This is the eighth in a series of weekly blog posts covering conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).
Nature conservation: is it something that we simply like to do, or something that we need? Many may think of nature conservation programs as “nice” or “token” ideas that we could do without. However, many studies have shown that nature provides direct benefits to people everyday. Furthermore, these benefits are enhanced by policies that focus on setting aside protected lands and waters to conserve species. Protected areas may cost the government or locals to establish and maintain, but the benefits that they deliver are likely to be worth the investment. Here are a few examples of the direct benefits provided by nature and protected areas (with some videos).
1. Protected areas provide outlets for tourism, driving the local and global economy
A recent study, the first global analysis of protected area tourism, found that terrestrial protected areas receive over 8 billion visits per year! Using this figure, which is likely an underestimate, researchers discovered that this visitation generates about $600 billion USD annually directly within nations where visitation occurs plus an additional $250 billion USD in consumer surplus. Estimates may be imprecise, but authors acknowledge that they are within the right order of magnitude and in line with previous estimates. This finding is particularly striking, as only about $10 billion is spent on managing and establishing protected areas annually. Given the direct benefits that protected areas provide to society in terms of tourism and associated economic benefits, it stands to reason that much more funding could be allocated toward supporting protected areas. The comparison between what we spend and what we get is almost laughable; protected areas deliver direct (not to mention indirect) financial benefits on the order of 60 to 80 times the investment. However, revenue generated from and spending on protected areas are not evenly distributed globally; most visitation to parks is within the US and UK. Protected areas in these nation already benefit from having extra cash to spend on management. It would be interesting to analyze the intersection between biodiversity distribution and nature-based tourism to determine to what extent the presence of rich biodiversity drives tourism. My suspicion is that higher biodiversity may drive some tourist activities (e.g. Costa Rica), but the most profitable tourism sites will be located in accessible, populated places that provide plenty of amenities.
2. Protected areas provide educational experiences
Indigenous Protected Areas in Australia support tourism and also provide educational programs for local children to help them learn about their history. Check it out:
3. Protected areas may reduce poverty in local areas
Protected areas have been controversial in some places, with some suggesting that they lead to the displacement or disenfranchisement of local communities. While this has indeed occurred in nations including India, the effects of protected areas on poverty are likely to vary by country. One study in Bolivia found that protected areas contributed to poverty alleviation. Individuals living nearby protected lands had lower levels of poverty (as measured by income, education, health, among other variables) than individuals living further away. This study is particularly credible, as it uses a rigorous statistical approach to control for confounding factors and isolate the actual effect of protected areas on livelihoods. The authors caution, however, that the results are not globally generalizable. Future studies should take a national or sub-national approach to investigate protected areas’ impacts on poverty.
4. Protected areas provide direct health benefits
Natural systems, such as forests, provide a buffer for diseases. One new study focused in Brazil found that people living nearby protected areas are healthier. Rates of malaria, acute respiratory infection, and diarrhea were much lower when environmental protection was stricter. The study also modeled some scenarios and found that if environmental protection were expanded or if roads and mines were restricted, health would improve. Furthermore, a very exciting study from Stanford found that after subjects walked in a wooded area (as compared to walking along a highway) they ruminated less – in other words, a quick walk outside in a natural area led to a more relaxed state of mind. Subjects stopped worrying or focusing on negative thoughts. As rumination has been linked with depression, this study suggests that taking a quick walk in your nearest urban park or getting out of the city for a day can have serious positive repercussion for your mental health.
5. Protected areas allow for the enjoyment of nature
Sometimes you just need to get out of urban jungle and get outside into nature. The #NoWalls initiative captures this perfectly!
Overall, nature can provide health, wealth, learning experiences, and just plain fun. How do you enjoy or benefit from protected areas? Comment below