Volume 16, Issue 4 e12955
LETTER
Open Access

Essential planetary health workers: Positioning rangers within global policy

Sue Stolton

Corresponding Author

Sue Stolton

Equilibrium Research and IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Gland, Switzerland

Correspondence

Sue Stolton, Equilibrium Research and IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Cumberland Road, Bristol, UK.

Email: [email protected]

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Hannah L. Timmins

Hannah L. Timmins

Equilibrium Research, Bristol, UK

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Nigel Dudley

Nigel Dudley

Equilibrium Research and IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Gland, Switzerland

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Olga Biegus

Olga Biegus

Universal Ranger Support Alliance (URSA), Gland, Switzerland

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Chris Galliers

Chris Galliers

International Ranger Federation, Johannesburg, South Africa

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William Jackson

William Jackson

The Thin Green Line Foundation, Balnarring, Australia

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Marianne Kettunen

Marianne Kettunen

IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Gland, Switzerland

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Barney LongMadhu Rao

Madhu Rao

IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Gland, Switzerland

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Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez

Global Environment Facility, Washington, District of Columbia, USA

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Cristina Romanelli

Cristina Romanelli

World Health Organization, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, Geneve, Switzerland

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Tim Schneider

Tim Schneider

The Thin Green Line Foundation, Balnarring, Australia

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Andrew Seidl

Andrew Seidl

Colorado State University and UNDP Biodiversity Finance Initiative (BIOFIN), Fort Collins, Colorado, USA

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Rohit Singh

Rohit Singh

World Wildlife Fund, Washington, District of Columbia, USA

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Matt Sykes

Matt Sykes

Ranger Roundtable, Melbourne, Australia

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First published: 14 July 2023
Citations: 1

Abstract

Our planet is facing increasing challenges: climate change, biodiversity loss, pandemics, poverty, and many other problems closely linked to a deteriorating environment. Meanwhile, one of our most important assets, rangers working in protected and conserved areas responsible for managing large tracts of the planet's lands and waters, are often underutilized, underrecognized and underequipped. They are generally left out of the debate about conservation and sustainable development policy, despite being central to the success of those policies. This paper outlines the need for global leaders across multiple sectors to recognize the profession of rangers as essential planetary health workers and to position rangers more effectively within global conservation and environmental policy mechanisms. It introduces the challenges facing rangers, the emerging diversity of roles within the ranger profession and the important contribution of rangers to conservation and sustainable development. It presents policy and implementation avenues to improve recognition and professionalization of rangers as key executors of conservation and development policy, particularly considering the recent Global Biodiversity Framework ambitions.

1 INTRODUCTION

Protected and conserved areas (i.e., protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures [OECMs]) are core elements of global efforts to conserve biodiversity, ecosystem services, and associated cultural values. They will be critical to the implementation of the targets agreed by parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in the Global Biodiversity Framework (CBD, 2022) and as a response to climate change and biodiversity loss (Maxwell et al., 2020).

While expansion is important to stem biodiversity loss, it is critically important to improve the effectiveness of the current protected area systems (Maxwell et al., 2020). The last comprehensive global effectiveness study, published in 2010, found that 40% of protected areas were not managed effectively, with one crucial weakness identified as the lack of skilled staff (Leverington et al., 2010). An essential element in improving management effectiveness will thus be to prioritize ranger employment and improve ranger skills and working conditions. Other types of area-based conservation, particularly OECMs, are only just starting to be recorded globally, so long-term data on effectiveness are not available.

Rangers are known by various titles and are defined by the International Rangers Federation (IRF) as individuals or groups of individuals that play a critical role in conservation, responsible for safeguarding nature, cultural and historical heritage, and protecting the rights and well-being of present and future generations (IRF, 2021). Adequate numbers of competent, well-resourced, and well-led rangers are the foundation of effective conservation management (Appleton et al., 2022). As such, they also play a key role in the delivery of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, targets from many related conventions and global and regional commitments (Singh, Galliers, Appleton, et al., 2021) (Figure 1) and the new targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework (Figure 2).

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The contributions of rangers to Sustainable Development Goals and related global conservation and development policy.
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The contributions of rangers to targets of the Global Biodiversity Framework. The figure shows relevant target numbers with brief descriptions of each target (CBD, 2022).

Rangers come from many backgrounds and include Indigenous and community rangers alongside those employed by governments. Ranger teams typically contain a range of different specialists, and despite still being male dominated, and are increasingly gender diverse (Stolton et al., 2022). This diversity needs to be accelerated specifically in relation to female rangers, local and Indigenous rangers, and those representing other minorities in the sector.

Local, national, and international bodies, including the IRF, Thin Green Line Foundation, and Universal Ranger Support Alliance (URSA), have been providing opportunities to share experience and develop ranger guidance and policy. Thanks to this work, a better understanding of ranger roles, rights, responsibilities, and challenges is being developed, including a code of conduct, providing principles for behavior, ethics, and accountability (IRF, 2021), defined competencies to help ensure that training needs are met (URSA & IRF, 2023), and a growing number of strategies and good practice guidelines (Stolton et al., 2022).

