Tag Archives: protected areas

How do you know that protected areas are actually protecting anything? Use Matching!

This is the sixth 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).

The forests surrounding many protected areas are being rapidly cleared or degraded. Shown is recent deforestation for oil palm plantations along the edge of Bukit Palong National Park in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by William Laurance, http://theconversation.com/are-nature-reserves-working-take-a-look-outside-9432

The forests surrounding many protected areas are being rapidly cleared or degraded. Shown is recent deforestation for oil palm plantations along the edge of Bukit Palong National Park in Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by William Laurance, http://theconversation.com/are-nature-reserves-working-take-a-look-outside-9432

A new methodological approach is gaining traction in the conservation science community. This method is borrowed from the economics literature and has historically been used to analyze the impact of policies on future wages, socioeconomic status, or other economic variables. Today, conservation researchers are beginning to employ this rigorous approach – known as matching – for a variety of purposes. One prevalent application of matching is the evaluation of protected areas, both terrestrial and marine. Why is the matching approach so popular to evaluate protected areas? First of all, the need to rigorously evaluate protected area performance is becoming more widely acknowledged in the literature. The Convention on Biological Diversity includes targets about national designation of protected areas which should be effectively managed. Without monitoring and evaluation of these lands and waters, there would be no way to determine whether management were effective and whether the targets were met. 

Let’s suppose that you are interested in whether the protected areas in your country are preventing the loss of forests. Ok great. Can you simply compare the deforestation rates inside and outside the protected area? Unfortunately, that won’t be completely accurate. The lands inside and outside of that particular protected area might have different types of vegetation, terrain, or soil productivity. Because of these inherent differences, you cannot simply compare the inside to the outside. Ok, what about comparing the protected area before it was established to after? That is a bit better, because it is focused on the same piece of land. However, it doesn’t accurately capture the impact of protection because there may be other factors at play in this location. Perhaps other policies were enacted around the same time that affected deforestation.

inside outside

Ok, so how do we actually isolate the IMPACT of the protected area (the legal establishment itself) on deforestation? One way to do this is to use matching. To conduct matching, the researcher selects a piece of land that is protected and a similar (matching) piece of land that is NOT protected. The protected area is considered the “treatment” and the unprotected area is the “control.” Comparing the treatment and control to each other is a fair and simple way to quantify the benefits of protection. Hence, matching isolates the impact of the protection policy ITSELF and rules out extraneous factors that could affect the results (like other policies, the impacts of different landscape types or soil types, etc).

inside outside

How do you know if two pieces of land (or water) are a good match? Use covariates! Covariates are variables that correlate with the treatment and the outcome. It is necessary to use covariates because the location of protection or deforestation (or whatever outcome variable you are looking at) on the landscape is not random. Protected lands tend to be placed in isolated, mountainous areas with low soil productivity – high and far from development or urban areas. Also, deforestation occurs happen more often in places that are easier to access – closer to roads or other access infrastructure and also closer to the forest edge. By accounting for these factors using covariates (distance to roads, distance to forest edge, etc), the researcher can select well-matched control regions that are actually comparable to the protected area in question. This reduces bias in the analysis and allows you to compare apples to apples.  Further, it is worth noting that when using matching, the magnitude of the impact is likely to be much smaller than the estimate of impact using more traditional approaches simply because the covariates are accounted for.

What are some limitations of the matching approach? Simply put, sometimes you cannot find a perfect match. There may not always exist enough similar parcels on the landscape that are similar in access and topography to your protected area. Also, there is the issue of choosing covariates. How do you know that you have chosen the correct covariates or a sufficient number of them? As more researchers use matching, the scientific community will gain a more refined understanding of which covariates to use and when.

What research frontiers exist for applying matching in conservation? There are many! Matching could be used to evaluate conservation interventions other than protected areas – matching has been applied to quantify impacts of payments for ecosystem services, for example, The method could also be extended to indigenous reserves, community based natural resource management areas, or other area-based interventions. The application of matching to evaluate protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) is an area of research that merits exploration. Using matching can help answer questions like – what is the impact of changing a protected areas’ status on carbon storage for climate mitigation? What is the impact of reducing a protected area’s size on biodiversity? If a protected area’s protection is removed, how is land cover affected? There are endless possible areas of research and exploration that could employ matching.

What are some tools and resources to help with matching? There is a wealth of literature available on matching and impact evaluation – see here, here, and here.  There are also some R packages – MatchIt and Matching are two examples. If you are aware of other resources, post a comment below!

