Reader Comments

Post a new comment on this article

Clarifications and Further Concerns

Posted by jim_igoe on 05 Feb 2009 at 21:52 GMT

In the first line of their abstract to "Accelerated Population Growth at Protected Area Edges," Wittemyer et al state, "Protected areas have long been criticized as creations of and for an elite few, where associated costs, but few benefits, are borne by marginalized rural communities." They claim that their findings run contrary to the predictions of this argument. Myself, Dan Brockington, Sara Randall, and Katherine Schofield responded to this argument in a letter to Science ( We questioned whether their data actually showed increased growth around protected areas, an issue that has been much more thoroughly addressed by two independent assessments (the article to which these comments are linked as well as the comments by Nelson et al). Here I am more concerned about their assertion that high population growth around protected areas somehow indicates that they do not have high costs for rural communities, or benefits for an elite few for that matter. This issue is doubly concerning in light of the data and analysis presented in rebuttal to Wittemyer et al on this site.

Wittemyer et al admit that immigration to centers of development (in this case protected areas) does not necessarily correspond to actual benefits. In fact, increased population densities without actual benefits can result in increased poverty and immiseration. This admission greatly undermines their initial assertion that their findings contradict the proposition that protected areas impoverish rural communities. In their response to our letter, Wittemyer et al emphasized the importance of "fine-scale case analyses to gain a more detailed understanding of the many factors driving human population change on PA borders." The point here is not, as they claim in their letter, that we have claimed that they exaggerate the mechanistic connections they present. Rather, it is that in the absence of such fine-grained studies, the claims that they make in the first two lines of their abstract are highly premature -- to say the least. Their data can tell us nothing about how the costs and benefits of protected areas are distributed in any context. It is entirely possible for large numbers of people to live on protected area boundaries in poverty, while an elite few benefit from that protected area. A large body of empirical literature indicates that this is often the case.

My concern is not ultimately about a discrepancy between a claim that has been made in the abstract of an article versus the data and analysis actually presented in the body of that article. More fundamentally, I am concerned with the effects of this discrepancy on the production of knowledge in academia and in the realm of policy. I have already observed that people have apparently confused the claims of the abstract for the analysis presented in the body of the article. Both as an associate editor of a conservation journal, and as a participant in public policy discussions, I have seen Wittemyer et al's article cited as evidence that 1) protected areas create positive outcomes for people living in surrounding areas; and 2) that we already have sufficient data to make decisions about specific kinds of interventions.

I am not insinuating that this was done intentionally. Nevertheless, it is a matter of significant concern. Without better understandings of the dynamics of human communities living on the boundaries of protected areas, interventions targeting these communities are likely to misfire both in terms of addressing social equity and in terms of protecting our planet's crucially important biodiversity. Specifically, it is important to identify the variables that impoverish people and/or influence their behavior in ways that cause them to put undue stress on the environment. In addition to having good demographic and ecological data, it is essential to develop a research model that will help us to understand the ways in which the costs and benefits of protected areas are distributed in various contexts. I have already proposed one such model in a peer-reviewed article that can be found at the following link: (

Finally, it is important to always bear in mind that the types of debates we are having here inform real interventions that have real material effects on the environment and on human communities. As scholars working in such a context, we have an essential responsibility to refrain from making definitive statements about the realities in which we wish to intervene, especially when such statements are not effectively substantiated and yet have enormous potential consequences for the people and environments at which they are directed.