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How Political Instability Undermines Protected Areas

A new study shows that good governance is critical for conservation success.
A Brown Pelican in Florida.

A Brown Pelican in Florida.

For years, scientists have been warning that we may be entering a sixth mass extinction—where as many as 75 percent of all species could disappear over the course of just a few centuries—ushered in, no doubt, largely by human activity. We've polluted waterways, paved over ecosystems, and drastically altered the global climate. But there's good news: A new study shows that protected areas really do help species rebound from population declines—as long as those protected areas are in regions of the world with good, stable governance.

In the new study, published today in Nature, an international team of researchers looked at extensive records of global waterbird populations to gauge biodiversity levels in wetlands—which have been degraded at a faster rate than any other ecosystem in the world. Looking at three decades of waterbird surveys—covering 461 species and collected across 25,769 sites around the globe—the researchers found that population changes varied by geographical locations. South America, for example, saw waterbird populations fall by 21 percent over 25 years, while Europe saw populations climb over the same study period.

To find out what factors might have caused these variations, the authors compared waterbird abundance to several potential factors that might be influencing populations: explosion in human populations, agricultural expansionclimate change, conservation efforts and governancegross domestic product (GDP), and the biology of the animals themselves, to name just a few.

Of all those variables, governance (which was measured using proxy indicators like political stability, violence levels, and regulatory quality) was most tightly linked with population levels. Populations increased in areas that scored well for effective governance, such as Europe and North America, and fell in areas with poorer governance records, like South America and Central or Western Asia. The study also showed that the regions with the fastest-growing GDP also had the steepest declines in waterbird populations, and that protected areas were only effective in regions with good governance.

"Although the global coverage of protected areas continues to increase, our findings indicate that ineffective governance could undermine the benefits of such conservation efforts that aim to improve the status of global biodiversity," the study authors write.

The link between governance and the effectiveness of conservation efforts is a logical one, according to the authors. "Ineffective governance is often associated with the absence of positive attitudes to environmental protection, weakly enforced environmental legislation and low levels of investment in conservation, leading to habitat loss and degradation," they write. Unchecked dam construction and other unsustainable water management practices in Asia, for example, have led to dramatic changes in water availability elsewhere. "As a result," the authors note, "in Iran even some wetlands designated as protected areas have dried out."