World Oceans Month – Marine Protected Areas and PADDD

This is the fifth 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).Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge - located near the US-Mexico border http://flickriver.com/photos/frogdr/sets/72157623645555404/

June is World Ocean's Month http://www.oceanchampions.org/blog/?p=1362

June is World Ocean’s Month. http://www.oceanchampions.org/blog/?p=1362

In honor of World Oceans Month, this post will feature two short stories about ocean protection and how that protection was almost compromised. First of all, why is there a month dedicated to the world’s oceans? Oceans cover about 70% of our planet and provide vital life support systems for people around the world – they provide wild fish, regulate the global climate, and support ecotourism industries for many nations. Policies to help protect the oceans from overfishing and pollution are in place and growing in their extent. One example of top-down policies which apply to the oceans are Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. MPAs are special places where human activity is restricted, whether it be commercial or local fishing, offshore drilling, or diving.

The world’s first MPA, Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, was established in 1903 by President Roosevelt. This was 31 years after the first land-based park, Yellowstone National Park, was established in 1872. In recent years, the number of new MPAs and their coverage of the world’s oceans has been increasing. Notably, President Obama recently established the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – the largest MPA in the world. MPAs are diverse entities – some are “no-take” zones, which prohibit all fishing activities. Others are “multiple-use” zones which may allow some fishing, but there are limits on catch and restrictions on the type of gear fishermen can use. MPAs can also place limits on diving for recreation or tourism. Due to these restrictions, marine protected areas have been controversial in some parts of the world. Opposition may come from policy makers or local communities, who claim that a proposed MPA could interfere with tourism or commercial or local fishing.

The benefits of marine protected areas for species have been documented extensively in the literature. A large meta-analysis of MPAs found that species density, biomass, organism size, and diversity on average were higher after the establishment of a park (or inside a park as compared to the outside). A recent update of this meta-analysis found that reserves can be effective even if they are small and regardless of location; it should be noted, however, that effects of reserves on different groupings of species can vary. In addition, MPAs can have positive “spillover” effects. This means that the MPA provides spawning habitat for fish; the fish hatchlings are then able to populate the surrounding area that is not protected and enrich the nearby fisheries.

Are MPAs beneficial for local people? It depends – the impacts are less straightforward and data availability is limited. One study examined changes in human well-being indicators (food security, resource rights, employment, community organization, and income) as a result of establishing a nearby marine protected area.  For the most part, food security remained stable or increased. Some local people gained more control over marine resources but about the same proportion lost control. This study shows that more data and research are needed to understand the influence of establishing a marine protected area on local communities and their livelihoods. It suggests that although MPAs are not universally “good” or “bad” for local people, they can be thought of as an opportunity to enhance livelihoods given proper implementation and other supportive policies and practices.

What about the legal support that MPAs need? Are marine protected areas currently threatened by legal changes that would weaken, shrink, or remove them? Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) has been proposed in at least two iconic marine parks, but the most recent information suggests that neither of these proposals has been successful. 

Great Blue Hole National Park, Belize http://www.visithopkinsvillagebelize.com/the-great-blue-hole.html

Great Blue Hole National Park, Belize http://www.visithopkinsvillagebelize.com/the-great-blue-hole.html

1. Marine PADDD averted in Belize – offshore drilling

The most recent marine PADDD story comes from Belize, a small, tropical, coastal country in Central America. Many conservation projects and organizations are interested in Belize – it is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, dwarfed only by the Great Barrier Reef. Despite the Belize Barrier Reef’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a recent proposal to conduct offshore drilling in this location was considered by the government, which would have opened up about 99% of Belize’s jurisdictional waters. Drilling could have affected many protected areas including seven World Heritage sites. After tireless opposition from environmental voices including Oceana, the Belizean government decided to drop the proposal last month. A salient argument against drilling was economic: Belize’s economy and millions of jobs depend on tourismResearch has found that a majority of tourists participate in marine activities during their visit to Belize, and that the value of coral reefs and mangroves in Belize is estimated at $289 million annually. Marine PADDD was successfully avoided in this small coastal nation.

