Living on the edge

By Sumana Narayanan
Published: Friday 15 August 2008

Study shows population growth< Protected areas attract human settlements?

globally, creating protected areas (pas) has been a preferred method of biodiversity conservation. Such areas with their mandate of providing refuge to wildlife are usually assumed to have negative impact on local communities since their access to natural resources is restricted. But a study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that human population growth is high along these areas.

The study, published in the July 4 issue of Science, looked at 306 pas across 45 countries in South America and Africa. Human population growth rates for each decade between 1960 and 2000, within a 10 km radius of the pa was compared with the average rural growth rate of the country concerned.

The results showed that for 245 of the 306 pas, the growth rate near pas was higher than the rural growth rate. The researchers also made sure that the pas were not in areas of high ecological productivity since people would settle in such areas irrespective of the presence of a pa. The study also found that the human population within pas increased in 85 per cent of the pas and was unchanged in the remaining 15 per cent. This is interesting as the pas studied are classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as category I and II, where human settlements are not allowed.

The researchers suggest that this increased population may be linked to the amount of funding pas received for conservation and eco-development activities. This led to more staff at the park as well as more tourism which in turn meant more infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, etc. They studied a subset of 126 pas and found a correlation between funding, development and human population numbers. It was also seen that in a subset of 55 pas, the buffer areas with high population growth had high rates of deforestation. The researchers suggested that the solution could lie in having multi-use buffer areas around pas and giving incentives to people to settle in regions distant from pas.

The study, however, seems to have reduced a complicated issue to a simple equation of numbers. "Although the numbers presented reveal interesting settlement patterns, they do not allow us to say anything conclusive about relationships between parks and human livelihoods. Populations on pa edges could be high due to people being squeezed between multiple protected areas, large-scale farms and urban sprawl. Because of resulting landlessness and poverty, people have concentrated in areas where tourists enter and exit pas in the hope of availing themselves of potential opportunities," says James Igoe, assistant professor of anthropology, University of Colorado, Denver. There is also no proof that people near pas are prospering, he adds.

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