization’s objectives are the sound management of these protected areas, ensuring the continuation of ecological processes, protection of biodiversity, but also research. We are also tasked to ensure that these parks are open for visitors and have good infrastructure so that tourists and our own citizens can enjoy our natural attractions. Besides all of this, we are the body in Seychelles to ensure that our international obligations under various treaties are fulfilled, like Ramsar and others.

What has become important to know is that government has stopped subsidizing us since 2009, when the economic reforms came into place, and this means we now need to raise funding ourselves, through park entrance fees, concession income, and other measures, fundraising, grants from development partners, etc.

Some of our parks, like the Morne, are still free of fees for visitors, but as we progress our work on infrastructure, this will also change. However, Seychellois citizens pay no entrance fees to any of our protected areas, only foreign visitors do, which is a measure to show our own people what conservation is all about, the rich biodiversity without them needing to pay for entrance.
This brings with it challenges, funding is one of them, and we are presently using income from parks with high visitor numbers to support parks with few visitors. The diversity of our park portfolio and the geographical distribution of the parks is another challenge; distances are often very far and this means that management, supplying, coordination of work is very, very costly, of course. It requires us to decentralize, keep staff in those areas, and manage them from there, because we cannot go there and come back every day. For a place, for instance, like the island of Curieuse, one of our biggest revenue earners, we have staff there all the time; need to constantly send fuel, water, and other supplies; at times even send in extra staff from Mahe to assist those based there; and the distance is far from our main headquarters. Other challenges, because of distances and the large ocean territory, are monitoring and surveillance of extensive ecosystems, which is also very expensive, of course, but has to be done to the best of our ability to avoid encroaching, poaching, destroying coral reefs, illegal fishing inside the parks, and other incidents, like flouting regulations, violating rules, etc. Especially in coastal waters within the parks, there are sizeable fishing communities, and they often, through ignorance of boundaries or deliberately, put their fishing traps and nets into the parks. We need to prevent this to maintain fish stocks, preserve breeding grounds.

In the Vallee de Mai park, where the “coco de mer” is found, we have found poaching incidents, when the fruits are taken from trees, and it means more surveillance, more patrols, more infrastructure, which is also costing a lot. This often happens during festive season preparations, when some people look for an easy way to make some quick money.

And not to forget the challenges arising from climate change, which is a global issue, but we here also have to deal with it in the frontline. Rising water levels, coastal erosion, in particular during high tides, especially the spring tides, is already becoming a problem for us. We have observed shifts in sands and sand banks, and then, of course, there is coral bleaching for which partly rising water temperatures are responsible. Finally, we have to combat alien species invasions, too. We have more shipping traffic now than before, and there is always a risk of the introduction of foreign or alien species into our waters and ecosystems, especially as one of our marine parks is very close to the sea lane into our main port.

eTN: You mentioned 14 marine parks, of which you manage 7; who exactly is responsible for the management of the other parks and where do those revenues go?

Mr. Renaud: Some of those parks are managed by private NGOs, like Nature Seychelles, the Island Conservation Society, the Seychelles Island Foundation, amongst others. The Seychelles Island Foundation, for instance, manage[s] the Vallee de Mai World Heritage Site, which is part of the Praslin terrestrial national park on Praslin island, and, yes, they keep those revenues and entrance fees, but they also then pay with that income for the management of the Aldabra atoll marine protected area, which they look after for research purposes. The Vallee de Mai, in fact, was leased by government to the Seychelles Island Foundation, and while we provide regulatory oversight as the Seychelles National Park Authority, the management of that part of the Praslin national park, as the Aldabra atoll, is vested in the SIF.

eTN: In Eastern Africa we now see a growing trend that game reserves for instance, and even very recently a national park in Rwanda, are “concessioned out” to the private sector. I am coming back to the income from the 7 marine parks you do not manage – are you at least getting some lease fees as an income to help you raise your budget estimates?

Mr. Renaud: Some of those seven are linked with privately-owned islands, which were declaring themselves as protected areas, so government has only a limited jurisdiction over those, other than general laws and regulations, so there we have no claim to leases or income. Then there are areas which were designated as protected a long time ago already, like coral reefs, where people would come and pick shells illegally, but there are still grey areas about management of all of them and the cost of monitoring, surveillance, and enforcement. We will be exploring the issue of concessions, but we are still in the process of formulating certain parts of regulations and legal frameworks to facilitate this. It is one of the options for raising funding, but it needs to be on a sound legal basis before we proceed.

eTN: Are you tapping into such facilities as the Global Environmental Fund, UNEP, or UNDP programs or funding from the World Bank and the various national development agencies supporting conservation projects?

