What’s the role of national parks, nature reserves, and other protected areas in conserving tropical forests? Views have see-sawed on this. In the 1990s, protected areas were often derided as ineffective ‘paper parks.’ But mounting evidence from satellite photos showed that deforestation inside protected areas was in fact substantially lower than deforestation outside. Then, a new wave of more sophisticated analyses pointed out that many protected areas were in remote areas or on mountainsides. So lack of deforestation in these areas didn’t necessarily indicate the success of legal protection. It might just mean that farmers or loggers didn’t find it attractive to clear these inaccessible forests.
At the same time, many social advocates worried that if parks were effective at protecting forests, it must be at the expense of local livelihoods. Strict protected areas typically prohibit the extraction of forest products that poor people need for subsistence and income. On the other hand, it was assumed that relaxing these restrictions – for instance, allowing local people to gather fuelwood and harvest timber – would inevitably lead to forest degradation.
A newly published study provides some surprising and encouraging findings on protected area impacts. The study used global satellite data on forest fires as an indicator of deforestation, and assessed all officially-recognized tropical forest protected areas. The fate of forest plots inside protected areas were compared with otherwise similar, but unprotected points. This corrects for potential bias from the placement of many protected areas in inaccessible regions – and from the establishment of others, to the contrary, as defenses for forests that face particularly high pressure for deforestation.