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Conflict zones have higher deforestation rates in the Amazon

Areas in the Amazon where there is conflict over land tenure have higher deforestation rates than places where land rights are secure, finds a new study that assesses the effectiveness of indicators used to gauge the success of protected areas in Brazil.

The research, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, analyzed the efficacy of the Rapid Assessment and Prioritization of Protected Area Management (RAPPAM), a tool used by policymakers to manage, prioritize and assess the effectiveness of conservation areas. Using satellite imagery and deforestation data, the University of Michigan’s Christoph Nolte and Arun Agrawal and IMAZON’s Paulo Barreto looked at RAPPAM in the context of 66 protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. They found the tool, which was developed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), largely fails to provide useful data for allocating dollars in managing protected areas.

“Our analysis casts first doubt about the extent to which RAPPAM data – as it is – can assist in the prioritization of conservation policy, management and resource allocation,” lead author Nolte was quoted as saying by environmentalresearchweb.

“There are two possible explanations for our results: either the RAPPAM does not measure things correctly and the scores do not adequately reflect the status of these management aspects or the RAPPAM is measuring things that are not important for successfully conserving protected areas,” he added in a statement.

The study did however find one RAPPAM indicator of significance: the absence of land tenure conflicts.

“When there was no unsettled land tenure dispute, the success at avoiding deforestation was higher,” explained a press release from the University of Michigan. “This suggests that land tenure conflicts may be such an important factor in shaping deforestation success that it overshadows the potential importance of other factors.”

Nolte said that finding alone is important for conservation efforts.

“Land rights seem to be of fundamental importance to explain differences in protected area success, at least when it comes to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon,” he told environmentalresearchweb. “Understanding such conflicts seems to be a necessary precondition for understanding the actual impact of conservation investments, as resolving such conflicts may be a crucial precondition for protected area success.”

In the Brazilian Amazon, settlers, land speculators, and squatters often clear forests as a way to lay claim to land. Authorities have historically turned a blind eye to these activities, but in recent years have stepped up vigilance as the federal government has moved to reign in illegal deforestation and stem violence in the region. The new paper suggests that resolving conflict may be an effective approach for conserving protected areas.

“The government has to act promptly,” said Paulo Barreto of IMAZON in a statement. “They must evict illegal occupants, compensate any occupants who have legal rights, and re-draw boundaries when occupants have inalienable land rights. If conflicts are not solved, new occupations may occur, which will significantly hinder the effort to protect the land.”

Christoph Nolte et al 2013. Setting priorities to avoid deforestation in Amazon protected areas: are we choosing the right indicators? Environmental Research Letters 8 015039 doi:10.1088/1748-9326/8/1/015039

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