This paper identifies a lack of recognition of rangers’ roles and contribution to conservation and discusses how this is becoming increasingly problematic as their roles expand and demands on the workforce multiply, with new global commitments, threats, and trends. Unless the role of rangers is valued as a profession and for their contribution to conservation and sustainable development, concerns over accountability and human rights abuses are likely to continue, and ambitious conservation targets and governance and equity goals will fail at the implementation stage.

1.1 The challenges

The role rangers play in conservation is often contentious. Rights groups’ concerns about increased ranger militarization (Duffy et al., 2019) and resulting risks of human rights abuses (Ramutsindela, 2021) highlight the need for a wide range of interventions—to professionalize rangers globally including safeguarding procedures, ethics, and accountability along with adequate training.

Many rangers perform their duties in difficult conditions and with limited resources (Anagnostou et al., 2022). The largest global survey of rangers, covering almost 500 sites across 28 countries in 2019, found that rangers typically experience extremely poor working conditions that expose them to excessive health and safety risks, and they often lack the capacity, both skills and equipment, for the work they undertake (Belecky et al., 2019).

Despite these risks, many governments fail to safeguard rangers, including under the relevant International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions (Belecky et al., 2019, 2021). Ranger employment welfare, (the range of benefits and services an employer offers to employees), are few, for example, the average monthly salary of a ranger is less than half that of police (Belecky et al., 2021). Rangers are often paid late (Belecky et al., 2021), and government agencies that employ rangers are often the first to receive budget cuts (Singh, Galliers, Moreto, et al., 2021). Only a third of rangers (33.7%) have employee insurance schemes that provide compensation in case of job-related fatality, and only slightly more (41.8%) are insured against serious injuries (Belecky et al., 2019).

In addition to having poor employment conditions, rangers’ roles are often misunderstood and the common, media-perpetuated image of a ranger does not always match the reality. In many places, they are seen primarily as law enforcement officers, whereas in most cases their work encompasses a wide range of other activities (Singh, Galliers, Appleton, et al., 2021) including monitoring, community development, nature-based tourism, education, fire management, invasive species control, and most recently disease containment and monitoring (Singh, Galliers, Moreto, et al., 2021). In addition, they are perceived as only protecting biodiversity, while they are also securing ecosystem services, cultural heritage, and peoples’ rights (URSA & IRF, 2023). Similarly, rangers of state-run protected areas are seen as government employees and out-of-touch with local cultures, when, in fact, a growing number of rangers originate from, and are employed by, the communities they work within. Analysis of data from the 2019 ranger survey found that 36% of respondents were originally from within 20 km of the conservation area where they were working and thus could be considered local (Parker et al., 2022).

1.2 The expansion of rangers’ roles

As essential workers conserving much of the world's land and waters, freshwater, and marine rangers’ roles are complex, diverse, and expanding (Figure 3). In the following, we review four roles that have come to prominence in the last few years (climate change mitigation and adaptation, regenerative economy, community development, and pandemic management) as examples of rangers’ increasing responsibilities in addition to their core conservation work.

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The diversity of ranger roles.

Emerging science is increasing our understanding of the linkages between biodiversity and climate change: ecosystems degraded from biodiversity loss are more vulnerable to climate change, and ecosystems damaged by climate change are losing biodiversity more rapidly (IPBES, 2021). Area-based conservation provides cost-effective, equitable approaches to climate-preparedness (Reid et al., 2019). Rangers have three distinct roles in terms of climate change and biodiversity: (a) managing protected and conserved areas to provide adaptation services (e.g., flood prevention and coastal protection), (b) responding when climate change brings immediate problems (e.g., floods and wildfire), and (c) managing protected and conserved areas to provide mitigation services (e.g., carbon sequestration and storage including validating carbon stocks in emerging nature-based markets).

A regenerative economy redefines wealth in terms of four kinds of capital: financial, manufactured, social, and natural. Natural capital makes up nearly half of low-income countries’ assets (Lange et al., 2018) and globally, it is estimated that ecosystems in protected areas deliver US$100 worth of services for every US$1 invested in management (Balmford et al., 2002). In protecting ecosystems, rangers are directly and indirectly contributing to providing ecosystem services, including carbon storage, water filtration, clean air, pollinator protection, and mental health promotion (Kettunen et al., 2021). This makes rangers essential stewards of natural capital, and well placed to take on active new roles in emerging nature-based markets, including through monitoring and reporting.