Great Barrier Reef, Australia http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/great-barrier-reef/holland-text

Great Barrier Reef, Australia http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/05/great-barrier-reef/holland-text

2. Marine PADDD avoided in the Great Barrier Reef – industrial waste

Last year, the Australian government issued a proposal to open up the Great Barrier Reef – the largest barrier reef in the world – to allow dumping of dredge spoil. Dredge spoil is produced during large-scale construction activities, usually related to ports. The Australian Government recognizes the impacts of dredging on their website:

“Dredging and material placement (also called spoil dumping) have relatively well-known potential impacts such as degradation of water quality, changes to hydrodynamics, smothering of benthic fauna and flora, damage to marine wildlife through the dredge mechanism, translocation of species and removal of habitat.”

This issue was raised to high-profile status within Australia and the international conservation community. The impending World Parks Congress in 2014 was held in Sydney; all eyes were watching the Australian government. Would they retract this proposal? With the pressure on, the Environment Minister of Australia announced that the reef would be safe from dredge spoil. In March 2015, the BBC reported that dredge spoil dumping will be banned in the Great Barrier Reef.

These marine conservation stories offer some hope. Both iconic protected areas faced proposed downgrades which would have weakened their regulations but neither passed.  An interesting feature that these stories have in common: the international news media and conservation community raised the profile of the proposals and garnered lots of attention. The involvement of civil society helped to reverse the course of these proposed PADDD events.

Happy World Oceans Month! 

#WorldOceansMonth #OceanOptimism #HopeSpots

“Border bills” in the United States – national security and protected areas

This is the fourth 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).Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge - located near the US-Mexico border http://flickriver.com/photos/frogdr/sets/72157623645555404/

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge - located near the US-Mexico border http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Santa_Ana/about.html

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge – located near the US-Mexico border http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Santa_Ana/about.html

For the past four years, members of Congress have debated whether or not to allow border patrol agents additional access to public lands for national security purposes.  

In 2011, an act with a pro-conservation title (H.R. 1505: the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act) was introduced. The proposed bill would grant the U.S. Customs and Border Protection access to all public lands within 100 miles of the U.S. borders of Mexico and Canada. Within these large swaths of land, sixteen environmental laws would be waived including the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Why? So that the border agents could patrol, build roads, fences, or other infrastructure for national security purposes without the burden of cumbersome environmental regulations. Later that year, the bill was amended to only apply to lands within 100 miles of the US-Mexico border. Various iterations of the bill have been proposed for the last several years, but nothing has been passed. I’m going to call all of the related bills the “border bill” for simplicity.

What is the latest on the border bill? 

H.R. 399 and S. 208 are active bills currently being considered by Congress. Pew has created a map to show the lands that this bill would affect. As you can see on the map, the border bills would allow access to iconic parks such as Saguaro, Big Bend, and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks


U.S. Public Lands Affected by the “Border Bill” http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/about/news-room/news/2015/03/31/new-bills-threaten-national-parks-wilderness-wildlife-refuges

A separate but related border bill in Arizona (S. 750: Arizona Borderlands Protection and Preservation Act) would allow patrolling, surveillance, and equipment deployment in border lands. However, there is no mention of infrastructure or other construction in the full text. The map here shows the lands that this bill would affect.

Federal Lands opened to additional border security activities https://www.aclu.org/blog/washington-markup/senator-john-mccain-pushing-extreme-border-security-bill-tramples-environment

Federal Lands opened to additional border security activities https://www.aclu.org/blog/washington-markup/senator-john-mccain-pushing-extreme-border-security-bill-tramples-environment

What is so interesting about this legislation? Like many political debates, this is all about values, pitting national security and immigration reform against public land management and environmental stewardship.

Proponents of the bill argue that the government should do everything in its power to protect national security. They argue that immigration is out of control and that the border should be secured by any means necessary. Debates can get testy. Recently, John McCain responded to a question from Senator Carper of Delaware about the bill: “In all due respect, frankly, I don’t give a damn if somebody that lives in Delaware doesn’t like my efforts.” Proponents see immigrants as a threat to national security; border crossings are also linked to exacerbated drug and human trafficking.

Opponents, however, state that this bill would be destructive to the environment. Because the bill would waive environmental laws, the Customs and Border Patrol could avoid completing Environmental Impact Assessments required by NEPA which often delay projects but also allow for more environmentally friendly project design. Because these border bills waive the Endangered Species Act, arguably the strongest conservation law in the U.S. (if not the world), endangered species found in these areas could be put at substantial risk. Infrastructure projects – roads, fences, helipads, patrol bases – could themselves fragment habitat and disturb wildlife in sensitive areas.

