Why biodiversity is declining even as protected areas increase

Why is biodiversity around the world in so much trouble, even though we keep adding new protected areas?  A new paper led by Australian researcher Ro Hill provides a compelling explanation.  Here, Ro summarizes her and her colleagues' key findings:

We’ve expanded the protected area coverage around the globe, to around 15% of the land surface -- with more than a quarter of all countries already exceeding the agreed global target of 17% by 2020.  But biodiversity loss continues apace.

Biodiversity in trouble...

Biodiversity in trouble...

Why?   Our new paper models how this paradox arises in tropical forests, from competition between governance regimes, and makes four important points:

1. The forces that drive forest protection do not necessarily oppose those that drive forest clearance for development. 

The diagram above says it all: we can keep expanding the developed area of the planet AND expanding protected areas as long as there are still some remaining forested habitats.
 
The power of the “develop” and “protect” governance regimes determines the strength of the forces that move the boundaries between areas under protection, areas of remaining forest habitat, and areas under development.

The leaders of the G20 nations recently gave a huge boost to the power of development regimes by promising to invest 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030.  There is no such investment for conservation -- nothing even close!

2.   The power of the “protect” governance regime can actually be lowered as protected areas increase.
 
People may believe that when new protected areas are created, there are more natural areas –- whereas the reality is that every day there are less.  This lowers public concerns about risks from biodiversity loss, decreasing pressure on politicians and weakening the power of the “protect” governance regime.
 
3.  Prioritizing protected area placement by proximity to active agricultural frontiers would make them more effective.

Targets should include both the desired Area under protection AND the absolute limits on Area under development through habitat conversion.

4.  Strengthening the forces that maintain and restore habitat (and oppose its development) is vital to halt biodiversity loss.

This means we must generally favor land-sharing as a conservation strategy rather than land-sparing.  The governance forces that drive land sparing don’t necessarily oppose the governance forces that drive forest clearance for development, so you still get net loss.
 
Hence, strengthening the relative power of land-sharing governance regimes (i.e. those that maintain traditional, sustainable land use, alternative sustainable land use, or restore degraded habitat) is likely, we argue, to have a greater long-term benefit for biodiversity conservation.

Unraveling how governance and power affect biodiversity conservation is a new frontier in conservation science -– but this paper makes an important start and shows where we need to focus our attention.

 

Will new supercrops feed the world and help save nature?

We live in a hungry world -- and one that will soon grow much hungrier.  Global food demand is expected to double by mid-century because of rapid population growth and changing food habits.  Producing that much food could require a billion hectares of additional farmland -- an area the size of Canada.

But if we develop new high-yielding 'supercrops' and farm them intensively, could we feed the world with less land and thereby spare some land for nature?  Many have argued in favor of this idea.

A tsunami of oil palm  (photo by William Laurance)

A tsunami of oil palm (photo by William Laurance)

But a new study published in the leading journal Science suggests the opposite: supercrops will actually encourage more habitat destruction for agriculture, especially in the species-rich tropics.

The authors argue that new varieties of palm oil, which are highly productive and profitable but grow only in the tropics, are simply going to keep spreading apace.  That's because there's so many different uses for palm oil, including for many food items, cosmetics, and biofuels, that demand for it will remain high.  

And, as palm-oil production rises, its price will likely fall, meaning that it will increasingly out-compete other oil-producing crops, such as canola (rapeseed), sesame seeds, and peanuts.

This, the authors say, will simply shift the footprint of agriculture from areas such as North America and Europe to mega-diversity regions such as the tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

What's the answer to the tsunami of oil palm and other profitable tropical crops?  There really is only one alternative: we need proactive land-use zoning to determine where agriculture should and should not go -- to ensure it doesn't just overrun nature.  And we need better law enforcement to reduce illegal deforestation.

And we direly need to limit the explosive expansion of roads into wilderness and high-biodiversity areas.  By 2050, it's expected that we'll have an additional 25 million kilometers of new paved roads -- with nine-tenths of these in developing nations that sustain many of the world's biologically richest ecosystems.

There really is no other option.  Supercrops may help feed a hungry world, but if they're not constrained they will destroy much of nature in the process.

 

Agriculture will massively impact the tropics

In a review article that has just appeared in the leading journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, I teamed up with Jeff Sayer and Ken Cassman to assess the impacts of agriculture this century on tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.  It's quite a sweeping review with many important conclusions.

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Among the biggest concerns are:

- Prospects for dramatic expansion of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America

- Great uncertainty in the amount of land that will be converted to agriculture, in order to meet growing global food demands

-The prospects that biofuel production could also impact greatly on native ecosystems and also compete with agriculture

- The likelihood of massive environmental impacts on freshwater ecosystems and water supplies

- Profound challenges ahead in producing enough food to feed the world

Those who wish to have a PDF of the paper can email me directly (bill.laurance@jcu.edu.au).

-Bill Laurance