Nearly everywhere one looks, protected areas are under assault.
There are, of course, many illegal threats — such as land invasions, mining, logging, and poaching happening inside protected areas.
But just as scary is a wide range of legal or quasi-legal dangers.
In Brazil, for instance, conservative President Michel Temer has tried to use legal tactics to open up the vast RENCA Reserve Network in eastern Amazonia for industrial mining — a plan that was only halted at the very last moment by a judge’s decree.
The Temer government also seems determined to shrink four other Amazonian parks and completely abolish a fifth reserve to open up new lands for miners.
Once considered almost inalienable, protected areas today are facing an array of legal threats collectively known as PADDD — “Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing, and Degazettement.”
Downgrading occurs when a government weakens the legal status of a protected area, generally to allow activities such as mining, logging, or wildlife harvesting.
Downsizing involves carving away pieces of the protected area. And degazettement means abolishing the protected area altogether.
Lucrative mining interests are the biggest cause of PADDD. But fossil fuels, logging, infrastructure projects, and even agricultural plantations are also driving PADDD events.
Such events are happening so often today that there’s a special website, known as PADDD Tracker, that tries to keep track of them all.
PADDD is becoming a global crisis.
Even World Heritage Sites — supposedly the pinnacle of Earth's protected areas — are feeling the bite. For example, the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, a famous World Heritage Area, was shrunk in 2012 to allow a massive uranium mine.
In 2011, Cambodia carved out a section of its largest national park — Virachey — to build a vast rubber plantation. At the time, a government official defended the decision with an Orwellian statement: “It is not against the law when the government approves it.”
And it's not just developing nations that are pushing PADDD.
In the U.S., the Trump Administration slashed 85 percent of Bears Ears Monument in Utah — an area of great cultural, geological, and environmental importance.
Trump has also cut the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half to allow oil and gas drilling — and wants to reduce three vital marine parks while opening them up to commercial fishing.
And last year, Australia’s federal government proposed what WWF called “the largest protected area downgrading in the world” when it announced that it wanted to allow commercial fishing in nearly half a million square kilometers of marine parks.
Beware of Conservative Governments
PADDD events can happen under any government, but appear more likely under conservative ones.
They also appear to be increasing. In our age of ever-expanding human populations and the ceaseless drive for resources, this is hardly surprising.
But in the face of climate change, mass extinction, and habitat degradation, protected areas are more essential than at any time before. They are one of our most vital tools to stop ecological meltdown.
The best way to fight PADDD is through public activism. Protests, marches, and international criticism have saved protected areas from New Zealand to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
We all want to believe our protected areas are actually being protected. But they are being attacked, dissected, and eroded every day.
The lesson for us is simple: Conservation won’t succeed without protected areas, and protected areas won’t survive without our constant vigilance.
Jeremy Hance is a leading environmental journalist and frequent contributor to ALERT.