Protected areas are not forever

Anzihe Protected Area

Patrolling at the high-altitude area of Anzihe Protected Area, Sichuan. (© Kyle Obermann)

A new report offers insight into the world’s protected areas — and the challenges they face.

Protected area coverage worldwide has grown since 2016 — now covering 14.9 percent of land and 7.3 percent of oceans —  but a new analysis reveals gaps in the protected area system, highlighting essential places for biodiversity and ecosystems that need further protection.

The 2018 Protected Planet Report, released last week at the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 14th meeting, comes at a critical moment as governments around the world gear up to define new global conservation targets for the next decade. The report acts as a progress check for protected areas regarding Aichi Biodiversity Target 11, which requires signatories to the CBD to protect 17 percent of lands and 10 percent of waters by 2020. However, it does not fully account for an important reality: the impermanence of protected areas.

In fact, protected lands and waters are subject to legal changes that weaken regulations, shrink boundaries or eliminate them entirely — a phenomenon known as protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement (PADDD).

Our research shows that PADDD is widespread: It has been enacted or proposed at least 4,000 times in over 70 countries, and our list of PADDD events grows weekly. PADDD can lead to deforestation, higher carbon emissions and habitat fragmentation and occurs in highly biodiverse regions.

Most PADDD events worldwide are driven by industry development such as mining, forestry, oil and gas extraction and industrial fishing. Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump downsized two protected national monuments by more than 8,000 square kilometers (3,100 square miles) — the largest reduction of protected lands in U.S. history — because oil and gas extraction and coal mining were prioritized over benefits to traditional lands, local livelihoods and paleontological resources (as revealed in emails obtained by The New York Times and accidentally released by the Interior Department).

In Brazil, 11 protected areas were recently eliminated after less than one hour of debate, and dozens more protected areas there have been weakened, reduced or eliminated, primarily in the last decade. The future of conservation in Brazil is tenuous under president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised to prevent the formation of new conservation areas and roll back existing ones.

And, marine protected areas are not immune to PADDD — industrial fishing was authorized across 402,360 square kilometers (155352.065 square miles) of ocean parks in Australia earlier this year.

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Although overall protected area coverage around the world has grown, the conservation community must recognize that protected areas are impermanent — and act now.

If governments reported on PADDD events in their countries through the Convention on Biological Diversity, it would provide a mechanism to track events and prevent legal changes that undermine conservation objectives. There may be valid reasons to alter protections, for instance, to restore traditional resource rights or adjust for species’ range shifts under climate change. However, many PADDD events result from political bargaining, ignore scientific evidence and are related to industrial-scale extraction and development. To prevent undermining conservation efforts, PADDD decisions by governments should be participatory, accountable and science-based, and could be structured in the same way as protected area establishment — the downgrading, downsizing and degazettement of protected areas should require at least the same amount of research and effort as is required for creating them. PADDD can also be addressed by lenders and the private sector within environmental and social safeguards, which ensure that negative environmental impacts are avoided, or at least mitigated, minimized or offset. 

As the conservation community forges a “New Deal for Nature” for 2020 and beyond, we now have the opportunity to build on global growth of the world’s protected areas — and ensure that hard-won gains for conservation are not lost.

Rachel Golden Kroner is a social scientist at Conservation International. 

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