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Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Land-use change is one of the major drivers of biodiversity loss (1). Setting aside protected areas (PAs) has been the main strategy to confront this, but despite the significant increase in PAs over the last 30 years, biodiversity continues to decline globally. Findings suggest, many areas under legal protection today would have remained undisturbed even in the absence of legal protection. This means that the expansion of PAs has not necessarily led to much additional conservation in terms of representing global biodiversity, and halting land-use change.

The first generation of PA impact assessments simply compared the amount of forest cover, or the number and composition of species, within and outside PA boundaries (e.g., 4, 5), typically finding that biodiversity was higher inside. However, these studies’ findings were swiftly contested due to the inherent location bias of PAs towards areas of low value for agriculture and other human uses. As a result, many areas under legal protection today would have remained undisturbed even in the absence of legal protection. This means that the expansion of PAs has not necessarily led to much additional conservation in terms of representing global biodiversity, and halting land-use change (6).

Furthermore, the simple inside-outside comparisons have often failed to account for land-use dynamics. When a PA is established, it might reduce destructive human activities inside, but if these activities simply move outside, the net effect locally might be reduced or even reversed. This phenomenon is generally known as spillover, that is, the local displacement of land uses to other areas.

These concerns motivated the development of a second generation of studies, in which the non-random allocation of PAs and/or the local spillover effect have explicitly been accounted for (e.g., 7, 8). These studies showed that the effectiveness of PAs not only is lower than those found in inside-outside comparisons, but also varies greatly. Nevertheless, even this last generation of PA impact assessments may be insufficient, because they fail to account for long-distance interactions between land systems, referred as teleconnections (9).

Such teleconnections, for example, may arise when PAs restrict access to resources—limiting the quantity of supply—which shifts the market equilibrium and causes price adjustments and/or the entry of new suppliers across an entire region or the world. This is especially the case in today’s interconnected world where flows of resources, people and capital across large distances affect land-use changes at any spatial scale (1, 9). In fact, teleconnections are more common than many of us would expect.

To illustrate how teleconnections might occur, let us look at the case of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This shock-like event led to the abandonment of large areas of farmland and war, with large impacts on the environment and biodiversity of many ex-Soviet countries (e.g., 10, 11, 12). In 2016, Schierhorn and colleagues (13) went beyond local impact assessments to illustrate how Russia’s transition from a state-owned to a market-oriented economy caused a long-lasting trade with Brazil, with Brazilian farmers being able to absorb the falling output from Russia due not only to large production potential of beef in the Amazon and Cerrado regions, but also to other enabling factors, such as technological advances in beef production and changes in beef trade flows at global scale. As a result, the gains in forest carbon and biodiversity in one part of the world was in part offset by losses elsewhere.

Teleconnections also play an important role in the effectiveness of policies and interventions aimed at halting biodiversity loss. For example, Ingalls and colleagues (14) investigated the displacement of deforestation under the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) framework. They found that the shift from net deforestation to net reforestation in Vietnam occurred through trade of forest-risk commodities[1] with Cambodia and Laos, which was facilitated by Vietnamese companies’ large-scale land acquisitions in these two neighbouring countries. Again, teleconnections meant that one country’s gain was, to some degree, another country’s loss.

While the displacement of land uses over large distances in the Mekong region has diminished the net impact of REDD+ at regional and global scales, teleconnections can also result in net gains for conservation. For example, displacement of agricultural and wood-derived products through trade, in particular to the United States, contributed to Costa Rica’s forest transition. But as Jadin and colleagues (15) showed, such teleconnection had an overall positive impact on the global environment due to striking differences in production and management practices between these two countries and the overall higher biological diversity of Costa Rica compared to the agricultural regions of the United States.

Although challenging, net impact assessments of PAs on the environment across countries, ecoregions and biomes are urgently needed to understand the trade-offs of a future expansion of PAs. This is increasingly relevant today due to the growing interest of conservation scientists and practitioners in setting aside half of the Earth for biodiversity (16, 17). Could such vast expansion bring about perverse outcomes? A recent study showed that the trade-offs between giving back half of the Earth to nature and maintaining food security are large and strongly dependent on the strategy selected and the scales of analyses (18). Therefore, describing coupling of land systems beyond local socio-ecological contexts will be an important next step in in our efforts to effectively conserve global biodiversity within national and regional networks of PAs.

[1] Forest-risk commodities are products that commonly impact forests through their conversion to other land uses or by their degradation, such as timber, semi-processed wood products, mining and agriculture (14).

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Linus Blomqvist (Director of Conservation and Food & Agriculture at Breakthrough) for helping me frame and structure this post around my interests in PAs and the teleconnection concept, as well as for his comments and suggestions throughout the development of this blog-post. Also, I am grateful to Carley Fuller (Post-graduate student in the D.E.E.P. Research Group, University of Tasmania) for clarifying the different terminology used in the conservation literature about the spillover effect, and for sharing with me interesting articles around these two types of research projects.

All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.


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