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How ‘protected’ are Amazon’s protected areas?

© Jonathan Hood/Flickr Creative Commons

Editor’s note: Brazil houses nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest and one-third of all the tropical forest left on the planet — forest that represents 30 percent of the solution to climate change. To protect these crucial ecosystems, the country is home to 12 percent of the world’s protected areas, but new research on a phenomenon known as PADDD suggests that they are not as secure as we might think.

Conservation International’s Senior Director of Social Science Mike Mascia — the world’s foremost expert on this issue — explains.

Question: First and foremost, what is PADDD — “protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement” — and what causes PADDD events?

Answer: PADDD events are legal changes to protected area laws and regulations that relax the rules governing use of resources, shrink park boundaries or eliminate the protected area entirely. These conditions are different from whether a site is well-managed or not; it’s only about the laws and the legal standing of these sites.

There are more than a dozen causes of PADDD events, which can be loosely organized into three categories. The largest cause is industrial-scale resource extraction and development: forestry, oil and gas, mining, industrial agriculture and infrastructure, etc. The second category is related to local land pressures and land claims: Indigenous claims to regain land that had been taken away for the establishment of a protected area in the first place, rural settlements, subsistence use, etc. The last category, and the smallest one, relates to conservation planning: In some cases, people decided that the way that the protected area system was set up was not functional or strategic and that some other configuration made more sense.

Listen to this podcast interview with Mike Mascia for more details about PADDD and how it has shaped protected areas around the globe.

Q: So what does this tell us about the longevity of the world’s protected areas — including beloved national parks?

A: That’s the fundamental question. Ultimately, humans make these protected areas, and we have the ability to change them or even eliminate them. Our beliefs and values influence which areas we decide to protect — and our beliefs, values and preferences can change over time.

In Brazil, for example, we documented all PADDD events from 1900 to 2014. We identified 67 enacted PADDD events, which affected 112,477 square kilometers (about 43,428 square miles) and eliminated six percent of Brazil’s total potential protected lands. PADDD events have increased since 2005, primarily driven by hydropower (39 percent) and rural human settlements (20 percent). As of 2014, another 27 active PADDD proposals threatened to eliminate an additional 60,555 square kilometers (about 23,380 square miles) of protected lands. With the recent change in political leadership in Brazil, what happens to these protected areas is a key question.

Q: In addition to your research in the Amazon, you’ve examined the effects of PADDD on protected areas around the world. What are some of your key takeaways?

A: Our first question in global PADDD research was: “Is PADDD happening?” And we found that it was.

So our second question was: “What’s going on in critical conservation areas?” We took a systematic look at Africa, Asia and Latin America and found that a lot of change was happening and needed to be tracked.

The next question was: “What are the actual consequences on the ground of these legal changes? Does PADDD matter in the real world?” Our work in Peru, Malaysia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo showed that PADDD accelerated tropical deforestation and carbon emissions to levels far beyond still-protected areas, to the point that deforestation and emissions reached or exceeded rates in forests that had never been protected at all. In Brazil, however, most of the protected areas that were degazetted were already ineffective, so removing legal protections had no observable effect on short-term deforestation rates.

Lastly, we have been asking: “Which protected areas are most vulnerable to PADDD?” We are still working on this question, but early evidence indicates that PADDD is most likely among less effective protected areas (particularly those located in low-threat environments), as well as larger protected areas (particularly in more densely populated and highly accessible areas).

Q: What needs to be done to prevent negative effects from PADDD?

A: As a starting point, we need better information to understand the patterns, trends, causes and consequences of PADDD. At the moment, we have a patchwork of data that interested researchers and others have collected and contributed via What we really need is a formal system for documenting and reporting on enacted and proposed PADDD events globally. The Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity could create such a system, which would catalyze new research, new understanding and new policies.

In the meantime, however, we know enough to take action now. Our findings suggest the need for national policies governing PADDD that are analogous to policies governing establishment of protected areas in the first place, including public consultation, technical studies, compensatory measures, and visual representation and explanation of the proposed changes. And lenders and other companies should refine their safeguard policies to consider previously protected areas, not just those that are still legally established. Without closing this loophole, the incentive will remain for legal changes to protected area rules and boundaries that permit new human activities that are at odds with the original intent of the protected area.

Ultimately, people will decide the fate of protected areas — as they always have. Our goal is to ensure that the choices that people make are informed by science and that their deliberations are open, transparent, based on clear criteria and in full accordance with the law.

Mike Mascia is CI’s senior director of social science. Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI.

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