Poverty and corruption reduce effectiveness of rainforest parks
July 9, 2007

Corruption and poverty make for 'paper parks'

Poverty and corruption are linked to higher incidence of fire in tropical forest reserves, reports a new study published in the journal Ecological Applications. Poor, corrupt countries -- like Cambodia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Sierra Leone -- have the least effective parks when measured in terms of the incidence of fire relative to surrounding "buffer" areas. The findings have significant implications for rainforest conservation efforts.

The study, led by Dr. S. Joseph Wright of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama, calculated the "fire detection density", or the number of detected fires per square kilometer per year, inside 823 tropical forest reserves and contiguous buffer areas using data from NASA's Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) between 2002 and 2004. The ratio was then used to "examine national-level variation in reserve effectiveness for 37 tropical countries that differ widely in extant forest capital, economic development, and human population density."

Eight variables -- forested area per capita in 2000, the 1990s deforestation rate, per capita GDP, a human development index, population density in 2003, population growth rate from 1975 to 2003, a corruption perception index, and the background fire detection density calculated for the entire country -- were used to tease out relationships between poverty, corruption, and reserve effectiveness in terms of fire incidence.

The researchers used frequency within parks as an indicator of park effectiveness "because the background level of fire in tropical moist forests is low, so the presence of fire often indicates that humans are engaged in timber extraction, clearing land for agriculture or other land-use conversion," according to STRI.

Wright and colleagues conclude that tropical forest reserves tend to become more effective "as human well-being improves and corruption declines."

"Satellite data on fire frequency provides a measure of park effectiveness across countries," said Wright. "It is strikingly clear from our study that poverty and corruption limit the effectiveness of parks set up to protect tropical forests."

The buffer: reserve fire detection ratio

Graphic reflecting a sampling of results from the Wright et. al. study. By R. Butler.

The new study adds refinement to previous research that found rainforest parks are at least partially effective for reducing fire. A 2001 study, published in Science by Aaron G. Bruner colleagues found that reserve status reduced grazing, hunting, fire, timber extraction, and forest clearing for 60—97% of 93 parks in 22 tropical countries. Similarly, 2005 research led by Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Center and published in Conservation Biology reported that deforestation was 1.7 to 20 times lower in parks and indian reserves that in areas directly outside the perimeter of the protected lands.
The researchers found that while the ratio of fires inside reserves to outside reserves can be skewed in situations where fires are exceptionally high or low both inside and outside reserves, the results indicate that among tropical countries, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Malaysia, and Taiwan have the most effective forest reserves with respect to fire incidence.

"Fire detection densities approach zero inside their moist forest reserves," write the researchers. "This level of success sets a standard that should be achievable elsewhere. These four countries are, however, among the wealthiest and least corrupt third of the 37 countries considered here and share a long history of political stability."

Meanwhile, "fire detections provide less evidence that tropical moist forest reserves are effective in many poorer countries and in countries beset by corruption." Cambodia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Sierra Leone had the worst ratio, with fires inside reserves only marginally lower than outside reserves, indicating higher likelihood of so-called "paper parks" -- protected areas that exist only nominally, not in practice.

MODIS data

Smoke from agricultural and forest fires burning on Sumatra (left) and Borneo (right) in late September and early October 2006 blanketed a wide region with smoke that interrupted air and highway travel and pushed air quality to unhealthy levels. This image from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA's Aqua satellite on October 1, 2006, shows places where MODIS detected actively burning fires marked in red. Smoke spreads in a gray-white pall to the north. NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory, using data provided courtesy of the MODIS Rapid Response team.
"Paraguay had the second highest perceived level of corruption in the Americas after Haiti... and the highest 1990s deforestation rate in the world," the authors write. "Cambodia suffered civil war punctuated by genocide from 1970 until the Khmer Rouge surrendered in 1999. Guatemala suffered civil war from 1960 until a 1996 peace treaty. Sierra Leone suffered civil war, genocide, and the displacement of up to one third of its population between 1991 and 2002. Political instability, corruption, and poverty compromise the effectiveness of moist forest reserves in these four countries."

In Congo and Suriname, both poor and notoriously corrupt countries with large areas of forest cover, Wright and colleagues found that fire detection densities are low both inside and outside reserves, apparently benefiting from "passive protection through isolation from human activities that increase fire frequency." They found similar cases in the Amazon basin.

"Other countries where low fire detection densities inside moist forest reserves and contiguous buffer areas suggest that passive protection is important include Cameroon and remote reserves in Amazonian Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru."

In Kenya, India, and the Mexican state of Chiapas, the authors report that "fire detection densities actually tend to be greater inside moist forest reserves than in contiguous buffer areas", findings that likely "reflect intensive land use that prevents fires in buffer areas, a lack of fuel to sustain fires in buffer areas, intense human pressure on reserves, and ample fuel to sustain fires inside reserves."

Stark contrasts within Indonesia

Fire detection density for Indonsia. Borneo has the least effective protected areas with regard to fire prevention. Irian Jaya's ratio is skewed by low fire density both inside and outside reserves. Image by R. Butler [click image to enlarge]

The availability of data for Indonesia made it possible for researchers to distinguish between islands. The found the situation in Borneo and Sulawesi is be particularly bad.

"The reserves of Indonesian Borneo have recently suffered severe levels of timber extraction and forest clearing facilitated by corruption," the authors explain. "Fire detections indicate that the crisis in Borneo is nearly as severe as ongoing crises in Cambodia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Sierra Leone... In stark contrast, the reserves of Java appear to be among the most effective in the tropics... the reserves of Irian Jaya [as the Indonesia-controlled portion of New Guinea was formerly known] appear to benefit from passive protection through isolation with similar low fire detection densities both inside reserves and their buffer areas."


The new study is not the first to show that "most tropical moist forest reserves are at least partially effective at reducing fire incidence," but it helps explain why some reserves work better than others.

"Tropical moist forest reserves vary wildly in their effectiveness to reduce fires," the authors write. "We urgently need to understand the causes of this variation so that steps can be taken to improve the effectiveness of all tropical forest reserves."

The authors say their research can help. As part of this publication, fire frequency data from 3,964 tropical reserves will be posted online.

"We hope these data will facilitate national, regional, and further global level analyses and generate new insights to improve the success of tropical forest reserves. In the meantime, increases in staff and funding are already known to improve the effectiveness of tropical reserves. New resources to improve the effectiveness of forest reserves are urgently needed in many poor tropical countries and especially in Cambodia, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Sierra Leone," they conclude.

Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa and Carlos Portillo-Quintero from the University of Alberta and Diane Davies from the University of Maryland were also involved in the research.

CITATION: S. Joseph Wright, Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa, Carlos Portillo-Quintero, And Diane Davies. "Poverty And Corruption Compromise Tropical Forest Reserves". Ecological Applications July 1, 2007.


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Poverty and corruption reduce effectiveness of rainforest parks.


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