Mountain Lion - Big Bend National Park http://www.nps.gov/bibe/learn/nature/mt-lions.htm

Mountain Lion – Big Bend National Park http://www.nps.gov/bibe/learn/nature/mt-lions.htm

These border bills, if passed, would constitute a systemic downgrade of protected areas such as National Parks and National Monuments. Downgrades are one type of legal change encapsulated in the concept of PADDD – protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement. You can explore the myriad protected areas that these border bills could affect on PADDDtracker.org.

If passed, it is unknown exactly how much of a toll these bills would take on the environment and to what extent they would enhance security. Although the bill does provide Customs and Border Patrol with access to large swaths of land, the agency may not effectively need access to very distant areas from the border. It is possible that the debate about the border bills is a NIMBY (not in my backyard) issue – constituents of Arizona and other border states may feel differently about the border security issue because it is more of a local concern for them.

It is difficult to summarize this complex issue. Overall, values are driving the political dispute over border security and public lands. Given the current political climate, the border bill debate is likely to continue without a resolution.

Speaking for the trees: protection of forests is compromised by PADDD

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).

The Lorax speaks for the trees http://www.drseussart.com/

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.

The Carbon Cycle - Trees sequester carbon. http://dapa.ciat.cgiar.org/carbon-sequestration-one-true-green-revolution/

Trees and the Carbon Cycle http://dapa.ciat.cgiar.org/carbon-sequestration-one-true-green-revolution/

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.

Biodiversity Hotspots, as defined by Conservation International http://www.conservation.org/How/Pages/Hotspots.aspx

Biodiversity Hotspots as defined by Conservation International http://www.conservation.org/How/Pages/Hotspots.aspx

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.

Trees help reduce the urban heat island effect. http://healthyurbanhabitat.com.au/urban-heat-islands/

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).

Country Profile for Peru showing PADDD events http://www.padddtracker.org/countries/PER

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.

Forest loss was highest in PADDDed areas - much higher than protected areas and even higher than never protected areas. Forrest et al. 2014

Forest loss was highest in PADDDed areas – much higher than protected areas and even higher than never protected areas. Forrest et al. 2014

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.

Protected Areas and PADDD in Cambodia

This is the second 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).

Some of the most biodiverse regions in the world are also the most threatened. Cambodia, a tropical developing nation in southeast Asia, is one such place. Do a quick Google Image search of “Cambodia species” and you’ll find troves of eye candy. Asian elephants, Siamese crocodiles, Germain’s langurs (silver and black primates), along with many other imperiled creatures. Cambodia’s rich biological diversity also includes over 8,000 plant species and likely countless undiscovered groups of flora and fauna [1]. Many of Cambodia’s species are experiencing declines in their populations; threats to the nation’s biodiversity include human population growth, habitat loss, and over-hunting; hunting especially affect populations of the Siamese crocodile [2].

Asian Elephant, from Fauna and Flora International  http://www.fauna-flora.org/species/asian-elephant/

Asian Elephant, from Fauna and Flora International http://www.fauna-flora.org/species/asian-elephant/

Siamese Crocodile. from: Fauna and Flora International

Siamese Crocodile. from: Fauna and Flora International http://www.fauna-flora.org/species/siamese-crocodile/

Germains Langur, from http://www.arkive.org/germains-langur/trachypithecus-germaini/

Germains Langur, from http://www.arkive.org/germains-langur/trachypithecus-germaini/

What can be done to conserve the biodiversity of Cambodia? Many interventions are in place, including and not limited to protected areas with various designations, ranging from strict protection to sustainable use. In general, protected area systems are designed to prevent human encroachment and reduce or block habitat destruction, providing species with necessary habitat to survive. According to the World Database of Protected Areas, 26% of Cambodia’s land is currently designated as protected [3]. Protected areas are considered particularly important for nations like Cambodia, which have faced high rates of forest loss in recent years – one of the highest in the world [4]. This high rate of conversion has been attributed to extremely high population growth and low economic development, the combination of which puts pressure on forests for timber and land for agriculture [4]. Are protected areas a useful tool for conservation in Cambodia? Evidence to support the impacts of conservation interventions are rare in the literature, but recent studies have shown that protected areas and also payments for ecosystem services (PES) implemented in Cambodia have been beneficial. Protected areas contributed to a reduction in deforestation and also contributed positively to local livelihoods [5, 6]. PES programs were particularly beneficial if implemented appropriately [6].

