Protected areas see recent rise in legal rollbacks: study

Amazon rainforest

The Amazon rainforest, São João da Ponta, Pará, Brazil. (© Flavio Forner)

Rollbacks of legal protections to protected areas are on the rise, a new study finds, threatening to accelerate forest loss and carbon emissions.

The study, published in the journal Science, is the largest to examine legal changes to protected areas on a global scale. The researchers revealed that while these changes have been happening for decades, there has been an uptick in recent years.

Protected areas — places set aside to conserve nature — are a critical conservation tool, but their effectiveness can be reduced when protections are removed, typically to allow for resource extraction, infrastructure and industrial agriculture.

The study found that governments have removed more than 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) from protected areas and downgraded protections for an additional 1.65 million square kilometers (637,000 square miles). More than three-quarters of rollbacks of protections since 1872 have occurred since the year 2000.

We spoke with the study’s lead author, Rachel Golden Kroner, a scientist at Conservation International and one of the leading experts on what is known as protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazetting, or “PADDD.” While protected areas are critically important for conserving nature, Golden Kroner says, establishing them is just the beginning — keeping them intact and supporting them is critical. 

Question: So this study looked at protected areas globally, but there were two countries you focused on more closely. Why?

Answer: We focused on the U.S. and Brazil because both are emerging hotspots of environmental policy change. Both of these regions are also home to vital ecosystems, including the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which support high amounts of biodiversity and store carbon (or permafrost in the case of ANWR), making them essential in the fight against climate change.

We found that 4 percent of protected areas in Brazil were affected by PADDD events over the last 46 years. While this is technically lower than in some other Amazonian countries, it’s a hotspot to watch closely. Rates of PADDD events in countries such as Colombia and Peru were higher, but most PADDD events within those countries were later reversed.

Q: Wait, ‘later reversed?’

A: PADDD events can be dynamic, which means they can be enacted then later reversed or proposed multiple times, then enacted. And a PADDD event can happen in one part of the protected area, but then an expansion (called an “offset”) could happen in another part of the same protected area.

We looked at these dynamics and found that if protection is restored, even decades later, to an area, restoring protections may actually have benefits. In Yosemite National Park, a portion of the protected area was downsized but then re-protected decades later, and it’s now in better shape ecologically than nearby areas where protections were lost and never restored. So, legal changes that occurred early in the history of Yosemite have had lasting, observable effects over the past century. Similarly, PADDD events that are enacted or proposed right now have implications for the future of protected areas and conservation worldwide.

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Q: Let’s go back to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. What does a PADDD event within this refuge mean for wildlife and humans?

A: Oil development within ANWR — which would be considered a PADDD event — has been contested for more than three decades, and there have been more than 100 unique proposals to open it for extraction that were rejected in the past. But in December 2017, the restriction on oil exploration and development in ANWR was lifted. Technically this event is considered a downgrade (the first “d” in PADDD) because the boundaries of the refuge weren’t reduced, but restrictions on human activity within the area were relaxed.

Drilling within the refuge would have a considerable impact on biodiversity and the communities that depend on it. ANWR is a remote area that provides habitat for animals such as migratory caribou, musk oxen and polar bears, which are essential species in the Arctic food chain. ANWR is also considered sacred ground for indigenous peoples. For instance, the Gwich’in people rely the porcupine caribous for food and clothing – and caribou use the vast Arctic landscape for their annual migration. Drilling within the refuge could affect caribou migration patterns and calving grounds, and in turn, reduce Gwich’in access to the herds.

There is also concern for oil spills that could result from drilling, which harm wildlife and people.

Q: What else did you find on a global scale?

A: We also found that overall, PADDD events have the potential to detract from conservation goals — most (62 percent of) PADDD events globally are related to industrial-scale natural resource extraction and development, including infrastructure, mining, and oil and gas. A separate, but smaller portion (28 percent) of PADDD events were related to land claims, local use of natural resources and rural settlements, which may restore rights to local and indigenous communities. Another interesting result is that only 1.7 percent of PADDD events were related to conservation planning, which is a broad-scale re-shuffling of protected areas to help put protected areas in the right places to protect more species.

Q: Is development in a protected area always considered a PADDD event?

A: No. Every country has a different legal framework that governs protected areas, including what is or isn’t allowed within each area. Each country may define what is included as a national park or wildlife reserve differently. For instance, in National Parks in Bolivia, oil drilling is allowed, so mineral rights supersede conservation rights, but in Peru, oil drilling is prohibited within all national parks. Just because an area is called a national park doesn’t mean it’s off-limits to development, nor is it protected in perpetuity.

The downgrade of ANWR is a big deal, but there are places all around the world where events like this have already happened and hardly anyone knows about them. The results of this study can bring awareness to PADDD events from wildlife reserves in Cambodia to forest reserves in Kenya.

Q: What does this say about efforts to create more protected areas?

A: Protected areas are one of the most important tools in the conservation toolbox because they have enormous potential to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss. However, this study shows that establishment is not the end of the story. PADDD processes should mirror how protected areas are established in the first place, so that they are transparent, evidence-based, participatory and responsible. It should be just as difficult to establish protected areas as it is be to downsize, downgrade and degazette them. By monitoring protected areas in the long term, including tracking PADDD and securing effective protections, we can help ensure that protected areas fulfill their promise to protect nature.

Rachel Golden Kroner is a scientist at Conservation International. Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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