Protected areas can boost biodiversity without hurting local economies

A new study outlines what is needed for conservation to benefit both nature and people.


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Nature reserves and other protected areas can preserve biodiversity and support local economic growth without hindering development, but might impede local economic growth. A recent research details the requirements for ensuring that conservation efforts are advantageous for both the environment and human populations.

The purpose of conservation areas is to preserve biodiversity, protect endangered species, and maintain natural habitats.

“There’s long been uncertainty about the economic tradeoffs,” said Binbin Li, associate professor of environmental science at Duke Kunshan University and lead author of the study published on June 20 in Current Biology.

“Our findings show achieving both aims is more common than we previously expected. But that balance depends on socioeconomic conditions near a protected area,” said Li.

The research found that 91% of the nearly 10,000 protected areas examined preserved as much or even more natural land compared to similar but unprotected areas, which is a positive outcome for conservation. Surprisingly, almost half of the protected areas studied not only conserved natural land but also contributed to, or at least did not hinder, local economic growth.

According to the researchers, several factors played a significant role in their success. They noted that the presence of nearby roads and a higher level of economic development were beneficial.

Without these factors, there would be tradeoffs, resulting in harm to the local economy or the failure of protected areas. Regions with a diverse range of species and growing economies, such as the Amazon and Southeast Asia, face the greatest challenges in balancing the needs of nature and people.

“Conservation does not happen in a silo,” said co-author Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke Distinguished Professor of Conservation Ecology at Duke University and an expert on habitat loss and species extinction. “We must consider local development alongside biodiversity conservation to know where and how to protect areas to benefit both the environment and humans.”

The study found that 60% of the communities residing near protected areas experienced economic growth levels that were the same as or higher than those in communities near unprotected areas. Smaller protected areas that are closer to markets and cities tend to conserve nature while also contributing to local development.

“We need to get to a win-win outcome more often, especially in the most biodiverse regions that can ill-afford losing out on economic development or biodiversity,” said Li. “We cannot address biodiversity loss without addressing local development issues.”

Journal reference:

  1. Binbin V. Li, Shuyao Wu, Stuart L. Pimm, Jingbo Cui. The synergy between protected area effectiveness and economic growth. Current Biology, 2024; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.05.044