Parks not burdening poor neighbors, study says

Concerns about conservation eased by poverty data from Costa Rica, Thailand

In a new take on a fierce debate, researchers say that protecting wildlands in two countries has not worsened the overall fates of impoverished people living on park margins. If the finding holds elsewhere, the research could ease concerns that land conservation worsens poverty by limiting access to natural resources and potential farmland.

Protected lands in Costa Rica and Thailand look as if they have even brought modest improvements to the lives of poor neighbors, says study coauthor Paul J. Ferraro, an economist at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

The question of whether protecting natural areas ends up hurting people who live nearby is “arguably the most controversial debate in conservation policy,” Ferraro says.

Conservationists argue that parks can bring jobs and tourists to a struggling region while maintaining watersheds or other ecosystem benefits that nurture the community. Advocates for reducing poverty point to parks that drove people from their homes or closed off former hunting and fishing areas. “Both sides have their anecdotes,” Ferraro says.

Ferraro and his colleagues looked at census data from Costa Rica and Thailand, countries that have been monitoring household poverty as well as protecting natural areas for decades. The researchers selected spots throughout the two countries with more than 10 percent of land under protection for conservation and, for comparison, tracts with less than 1 percent of land protected. The researchers scrutinized factors such as original poverty levels, distance from markets and productivity of the land to try to get fair comparisons of the areas’ well-being.

By 2000 in Costa Rica, about 10 percent of a measured decline in the poverty index since the 1970s could be attributed to the presence of protected areas, the researchers report in the May 24 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In Thailand, the researchers say the population below the nation’s poverty line was 30 percent lower where there were parks than in comparison areas.

One important twist in this study is its emphasis on matching communities near parks to similar places without protected land, Ferraro says. Such comparisons can help sort out one of the nagging confusions of the debate: parks aren’t distributed randomly but typically lie in remote areas where people by definition face economic challenges. Even though people living near protected areas in Costa Rica and Thailand were poorer than national averages, those who lived near parks fared better than those without parks, the team found.

The analysis “demonstrates that the issue is being taken seriously and dealt with empirically rather than ideologically,” says anthropologist Dan Brockington of the University of Manchester in England, calling the paper “a big step forward.”

He notes that the study is looking at net effects, so some households or communities could indeed have troubles with protected areas. “Some of the more interesting disputes about conservation and protected areas have been concerned precisely with the misfortunes felt by minority groups,” Brockington says.

Ferraro adds his own caution. The data “do not say there are no trade-offs,” he says.

Though well constructed, the study deals with only two countries, notes geographer Alex de Sherbinin of Columbia University’s Earth Institute in Palisades, N.Y. Thailand and Costa Rica have brighter economic situations than other many other developing countries and attract considerable numbers of tourists, many to natural areas.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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