These impact evaluation studies are a positive sign: conservation interventions including protected areas and payments for ecosystem services can be beneficial. However, are all protected areas in Cambodia permanent? Will they continue to deliver benefits in perpetuity? Not likely. Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) is widespread in Cambodia. The most recent evidence demonstrates that 146 PADDD events have been enacted; 58% of these events have been caused by industrial agriculture [7].

PADDD in Cambodia. To learn more, visit http://www.padddtracker.org/countries/KHM

Map of PADDD in Cambodia. To learn more, visit http://www.padddtracker.org/countries/KHM

Has PADDD had an impact on forest cover in Cambodia? A cursory examination of the data suggests that there may be a connection. From 2001 to 2012, forest cover loss in Cambodia peaked around 2010. This corresponds in time with the documented PADDD events that have occurred in Cambodia (see figures below). As many of the PADDD events were driven by demand for industrial agriculture, it stands to reason that once the protected area laws were passed, then timber harvest likely began immediately. Further research, however, is needed to tease out the causal connection in space and time between the legal changes and the loss of forests.

Timeline of documented enacted PADDD in Cambodia. http://www.padddtracker.org/countries/KHM

Timeline of documented enacted PADDD in Cambodia. http://www.padddtracker.org/countries/KHM

Annual forest loss in Cambodia 2001-2012 http://rainforests.mongabay.com/20cambodia.htm

Annual forest loss in Cambodia 2001-2012 http://rainforests.mongabay.com/20cambodia.htm

The future of conservation and the prevention of further species losses in Cambodia will be extremely challenging; there are many complex factors at play between economic development and environmental conservation. If research demonstrates that PADDD is in fact driving forest conversion in Cambodia, this may suggest that protected areas (depending on the location) do benefit wildlife indirectly by preventing the conversion of forests. This may also show that the reduction or downgrade of a protected area is a change that the conservation community should work with the national government to avoid. Like many stories in conservation, this dynamic may not be so straightforward, however. For example, frequent changes to protected areas overall may suggest that looking beyond protected areas to other interventions (like Payments for Ecosystem Services) could be a more viable and sustainable alternative in the long term.


1. R. Jalonen; Choo, K.Y.; Hong, L.T.; Sim, H.C., (eds.) (2009). Forest genetic resources conservation and management: status in seven South and Southeast Asian countries. Bioversity International. pp. 3–. ISBN 978-967-5221-21-7.

2. Campbell, I.C., Poole, C., Giesen, W., and Valbo-Jorgensen, J. 2006. Species diversity and ecology of Tonle Sap Great Lake, Cambodia. Aquatic Sciences 68:3, 355-373.

3. World Database of Protected Areas. 2015. Accessed 5/29/15 http://www.protectedplanet.net/country/KH

4. Laurance, W. F. 2007. Forest destruction in tropical Asia. Current Science 93:11, 1544-1550.

5. Clements, T., Milner-Gulland, E.J. 2015. Impact of payments for environmental services and protected areas on local livelihoods and forest conservation in northern Cambodia. Conservation Biology 29:1, 78-87.

6. Clements, T., Suon, S., Wilkie, D.S., and Milner-Gulland, E.J. 2014. Impacts of Protected Areas on Local Livelihoods in Cambodia. World Development 64:S125–S134.

7. World Wildlife Fund.  2015.  PADDDtracker: Tracking Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement [Beta version].  Accessed 29-05-2015. www.PADDDtracker.org.

International Day of Biodiversity: can protected areas help biodiversity?

This is the first 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).

int day of biodiv


Happy International Day of Biodiversity! If you are unfamiliar with the term, biodiversity is broadly defined as the sum total of the variety of life on earth. This could include genetic diversity, species diversity, or even ecosystem diversity. In the scheme of things, the term biodiversity is relatively new – it was formalized several decades ago by pioneering conservation scientists including E.O. Wilson and Tom Lovejoy. These scientists felt that it was important to conceptualize the term and include it in our lexicon; if you lack the term for something, you cannot begin to understand or save it. Ever since, the use of the term biodiversity has grown exponentially: it is incorporated into international treaties and conventions, the missions of many non-governmental organizations, and countless policies and management objectives.

biodiv is us


Although it has been defined and incorporated broadly in policies, the term biodiversity is still quite abstract; hence, it may be difficult to conceptualize. Think about it – biodiversity is the diversity of ALL life on Earth. As you can imagine, biodiversity can be measured in many ways. Is it measured as a count of the number of species? The number of populations within a species? The genetic diversity within a species or between species? The variety of species across the landscape? The variety of ecosystems within a certain place? Yes to all of the above. Because biodiversity can be defined in many different ways and quantified using a host of metrics (species richness, Shannon diversity, functional diversity, among others), the scientific community is still working to understand how much biodiversity exists on earth. In addition, much of global biodiversity, especially insects, microbes, and those species found in the deep oceans, have yet to be identified or catalogued.

