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Conservation and economic development go hand in hand, more often than expected


Conservation and economic development go hand in hand, more often than expected

An analysis for more than 10,000 protected areas found simultaneous progress in both conservation and economic development in about half.
June 26, 2024

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When politicians unveil a new national park or wilderness area, it’s often accompanied by debates about what effect it will have on the livelihoods of people living nearby. In some places, it can be welcomed as a boon, attracting tourists and their dollars. In others, it’s booed as a job killer, squelching the chance for new mining, grazing, logging or other industries.

As nations promise to nearly double the amount of protected land on the planet, from 17% to 30% of the Earth’s surface, these debates are likely to happen more often. Now there is new evidence that it’s possible to have both land protections and a growing economy. But it’s not guaranteed. “Achieving both aims is more common than we previously expected,” said Binbin Li, an environmental scientist at Duke Kunshan University, a Chinese institution affiliated with Duke University. “But that balance depends on socioeconomic conditions near a protected area.”

It can be hard to tease out causal links between two things as complex as the changing condition of a landscape and the economy of a nearby city. Did a town flourish because of a nearby national park, or because an increase in remote work enabled people to move there? Did another town collapse because a forest reserve contributed to the demise of a sawmill, or was it part of a bigger downturn in the timber industry?

To try to clarify the effects, Li and colleagues at Duke University and Shandong University in China compared the fates of “twin” towns and cities, as well as comparable patches of land. They identified more than 10,000 protected areas in countries around the globe, then examined how economic activity changed in nearby settlements between 2013 and 2020, compared to similar settlements more than 20 kilometers from any protected land. They also matched the protected area to similar nearby unprotected areas, to see if they fared differently.

The scientists used satellite images to track changes on the landscape, such as forest turning to farmland. They also tracked changes in the amount of nighttime artificial light as a surrogate for economic activity.


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The satellite images revealed that in many cases, more trees and grasslands stayed standing and the lights shown more brightly at the same time. In about half the protected areas, there was simultaneous progress in both conservation and economic development, the scientists reported on June 20 in Current Biology.

Land protection was broadly successful at reducing the loss of forest and grasslands – more than 90% of the protected areas either lost no natural land cover, or less than their unprotected twins, the researchers found. At the same time, 60% of neighboring communities had as much or more of an increase in nightlights than places further from protected land.

While this might seem like reason for celebration, proving out the cliché of a “win-win,” the results also offer sobering evidence about the challenge of conserving some of the world’s most biodiverse landscapes. After all, if half the places showed land protection and economic development advancing in tandem, it means that in the other half that didn’t happen.

Land protection and economic growth went hand in hand most easily in wealthier countries, around smaller protected areas, and in places with some of the infrastructure critical for economic development, such as roads. In places without these features the ecological fate of the land and the economic fortune of nearby towns was more likely to diverge or decline together the researchers found.

“Conservation does not happen in a silo,” said co-author Stuart Pimm, a Duke University ecologist. “We must consider local development alongside biodiversity conservation to know where and how to protect areas to benefit both the environment and humans.”

The researchers found that places like the Amazon and Southeast Asia face some of the biggest challenges on this front. They contain enormous patches of land that are prime candidates for protection, yet these places are also near impoverished human settlements with relatively little infrastructure.

The results underscore the ways in which poverty and environmental degradation can be bound together. If poverty isn’t dealt with, creating protected areas could set the stage for both loss of biodiversity and economic development, the researchers warned. The flip side is that with careful planning, conservation could help set nearby towns on a path out of poverty. As an example, the scientists pointed to Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park, which has become a hub for ecotourism on the country’s Pacific coast.

“We need to get to a win-win outcome more often, especially in the most biodiverse regions that can ill-afford losing out on economic development or biodiversity,” said Li. “We cannot address biodiversity loss without addressing local development issues.”

Li, et. al. “The synergy between protected area effectiveness and economic growth.” Current Biology. June 20, 2024.

Image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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