Protected areas successfully prevent deforestation in Amazon rainforest

Protected areas successfully prevent deforestation in Amazon rainforest

March 12, 2013

Strictly protected areas such as national parks and biological reserves have been more effective at reducing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest than so-called sustainable-use areas that allow for controlled resource extraction, CHANS-Net scientists and their colleagues have found.

In addition, protected areas established primarily to safeguard the rights and livelihoods of indigenous people performed especially well in places where deforestation pressures are high. The study, "Governance regime and location influence avoided deforestation success of protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon," found that all forms of protection successfully limit deforestation. It was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Perhaps the biggest surprise is the finding that indigenous lands perform the best when it comes to lower deforestation in contexts of high deforestation pressure," said CHANS-Net member Arun Agrawal, University of Michigan professor of natural resources. "Many observers have suggested that granting substantial autonomy and land rights to indigenous people over vast tracts of land in the Amazon will lead to high levels of deforestation because indigenous groups would want to take advantage of the resources at their disposal.

"This study shows that -- based on current evidence -- such fears are misplaced," he continued.

Preventing deforestation of rainforests is a goal for conserving biodiversity and, more recently, for reducing carbon emissions in the Brazilian Amazon, which covers an area of nearly 2 million square miles.

After making international headlines for historically high Amazon deforestation rates between 2000 and 2005, Brazil achieved radical reductions in deforestation rates in the second half of the past decade. Although part of those reductions were attributed to price declines of agricultural commodities, recent analyses also show that regulatory government policies -- including a drastic increase in enforcement activities and the expansion and strengthening of protected-area networks -- all contributed significantly to the observed reductions.

In their study, the researchers used new remote-sensing-based datasets from 292 protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon, along with a sophisticated statistical analysis, to assess the effectiveness of different types of protected areas. They looked at three categories of protected areas: strictly protected areas, sustainable use areas and indigenous lands.

Strictly protected areas -- state and national biological stations, biological reserves, and national and state parks -- consistently avoided more deforestation than sustainable-use areas, regardless of the level of deforestation pressure. Sustainable-use areas allow for controlled resource extraction, land use change and, in many instances, human settlements.

"Earlier analyses suggested that strict protection, because it allows no resource use, is so controversial that it is less likely to be implemented where deforestation pressures are high -- close to cities or areas of high agricultural value, for example," said Christoph Nolte, lead author and University of Michigan doctoral candidate.

"But we observed that recent designations of the Brazilian government placed new strictly protected areas in very high-pressure areas, attenuating this earlier argument," he said.

Hundreds of millions of people in the tropics depend on forests for their subsistence. Forest products that households rely on include firewood, fodder for livestock and timber for housing.

Besides Agrawal and Nolte, other authors are CHANS-Net member Kirsten M. Silvius, of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and Britaldo S. Soares-Filho, of the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil.

The research was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Rights and Resources Initiative, the U-M Graham Sustainability Institute, the National Science Foundation, and the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development.