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Citizen-run conservation booms in South America, despite state neglect

Forest in Peru.

Forest in Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • The number of privately protected areas in South America has exploded over the past two decades, and today cover some 2 million hectares (5 million acres). Most of these areas are collectively owned by campesino communities or smallholder families, and many operate independently, without being registered.
  • A study published in February 2023 concluded that the legal frameworks and support mechanisms for this type of protection area are largely deficient across the continent, making it difficult for independent actors to protect and maintain conservation areas.
  • Experts told Mongabay that nongovernmental protected areas are crucial for reaching the Global Biodiversity Framework’s target of protecting 30% of Earth for conservation by 2030. Privately protected areas are relatively small compared to national parks but play a crucial role in integrating society into global conservation efforts, in education programs and protecting biodiversity in strategic regions, experts told Mongabay.
  • Threatened environmental defenders in privately protected areas in Peru lack adequate protection and are expected to independently collect proof of crimes, exposing them to even more risk and conflict with neighbors.

When Teresa Chang first saw the plot of land that now makes up the Amotape Dry Forest Private Conservation Area in the Tumbes municipality of northern Peru, she was horrified. It was 1997 and she was looking for a place near the sea to retire with her husband. But the barren 123-hectare (300-acre) lot that they’d purchased couldn’t have been further from what she’d envisioned. All the trees had long been felled. An intense fishy smell from larvae and prawn fishing on the coast filled the air. The only birds in sight were vultures, and the soil was upturned from informal quarrying for construction.

After a decade of sowing and tending to the land, they noticed a flock of pheasant-looking birds they’d never seen before and understood their project was no longer just a retirement home. “We started to see all these different birds and realized we had created an ecosystem,” Chang, now 75, told Mongabay in a phone interview. In 2009, the family registered the land as a privately protected area, a category that was only defined in Peruvian law a few years prior.

Today, the conservation area partners with the Cornell Laboratory for Ornithology to monitor the bird life there. It’s home to 79 species of birds, of which 16 are found only in this region, including the Peruvian booby (Sula variegata) and the Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus).

people conservation
Susana Chang, Teresa Chang’s daughter, holds a photo showing the before and after transformation of the Amotape Dry Forest Private Conservation Area in the Tumbes municipality of northern Peru. Image courtesy of Susana Chang.

The Chang family’s private conservation area is just one of thousands of voluntary initiatives set up to protect biodiversity hotspots in South America over the past two decades. A study published in February in the journal Conservation Biology was the first to review the legal framework of these areas across the continent, which have exploded in number and reach since the turn of the century.

Roughly 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of land in South America currently fall under these protection schemes, largely run by campesino communities and family-run smallholders. Landowners need to meet certain environmental and maintenance criteria and voluntarily apply to be recognized as an official conservation area. Most governments in the region offer little incentive for independent actors to conserve their land, even in biodiversity hotpots, the study found. So the real numbers may be higher, as many landowners who do conserve their land aren’t officially registered as such.

The Sechuran zorro (Lycalopex sechurae), the smallest fox species in South America at an average of 3.4 kilograms (7.5 pounds), is a near threatened species and one of the four mammals identified as living in the Amotape Dry Forest Private Conservation Area. Image courtesy of Michell León.

In four of the 12 South American countries, privately protected areas don’t formally exist at all. In the other eight, the mechanisms supporting them were found to be largely deficient. “The level of commitment that landowners are expected to comply with is not adequately matched with what governments offer,” the authors wrote. Landowners are frequently subjected to threats, financial constraints and lack of technical advice.

Lead author Rocío López de la Lama, a conservation researcher at the University of British Colombia, Canada, said she was initially taken aback by the commitment she saw in her fieldwork. Landowners she met were operating despite unfavorable conditions.

Growth of Peruvian PPAs by number, segregated by ownership category. Others include rural associations, businesses, and universities. Image courtesy of López de la Lama et al. (2023).

“It puzzled me that they were so devoted to their areas even with such little support and resources,” López de la Lama told Mongabay in a phone interview. “Why commit to all these restrictions on your land to benefit wildlife and nature in exchange for nothing?” If better incentives are implemented at the local and national levels, she added, maintaining these protection areas would be easier and more people would be encouraged to join.

The 30% global conservation target

Nongovernmental protected areas are crucial for reaching the Global Biodiversity Framework’s target of protecting 30% of the planet for nature by 2030, experts told Mongabay. In South America, which hosts 40% of global biodiversity, the target may need to be even higher to stave off widespread extinction.