Despite the semantic difficulties of the term biodiversity, one thing is certain. Global biodiversity is in crisis. Current rates of species extinction have been estimated to be 100 to 1000 times higher than background rates. Certain taxa are particularly in peril, including coral reefs, amphibians, and sharks and rays. Human activities have contributed significantly to the top threats to biodiversity including habitat loss, climate change, habitat fragmentation, over-exploitation, and pollution. Given this crisis, what can be done?

Traditionally, conservationists have worked tirelessly to stave off the biodiversity crisis by establishing protected areas – specially designated places that restrict or manage certain human activities. These protected areas have been established across the landscapes and seascapes of countries around the world and now cover about 15% of the land and 3% of the oceans.


World Database of Protected Areas, http://www.protectedplanet.net/

In general, is the establishment of protected areas a good strategy to protect biodiversity? Overall, yes. Protected areas have been documented to provide benefits to biodiversity and also to human societies. Protected areas provide services to people including fresh water, recreation opportunities, and carbon storage to help mitigate climate change. Protected areas seem like the obvious choice when contemplating conservation strategies that could help species and ecosystems. Protected areas are set aside and protected forever, right? Unfortunately, the story is not so straightforward in practice.

Laws change: protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD)

Although many assume that protected areas are established in perpetuity, evidence suggests that protected areas around the world can be subject to legal changes. Laws can make protected areas weaker by allowing additional activities to occur within them (downgrades). Laws can also make protected areas smaller (downsizes) or delete them entirely (degazettes). For example, a proposal to drill for oil in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is being considered. Yosemite National Park in the United States was once about 30% larger than it is today. Several protected areas were recently removed from protection to build hydropower dams in Brazil. Thousands of examples of PADDD events have been documented around the world – 2,000 laws have been enacted and more than 2,300 laws have been proposed that would change the size and status of protected areas. These figures represent a conservative estimate of the extent of PADDD worldwide.


Global map of PADDD – learn more at http://www.padddtracker.org/

Where and why do PADDD events occur?

PADDD has been documented globally and has occurred sporadically from 1900 to the present. Laws have been passed and proposed that would open up protected areas for industrial activities such as infrastructure development (building roads and dams), industrial agriculture, mining, and oil and gas development. In addition, protected area laws have also been changed for local reasons – to allow for subsistence-level extraction, land claims and rural settlements for indigenous people. Future blog posts will focus on particular legal changes at the national, regional and individual protected area levels.

Cause of enacted PADDD

Causes of Enacted PADDD Events. Key: F: forestry; M: mining; OG: oil and gas; IA: industrial agriculture; In: Industrialization; If: Infrastructure; LC: land claims; RS: rural settlement; S: subsistence; D: degradation; CP: conservation planning; O: other; U: unknown. Not shown: Proposed PADDD events. Data from PADDDtracker.org

PADDD and biodiversity

Bringing it back to biodiversity – does it matter if laws to protected areas change? Do legal changes actually affect biodiversity? Evidence suggests that it might and it likely depends on the context and cause of the legal change. PADDD has been linked to increased habitat fragmentation in areas formerly part of Yosemite National Park. As habitat fragmentation is considered a top threat to biodiversity, it is likely that PADDD could have contributed to biodiversity loss in this case. In addition, PADDD has been linked to higher rates of deforestation and carbon emissions in several tropical, biodiversity-rich nations. These findings suggest that PADDD may have negative consequences for biodiversity. However, many questions remain and much more research is needed to understand the impacts of PADDD on biodiversity. On one hand, PADDD events that are proximally caused by extractive activities (mining, oil and gas development) are likely to negatively affect biodiversity. On the other hand, PADDD events driven by conservation planning purposes could be beneficial overall for biodiversity. If for instance, a nation deems that a protected area has served its purpose and reallocates those funds for other protected areas or conservation strategies, then PADDD may have a net benefit over time across that nation. Teasing out the causal effects of PADDD on biodiversity is likely to be complex, but ultimately may demonstrate a critical connection between national-level decisions and site-specific biodiversity.

On this International Biodiversity Day, check out the protected areas and PADDD events near you to learn more about the factors affecting your local biodiversity.