Protected areas good for health, wealth: study

Anzihe Protected Area

Anzihe Protected Area, Sichuan, China. (© Kyle Obermann)

Decades of research prove that protected areas — locations set aside to conserve nature and protect it from mining, overfishing and large-scale agriculture — are good for wildlife.  But can these conservation areas also benefit the communities who call the land in and near these places home?

According to a new study, the answer to that question is “yes” — with a few key caveats. Human Nature sat down with Dave Hole, a co-author of the study and vice president of global solutions at Conservation International, to understand precisely what makes a protected area good for the planet and for people.

Question: What did you set out to study?

Answer: We know that well-managed protected areas — those with adequate resources for staffing and other operations — are generally good for biodiversity and for wildlife. That is  supported by a significant body of research. But there has been substantial debate in the literature over the last 20 years or so around whether restricting access to protected areas also benefits people.

So we set out to discover whether protected areas benefit communities, especially in terms of their health and wealth. And our research shows that they do … in certain cases. We found that for most protected areas, the impacts on humans are largely neutral, but some types of protected areas provide critical benefits to people — and to a pretty remarkable degree.

Q: So what types of protected areas provide the benefits?

A: Protected areas are managed on a sliding scale, in terms of restrictions. Some allow no access to people (sometimes called “strict protection”), while others allow considerable access as long as people are using resources sustainably — those are the “multiple-use” protected areas.

Q: What kind of benefits are we talking about?

A: People benefitted the most from protected areas they were still able to access. We also found that households near multiple-use protected areas that also had tourism associated with them saw their wealth increase on average by 20 percent and poverty levels decline by up to 26 percent. Meanwhile, children that lived near these areas were 13 percent less likely to have stunted growth. Those are really significant improvements in well-being.

Even without the presence of tourism, households near multiple-use protected areas saw their poverty decline by 9 percent. In areas where tourism is present, the benefits are likely the result of related job creation and the creation of informal markets for tourist goods. Even where tourism isn’t present, however, allowing people to collect useful plants and animals for sale at local markets and for personal use is beneficial.

Our results don’t mean that there aren’t individual examples where excluding people from a forest or from accessing a fishery doesn’t have negative consequences. Documented examples where that has happened exist and demonstrate the crucial importance of including local communities and stakeholders in protected area siting and management. What it does mean is that on average, across our huge sample, we didn’t detect any negative impacts.

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Q: How did you reach these conclusions?

A: We used a large and comprehensive dataset to conduct the research — it’s actually what makes this study groundbreaking. We analyzed demographic and health survey data from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that has been collected over the last 40 years across 34 developing countries. The surveys recorded answers to a wide range of questions from almost 200,000 households. We compressed these questions into just two: What is your standard of living? And, what is the health status of your children? We used household wealth scores, poverty levels, and the height-for-age growth scores of children, an important indicator of nutrition, as proxies to answer these questions.

We then overlaid this information onto maps of protected areas so that we could see if there was a difference in the wealth or health of households that lived near (within 10 kilometers, or just over 6 miles) protected areas versus those that lived farther from them. We controlled for other variables to make sure that the effects we were seeing could be attributed to proximity to the protected areas rather than other factors, such as climate change and development.

Q: So what do your findings mean for the people who live near the world’s more than 200,000 protected areas?

A: We are going to have a billion more people on the planet by 2030 — that’s a huge increase in mouths to feed and an ever-bigger pressure on the planet’s natural resources. Yet the answer to the question of whether humanity can thrive while at the same time continuing to destroy the natural world is an emphatic “no.” The fact is that nature is the foundation that underpins our societies and our economies. What this research does is provide further compelling evidence that nature conservation and sustainable development go hand-in-hand — that protected areas are not only good for conserving biodiversity, but they can also be good for people too.

It means that protected areas can also help countries meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals agreed upon by the United Nations that aim to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030. If we’re to achieve the SDGs and their vision of “peace and prosperity for people and planet, now and into the future,” then protected areas should represent a crucial investment opportunity for promoting truly sustainable development that can help provide for everyone on this planet.

David Hole is vice president for global solutions for Conservation International. Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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