“Conservation is an activity that is not just undertaken by governments, but also by independent actors, Indigenous peoples and local communities,” Heather Bingham, a leading expert on privately protected areas and senior officer of the Protected Planet Initiative at the U.N. Environment Programme, told Mongabay in a video call. “Recognizing that fact is going to become more and more important as we try to promote the extremely ambitious Paris 2024 goal.”

As governments map out what areas need to be preserved for biodiversity, she said, they need to understand what’s already there. “We first need to recognize that these areas exist and then provide them with appropriate support.”

López de la Lama found that almost half of Brazil’s private conservations areas hadn’t been reported to the World Database on Protected Areas. At the local level, researchers suspect that community conservation efforts are still largely under the radar, although to what extent is difficult to measure.

Privately protected areas are relatively small compared to national parks, but play a crucial role in integrating society into global conservation efforts. Private citizens often become more involved with local environmental movements through this process, potentially triggering a ripple effect in their communities. Several privately protected areas eventually open to the public, either to host ecotourism activities, partner with research institutions or adopt educational programs. In Peru, 95% of the privately protected land belongs to peasant campesino communities, according to Bruno Monteferri, the conservation director at the Peruvian Society for Environmental Law, showing that much of these efforts are currently undertaken by communities with modest socioeconomic conditions who can benefit from nature-friendly livelihoods.

Extent of Privately Protected Areas (PPAs) in South America. Countries are characterized by: (A) the total number of PPAs; (B) the area of the country covered by PPAs (in km2); (C) the average size of PPAs (in km2); and (D) the proportion of the countries’ area protected by PPAs (%). Bolivia, Chile, French Guiana, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Image courtesy of Lopez de la Lama et al. (2023).

Pedro Solano, one of Latin America’s leading environmental experts and a board member of the Peruvian Service for Natural Protected Areas, told Mongabay he expects citizen interest in conservation to expand exponentially as national and local frameworks improve incentives.

“There’s a tendency to think that if an area was very large and in a very valuable ecosystem like the Amazon, then that area was said to contribute more to conservation,” he told Mongabay. “But almost as important as ecologically valuable areas is creating a community of people who will be valuable in generating the world we need.”

Environmental defenders under threat

The study found that the owners of privately protected areas in South America aren’t only operating without financial and operation support, but often at risk to themselves. Lacking adequate protection, even reporting crimes can expose them to death threats and intimidation.

Pilar Palomino, who owns a 45-hectare (111-acre) plot next to the Cordillera Escalera Regional Wildlife Refuge in the Amazonian cloud forest of Tarapoto, where she lives with her 93-year-old mother, is one of the many people facing retaliation for her work. For the past few months, her heavenlike piece of jungle in northern Peru has turned into a nightmare. “The gunshots started in the middle of 2021. I could hear people hunting sporadically,” Palomino told Mongabay in a phone interview. But after she reported it to the local authorities, the situation worsened.

The white-tailed jay (Cyanocorax mystacalis), a species endemic to the region of Tumbes, is one of the 79 bird species now identified in the family-run Amotape Dry Forest Private Conservation Area. Image courtesy of Michell León.

The wildlife hunters escalated their activity and took possession of part of her land, which contained a waterfall. “Now the gunshots are no longer just to hunt, but they are systematically scaring me, disturbing my peace of mind in the middle of the night,” she said, describing the gunshots as getting closer and more frequent. “The sense of fear is very strong. Everyone around me keeps telling me to just leave. But how am I going to leave everything behind?”

According to Palomino, she took the matter to the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, which in turn asked her to produce a report with proof of damages and the full names of the suspects. “I feel that this is discrimination from within the state,” she said. If it were a farm or a housing estate suffering invasions and property damage, she said, local authorities would investigate. “The fact that it is a protected area does not help the law protect me.”

According to Solano, Peru’s legal system still isn’t fully prepared for conservation, but the situation is improving. “The regulations largely encourage livestock farming and agriculture, generating perverse incentives against keeping nature intact, but we have come a long way in the last 35 years,” he told Mongabay.

“The changes I want to see now are incentives or payments for environmental services and a legal defense mechanism so that they are not killing people that protect these territories,” he added. “Ultimately, conservation is something that benefits not only the owner, but an entire community.”


López de la Lama, R., Bennett, N., Bulkan, J., Boyd, D., & Chan, K. M. (2023). A legal assessment of private land conservation in South America: committed landowners yet unsupportive governments. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.14068

Banner image: Forest in Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay. 

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