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Protected Areas Can Save Nature — But Legal Rollbacks Are a Threat

May 30, 2019

New Global Study by Conservation International Documents Global Rollbacks to Protected Areas

“One of the most effective, time-tested strategies in conservation are areas protected by law. But just because an area is ‘declared’ protected doesn’t make it so. The work is just beginning when these areas are declared,” Dr. Michael Mascia, Senior Vice President at Conservation International’s Moore Center for Science.

The study documents that governments have removed more than 500,000 km2 from protected areas and downgraded protections for an additional 1.65 million km2 to allow greater human activities.

According to the study, which was based on published and previously unpublished data, the majority of the rollbacks are associated with industrial-scale development. This is despite ongoing alarming reports about the state of nature, such as the recent UN IPBES report that found nearly 1 million species on the verge of extinction.

Legal rollbacks of protected areas can accelerate forest loss, fragmentation, and carbon emissions. The study is the most comprehensive examination to date on rollbacks of environmental protections affecting national parks and protected areas globally.

Key findings include:

  • Rollbacks have been happening for decades but are accelerating: There have been at least 3,700 rollbacks across more than 3,000 protected areas since 1872 — yet 78% of those rollbacks have taken place in the last eighteen years, between 2000–2018. 64% have been enacted since 2010.
  • Rollbacks by the U.S. and Brazil are of particular concern:
    • In the U.S., 90% of proposed rollbacks have taken place since 2000; 99% of those were associated with industrial-scale development.
    • The paper finds that President Trump’s downsizing of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante national monuments were the largest reductions in U.S. history, reducing the protected areas by 85% (4,657 km2) and 51% (3,489 km2), respectively. Taken together, the downsizing amounts to an area about twice the size of Rhode Island.
    • In Brazil, 84% of enacted and proposed rollbacks have taken place since 2000.
    • Brazil’s proposed rollbacks total an area about the size of North Dakota (183,164 km2) — and comprise 87% of the total proposed rollback area across the nine Amazonian countries.
    • 48% of legal removal of protections were enacted or proposed between 2010–2017, primarily to authorize hydropower dams.
    • Of all rollbacks documented across the Amazonian countries, Brazil’s comprise 32% of the total area.Governments in seven Amazonian countries enacted 440 rollbacks of 245 state-designated protected areas between 1961–2017.
  • Governments in seven Amazonian countries enacted 440 rollbacks of 245 state-designated protected areas between 1961–2017.
  • Rollbacks in seven Amazonian countries are widespread, with 75% of ecoregions and 21% of key biodiversity areas currently or potentially affected.

Other Country Findings of Interest:

  • Australia: The study found more than 1,500 protected area changes, resulting in the removal of 13,000 km2 from conservation areas and undermining protection for an additional 400,000 km2.
  • Suriname and Guyana: The study found no enacted rollback events in Suriname or Guyana.
  • United Kingdom: The study found at least 61 rollback events covering 46,090 km2. All 61 rollbacks were the result of a 2015 authorization of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) below protected areas.

The study’s findings sound a warning on the future of the Amazon. “The Amazon rainforest is one of the world’s most critical tools in the fight against climate change. This study demonstrates that legislation to conserve our rainforests doesn’t always translate into enduring protection. As we work to protect the future of the Amazon, in Brazil and across the region faced with a choice of either development or protection, we must understand the ecological and financial implications of downsizing protected areas and opening them up for development,” said Bruno Coutinho, PhD, Director of Knowledge Management, Conservation International Brazil and co-author.

“We are facing two global environmental crises: Biodiversity loss and climate change. To address both, governments have established protected areas with the intent of conserving nature in perpetuity. Yet our research shows that protected areas can be rolled back and are not necessarily permanent. Lost protections can accelerate forest loss and carbon emissions — putting our climate and global biodiversity at greater risk,” said Rachel Golden Kroner, Conservation International Social Scientist, lead author of the study and PhD candidate at George Mason University.

The bottom line? “Protected areas are one of the most important tools in the conservation toolbox, but establishment is not the end of the story,” says Golden Kroner.

The study notes that protected area boundaries, for instance, may change to restore rights to indigenous communities or respond to climate change, but that globally, most rollback processes are related to industrial-scale development.

“Rolling back protected areas should be as difficult as it is to establish them,” said Golden Kroner. “Processes to roll back protected areas should mirror how protected areas are established in the first place, so that they are transparent, evidence-based, participatory and responsible.”

The technical term for these reductions of protected areas is PADDD, which means Protected Area Downgrading (relaxing restrictions), Downsizing (reducing boundaries) and Degazettement (eliminating protections).

The study cautions that global figures presented are conservative estimates of rollbacks, or PADDD events, as legal documents remain inaccessible in many countries.


About Conservation International

Conservation International uses science, policy and partnerships to protect the nature that people rely on for food, fresh water and livelihoods. Founded in 1987, Conservation International works in more than 30 countries on six continents to ensure a healthy, prosperous planet that supports us all. Learn more about Conservation International, the groundbreaking “Nature Is Speaking” campaign and its series of virtual reality projects: “My Africa”, “Under the Canopy” and “Valen’s Reef.” Follow Conservation International’s work on our Human Nature blog, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

About George Mason University

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls more than 37,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the last half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity, and commitment to accessibility. Mason’s interdisciplinary Environmental Science and Policy department in the College of Science spans the domains of the natural and social sciences to provide unique, flexible undergraduate and graduate learning experiences using state-of-the-art research facilities and diverse field sites. Our graduates and faculty are active in the formulation and implementation of sustainability policies and solutions in government, industry, and nonprofit organizations. Mason recently announced its Institute for a Sustainable Earth to connect the Mason sustainability programs, policy, and research efforts with other communities, policy-makers, businesses and organizations’so that, together, we can more effectively address the world’s pressing sustainability and resilience challenges.