Feature Story

Protected areas and more

May 1, 2016

Near Brazil’s border with Suriname and French Guiana, the landscape changes. Here the endless swaths of green are punctuated by dramatic granite outcroppings that rise thousands of feet above the forest canopy. This is the Guiana Shield, one of the most biologically diverse ecoregions on Earth, and one of the most remote.

In 1998, the President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, surprised his country and the world with a bold announcement: Brazil would set aside 10 percent of its forests in protected areas, a commitment of 25 million hectares, about half the size of France, most of it tropical rainforest in the Amazon.

That pledge set the stage for the Amazon Region Protected Areas Program, or ARPA, the most ambitious tropical forest conservation programs ever attempted. Over the past decade, ARPA has become a touchstone for the GEF and has demonstrated the interconnections between biodiversity protection, climate change mitigation, provision of ecosystem services, and economic security for the people of the Amazon region.

The vast size of the Amazon beggars all description, even after decades of land fever has cleared forest for ranches, farms, and settlements in an arc of deforestation that stretches across Brazil from southwest to northeast. Travelers on commercial flights over the Amazon basin can still see a nearly unbroken blanket of green unrolling beneath them, hour after hour. In Brazil alone, the Legal Amazon Region — an area covering the northern states of Amazonas, Pará, Acre, Amapá, Tocantins, Roraima, and Rondônia, plus part of the states of Mato Grosso and Maranhão — occupies over four million square kilometers of land, an area that would make it the seventh largest country in the world. This vast expanse contains approximately 30 percent of the planet’s remaining tropical rain forest, and is estimated to contain carbon stores of 120 billion tons.

Near Brazil’s border with Suriname and French Guiana, the landscape changes. Here the endless swaths of green are punctuated by dramatic granite outcroppings that rise thousands of feet above the forest canopy. This is the Guiana Shield, one of the most biologically diverse ecoregions on Earth, and one of the most remote. In 2002, this area became a landmark for conservation with the creation of Tumucumaque National Park, the world’s largest tropical forest national park.

At over 40,000 square kilometers, Tumucumaque is larger than Belgium, and while scattered illegal mines can be found, it has no roads and almost no human inhabitants. With its vast size and relatively pristine condition, Tumucumaque offers a rare opportunity to conserve an intact tropical forest community of remarkable diversity. This single reserve supports at least 800 plant species, 366 birds, 207 fishes, and over 100 mammals (including 48 species of bats). Among these are such rare and endangered creatures as giant river otters, giant armadillos, tapirs, bush dogs, red-handed tamarins, and a rare, threatened tree known as the serpentwood.

The creation of Tumucumaque was one of the most public successes of ARPA, launched in 2002 with a US$30 million grant by the GEF and implemented by the World Bank, with the equivalent of over US$50 million in co-financing provided by the German bilateral funding agency Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), the World Wildlife Fund, the Government of Brazil, and other donors. ARPA set out to help Brazil ensure comprehensive protection of its majority portion of the Amazon by increasing the number of strictly conserved areas, improving their management, and also creating new areas dedicated to the sustainable use of forest resources.

By the time ARPA began, efforts to coordinate and implement environmental policies in the Brazilian Amazon had been lagging for years. In the 1990’s, annual deforestation rates in Brazil were around 17,000 square kilometers and corresponded to average annual emissions of 200 million tons of carbon. Annual deforestation peaked in 2004 at approximately 27,000 square kilometers. The extent of the Amazon basin, lack of managerial capacity and resources, powerful forestry and mining interests, and poverty in the region have historically stymied regional and national reforms. Even a decade ago, the Brazilian government spent less than US$3.5 million per year to manage 30 protected areas in the Amazon.

ARPA set out to significantly change that situation, and do so completely and in relatively short order. While protected areas are not always the right tool for conservation in every context, in the Amazon, protecting large, contiguous areas of forest has proven to be effective in both conserving biodiversity and in maintaining crucial ecosystem services, particularly reducing carbon emissions from deforestation, preventing floods and soil erosion, and regulating regional and perhaps even global rainfall and temperature. ARPA thus set out a goal at once simple to state and profoundly difficult to achieve: Create the most ambitious tropical forest national protected area system in the world.

For a sense of the scale of the challenge, consider that a comparable protected area network, the National Park System in the United States, has been in development for 130 years yet is less than half the size of the APRA reserves and has been vastly more costly to create. Few protected area systems face the daunting issues ARPA has had to overcome, including enforcement of environmental laws in remote areas, effectively addressing the needs and aspirations of rural people for improved livelihoods, and valuing and funding conservation activities against the wider backdrop of ongoing resource exploitation

Despite the obstacles, ARPA has made nearly unequaled progress. ARPA initially set an ambitious goal of protecting 12 million hectares of forest; by 2008 it had reached twice that, with 24 million hectares in 44 new protected areas. Of that total, approximately 13.2 million hectares are under strict preservation protection while 10.8 million hectares are in sustainable use reserves. All told, the project supports 62 protected areas, nearly a third of all protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon, and helps fund efforts to improve park management for more than eight million hectares of strict preservation areas.

