Deforested areas in the Amazon vulnerable to loss of legal protections, study finds

Slash and burn deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil in 2012, pictured above. (© NASA Earth Observatory)

Protected areas in Brazil that are deforested are more likely to subsequently lose legal protections, according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Legal protections for these areas that were bargained away in the name of economic development could have long-term deleterious effects, including promoting further losses for protected areas elsewhere, researchers said.

After studying recent waves of legal changes to protected areas in the western state of Rondônia, one of the most deforested sections of the Amazon basin, the researchers came to an alarming conclusion: Once a protected area is deforested for the first time, it’s significantly more likely to have its legal protections reduced or removed in the future. This process, known as PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement), has implications for the health of ecosystems within those areas.

Human Nature recently sat down with two of the study’s authors, Conservation International scientists Rodrigo Medeiros and Mike Mascia. Here, they explain the dynamics that led to the widespread loss of Rondônia’s protected areas over the last decade — and what their findings could mean for the Amazon’s future.

Question: Before we dive into your research, explain PADDD.

Mike Mascia (MM): PADDD events are legal changes to protected area laws and regulations that relax the rules governing the use of resources, shrink protected area boundaries or eliminate the protected area entirely. These conditions are different from whether a site is well-managed or not; it’s only about the laws and the legal standing of these sites. A very recent example: What happened to Bear’s Ears National Monument in the United States, when President Trump reduced its size. That was a PADDD event.

More than seventy percent of PADDD events in Brazil have happened since 2005 — so in the last 12 years or so, coinciding with massive economic growth in the country. We know that about three quarters of PADDD events internationally are driven by industrial-scale resource extraction (oil and gas, forestry, roads), and local land pressures and claims. The PADDD events we’ve studied in Brazil align with these numbers. In Rondônia, we looked at two waves of degazettements, where a series of protected areas were wholly eliminated, one in 2010 and one in 2014. When we drilled down further we found a main driver for each wave of PADDD: hydropower in 2010, and rural settlements (people moving into protected areas) in 2014. 

Q: So what was going on in Brazil that led to so much deforestation?   

Rodrigo Medeiros (RM): In Brazil, unfortunately, development projects do not traditionally take nature into account when they’re being planned. For the sake of development, for example, one might see a national park as an area that isn’t being used, and therefore isn’t bringing any benefit to society. This is a dangerous misconception.

MM: There are several factors that lead to deforestation of any forested land, regardless of its protections: how close to a road or river it is, its suitability for agriculture, proximity to urban populations and markets. That’s certainly true throughout the Amazon. It stands then that certain protected areas are inherently more vulnerable to deforestation. But how a protected area is managed can also make a difference, so we can also look at deforestation rates inside a protected area relative to the deforestation rates in adjacent lands nearby. If there’s no difference in deforestation rates between “protected” lands and nearby forests, and there’s a high overall level of deforestation within the protected area, then we considered these protected areas “ineffective,” because they weren’t doing a great job of protecting forests.

What was interesting in our research, however, was what we saw happening after that deforestation occurred, which was an uptick in PADDD events. And that led us to consider the role of bargaining in making these decisions.

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Q: Explain what you mean by bargaining.  

MM: When we talk about bargaining, we’re talking about the negotiations over the fate of protected lands. What we sometimes saw in Rondônia was the deforested parts of protected areas were being downsized and left unprotected, while — presumably in exchange — the more effective (not deforested) parts of the protected areas saw their protections increased or boundaries expanded. That leads us to the conclusion that deals were being struck.

And we saw evidence for the same bargaining dynamic when we looked at Rondonia as a whole.  Let me explain: If you think about the network of protected areas in Rondônia simply through an economic development lens, then it wouldn’t matter if a protected area was effective or ineffective, you would PADDD land so you could develop it based on other factors (such as where you want to build a hydropower plant). Conversely, if you were looking at the network through a conservation lens, nothing would be PADDDed, because regardless of a site’s effectiveness, you would keep it whole and protected. In Rondônia, what we saw was the ineffective protected areas being removed, and the effective areas being left alone or even strengthened, which suggests a protected area’s effectiveness is being taken into consideration when deciding whether to PADDD an area or not. PADDD therefore reflects the ebb and flow of these negotiations between conservation and development actors.

Q: So what was your main takeaway?

MM: A protected area’s effectiveness influences its future survival. So if land is protected in name only, and deforestation results, that’s a key risk factor and may lead to loss of legal protections.

If PADDD occurs, it may create a slippery slope that has implications for other protected areas, including those across the Amazon. Once that line is crossed and an area is downsized or degazetted, that may make it easier the next time and the time after that. Even if these PADDD events are offset by expansions or greater restrictions in other protected areas or the establishment of new sites, the possibility is that eventually “protection” looks a lot like chasing the last remnants of intact forests left on the map.

RM:  It’s clear that effective governance of the protected area — making sure it doesn’t get deforested in the first place — is essential to ensure protection and stop PADDD events and bargaining. What we’re seeing across Brazil is several members of the government who represent economic groups taking advantage of the discussion to propose PADDD events in protected areas that really should not be touched.

If that keeps happening, we’re going to bargain away the Amazon — and that would be catastrophic not just in Brazil but for the entire world.

Rodrigo Medeiros is vice president of CI Brazil. Mike Mascia is CI’s senior director of social science. Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at CI.

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