Are Latin America’s Protected Areas Effective at Conserving Nature?

Sierra del Lacandon National Park, Guatemala. Photo: © Susan G. Ellis/TNC

Sierra del Lacandon National Park, Guatemala. Photo: © Susan G. Ellis/TNC

By Craig Leisher, Senior Social Scientist

Protected areas are the single most important conservation strategy in the world, and Latin America has the most land within protected areas of any region of the world.

But are Latin America’s protected areas effective at conserving nature inside their boundaries?

Using six years of biweekly remote-sensing data from Terra-i, a Nature Conservancy team and partners recently measured the land and forest degradation inside 1,788 protected areas across 19 Latin American countries.

The team analyzed all the protected areas in Latin America larger than 500 hectares (1,236 acres) that have known boundaries and were established before 2004.

The study, published in the journal Diversity, shows that there was degradation in 45% of all protected areas and that the rate of degradation inside Latin America’s protected areas increased by 250% from 2004 to 2009. Over these years, an area the size of Jamaica succumbed to degradation inside protected areas.

Prioritizing which protected areas to focus conservation efforts on is a fertile research topic. A recent study in Science identified which protected areas can contribute most to protecting globally threaten animals. Our analysis goes farther by showing which countries are actually doing a decent job of preventing habitat degradation inside protected areas and which are not.

From 2004 to 2009, the annual loss to degradation inside each of Guatemala’s protected areas averaged 1,003 hectares (2,478 acres). Bolivia lost 1,010 hectares (2,496 acres) to degradation on average inside each of its protected areas each year from 2004 to 2009. Mexico, on the other hand, lost only 22 hectares a year (54 acres) on average. Costa Rica was the standout with only 5 hectares (12 acres) lost to degradation on average inside each of its projected areas each year.

It is not a country’s economic growth or its level of income or rural population density that drives the degradation. Instead, a variety of causes specific to a local area are more likely the drivers of degradation. These may range from agricultural and grazing expansion to infrastructure development.

There is hope, though. If international funding targeted just the protected areas in tropical and flooded grasslands and moist broadleaf forests, this would help 84% of the protected areas in Latin America where we know degradation is an issue.

Perhaps most importantly for conservation, this new study demonstrates that it is possible to use remote sensing to measure changes in land cover inside a large number of protected areas cheaply and objectively. Setting a global target for reducing the rate of land degradation inside protected areas might be a useful metric for the post-2015 international development goals.

Protected areas are undoubtedly one of the most important tools for the long-term conservation of nature, but more needs to be done to support their effective operation. Now that it’s possible to measure protected area degradation, let’s use the measurements to manage them better.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

Posted In: Protected Areas

Craig Leisher is a Senior Social Scientist who focuses on amplifying and measuring the benefits to people from conservation initiatives.



 Make a comment




Comment

Forest Dilemmas

Too many deer. Logging one tree to save another. Beavers versus old growth. Welcome to forest conservation in the 21st century. Join us for a provocative 5-part series exploring the full complexity facing forest conservation in the eastern United States.

What is Cool Green Science?

noun 1. Blog where Nature Conservancy scientists, science writers and external experts discuss and debate how conservation can meet the challenges of a 9 billion + planet.

2. Blog with astonishing photos, videos and dispatches of Nature Conservancy science in the field.

3. Home of Weird Nature, The Cooler, Quick Study, Traveling Naturalist and other amazing features.

Cool Green Science is managed by Matt Miller, the Conservancy's deputy director for science communications, and edited by Bob Lalasz, its director of science communications. Email us your feedback.

Innovative Science

Investing in Seagrass
Marine scientists and fishers alike know that grass beds are valuable as nursery habitat. A new Conservancy-funded study puts a number to it.

Drones Aid Bird Conservation
How can California conservationists accurately count thousands of cranes? Enter a new tool in bird monitoring: the drone.

Creating a Climate-Smart Agriculture
Can farmers globally both adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change? A new paper answers with a definitive yes. But it won't be easy.

Latest Tweets from @nature_brains

Categories