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

November 21, 2013

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

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.

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