Protected areas: Bastions against deforestation fronts?

Imagine the Grão-Pará Ecological Reserve in the Amazon. Part of the world’s largest strictly protected area, the rainforest stretches seemingly forever, echoing with the sound of birds, insects and primates. Rivers tumble down waterfalls on their long, winding journeys to the sea.

Then the forest gives way to open land. The trees are gone, the forest canopy disappears. There’s a giant crater in the ground: gold mines.

Fortunately for the more than 60 types of mammals and hundreds of plants and bird species – as well as forest-dependent communities – no logging or mining is allowed within the 4.2 million hectare ecological reserve. The boundaries of Grão-Pará are holding firm against the deforestation front bearing down on it.

© WWF-US / Ricardo Lisboa

“Deforestation fronts” exist where large-scale deforestation or severe degradation is projected between now and 2030. WWF has identified 10 such places, and the Amazon is the biggest. Globally, these areas could account for over 80 per cent of the forest loss projected by 2030 – up to 150 million hectares (an area roughly the size of Mongolia).

The drivers of deforestation in these places are diverse – expanding infrastructure, mining and agriculture, sometimes through corporations operating at industrial scale, and sometimes due to poor rural populations encroaching into forests to secure land, gather firewood or prospect for gold.

Parks under pressure

Now imagine Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo National Park on the island of Sumatra. This landscape, though officially a protected area, has lost 43 per cent of its forest cover to illegal palm oil plantations. The Noah’s Ark of native wildlife is squeezed into ever-shrinking pockets of remaining forest, often coming into conflict with communities – people who are also feeling squeezed by unsustainable development.

Illegal logging for paper industry and forest clearing for palm oil plantation. Tesso Nilo, Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia © Alain Compost / WWF-Canon

The Grão-Pará Ecological Reserve and Tesso Nilo National Park are two contradictory examples of the role that protected areas play in conserving biodiversity and preventing deforestation. But they tell one story: When effectively resourced and governed, protected areas can be the best defense against deforestation. But they will fail to deliver on that promise if poor populations in the wider landscape have limited economic opportunities, or if corruption and lawlessness allows large scale encroachment and land clearing in the heart of a park.

Getting parks right

This week, I joined thousands of policymakers, researchers and conservationists in Sydney at IUCN’s World Parks Congress – a once-a-decade event – to discuss how protected areas can help natural ecosystems deliver benefits for people and wildlife.

A World Bank study released earlier this month found that protected areas are generally better at preventing forest conversion than other land-use designations. But at least 25 per cent of the parks reviewed offered no better protection than surrounding areas. So what actions are needed to ensure that protected areas survive as deforestation fronts move in?

And even if strong individual protected areas are able to stave off deforestation, they can easily become islands in a sea of farms and degraded land. Their lack of connectivity and size undermine their ability to maintain viable species populations or provide ecosystem services, like carbon sequestration, soil retention or protection of water catchments.

As a larger global population demands more food, materials and energy, the pressure on forests will only increase. Lasting solutions will require integration of protected areas into sustainable land-use mosaics, where economic activity can prosper over the long term without depleting natural capital.

Some members of the Digo people sing a traditional song as part of the Kaya Kinondo ecotourism project. The Digo people build homes deep in the forest. Their culture is based around individual trees and the forest itself. © Brent Stirton / Getty Images

Putting it into practice

Protected areas offer a wealth of examples of governance models – those that show what does not work and those that have proven to be inclusive and effective. If new protected areas can apply the best of these models, they have strong prospects of success, even in places plagued by generally poor governance. Yet we know that effective, inclusive governance takes time; it’s a race against the clock to establish new protected areas with durable governance systems ahead of those who are doing the forest clearing.

Everyone at the World Parks Congress knows sad stories of “paper parks” that did nothing to protect the natural, cultural or economic value of a landscape. But we also know stories of places like Grão-Pará – bastions against the worst, short-sighted exploitation of natural resources.

I hope the 2014 World Parks Congress highlights this potential and motivates concrete actions – so when the congress meets again in 10 years’ time, new and strengthened parks have played their part in muting the impact of deforestation.

Rod Taylor is Director, Global Forest Programme, WWF International