Mr. Renaud: We did this already in the past for certain projects across the islands. The EU now also has a special program for marine protected areas. From there, we got funding already for refurbishments of some specific infrastructure and other components. A mangrove replanting program is also being financed through the same mechanisms where mangrove forests were depleted through siltation or climatic conditions. We are now looking for funding also to restore a causeway, which was partly collapsed during the last big tsunami, which visitors would use to walk almost across that bay, see the mangrove forest, then the reef, and for such major expense we seek financial support through grants from available sources. For some areas and projects, we work with NGOs to achieve common objectives where they source funding, and we provide expertise to them as and where needed.

eTN: Are such cooperations covered by MOUs and other legal means?

Mr. Renaud: Yes, such joint efforts are covered by MOUs and other agreements, which govern our cooperation with NGOs in regard of, for instance, monitoring, management, and other options as part of long-term collaboration in certain projects.

eTN: One way to get more funds is to attract more visitors to the parks you control and manage outright. To achieve this, you need adequate infrastructure, guides, and visitor centers with promotional materials, including such for sale to visitors as souvenirs. Are you working hand in hand with the tourist board to achieve such objectives, achieve diversification, establish new products, and add new attractions?

Mr. Renaud: This year, we will be seeking a formalization of our cooperation with the tourist board. Presently, we have more of an informal cooperation, but we work hand in hand with them. They are active, last year and this year, to bring journalists and agents to the islands, and we, on request from STB, provide free entrance into our protected areas to support them by waiving fees, to bring the cost of such promotions down to a lower level. STB in turn has shown to be very active to promote our parks, even without a formal MOU. They put our attractions into their promotional materials, their films, and DVDs, and they promote us in overseas markets, not just the resorts and hotels, but very actively our natural attractions.

As you know, we were only formed last year as an organization, so we are at present still developing a business plan, which will include a marketing strategy, but that will be harmonized with STB, of course, to pool resources and agree on targets and objectives without duplicating things. Where we need product enhancements, require upgrades of facilities, there, too, we will be seeking input from STB, because they get the feedback, which helps us to improve services here and there.

eTN: This will, of course, also bring about more opportunities for concessions and private investors?

Mr. Renaud: Yes, this will open the door for such agreements, but at the same time we want to explore the options for new products, i.e., sales of souvenirs, caps, t-shirts, books, DVDs, curios etc., which will be both common, as well as site specific. We see a good potential to generate added revenues here, which was not tapped into in the past. This will all be in our business strategy, which is being developed and then reviewed with other stakeholders soon. As an example, last year in 2009 we celebrated 30 years for some of the protected areas we are looking after. We were using this festivity to test the market in regard of souvenir sales for the first time. We sold t-shirts, caps; we found it both popular and profitable but are now looking into the proper structure to do that all the time [with] shops and outlets, supply chains, suppliers, etc. With the help of some funding sourced, we are now able to reconfigure some of the buildings on Curieuse to turn part of a building into a small shop, from which we can then learn more and use the findings for other parks. Most likely, after these processes are complete, there will be openings for concessions through which we can early royalties, fees, etc.

eTN: By 2017, the tourism planners are intent to put a cap on overall arrivals, somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 visitors overall and then not to be exceeded. That means doubling, or almost doubling, resort bed capacity. Will your parks, the present infrastructure available, be able to cope with a doubling of visitor numbers, or are you not already strained at some parks like Curieuse, which would mean you have to develop other parks to cater for those added tourists?

Mr. Renaud: As we develop our business plan, our strategy, we were already focused on 2017 and the intention to double present arrival numbers to the Seychelles. It means for us to improve our park infrastructure to be able to cope with and receive more visitors and develop some parks to get ready to receive visitors and give them an equally good experience compared to the established marine parks.

But remember, one of our key objectives is also conservation and this has to be sustainable in regard of visitor numbers and facilities created, so as we go along, we need to carefully study the carrying capacity of the sites under our jurisdiction, to establish scientifically how many visitors one site can get per year without the impact of too many visitors then leading to damages and destruction. We are doing this already, and the process is ongoing until we know those data for sure. We have never done this before, but it is very important to reconcile conservation and commerce under the aspect of long-term sustainability. Only then can we set targets and agree with STB and others on caps in certain areas by making rational decisions based on facts. This also means to develop products for the terrestrial national parks, make them attractive, and then also begin to charge fees for visitors, after studying the impact of large numbers of people to go there for hiking, i.e., waste management; invasive species; need to put up walkways, bridges, etc. It also means to begin marketing the terrestrial parks once these issues have been dealt with and put them into the island tours or create separate island tours just to visit such parks.

