We many times like to think that protected areas (PAs) are of fixed nature: once an area is protected, it remains so until the end of times, safeguarding the elements of nature in it. The real world, of course, is much more complex. In their recently published article in Conservation Letters Mascia and Pailler (2011) successfully point out that Protected Area Downgrading (=decrease in legal protection), Downsizing (=decrease in area) and Degazettement (=loss of entire PA) – or PADDD as they call it – has taken place around the world at least since the beginning of 20th century and is an ongoing phenomena. Mascia and Pailler raise an issue that probably has been familiar to many of us in one way or the other, but the magnitude and importance of which we have not, and still do not understand.
The issue is no-doubly of greatest importance and Mascia and Pailler provide a good first review of the topic. But being a policy perspective, we were hoping to see a bit stronger discussion about the causes and consequences of PADDD. The authors are careful to judge the phenomena either as “good” or “bad” and very likely these actions might be both at the same time: Several social scientists have pointed out that where as PADDD actions aiming at economical resource extractions are clearly harmful to conservation, PADDD actions solving local social issues might have far more beneficial impacts than ever tightened conservation regulations. Although the paper is a good opening, it leaves the reader puzzled with the original question: Is this a problem and if it is, how big is it? Is it going to get worse in the future? The authors can hardly be blamed for not answering these question given the scarcity and scattered nature of the data, but we think that a bit deeper analysis of the results could have revealed informative details, such as how the magnitude and severity of PADDD actions has changed through time. Or has it. The data could also have the potential to show us where PADDD actions do NOT occur, helping us to understand what are the factors leading to successful conservation.
In addition to the importance of acknowledging the existence and potential risks of PADDD actions, the work of Mascia and Pailler raises two important points. Firstly, it points out that we have to start to see protected areas as more dynamic entities that are not fixed in time. This point might quickly become more obvious in the future as the expanding human population sets increasing pressures to already existing protected areas. Interestingly, the idea of dynamic reserve network is also something that has been proposed when discussing ways to protect shifting biodiversity regimes under climate change. Just something to keep in mind.
The second point, which to me represents one of the fundamental quests of conservation biology to date, is summarized in the question the authors ask on page 17: What are the ecological and social consequences of PADDD? The importance of this question relies in the fact that we do not currently have methods to answer this question – we simply do not know how to efficiently and reliably measure the costs that downgrading, downsizing or degazettement of one protected area has on the protection of global biodiversity as a whole. More importantly, we do not know how to quantitatively measure the benefits of establishing a new protected area either. Surely everyone agrees that protecting a biologically important site enhances the preservation of biodiversity, but how much? And is this enhancement constant in time when all natural habitats around the protected area have been destroyed? The answer to this is that we don’t know. And in a world of rapidly shrinking biodiversity, I think we should know.
Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) and its conservation implications
Michael B. Mascia and Sharon Pailler
Conservation Letters, 4: 9–20.