Research offers new insights into a critical conservation tool

© Kyle Obermann

Above: Patrolling the Anzihe Protected Area in Chongzhou, Sichuan.

Protected areas — locations set aside to limit certain uses such as mining, fishing or agriculture — remain one of the most crucial tools for sustaining ecosystem health and curbing climate change.

Yet, balancing the needs of communities who live in or near these areas — and ensuring that protected areas are well-managed — is a challenge that varies from one country to the next.

Three recent studies by Conservation International are shedding new light on how protected areas work, and how to make them better.

1. In Madagascar, including locals in conservation efforts shows results

For families living in and around protected areas, finding a balance between conserving natural resources and making a living is critical. According to new research, efforts to conserve forests and compensate families that can’t access forest resources (such as timber) in Madagascar’s protected Ankeniheny Zahamena Corridor are working.

As an alternative to using the forest and cutting down trees, families are taking on small-scale livelihood projects, ranging from beekeeping to fish farming to livestock production. The study measured the benefits of 460 small-scale projects in the region since 2006 and found that more than half of participants reported positive results, such as more food security and income, and increased community enthusiasm for conservation projects.

The takeaway? “When designing and implementing conservation projects, thinking about human well-being is crucial,” Tokihenintsoa Andrianjohaninarivo, regional biodiversity scientist for Conservation International Madagascar and a study co-author, said. “We need to ensure that the projects address the needs of rural communities, reach all people who are affected by conservation activities and deliver both the intended livelihood and conservation benefits.”

Read the paper here.

2. Protected forests should not shut people out: study

More than two-thirds of Africans rely directly on the forest for their sources of income through what are known as “non-timber forest products,” such as food, medicines, resins and other resources that forests provide.

Unfortunately, many people are shut out of forests that have been set aside as protected areas.

A new study confirms the reliance on forests for people across the continent, and suggests that local communities be granted sustainable use of forests in protected lands.

“This study helps to confirm how nature is important for livelihoods and food security in poorer parts of the world,” Matthew Cooper, assistant scientist at Conservation International, said. “By analyzing data from multiple countries, we were able to show that anywhere there are forests or grasslands in Africa, local people are likely collecting resources from them. So, it is critical that we make people a part of the conservation formula.”

Read the paper here.

3. Protected areas at risk for deforestation and climate change

Protected areas in South America face higher deforestation and climate risks compared with its counterparts on other continents, a new study finds.

The study analyzes protected areas in different continents in terms of varying levels of deforestation and climate risk, ranging from highest to lowest risks of each. Although continents scored differently, South America was the continent with the highest calculated risk across all categories. Fifty-three percent of South America’s global humid tropical protected area is exposed to the highest deforestation and climate risks. Other continents of high concern were North America, Africa and Australia. The study recommends policies to address these concerns that range from landscape intervention to connecting protected areas to allow migration of species that may be affected by climate change.

“The threat of deforestation to tropical protected areas is a familiar battle for conservationists, however, the threat of ecosystem changes within these areas from climate change presents a more recent challenge,” said Karyn Tabor, director of ecosystem modeling and early warning systems at Conservation International and a co-author of the study. “We found global humid tropical protected areas were exposed to different combinations of threats, and these threat combinations should be considered for when designing conservation investments.”

The information from this study can be used to focus limited money and resources from companies, governments and organizations to the highest-priority areas, Tabor says.

Read the paper here.

Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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