How “effective” are protected areas in conserving biodiversity?

Community forest in Pelaik Village, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Ryan Woo/CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (25 August, 2011)_Traditional means of conservation have entailed the annexation of land where human activities are strictly controlled or curtailed: so-called “fortress conservation”. There remain today strong advocates of biodiversity conservation through the establishment of protected areas where the social and economic costs of exclusion are regarded as a necessary means of protecting biodiversity for the greater global good.

However, such advocacy has also led to a highly contentious and polarized debate about the impacts of protected areas on local communities, where issues such as human rights, social justice and economic disenfranchisement are often brought to the fore.

Are the trade-offs that result in excluding people from their lands and the resulting social and economic costs an acceptable price to pay in terms of achieving effective biodiversity conservation? Experience suggests not, but where is the data?

A recent paper by Porter-Bolland et al. examines the effectiveness of strict protected areas (IUCN categories I-IV) compared to formally community-managed forests where “multiple use takes place under a variety of tenure, benefit sharing and governance schemes”. In this instance, they define “effectiveness” as a change in forest cover over time.

Although the authors admit that measuring land cover change is a crude indication of environmental integrity, changes in forest cover and the drivers of change have become a relatively robust indication of the effectiveness of land use types for conserving biodiversity, particularly as remote sensing technology has become more widely available and accessible.

Porter-Bolland et al. compare case studies trawled from the literature that cover the three main tropical regions, Latin America, Africa and Asia. Their findings make for compelling reading. They also reinforce earlier findings by other scientists that show that greater rule-making autonomy at the local level are associated with better forest management and livelihood benefits.

Porter-Bolland et al. provide clear evidence that on the whole, community-managed forests performed better than protected areas in having lower annual deforestation rates and experienced less variation in rates of forest cover loss. They conclude that protected areas may not be the most effective means of biodiversity conservation, and are certainly not the most socially equitable or economically advantageous means of preservation.

What accounts for these findings, given that community-based forest management itself has recently been scrutinized in terms of its own relative effectiveness? Firstly, it may be telling that the majority of the protected areas cited in the case study (90% of them) are managed by national governments.

Government support for conservation is often characterized by limited funds and capacity, leading to poor enforcement. As such, local non-compliance with protected area regulations is often the norm and many suffer some sort of encroachment.

In addition, the majority of the cases used in the analysis are from Latin America where strong social movements have led to more “people-friendly” tenure and governance arrangements and, arguably, more effective community management of natural resources.

Many researchers and practitioners have long recognized that a more resilient and robust conservation strategy should embrace a range of land use types in which social and economic needs of local people, as well as tenure rights and local capacities are recognized. However, as the size and extent of protected areas expands annually, the recognition of human needs and incorporation of rights into land-use planning processes are often not taken into account.

With the onset of REDD+ projects, incorporating local people into the management of natural resources from design to implementation will be fundamental to achieving effective outcomes and where the hard trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and social equity are minimized.