RAPPAM scores for factors such as budget, staff, equipment, management plans and stakeholder collaboration did not show a strong link to prevention of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, found Christoph Nolte from the University of Michigan, US, and colleagues from the University of Michigan and Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (IMAZON), Brazil.

"Only one indicator – the absence of unsettled land-tenure conflicts – is consistently associated strongly with success in reducing deforestation pressures," Nolte told environmentalresearchweb. "Our analysis suggests that this may be such an important factor in shaping deforestation success of forest protected areas that it overshadows the potential importance of budget, staff, etc."

RAPPAM, developed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), has been deployed in more than 2000 protected areas in at least 50 countries worldwide. Managers of protected areas receive a questionnaire and rank 90 qualitative statements about their site on a four-point scale, from yes, through "rather yes" and "rather no", to no.

"Our analysis casts first doubt about the extent to which RAPPAM data – as it is – can assist in the prioritization of conservation policy, management and resource allocation," said Nolte. "More rigorous analysis is necessary to understand whether this is an issue of not measuring the right aspects or of not measuring them right."

Nolte and colleagues assessed how well RAPPAM scores correlated with deforestation prevention for 66 protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon. To do this, they matched the areas with similar unprotected sites and compared levels of deforestation measured by PRODES, Brazil's satellite-based deforestation monitoring system.

For 1 square km parcels of land in protected areas, the average deforestation rate between 2006 and 2010 was 0.51%, while for matched unprotected parcels the rate was 1.89%. The average deforestation rate for the entire Amazon was 1.12%.

"I realized that...subjective judgments by protected area managers....may be cheap, but not necessarily effective in terms of information acquisition," said Nolte. "So I wondered what analysis would help us to learn more about whether and how RAPPAM can inform decisions on protected area policy, management and resource allocation. With its extensive system of forest protected areas, global importance for carbon and biodiversity, and excellent datasets on both deforestation and RAPPAM, the Brazilian Amazon was the perfect place."

The researchers believe there are two possible explanations for their results. "Either the RAPPAM does not measure things correctly and the scores do not adequately reflect the status of these management aspects, or the RAPPAM is measuring things that are not important for successfully conserving protected areas," said Nolte. "Brazil, for instance, has adopted a regional approach to enforce regulations against illegal deforestation, which may overshadow the importance of management capacity of individual areas."

According to Nolte, evaluations of management effectiveness have mushroomed worldwide, with several thousand assessments triggered by a commitment of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to assess the effectiveness of 30% of their areas by 2010, and 60% by 2015. "Dozens of methods have been developed, and RAPPAM is one of the most prominent," he said.

"Land rights seem to be of fundamental importance to explain differences in protected area success, at least when it comes to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon," he added. "Understanding such conflicts seems to be a necessary precondition for understanding the actual impact of conservation investments, as resolving such conflicts may be a crucial precondition for protected area success."

Nolte's colleague Paulo Barreto from IMAZON believes the Brazilian government has to act promptly. "They must evict illegal occupants, compensate any occupants who have legal rights, and re-draw boundaries when occupants have inalienable land rights," he said. "If conflicts are not solved, new occupations may occur, which will significantly hinder the effort to protect the land."

Now the researchers are starting collaborations with WWF Brasil, which has been running the RAPPAM analyses, Brazilian federal protected area agency ICMBio, Imazon and other Brazilian partners. "We want to conduct a mixed quantitative–qualitative survey this year, which will build on the results and data of the ERL paper," said Nolte, "with Brazilian protected area managers providing rich detailed accounts of their perceptions of the causal relationships between investments, protected area management, RAPPAM scores, and conservation outcomes, including deforestation."

Nolte and colleagues reported their study in Environmental Research Letters (ERL) as part of the ERL Focus on Delivering on Conservation Promises: Risks and Impacts of Investments.

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