Ana Alvarado and Edison Canelos, members of a local Kichwa community, plant seedlings near the Selva Viva protected forest in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Photo credit: Sandra Lucia Almeyda Zambrano

The trade-off between environmental protection and human well-being is a longstanding issue in the realm of conservation. From forced evictions to unjustified restrictions of local resource use, conservation policies have often imperiled the most marginalized members of our societies. New research published earlier this month in Science Advances, however, suggests that this trend may be changing.  Naidoo et al. (2019) assessed the impacts of protected areas on the well-being of ~ 87000 children and ~ 60000 households in 34 nations of the developing world, and found promising results.

The study compared populations living near protected areas to those living farther away on household wealth and childhood health scores. The results showed that people living nearer to protected areas exhibit higher scores on these well-being measures. The authors thus conclude that a hypothetical move of more isolated rural populations to lands nearer to protected areas could increase wealth and childhood health scores for these groups. While this conclusion is hypothetical and includes several assumptions, it is a striking shift from other narratives that link conservation efforts to negative social outcomes. The positive outcomes documented in the study seem to be related to certain types of protected areas. Specifically those that feature tourism and those that allow local resource extraction. These types of protected areas grant benefits to local populations, either by creating a source of income from tourism or by not restricting their ability to collect resources at sustainable levels. Protected areas which adopt these structures, while not undermining conservation objectives, are more likely to achieve positive results for both social and environmental outcomes.

It is not inevitable that conservation efforts are positive for human well-being in the areas where they are implemented, thus, we cannot take these findings for granted. Efforts to achieve win-win solutions for the environment and local livelihoods have been increasingly prominent in conservation discourse and practice in recent years, and we may finally be realizing the results of these efforts. As the earth continues to suffer declines in biodiversity and natural resources, conservation efforts will need to continue this trend of producing results that do not impinge on human well-being. Partnering with local actors and incorporating their knowledge into conservation strategies, is likely to produce the strongest results. We are now beginning to realize that environmental and social issues can be addressed simultaneously, and while no one would wish for the current environmental crisis, it is providing an impetus through which we can finally address longstanding societal inequalities, which have plagued humanity throughout its history. The evidence is becoming increasingly clear that synergistic solutions to social and environmental issues are not only preferable, they are necessary for the survival of life on earth. Studies such as that presented here, are providing the evidence that these synergistic solutions are possible.

Citation: Naidoo, R., Gerkey, D., Hole, D., Pfaff, A., Ellis, A. M., Golden, C. D., … & Fisher, B. (2019). Evaluating the impacts of protected areas on human well-being across the developing world. Science Advances5.