This is the third in a series of weekly blog posts that will cover conservation topics with a focus on protected areas and the laws and institutions that support them (or don’t).
Today is World Environment Day – a day designated by the United Nations Environment Program which aims to promote dialogue on environmental issues at an international scale. I’d like to take this opportunity to “speak for the trees” – just like the Lorax would do. Here, I’ll highlight some of the benefits of forests, ways that we have tried to protect them, and one way that they have been compromised by policy changes.
Why should we care about trees? Here are just a few reasons.
1. Trees store carbon and pull carbon dioxide, a harmful greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere every day. The natural biological processes that trees undergo – the storage of carbon in their cells and photosynthesis – help combat climate change.
2. Trees and forests provide essential habitat for the world’s biodiversity. Tropical forests, in particular, harbor a richness of biodiversity around the world in biodiversity hotspots. The Indo-Pacific region and portions of East Africa and Madagascar are examples of biodiverse tropical forests upon which many species and people depend.
3. Urban trees help regulate local air quality, provide shade, and regulate the urban heat island effect. Cities can get extremely hot, especially during afternoons in the summer. Built infrastructure and paved surfaces like sidewalks, streets, and parking lots tend to be much hotter than naturally vegetated areas. The presence of trees and other vegetation in urban areas can help reduce the urban heat island effect and cool things down.
What policies are in place to protect forests?
Forest policies can be roughly divided into two categories: reactive and preventative. Reactive forest policies or projects aim to restore degraded or deforested forest areas. For example, the World Resources Institute, the Nature Conservancy, and the US Forest Service all work to restore and track growth of forested areas. Restoration helps improve forested areas that have been lost to fire, have been cleared for agriculture, or whose ecosystems have been affected by habitat fragmentation or climate change. On the other hand, preventative policies to protect forests including the establishment of national and private protected areas, indigenous reserves, and payments for ecosystem services programs such as REDD+ (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). In all of these schemes, native forests are meant to be left untouched and continue to sequester carbon as they would naturally.
Despite the good intentions of these policies, protected areas which aim to prevent forest loss are not universally permanent. Recent research in Peru, Malaysia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has identified widespread protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) in these tropical forest nations. One hundred and seventy four enacted and eight proposed events in these three nations alone have been documented to date. For example, in Peru, PADDD has occurred in at least 14 different national parks (WWF 2015) and affected a striking 22% of its protected area estate (Forrest et al. 2014).
Critics may wonder – does removing pieces of land from protection actually matter? Yes – PADDD matters for forests and the carbon that they are meant to store. Forrest et al. found that areas that were removed from protection (either downsized or degazetted) were deforested at rates greatly exceeding deforestation rates in protected areas. This should come as no surprise. However, the study also found that deforestation in PADDDed locations was higher than in areas that had never been protected. This suggests that forests may have been cleared soon after laws were passed to open the forests to logging; PADDD enabled accelerated deforestation. In addition, PADDD was found to be a significant predictor of deforestation in a regression model, even when controlling for access to the forest. Access was controlled for because it has been shown to correlate with higher deforestation rates; forests nearer to roads and the forest edge are more likely to be deforested. The Forrest et al. study is the first of its kind to demonstrate that PADDD has real consequences – for forests, biodiversity, and the global climate.
On this World Environment Day, think about the trees and the benefits they provide. Although there are many well intentioned and effective policies in place to safeguard forests and encourage their restoration, we should be aware that protected area policies can be impermanent and that legal changes to protected areas matter – for the trees.
Forrest, Jessica L., Michael B. Mascia, Sharon Pailler, Siti Zuraidah Abidin, Mara Deza Araujo, Roopa Krithivasan, and Juan Carlos Riveros. “Tropical Deforestation and Carbon Emissions from Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement (PADDD).” Conservation Letters, September 1, 2014, n/a – n/a. doi:10.1111/conl.12144.
World Wildlife Fund. 2015. PADDDtracker: Tracking Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement [Beta version]. Accessed 04-06-2015. www.PADDDtracker.org.