But generally it is a new ball game – terrestrial parks, the opportunities and challenges, is new to us, and we are working hard to acquaint ourselves with these topics, see what products can be developed, what the market demands, how best to go about creating infrastructure, to maximize the sustainable use of such protected areas as we have done for many years with the marine parks. We do believe there is a lot of potential, even in La Digue, which can be developed as a bird sanctuary, but we need a little more time. The merger was only effective a few months ago, and we need to find our footing on areas new to us. We know we need fencing for some of the parks, we know we need good guides for those areas, but for La Digue, we intend to already start a fee by mid this year, which we can then use to improve the structures even more.

About guides, we are working with STA and other institutions to train guides, and we are even developing some interpretative materials for guides, and we need to draw in the people with many years of experience. There is capacity out there in the private sector by individuals who for many years have taken an interest in the terrestrial parks. Seychelles Tourism Academy would be one of the obvious options for us to take as they can develop a program for guide training.

eTN: When do you expect to become fully self-sustained with funding?

Mr. Renaud: In regard of our financial situation, we are presently autonomous, and the income through visitor fees is supplemented with grants from our partners. However, those grants only make about 8 percent of our total income, which means that over 90 percent is self financed through fee income and other activities. Grant income is also often dedicated to the specific project, to create infrastructure or rehabilitate existing facilities, so it is the other sources of income we can freely decide where it is needed and how to be spent.

Some international groups have MOUs with us, and when their researchers and volunteers come here, for instance from Earth Watch, they actually pay us for the use of our facilities and camps, and that income, too, is helping us to meet our recurrent expenditures. When we start the sale of souvenirs, that will improve even more, and we expect this to really start later in the year when our visitor centers are getting ready, where we can sell booklets, DVS,’ and other items in demands by tourists wanting to take mementos with them.

When it comes to capital expenditure, we cannot meet all our project costs and will need to seek alternative funding until growing visitor numbers bring in more income in the future.

For instance, we are planning to build a new head office where all departments are under one roof in one compound. That is to be constructed near one of the marine parks. To finance this, we would be unable to do so from our cash flow or income. Towards that end, we are discussing with government to give us a property, which we can then remodel or refurbish and modify to meet our requirements, so we would not need funds to purchase or do major new construction, which makes it more affordable. It is supposed to be on the island of Perseverance not far from Mahe, about 2 kilometers, and part of it would also become a proper marine research center with labs and added facilities, where all branches of the organization spread across many places now would come together. A small window shop only would remain in Mahe or in Victoria for marketing or bookings or as a contact point for visitors, but everything else would move. The cost for this is presently about 1.2 million euros or about US$1.75 million, and we are seeking support locally from government as a one off but also from abroad in terms of grants or soft loans. The global financial situation made this more difficult, but we will succeed to find funding, especially for the marine research center. Here, in particular, government relies a lot on us for data and research results, for fisheries, and other purposes, of course, reviewing coastal and marine EIAs (environmental impact assessments and reports). We are, as an organization, looking at marine ecosystems, and while fishing per se is under a different government department, they look towards us for expert advice, of course. We are also involved in oceanographic research, which is a regional project where some other island nations and mainland countries participate in, and this is financed by UNDP. So some of our functions and objectives, which match with other regional or global initiatives, we get funded for externally and do not have to use our internally-generated resources. Such participation also allows us to build Seychellois capacity in terms of administration and research.

eTN: What about the reclamation of land from the sea? I have seen several such projects while touring the main island. What is the impact on this and does it not disturb fragile underwater ecosystems with the sediment and mud generated by the building activities? Do you have critical concerns about such developments?

