Measuring tropical forest conservation effectiveness. What works?

PLOS ONE recently launched a collection of papers aimed at “Measuring Forest Conservation Effectiveness”. There are 14 research papers and an overview. Clearly this is important research. Evaluating conservation policies is a crucial part of improving conservation.

Here’s how PLOS ONE describes the collection of papers:

Scholars and practitioners have repeatedly called for more and better impact evaluation of conservation policies. This PLOS ONE collection brings together a series of studies that evaluate the effectiveness of tropical forest conservation policies and programs, such as protected areas, forest law enforcement, payments for ecosystem services, certification, and community-based forest management. It contributes by: (1) evaluating both conservation and development outcomes of a variety of interventions in diverse conservation contexts in Latin America, Asia, and Africa; and (2) highlighting methodological challenges and research priorities for building a systematic evidence base in conservation policy research.

The 14 research papers look at conservation in Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Namibia, Indonesia, Tanzania, Chile, and Colombia. The topics covered include biodiversity conservation payments, forest law enforcement, payments for environmental services, national parks, protected areas, community-based natural resource management, forest certification, and naming and shaming districts with the highest rates of forest loss.

Here’s the list of research papers, ordered by country (where the country isn’t named in the title, I’ve added it in brackets):

The overview of the collection is titled “Emerging Evidence on the Effectiveness of Tropical Forest Conservation” and focusses on forest cover change to compare the conservation effects looked at in the research papers.

The lead author of the overview is Jan Börner of the Centre for Development Research at the University of Bonn and Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). Börner and colleagues explain that,

Most studies in the Collection rely on remote sensing-based indicators of forest cover change to measure conservation effectiveness. Especially in humid tropical climates, such indicators are subject to measurement errors, for example as a result of persistent cloud cover. However, as multi-year remote sensing products measuring land cover change at global scale become increasingly available, new opportunities arise to assess the reliability of quasi-experimental evaluation techniques.

The results from the research papers varied widely. The most effective protected area (in the Brazilian Amazon) preserved almost 6% more forest cover over a decade compared to non-protected forest. The least effective protected area (in Indonesia) only 0.8% more forest cover was preserved over a decade.

The authors of the overview warn against reading too much into the deforestation figures. For example, protected areas are more effective at reducing rates of deforestation if the forest is near cities or roads and facing increased pressure to clear it. Protected areas in remote areas may not reduce deforestation rates by much if the forest in the area is generally not under too much threat.

Command and control policy tools, such as those used in Brazil since 2004 have helped reduce deforestation by more than two-thirds (although last year deforestation in the Amazon increased by 29%).

The research papers found that payment for ecosystem services in Costa Rica was marginally more successful than protection. One study found that PES reduced deforestation, but had little effect on income and welfare indicators in participating communities.

A study of logging concessions in Indonesia certified under the Forest Stewardship Council system found that certification increased forest cover by 5% on average compared to non-certified concessions between 2000–2008.

One study on community-based forest management in Tanzania found improved food security, but no increase in wealth or health. The study of community-based natural resource management in Namibia found improved health, but school attendance rates were worse in participating communities than in non-participating communities.

The authors make suggestions for future research directions, and point out that the way that conservation programmes are designed and implemented has a large impact on how effective they are.

They conclude that,

It is not enough to ask: “what works and what doesn’t?”. We also need to know where, when, and why forest conservation initiatives failed or worked, and at what cost.

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