What do all the newly protected areas mean for biodiversity in the Amazon? In broad terms, ARPA protects 16 out of 19 forest ecosystems in the Brazilian Amazon, five out of six floodplain ecosystems, and all four savanna types. An analysis of 39 of the protected areas supported by ARPA found over 11,400 species of plants and animals. One estimate of the total species diversity in the Amazon puts the figure at just over 45,000 species, suggesting that ARPA alone may protect fully one-fourth of the region’s diversity of life. Even if, as seems likely, the earlier estimate severely understates the species in the Amazon, ARPA has still protected a significant representative sample of the region’s biodiversity. ARPA protected areas contain at least 56 species that are threatened with extinction, and since 2001, scientists have discovered 35 species new to science in ARPA supported areas, including a striking, orange-sideburned monkey called Prince Bernhard’s titi (Callicebus bernhardi); the cryptic forest falcon (Micrastur mintoni); and the Pará thin-toed frog (Leptodactylus paraensis).

ARPA draws on a diverse set of institutional partners, from the Brazilian non-profit organization FUNBIO to the Ministry of the Environment and state government agencies to international donors and organizations, civil society, scientific advisors, and international and domestic experts. This partnership across the grassroots, national, and international levels reflects a new, participatory approach to protected area management and conservation that is proving to be a global model. For example, ARPA has helped create local protected area committees, as required under Brazilian law, to bring communities into the process of creating and managing reserves, and has helped strengthen the ability of five state governments (Mato Grosso, Acre, Tocantins, Rondônia and Amazonas) to conserve their own state protected areas. ARPA’s efforts to institutionalize the political will for conservation and increase support for conservation goals as part of the mandate for state governance is an important contribution to state capacity in the Amazon.

But the creation of strictly protected areas alone is not enough. About half of ARPA protected areas are extractive reserves and sustainable development reserves that directly benefit local human communities. The project has been instrumental in promoting the sustainable use of natural resources associated with the protection of culturally and socially important livelihoods —thus helping prevent even more damaging economic activities from taking root. The economic gains, in turn, are helping to deliver global environmental services, including climate change mitigation.

As the world looks to protect the Amazon as a globally essential carbon sink, ARPA has been an important showcase for the types of mechanisms needed for successful action. The 62 protected areas supported by ARPA are preserving a forest carbon stock of about 4.6 billion tons of carbon (18 percent of the total stock protected in the Amazon), almost twice that required for emissions reduction under the first phase of the Kyoto Protocol. Models based on a small part of ARPA (13 protected areas created between 2003 and 2007) showed that around 1.1 billion tons of carbon could be saved from emissions until 2050. Similar studies showed that the total of Brazilian Amazon protected areas could be responsible for saving some eight billion tons of carbon.

Protected areas are also the most cost-effective means of reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and are thus a sound investment. The cost of decreasing emissions from deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is estimated as US$1 to $2 per ton of CO2 equivalent. This includes paying for programs benefiting local communities within forests and other ecosystems, opportunity costs, plus law enforcement and further financial support for protected areas. By the conservative estimate of the Brazilian Government, Amazonian rainforest contains 100 tons of carbon per hectare, so the cost would be US$100-$200 per hectare. ARPA, however, demonstrated that protected areas can achieve the same result for just US$10 dollars per hectare.

Investment in protected areas brings multiple benefits. It decreases emissions at less cost than other options while generating revenue. The economic profits from creating and strengthening protected areas is estimated to reach tens of billions of dollars by 2050, once the other benefits of leaving the forests standing — such as preventing flooding and soil erosion, regulating temperature and rainfall, ecotourism, cultural values, scientific research, and so on — are taken into account.

During the second of three planned phases of ARPA, to last from 2010 until 2014, the overall target for the project have been expanded to cover those ecosystem services as well. The spatial extent will also increase, to a total of 60 million hectares of the Brazilian Amazon.

ARPA represents not only the world’s largest conservation program in protected areas but a crucial component of a sustainable future for the Amazon. The project has demonstrated the economic value of biodiversity and protected areas. It has shown that dramatic expansion of biodiversity conservation is not only possible in the tropics, but that such expansion can be part of broader efforts to bring biodiversity and ecosystem services into local and national economies.