Mr. Renaud: We had our concerns basically, with regard to coastal developments. In fact, most of the east coast of Mahe going right to the airport is such reclaimed land, and they are basically facing the marine park. Naturally, during the process of reclaiming, when the rocks are filled in, there has been loss of habitat for marine species, and there have been other issues, too – the reduction of the quality of the water in that area, siltation, and all that, which impacted on coral reefs. We have gone through all these processes and have now found that there is an improvement in the water quality again after the projects were completed; circulation of water has improved, but after some time, of course, we are talking in some places about 10 years. Now being in the development stages, we are facing added challenges in terms of potential pollution, whether it is hotel or resort developments along the coastal zones or other industrial facilities which can bring about spillages; the expanded port, too, is a source of concern as ships at times empty their ballast tanks enroute into port, which can bring pollution but also alien species from other parts of the world, so we have many challenges to deal with, to monitor. In some areas, there were issues over sea grass beds, in particular a rare type, which is very long and now only found near Praslin, that area off Mahe we have lost, and this has caused concern, of course. When we lose habitat, biodiversity, it is always a concern and a challenge to deal with, to at least now retain the remaining areas where this type of sea grass grows and leave those areas completely alone. For instance we are now developing capacity to remove and relocate such plants and even aquatic life forms to other suitable areas, but it is not an easy process to relocate something so fragile in an intact state.

Activities like reclamation always encroach into what we call the buffer zone between the shore and the marine park, which also results in the loss of fishing grounds for local fishermen, loss of fish in those areas affected; also reduced is the available space for boats between the new’shore and the marine park, so often we see boat incursions into the park we now have to deal with. There is a general speed limit for boats in the marine park, but it is often, especially at weekends, not observed, and the waves and sediment thrown up then cause problems for marine life and underwater plants.

eTN: How long were you with the Marine Parks Authority before the merger?

Mr. Renaud: I was with the Marine Parks for two years, but before that I was working for four years with the Seychelles Island Foundation, so I was well acquainted with all the issues I would be faced with in this position, and I know the specific details about their work on the Aldabra atoll and the Vallee de Mai. When the bodies were merged, I remained and am now for a year or so with the National Parks Authority. What is worth mentioning here is that our mandate has just been enlarged, as we are now also responsible for forests and government-owned plantations on the islands. This is part of the ongoing restructuring of government, which is now moving out of management and concentrating on policy and business environment. So now we have to deal with the sustainable funding of that function, too, after government transferred also the competent manpower into our institution, which means we now also pay their salaries.

eTN: What is your most important subject; what is closest to your own heart?

Mr. Renaud: I would immediately say quality staff – funding challenges, management challenges, conservation, monitoring, enforcement – all those can be dealt with only when you have competent and well-trained staff. I have to deal with mobility, as there is competition over well-trained research and other staff I have to cope with, and the next equally important issue would be our new head office and marine research center – these two are, in parallel, my most important issues I have to deal with, besides many others, of course. A good new headquarter and good, qualitative, and competent staff – this will make all other challenges much easier to deal with in the future. Incidentally, all of our permanent staff are Seychellois now.

For additionally required expertise, we work with the university in Zurich on the issues of terrestrial parks, and about the marine parks, we work closely with Earth Watch. They come out twice a year with volunteers for certain aspects of research and work, and all their findings and data are shared with us and our own staff assigned to them work alongside them hand in hand, of course. We are even involved in reviewing the draft reports before they are published; our cooperation goes that far. They always have real top researchers with them, associated with the University of Essex in the UK, and we learn from such activities, of course, and our staff improves their knowledge and competence after every field exercise.

eTN: Are you happy with the recent restructuring of government?

Mr. Renaud: It was necessary, it was overdue; some things could have been done differently, but the process of reform, realigning, and streamlining of responsibilities was really necessary. The merger of the Marine Parks with the terrestrial parks was, for instance, a logical progression, a natural process, part of the reforms. Now if you would want to create a separate body for forestry for instance, that is a different issue, but I know that in other countries, wildlife managers are often in conflict with forest managers, at loggerheads, so here at least we resolve issues in house amongst ourselves without the conflicts seen elsewhere. The coming together of marine parks, terrestrial parks, and forests/plantations has created synergy effects, and most forests and plantations are already bordering national parks or marine parks, so we are combining the conservation efforts and streamlining them. It will also make it easier to discuss issues with other partners like the Seychelles Tourist Board, because we now have a comprehensive mandate. I expect to have an MOU coming up with them, especially about marketing and product development. I mentioned this recently to government in a meeting, that our mandate is closely linked with tourism, as most people come to the Seychelles for the intact nature as much as for the beaches, so the marine and terrestrial parks, the forests are all part of their holiday and the quality of our parks makes all the difference for tourists.

Thank you Mr. Renaud for your time and for talking to us.

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Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.