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Protected conservation areas, previously thought to negatively impact marginalised rural communities, actually attract human settlement — a situation that could risk the very biodiversity that protected areas (PAs) seek to protect.

These are the findings of a paper published in Science last week (4 July).

The researchers assessed population growth within ten kilometre 'buffers' at the edges of 306 PAs in 45 African and Latin American countries, and compared them with background rural rates in the same countries.

Average human population growth rates on PA edges were nearly double the average growth rate in rural areas with similar ecological conditions. The results were strongest in Latin America.

"In the vast majority of parks, human growth rates are faster on protected area edges than similar regions away from parks. We did not anticipate that we would find such a strong result," George Wittemyer, a researcher at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the authors of the paper, told SciDev.Net.

The authors ruled out displacement of people from within the parks and high levels of population as the reason for this growth.

It is likely that national and international funding for PAs, which create jobs, roads, clinics, sanitation systems and schools, attract immigrants to the surrounding areas, write the authors.

But human populations around PAs may have negative impacts on biodiversity such as illegal hunting, deforestation and mineral extraction. The researchers found that rates of deforestation were also highest around PAs where human population growth was greatest.

"If humans are drawn to PAs for the economic opportunities they provide, international funding for conservation may, ironically, exacerbate the same anthropogenic threats to biodiversity it aims to alleviate," the researchers write.

Patterns of human settlement should be taken into account when planning PAs, the authors sasy, perhaps by including large multi-use buffer areas around important habitats and pairing conservation areas with development work away from PAs.

"The findings are a real contribution towards understanding social responses towards the global emphasis on protected areas as the primary tool for biodiversity conservation," Leo Braack, director of the Southern Africa Wilderness and Transfrontier Conservation Programmes, told SciDev.Net.

"What the authors do not mention however, is the huge capacity shortfall in developing countries to address these issues, and the often restrictive conditions imposed by major donors on the use of available funds."

Link to the Science article