Prakash Kashwan is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Connecticut. In a new paper published in Ecological Economics, Kashwan investigates the relationship between inequality, democracy and the establishment of protected areas.

In an article in the Washington Post, he explains his findings:

[I]nternational campaigns for nature conservation in countries with higher levels of inequality and less effective democracy tend to get entangled with the vested interests of leaders and officials. This ends up wasting many of the resources directed toward conservation efforts — and has a serious impact on indigenous and other forest-dependent communities.

The area of protected areas worldwide is increasing steadily. From 1980 to 2000, the area almost doubled, from 8.7 to 16.1 million square kilometres. By 2014, the area had almost doubled again, reaching 32 million square kilometres.

Currently, protected areas cover 15.4% of the planet’s terrestrial and inland water. This area is set to expand further. In 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which includes the following target:

By 2020, at least 17 per cent of terrestrial and inland water areas and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascape.

Most countries have seen an increase in protected areas, and no country has had a net reduction of the area under protection.

At the same time, the area of “wilderness” is decreasing. Recent research published in Current Biology found that since the early 1990s, the world has lost 10% of wilderness areas. And WWF’s Living Planet report found that the number of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians fell by 58% between 1970 and 2012.

Poor democracy + Inequality = More protected areas

Kashwan’s research showed that the expansion of protected areas is “a product of political and economic inequalities”. Countries with poor democratic institutions and high inequality are likely to have a larger area of land under protected areas than countries with functioning democratic institutions and less equality.

In countries with poor democratic institutions, Kashwan writes, “governments can afford to dismiss land and forest rights of indigenous and other forest-dependent people who have customarily used these lands.”

In his paper, Kashwan writes that,

The creation and expansion of PAs in developing countries, especially those on the continents of Africa and Asia, have led to the displacements of an estimated 10 million people, including numerous cases of violent evictions.

As a footnote, he points out that environmental journalist Mark Dowie puts the number of “conservation refugees” at 40 million, but adds that, “most scholars consider that to be an overestimate”.

Conservation as “inter-elite bargains” for political ends

Protected areas are often set up through “inter-elite bargains”. In return for international funding, political recognition, and reputational gains, political leaders in the Global South commit to setting aside land under protected areas.

In 1961, for example, Tanzania’s longest serving president signed the Arusha Manifesto. Under this agreement, African states would allow international experts free rein to determine the nature and level of protection. In return they would receive technical expertise and material resources. Kashwan writes,

The relatively easy availability of international assistance for nature conservation also enables government officials and elected leaders to exploit  conservation programs for rent seeking. These transactions are often linked to large scale finances of wildlife tourism, which was worth $740 million in the year 2000 – an amount equal to 16% of Tanzania’s GDP.

By January 2015, tourism in Tanzania was earning more than US$2 billion, taking over from gold as the country’s top source of foreign exchange. Philippe Dongier, the World Bank’s country director for Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda commented,

“There is no doubt Tanzania is in a good place with tourism but it could do considerably better. Tanzania has abundant natural tourism attractions and is well recognised internationally.”

Kashwan points out that political leaders can use conservation to earn goodwill among the international community and to deflect criticism. For example, India’s then-prime minister Indira Gandhi enthusiastically supported Project Tiger and  other conservation initiatives. The political capital she thus gained helped her deflect international criticism of the human rights abuses resulting from her suspension of the constitution.

Meanwhile, corruption remains a problem for conservation. Research carried out in 2003 found that the most corrupt governments have the worst conservation records. The lead author, Robert Smith of the University of Kent in the UK, said, “If the money isn’t getting through, sending more money isn’t going to help.”

Kashwan questions E.O. Wilson’s idea of setting aside half the planet in reserve, or more. Kashwan argues that there’s a logical flaw in proposals such as this to expand the protected area network. “Instead of chasing ever-larger targets, effectively protecting the lands already under ‘protection’ might be a better option,” he writes.

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