“Looking down on empty streets,
all she can see are the dreams all made solid,
are the dreams all made real.
All of these buildings, all of those cars,
Were once just a dream in somebody’s head”

–Peter Gabriel, Mercy Street

One of the greatest triumphs of the conservation movement is the idea of a protected area, a place where human use of the land is restricted so that something special about the landscape can persist for future generations. Protected areas continue to grow as a percentage of Earth’s terrestrial area — more than 12 percent is now under some sort of protection.

But this triumph is easy to forget if you’re a conservation biologist of my generation (under age 40). We like to calculate optimal distributions of protected areas using fancy math. We get lost in the scientific details and miss how relatively new the modern construct of a protected area is.

Particularly within conservation NGOs, we tend to focus on the ecology within protected areas, both in terms of justifying their existence and in terms of sustainably managing their natural resources. Which is why I was personally surprised when some of my current research reminded me forcefully how much history matters for trends in protected areas.

My Conservancy colleague Tim Boucher and I recently pulled together data on land protection for the countries of the world for the last 60 years, as well as data on a host of other potentially explanatory factors. Our analysis, recently published in Biological Conservation, aimed to answer two simple questions:

  • Why do some countries protect so much land, and other countries so little?
  • And why has there globally been such an explosion of land protection in the last few decades?

To start answering these questions, we contrast four main theories from the literature on trends in land protection. These might be cartoonishly stated as:

  1. “It’s all about the money” (richer countries protect more);
  2. “It’s all about the ecology” (more biodiverse countries protect more);
  3. “It’s all worthless land anyway” (less productive land is easier to protect); and
  4. “It’s a historical and political thing” (socioeconomic variables and trends over time are what is important).

But while our study and some others suggest all four theories are somewhat true, the historical and political process clearly is most important.

Starting in the 1960s, the idea of land protection gradually took hold globally and the area set aside increased exponentially in the following decades. Nothing else can explain this temporal trend except a historic movement, in which the world began to believe in the idea of protected areas.

The prognosis for the future could be bright if trends for the last several decades continue: By 2030, 15%-29% of the Earth might be protected. On the other hand, this forecast depends on the continued belief in the importance of land protection. Ominously, trends for the last few years (not included in our model) suggests that the world is currently only on track to be near the bottom of that range if we continue at this rate.

Moreover, our analysis shows that once a country has done some land protection, each extra new little bit gets harder and harder to do, presumably due to internal political resistance to putting more land aside.

Socioeconomic factors also appear to be much more important than ecological factors in how much land a country protects:

  • Education matters, with a more educated populace correlated with more protection.
  • Political independence matters, with colonial states protecting less land than sovereign countries, all else being equal.
  • And wealth matters, with richer countries on average doing more land protection. Indeed, extreme poverty is one of the things limiting globally the expansion of land protection.

For all those correlations, however, each country has its own story. There are plenty of poorer countries doing a fantastic job of land protection, and plenty of richer countries doing a bad job. Each country is a different cultural and political terrain, where the idea of protected areas takes root more or less easily.

Once that dream of land protection is well established, humans have had little problem making this dream real.

(Image: Lunette and Walls of China at Mungo National Park, New South Wales, Australia. Image credit: jcolman/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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