Protected areas are the cornerstone of global efforts to halt the biodiversity crisis and combat climate change. The conservation community has invested billions of dollars over decades to scale up their application, especially in areas of critical importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Economists and conservation scientists evaluate these interventions to assess their effectiveness for deforestation, carbon storage, and sometimes, for social impacts. Because of the rigorous application of econometric methods and counterfactual thinking in conservation, we are beginning to gain a more robust understanding of the effectiveness of protected areas, especially for ecological systems.
But what about the permanence of protected areas? Are protected areas being sustained, and if not, why? Our new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examines this question, focusing on protected areas in Rondônia, Brazil. This region is of particular importance, as it has suffered widespread land conversion from native tropical forest to other uses – especially agriculture – in the last several decades. We built on work by Pack et al. (2016) which found that many protected areas in Rondônia were reduced or eliminated – including ten related to hydropower dam development and four related to rural settlements. We wanted to know: why were these protected areas – and not others – reduced or eliminated? We were also interested in the impacts of these legal reductions and eliminations – what happened after the legal changes? Were there any consequences for forest cover loss?
Time series of deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil, 2000 – 2010. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and Earth Observatory. Images from NASA’s Earth Observatory “World of Change” Amazon Deforestation feature.
Our main finding: protected areas that were previously more deforested were more likely to have their protections reduced or eliminated. Perhaps these protected areas were seen as a “lost cause” for conservation efforts, as they had already been stripped of their ecosystem integrity. This can create a vicious cycle – degraded protected areas lose protection, which can then lead to further ecosystem conversion, for instance, if a dam is built and the landscape is flooded. On the flip side, however, protected areas which we found to be effective at reducing deforestation were more likely to be sustained. This suggests that conservationists should promote virtuous cycles for protected areas, wherein good management supports enduring protections. The sample of effective protected areas in our sample, however, was quite small, so further work on such heterogeneous protected area systems is needed to corroborate this finding.
We see these legal rollbacks unfolding as a process of negotiation and bargaining between conservation and development interests. The costs and benefits of conservation and development are not spread evenly across the landscape and over time – and therefore have relatively different levels of power in a given place and time. We also see evidence of such bargaining in the case of offsets: the compensation of a legal reduction or elimination of protection with a simultaneous expansion of area under protection or the upgrading of protections. Such offsets – including downsize-upgrade, downsize-upsize, or other such combinations happen around the world. More research is needed to understand offsets – are they ecologically equivalent to the areas removed from protection? Do they afford sustained protections? Are they effective in the long term for social and ecological systems?
What about the impacts of these legal rollbacks for deforestation? In line with findings from Pack et al., we did not find significant impacts of reductions or eliminations of protected areas with respect to forest cover loss. This result was expected, however, as the protected areas under study were already on average more deforested; the legal change did not make a difference in changing local land clearing behavior.
Our paper also offers some interesting food for thought on information spillovers. You may have heard of deforestation spillovers – wherein protected areas displace deforestation outside their boundaries. But have you heard about information spillovers? This is the idea that a policy change – such as the legal removal of protected areas – can signal to interested parties (like development actors) that the government is shifting focus away from enforcement of environmental conservation rules. This type of information spillover could change behavior and affect the distribution of deforestation. Our paper presents the conceptual framework for this idea, but the effect of information spillover certainly merits further study.
So why does our finding – that more deforested protected areas are more vulnerable to losing protection – matter? It shows us that protected areas must be well-managed in order to be sustained and actually deliver on their promises for biodiversity, ecosystem services, and people. This finding is supported by many other studies, including Gill et al. (2017), which demonstrates the importance of adequate capacity and staff for management as critical to ensure positive ecological outcomes. In other words, protecting an area is not the end of the story. Moving blindly toward “half-earth” or other area-based targets for conservation by adding new protected areas is simply not enough. Protected areas must be well-planned and executed – taking social and environmental costs and benefits into account – and then supported with adequate, long-term funding for monitoring and management. Without these necessary resources, we may see an acceleration of legal rollbacks to protected areas in the future.