Growth boom puts nature reserves at risk

Brazil rainforests.jpg
Copyright: Eduardo Martino / Panos

Speed read

  • 10 per cent of Brazil’s protected habitat is affected by downgrading, downsizing or decommissioning
  • Hydropower and infrastructure development are to blame for the trend, other forces at play in India
  • A database aims to show that protected areas worldwide need constant attention

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Brazil’s nature reserves are rapidly being downsized, downgraded or entirely decommissioned as the country develops, researchers have shown.

The number of so-called PADDD events — Protected Area Downgrading, Downsizing or Degazetting — in Brazil is booming, and 10 per cent of nature reserves are now affected, according to a team of scientists speaking at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaii on 3 September. Their conclusions are based on data accessible via PADDDTracker.org, a website run jointly by the wildlife charity WWF and Conservation International.

“More than 80 per cent of PADDD events [in Brazil] are due to hydropower. The country's whole energy plan relies on the Amazon basin.”

Rodrigo Medeiros, CI

The data shows that, since 1979, 67 nature reserves in Brazil, equivalent to 112,400 square kilometres, have been downgraded, reduced in size or cancelled entirely to make way for infrastructure projects and industry. Nearly half of this is down to degazetting — when the protection on a certain habitat is lifted officially.

Another 60 PADDD events are in the pipeline, covering an additional 180,000 square kilometres, says Rodrigo Medeiros, vice president of the NGO Conservation International in Brazil.

“These events increased along with GDP growth,” he says, adding that the country’s growing need of infrastructure is affecting protected areas primarily in the Amazon region. “More than 80 per cent of PADDD events are due to hydropower. The country’s whole energy plan relies on the Amazon basin.”

PADDDtracker data shows that protected reserves near densely populated areas are most likely to be downgraded, decreased or decommissioned. The database has registered more than 3,500 PADDD events in 74 countries — corresponding to an area larger than India. Downgrading land may lead to degradation and habitat loss.

Carly Cook, from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, says that fragmented natural habitat means protected areas are small, but they can add up to a large area affected by PADDD.

“Protected areas are vulnerable to government policy, for example [when] putting commercial tourism into protected areas,”she said. 

Another country that has experienced major PADDD events is India, where downgrading of protected areas is the more common form. According to Mike Mascia, Conservation International’s senior director of social science, this is due to legal changes that permit bamboo harvesting for subsistence.

Some evidence suggests a vicious circle: where land is not protected well enough it is more likely to be downgraded, leading to more degradation, Mascia says.

In Brazil, this trend has resulted in more areas being affected by PADDD than new areas being created, says Medeiros.

“Unfortunately there was very little interest by the [former] government to address this issue,” he says. “Our only hope is that now, because of Brazil’s financial crisis, a lot of new infrastructure projects [will be put] on hold.”

*This piece was amended on 20 September 2016.* The original article incorrectly equated PADDD events with habitat loss and with demand for natural resources in India. It also mistakenly attributed certain statements to Mike Mascia.