- Safeguarding nature in one area can displace harmful activities, such as illegal logging or mining, into another, a phenomenon known as leakage or spillover; but how big is the problem?
- The first systematic review of studies examining the effects of protected areas around the globe on their surrounding areas found that less than 12% showed evidence of leakage or spillover, while the majority (54%) reduced deforestation in surrounding areas.
- Another study found that protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon overwhelmingly blocked deforestation in the surrounding forest, again suggesting that protected areas inhibit deforestation both within and outside of their boundaries.
- Experts say environmental and regulatory rollbacks that loosen restrictions on land use, shrink boundaries, or altogether eliminate protections pose a much greater threat to the Amazon than leakage, and efforts should focus on keeping protected areas permanent and improving management and enforcement of regulations.
Slowing the pace of mass extinctions and the climate crisis requires that nature be protected. But when it comes to protected areas, some have argued that safeguarding one area can simply displace harmful activities, such as illegal logging or mining, into another, a phenomenon known as leakage or spillover. But to what degree is this true? And how big is the problem?
Carley Fuller, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tasmania, and her colleagues did a deep dive into the subject, conducting the first systematic review of studies examining the effects of protected areas on their surrounding areas. Their findings were published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.
Of the 2,575 protected areas reviewed that effectively reduced deforestation rates within their boundaries, less than 12% showed evidence of leakage or spillover. The majority (54%) reduced deforestation in surrounding areas (an effect known as blockage), and 33% had no measurable effect on the surrounding areas.
“It was pretty surprising that the protected areas that had an impact within their boundaries had a very similar impact in that immediate neighboring area that was unprotected,” Fuller told Mongabay.
Fuller came to a similar conclusion when she turned her attention to the Brazilian Amazon. In a separate study, published in Biological Conservation, Fuller and colleagues examined spillover impacts from newly established protected areas in the Brazil.
Using satellite imagery, the team calculated deforestation within 91 state-governed (non-Indigenous) protected areas between 2005 and 2016 compared to the deforestation rates of surrounding unprotected lands.
Protected areas in Brazil, much like those examined in the global review, overwhelmingly blocked deforestation in the surrounding forest, suggesting that protected areas inhibit deforestation both within and outside of their boundaries.
Although the study didn’t address why, Fuller says that, in the case of Brazil, the connected and contiguous protected area network established between 2005 and 2016 may have driven a lot of the deforestation in a different direction. It’s likely that efforts to build illegal roads and put infrastructure up in a place with so much protection didn’t seem worth it, she says.
Fuller says leakage should be monitored, particularly in cases when a protected area may displace deforestation into more biologically or ecologically precious or high-impact areas, and in the world of carbon accounting and international schemes (such as REDD+), where some countries pay other countries to reduce deforestation in order to offset their own carbon emissions. But overall, there are “bigger fish to fry.”
That “big fish”: the loss of protection altogether.
“The magnitude [of leakage] wasn’t something that I would consider very concerning,” Fuller said, “especially when entire protected areas are in danger of being delisted.”
Environmental and regulatory rollbacks that loosen restrictions on land use, shrink boundaries, or altogether eliminate protections are known as PADDD (protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement) events. And PADDD events are ongoing, both in Brazil (see Brazilian PADDD tracker site) and across the globe.
“We know that PADDD is a growing concern in Brazil,” Rachel Golden Kroner, a fellow at the Moore Center for Science at Conservation International, told Mongabay in an email, “the risk of which is exacerbated by higher deforestation inside protected areas.”
According to Kroner and her team’s research (published in 2018 and 2020) the higher the rate of deforestation within a protected area, the more likely it is to be downsized or lose its protected status.
“Overall, from these studies, we can discern that impermanence of Brazilian protected areas is of more immediate concern than leakage,” Kroner said. “Near-term efforts should bolster long-term conservation, and improve the management and enforcement of existing protected areas to better avoid deforestation.”
Looking beyond Brazil, Kroner and colleagues tracked rollbacks to environmental protections across the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their analysis revealed 64 cases of rollbacks in 22 countries Between March 2020 and March 2021, affecting land, water, Indigenous rights, climate change and more.
A similar report by Vivid Economics found that COVID-era stimulus packages and policies have more often undermined than supported conservation.
“These rollbacks have continued,” Kroner said. “Ironically, given the link between maintaining intact ecosystems and reducing zoonotic disease spread, environmental rollbacks that lead to ecosystem degradation could exacerbate the risk of a future pandemic…We should be moving in the opposite direction.”
Supporting protected areas as well as the rights of Indigenous people and local communities, Kroner says, are cost-effective investments that address climate change, biodiversity loss, and public health.
“I think what we need to focus on is absolutely protecting the most irreplaceable and the most vulnerable habitats,” Fuller said. “Keeping the protected areas that have already been established, high quality … That’s the top priority.”
Fuller, C., Ondei, S., Brook, B. W., & Buettel, J. C. (2020). Protected-area planning in the Brazilian Amazon should prioritize additionality and permanence, not leakage mitigation. Biological Conservation, 248, 108673. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108673
Fuller, C., Ondei, S., Brook, B. W., & Buettel, J. C. (2019). First, do no harm: A systematic review of deforestation spillovers from protected areas. Global Ecology and Conservation, 18, e00591. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00591
Keles, D., Delacote, P., Pfaff, A., Qin, S., & Mascia, M. B. (2020). What drives the erasure of protected areas? Evidence from across the Brazilian Amazon. Ecological Economics, 176, 106733. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2020.106733
Tesfaw, A. T., Pfaff, A., Kroner, R. E. G., Qin, S., Medeiros, R., & Mascia, M. B. (2018). Land-use and land-cover change shape the sustainability and impacts of protected areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(9), 2084-2089. doi:10.1073/pnas.1716462115
Banner image of the Javari River where it forms the border between Brazil and Peru by Rhett A. Butler.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @lizkimbrough_
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