Losing ground? When downgrading protected areas helps conservation, and when it doesn’t

June 25, 2019

Engaging local communities in land management while blocking industrial extraction is key to saving biodiversity in protected areas, according to a recent article in Science magazine. Written by Professor of Geography and Nelson Institute affiliate Lisa Naughton and Nelson Institute alumna and University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) Geography & Environmental Systems Professor, Margaret Buck Holland, the article, “Losing ground in protected areas?” reveals that downgrading some park areas might help engage local communities in governing and managing biodiverse areas, as mandated by the international Convention on Biological Diversity.


Lisa Naughton

Responding to a global study on the status of protected areas published in the same issue of Science magazine, Naughton and Holland clarified that downgrading to improve alliances with local communities may help conserve biodiversity in the long run. By contrast, downgrading to facilitate mining, oil drilling or large-scale infrastructure will do the opposite. The authors also emphasize that ongoing efforts to shrink or degazette parks will only hasten the precipitous loss of biodiversity on our planet. In conversation, the authors shared insights from their long-term work at Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Ecuadorian Amazon, a site featured in their article.

“Industrial-scale resource extraction typically represents not only the extraction activity itself, for instance oil platforms in or near the Cuyabeno Reserve where we work, but typically also involve road construction to access those remote areas, which can spur additional development, settlement, and activity, even if not directly related to the extractive activity,” Holland said. “Such legal changes to remove protections entirely (degazetting), or to remove portions of parks from protections to make way for industrial-scale activity open the door for more destructive environmental practices, and changes that are more lasting on the landscape. This can translate into increased deforestation, increased water and air pollution, and threats to species survival (and species habitat), as well as negative consequences for humans living in the area.”


Margaret Buck Holland

In order to facilitate economic growth while protecting biodiversity, Holland offers several solutions, but in particular, she recommends that leaders engage with the community to ensure that the protected area is managed in a way that supports the needs and goals of all parties.

 “Continuing to promote management that is inclusive of local communities, considerate of their livelihood priorities, and effective in safeguarding biodiversity, we will likely observe less pressures to remove such places from protected area status,” said Holland.  “It is also key that the protected area received consistent support in terms of budget and revenue.  When parks are functioning well in terms of protections and attracting consistent financing, and even responsible tourism, this can translate into them being much less vulnerable to the government changing priorities and opening the park up to extractive activities.”

Naughton echoed that idea saying, “the idea that parks resemble permanent fortresses of nature reassures some observers and troubles others. But fortress parks are a myth.  Many protected areas are being downsized or degazetted entirely. In our paper, Maggie and I focus on park downgrades. Some, like those granting access rights to long-term residents, may be pragmatic steps to build local constituencies for conservation. Other downgrades (e.g. for mining or hydropower dams) are bad news for local communities and biodiversity.”

For Naughton and Holland, continuing to understand this trend and how community engagement can help to balance local resource demands with biodiversity goals remains a large part of their research.  Having worked together for over a decade, Naughton and Holland continue to collaborate on a number of research initiatives related to biodiversity conservation. In fact, they first started collaborating when Naughton was co-advising Holland for her PhD at the Nelson Institute together with Nelson affiliate faculty Dr. Steve Ventura. Holland’s dissertation focused on modelling the relationships between protected areas and different measures of poverty in Central America, to better understand how the establishment of parks might impact human well-being.  Around that same time, Naughton was asked to write a paper for the Annual Reviews of Environment and Resources on protected areas, biodiversity conservation, and human well-being, and reached out to Holland to join her as co-author. The article, which was published in 2005 and is still commonly cited, served as the catalyst for their 10+-year academic partnership and their joint research in Ecuador, where they explore the influence of various conservation programs and policies regarding deforestation. 

“Lisa has been such a wonderful mentor throughout my career so far,” said Holland. “I have also watched her as she has mentored others and am excited to continue to be considered as a part of her larger conservation lab community.”   

Likewise, Naughton shared her enthusiasm for their collaborative research and their friendship.

“I really enjoyed writing this paper with Maggie (Dr. Holland, UMBC)”, said Naughton. “She and I've been working together for years and I keep learning more from her. In fact, we have a sort of 'collaboratory' going on with other UW alumni and current students. Despite the troubling trends we study, it’s a joy to work together.”

In the end, both Naughton and Holland hope to continue to engage with communities in Ecuador and around the world to slow the trend towards downsizing or removing the official status of protected areas in a way that respects human-rights.   

“As a citizen of the global North, I am committed to working on creative and adaptive strategies to address the biodiversity crisis,” Holland said. “But my commitment to working on such issues also means that I need to recognize the many ways in which communities who more directly experience living with biodiversity are impacted by external policies. This also means understanding the ways in which communities may have already been valuing and managing ecosystems, ways that they depend on them, and ways that external pressures to change policies, including any type of legal change to parks, might impact them.  By paying special attention to the needs of these groups, and how they might be different from the overall needs of the community, we can better design conservation programs that can reach them more directly.” 

Photos courtesy of Luis Masías and Alisa Buckingham