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Protected areas that allow local use better at reining in tropical deforestation

 Burning forest and peatland in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Burning forest and peatland in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Protected areas in tropical forests are better at curtailing deforestation if they allow ‘sustainable use’ by locals, according to a new World Bank study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE. Looking at every official protected area in the tropics from 2000 to 2008, researchers found that multi-use reserves in Latin America and Asia lowered deforestation rates by around 2 percent more than strict protected areas, though the effect was less visible in Africa.

“It has at times been assumed that anything less than strict protection would accelerate forest loss. IEG findings indicate, however, that the provision of a certain degree of protection coupled with maintaining of local use rights, especially for indigenous people, actually reduces deforestation,” commented Vinod Thomas, who was Director-General of World Bank’s Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) during the study’s execution, said in a press release.

Using the presence of fire as a proxy for deforestation—fires in tropical rainforest are almost always a man-made occurrence—the study compared forest destruction inside protected areas as opposed to destruction outside in similar forests. Similarity was measured as proximity to road or major city, forest terrain, elevation, and rainfall, among other traits.

“You can’t gauge a protected area’s impact just by eyeballing its deforestation rate,” explained study co-author Kenneth Chomitz, Senior Adviser with IEG. “Some protected areas have low rates of deforestation but they happen to in remote and hard to access mountainous areas. Others have significant ongoing deforestation but were set up to defend areas under high pressure from loggers and farmer.”

The study found that in Latin America and the Caribbean, protected areas reduced deforestation by 2.7-4.3 percent against a mean loss of 5.8 percent in unprotected forests. In other words protecting a forest in some areas cut deforestation by up to nearly three-fourths as opposed to similar unprotected forests. In Africa the study found that protected areas reduced deforestation rates by around 1 percent and nearly 2 percent in Asia. However, protected areas that allowed for local use more than doubled the positive impact on forest loss in Asia, as well as performing considerably better in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Indigenous areas in Latin America were the most effective at reducing deforestation: cutting forest destruction by a total of 16 percent. The high percentage, here, denotes the fact that many indigenous areas are in regions of especially high deforestation.

“The protective effect is greatest in nonremote areas (for Latin America and Africa) and areas of intermediate remoteness (Asia). Very remote areas have low fire rates even if unprotected—at least for the moment,” the authors write.

The study’s authors believe their research has important implications for global policy on tackling deforestation.

“Forest protection can contribute both to biodiversity conservation and CO2 mitigation goals, with particular relevance to the REDD agenda. Encouragingly, indigenous areas and multi-use protected areas can help to accomplish these goals, suggesting some compatibility between global environmental goals and support for local livelihoods,” the authors write, suggesting that “zoning for sustainable use may be more politically feasible and socially acceptable than designation of strict protection in areas of higher population density and less remoteness.”

However the authors say the study does not account for leakage (i.e. that the establishment of some protected areas may just push deforestation to other regions) or for some types of forest fragmentation.

CITATION: Nelson A, Chomitz KM (2011) Effectiveness of Strict vs. Multiple Use Protected Areas in Reducing Tropical Forest Fires: A Global Analysis Using Matching Methods. PLoS ONE 6(8): e22722. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022722.

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