Rangers, often themselves members of the local community (Parker et al., 2022), can fulfil many roles beyond conservation (Stolton et al., 2022). An often-unrecognized benefit of rangers is in providing protection of resources (such as livestock, crops, and non-timber products) by securing access rights for local people and providing security (Sehmi, 2020). Rangers play a crucial role in mitigating damage from human–wildlife interactions by increasing uptake of coexistence practices and, in some cases, disseminating government compensation (Stolton et al., 2022). Medical services are often lacking in remote areas and rangers often find themselves as the sole first responders available (Mwedde, 2021; Stolton et al., 2022).

As with the COVID-19 outbreak, over 60% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses (naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans), reminding us that humans are inseparable from nature (Salyer et al., 2017). The One Health Approach understands that the health of humans, wildlife, and ecosystems are co-dependent (Redford et al., 2022). The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes the importance of protecting nature in preventing pandemics (WHO, 2020) and researchers suggest that primary pandemic prevention actions such as wildlife trade management and reduced deforestation would cost less than 1/20th of the value of lives lost each year to emerging viral zoonoses and would have substantial co-benefits (Bernstein et al., 2022). Rangers are already contributing to the management, mitigation, and monitoring of zoonotic spillover events where they occur (Singh, Galliers, Moreto, et al., 2021), but this could be far more effective if their role was explicitly recognized and training provided.

1.3 The need for wider recognition

There is an urgent need for greater professionalization, and accountability of rangers and recognition of the expanding role of rangers are taking in the delivery of conservation and sustainable development policies. This need has become even more urgent with the agreement of new, ambitious targets for conservation and environmental protection as a response to climate change and biodiversity loss (CBD, 2022), and as new legislation and business standards in environmental, social, and governance policy are developed.

There are currently about 286,000 state rangers worldwide in terrestrial areas. Far short of what is considered necessary. It is estimated that 1.5 million rangers (from a wide range of conservation governance types) will be needed to effectively protect 30% of the planet by 2030 (Appleton et al., 2022)—the target of the Global Biodiversity Framework (CBD, 2022).

1.4 Recommendations

Leaving rangers out of the policy debate is a missed opportunity that is hindering our collective ability to achieve global conservation and sustainable development targets effectively and equitably.

Rangers need to be rebranded internationally as “essential planetary health workers” and be recognized for the vital role they can play in achieving major conservation policy goals. To do this, rangers, ranger employers, and ranger associations need to ensure their workforces have the three major elements (conditions, conduct and competences) outlined by URSA and IRF in Figure 4.

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The “Rangers for 30 by 30 framework” defines essential requirements for conditions, conduct, and competence for a workforce that is sufficient in numbers, diverse, and recognized.
In addition, eight recommendations are made to the international community:
  1. As a first step, protected area authorities, conserved areas managers, conservation organizations, funders, and all other relevant bodies should support the series of actions outlined to help achieve the vision and goals identified at the IRF's 9th World Ranger Congress and subsequent URSA Action Plan (URSA, 2020) (Figure 5).

  2. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) should build on previous World Conservation Congress Resolutions (WCC 2016 Rec 103 and WCC 2008 REC 119) to call on governments and intergovernmental organization to recognize rangers as essential planetary health workers and involve rangers and ranger organizations in policy debate, development, and implementation.

  3. The ILO, the United Nations agency mandated to advance social and economic justice by setting international labor standards, should treat rangers like other similar professions such as teachers, police, and first responders by codifying them in a convention on workers’ rights to provide guidance to countries on good and equitable practices for ranger employment and deployment.

  4. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement should better recognize and adequately support the role of protected and conserved areas as tools for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and of rangers for managing natural ecosystems for climate change mitigation and adaptation, including their role in monitoring and implementing nature-based markets.

  5. The Secretariat of the CBD and parties to the CBD should recognize rangers as essential implementers of the Global Biodiversity Framework (Figure 2) and ensure that the role of rangers is highlighted in measuring the indicators agreed to monitor target implementation. Specifically, national (and sub-national) Governments should identify rangers as key actors in implementing target 3 (the target on effective and equitable area-based conservation) in their National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans. Rangers should be seen as valued and regulated professionals with appropriate safeguards, policies, and due diligence in place when supporting effectively and equitably managed conservation and sustainable development projects.

  6. Similarly, governments should report on the role of protected and conserved areas in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (Figure 1) and ensure the role of rangers is recognized in delivering these goals.

  7. Donors, such as the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and associated implementors of conservation projects should actively support countries to professionalize their ranger force making them more inclusive, accountable, and ensure that they are appropriately trained and supplied, allowing for the implementation of global targets noted above.

  8. The WHO should recognize the role of wildlife management in pandemic prevention and recognize the role of rangers in the prevention of zoonotic diseases.

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Summary of the key elements of the Universal Ranger Support Alliance (URSA) Action Plan.

Rangers are about to be the essential workers responsible for the conservation of almost a third of the planet's surface (Appleton et al., 2022). Far more effort is needed to provide them with the skills, accountability, equipment, and supporting laws and policy frameworks to enable them to carry out this task as effectively and equitably as possible.