Some politicians argue that land should be used for economic development, not set aside for conserving biodiversity. They are wrong in more ways than one, at least according to the results of a new study that looks at health and economic outcomes of people living near nature preserves.
Researchers led by Robin Naidoo of the World Wildlife Fund, in Washington, DC, US, find that children in low-economy countries who live within 10 kilometres of a protected area are wealthier and healthier than their more distant counterparts.
“Our results suggest that rather than displaying any negative effects, several types of [protected areas] across the developing world have positive impacts on important aspects of human well-being,” the researchers say in their study, which is published in the journal Science Advances.
The researchers obtained data for more than 87,000 people in 60,000 households across 34 developing countries.
They found that households situated near protected areas that catered to tourists had 17% higher wealth levels and a 16% reduction in the likelihood of poverty. Children under five were taller for their age by 10%, and were 13% less likely to be stunted.
“For the largest and most comprehensive socioeconomic-environmental dataset yet assembled, we found no evidence of negative impacts and consistent statistical evidence to suggest [protected areas] can positively affect human well-being,” Naidoo’s team writes.
The scientists hypothesise there are several pathways that could impact health and economic prosperity in proximity to the nature preserves.
Tourism provides economic as well as health benefits through direct and indirect mechanisms. For instance, greater local income improves access to food and healthcare, while increased tourism can also lead to improved infrastructure, including access to healthcare facilities.
The findings for children’s health occurred near what the International Union for Conservation of Nature categorises as “protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources” and what the researchers refer to as “multiple-use protected areas [PAs].”
Protected areas that are also managed for low-impact nature resources offer additional benefits to the community, including “greater abundance of useful plants and animals via harvest and sales at markets, resulting in income that can be spent on household assets”.
The researchers state that goals for biodiversity and the pursuit of health and prosperity are not at odds with one another and, in fact, can be synergistic.
“Advancing this area of research will be critical to further inform how targeted investment in PAs can support global goals around both biodiversity conservation and human development,” Naidoo and his colleagues conclude.
Samantha Page is a science journalist based in Spain.
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