- A new study shows that human activity, especially agriculture, undertaken around biosphere reserves can lead to deforestation and biodiversity loss inside the reserves themselves.
- The main solution, say researchers, is to provide local communities with alternative livelihoods to agriculture, as expanding farming practices are the main drivers of forest loss.
- Researchers say locals don’t necessarily want to cut down trees, but they often do because of lack of other economic opportunities, or lack of infrastructure and other services nearby.
Protected areas are important for saving tropical forests and biodiversity, but for them to be effective, local communities living around the reserves need to have access to non-agricultural jobs, a new study says.
The research shows that human activity, mainly agriculture, outside of forest reserves has a direct impact on forest cover within the protected area itself. This includes the expansion of oil palm plantations, large pasturelands, or even small-scale agriculture, where locals cut down trees to try to expand their crops and increase their profits.
“It’s not that people want to deforest per se, but rather people need opportunities so that they are not forced to advance the agricultural frontier in order to obtain benefits that, in the end, only allow them to subsist,” says study lead author Daniel Martín Auliz-Ortiz, a doctoral candidate in biological sciences at the Institute for Research in Ecosystems and Sustainability, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Morelia.
Auliz-Ortiz says his work was highly influenced by his earlier travels in the south of Mexico, where he saw local communities struggle to get by, with minimal infrastructure, access to social services or jobs.
“Finding the best practices that allow the sustainable use of resources, that allow for the reduction of pressure on forest systems, but also allow people to obtain benefits from what they do … it’s a win-win scenario,” Auliz-Ortiz tells Mongabay.
Forest loss or fragmentation is a major driver of biodiversity loss, as it destroys the habitat of local species. It also emits carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. The creation of protected areas, like national parks or biosphere reserves, has long been seen as an important tool to protect these forests and biodiversity.
But to understand just how much this is true, the researchers looked at 19 biosphere reserves across Mexico and measured their effectiveness at protecting forests over the past 20 years. They found that the reserves had better forest cover and less forest fragmentation than similar non-reserve areas.
But they also found that forest fragmentation increases at similar rates in both reserve and non-reserve areas, causing major alarm for the future of these protected areas. The biggest driver of this forest fragmentation inside the reserves has been mainly expanding agriculture activity around them.
Study co-author Miguel Martínez-Ramos, an ecologist at UNAM, says this phenomenon has been particularly visible in Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve in the state of Veracruz. Since he began his research there in the 1970s, deforestation for cattle ranching around the reserve has expanded drastically, causing increased forest fragmentation inside the reserve. These gaps in the forest cover allowed the population of understory palm trees (Astrocaryum mexicanum) to explode, with cascading consequences for that ecosystem. These included changes to the underlying vegetation as some plant species thrived with the increased sunlight and others died off more quickly; limited tree species richness; and reduced habitat areas for various mammals, decreasing the populations of tapirs, white-tailed deer, brocket deer, and white-lipped peccaries.
“Biodiversity is being lost, but also within the reserves,” Martínez-Ramos tells Mongabay.
Auliz-Ortiz says their conclusions also apply to reserves that have yet to be created. When considering the best conditions for new protected areas, policymakers shouldn’t just look at the ecological and economic viability of the area, but also at its social viability and whether local communities would have access to diverse economies with the reserve in place.
The research found that forests remained intact in reserves closer to municipalities that offered alternative job opportunities to farming, such as tourism or industry jobs like manufacturing, energy production and construction.
Auliz-Ortiz says the Yucatán Peninsula — known for its beaches, Mayan ruins and pristine nature, like the Calakmul and Ría Lagartos biosphere reserves — is an example of a region where communities have undergone what’s known as forest transition, shifting from agriculture as their main economic activity to working in the growing tourism industry across the state. While small-scale agriculture still exists in the region, locals are not dependent on it as their only form of income. In some areas, locals have migrated to larger centers for jobs, allowing the forest to regenerate in areas they abandoned.
But not all economic alternatives are beneficial, Auliz-Ortiz says. The controversial Tren Maya project, a rail line planned to cross Yucatán and four other states to facilitate tourism, is one example of a project that seeks to benefit outsiders more than local communities or ecosystems, Auliz-Ortiz says. It’s important to understand the context in which these economic activities are being carried out, he adds.
“The idea is to have tourism that empowers communities,” Auliz-Ortiz says. “Trying to do these big developments in the middle of the jungle, that can have negative repercussions.”
Martínez-Ramos suggests rethinking local agriculture, and promoting agroforestry and other agroecological systems that allow the forest to maintain its diversity while also providing communities with a form of income.
Ecologist Gerardo Jorge Ceballos Gonzáles, a professor at UNAM, who was not involved in the study, has been working with communities near the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve to develop alternative economies for more than 20 years. In his experience, communities are usually willing to cooperate and stop cutting down trees if they see a benefit to conservation, “just like any other person,” Gonzáles says.
But it would be an error to propose a blanket solution for all cases, as some agriculture can be highly profitable and not use much land, while some industry work can create large amounts of contamination, he says.
“The alternatives we have to look for are those that are scientifically proven to have less impact,” Gonzáles tells Mongabay, adding that the key is to develop diverse activities in each community, not just offer one alternative.
“It is very important to take into account the integral situation of the reserve, because it is having repercussions on its capacity to conserve species,” Auliz-Ortiz says.
Auliz-Ortiz, D. M., Arroyo-Rodríguez, V., Mendoza, E., & Martínez-Ramos, M. (2022). Conservation of forest cover in mesoamerican biosphere reserves is associated with the increase of local non-farm occupation. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, 20(3), 286-293. doi:10.1016/j.pecon.2022.03.006
Martínez-Ramos, M., Ortiz-Rodríguez, I. A., Piñero, D., Dirzo, R., & Sarukhán, J. (2016). Anthropogenic disturbances jeopardize biodiversity conservation within tropical rainforest reserves. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(19), 5323-5328. doi:10.1073/pnas.1602893113
(Banner image: Preserving forests in protected areas requires not just conservation management, but also offering non-farming opportunities to nearby communities. Image courtesy of Juan Carlos Vargas Mena.)