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Responsibility to Protect: The Case for a Global Park System

Editors’ Note: This article is part of our special series Predictions & Predicaments. It should be read as if written in the year 2030. Read more about the special series here.

At the turn of the millennium, the United Nations (UN) experimented with a new philosophy: instead of being governed by sovereignty among states, individual human dignity would be paramount. This responsibility to protect (R2P) gained traction and even fueled  the world’s response to the Libyan revolution during the Arab Awakening. It also culminated there, moving international politics back to states and their sovereignty. In 2030, with global resources and natural wilderness dwindling, it’s time for a new R2P. States have proven to be self-centered, capricious, and myopic. We must take seriously our responsibility to protect this earth and its natural wonders by establishing a global park system (GPS).

Image courtesy of Tiago Fioreze, © 2008

The 2016 Paris Agreement sought to unite governments by combatting climate change through “nationally determined contributions.” But states have failed. Key governments have pulled out of the Agreement or not upheld their commitments. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions have risen steadily while global freshwater wetlands have shrunk by nearly three-quarters. The Amazon, the world’s largest and most diverse tropical rainforest, has lost 19 percent of its vegetation in the last 61 years – just one percent away from deforestation levels called “the point of no return.” Starting in 2019, the rate of Amazonian deforestation has increased steadily, which national governments have only made worse by impacting global economic trends and through irresponsible direct stewardship.

The US soybean was collateral to President Donald Trump’s tariff-heavy trade war with China. Chinese retaliatory tariffs dropped the US market share of Chinese soy imports from 39 to 30 percent in two years, before dropping to its current 15 percent. In 2025, the newly desperate major soy companies lifted their self-imposed moratorium on buying new land in the Amazon, awakening a previously controlled threat to the forest. Additionally, a growing Chinese demand for beef associated with increasing wealth has caused Brazil’s forests to bear the brunt of land clearing for new cattle pastures and soy fields.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has facilitated the Amazon’s destruction. His tenure has seen hundreds of thousands of protected acres opened for development and he has rejected international pressure to improve conservation. In response to the 2028 Davos Summit statement, Bolsonaro stated that any obligation of Brazil to preserve the Amazon for the rest of the world reeks of colonialism, anti-capitalism, and stands as a threat to the sovereignty of Brazil and all countries holding something coveted by the world’s wealthy nations.

However, the Amazon is not a national resource. It is instead a globally impactful ecosystem. It traps five percent of the world’s carbon mass, provides 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, and houses biodiversity critical to medical and agricultural research. Its destruction, meanwhile, has accelerated climate change, impacted long-term sustainability of agriculture and the environment, and robbed future generations of experiencing the wonders of the natural world.

To save this resource, the UN, under the auspices of the World Tourism Organization, should establish a GPS. The UNGPS would designate protected areas, wonders, and ecosystems that are unique worldwide. Once guarded, they would be sustainably developed for tourism, conservation, and research. The GPS would be staffed similarly to UN peacekeeping missions: member states would contribute conservation staff and scientists, reducing their net UN membership dues. This system would also carve out a leadership role for less wealthy or powerful countries that nonetheless have resident park preservation and conservation knowledge. Costa Rica, Kenya, and Botswana come readily to mind. Finally, the tourism generated by improved accessibility would build sustainable income and help defray the opportunity cost of more rapacious land usage. The revenue would be split between the UNGPS and resident state.

Expectedly, this initiative would induce knee-jerk outcries of new age colonialism. Countries with targeted land would invoke the sanctity of sovereignty and resist losing authority and autonomy. While the GPS mirrors the original R2P in that it seeks to constrain the influence of regimes, it differs by directly and painlessly benefitting the resident state. With international interest, protected land is more likely to be made accessible to visitors, something those states currently struggle with. Furthermore, the revenue generated would be reliable and sustainable, in contrast to volatile and temporary streams from resource extraction.

Another concern is tourism. Portions of various natural areas remain untouched; therefore, GPS-supported construction could be painted as detrimental to conservation efforts. However, national park systems have already mastered sustainable ecotourism. Additionally, the increased level of protection against wholesale destruction is indisputably worth the limited footprint needed for tourist attractions and research sites.

A GPS addresses the man-made forces currently pillaging Earth’s most valuable resources. From trade wars to the fickle winds of domestic politics, international consensus that these lands are untouchable would hold powerful forces at bay. No longer would bilateral disputes or nationalistic short-sightedness be responsible for the destruction of a globally unique ecosystem.

The Amazon did not grow overnight. That ecosystem, that wild untouched beauty, developed over millennia and is reliant on something as intricate and coincidental as thousands of pounds of soil traveling across the ocean on winds to fertilize its river basin. Studies have demonstrated that the Amazon will reach a point where it cannot regrow its lost area. We are approaching that juncture. The stewardship of national governments has proven ineffective at best and actively destructive at worst. Therefore, the UN must step in now.

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Michael Hogan

Michael Hogan is a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate of Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense.

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